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Big bike, good bike so long post warning
Please excuse the ‘dirty bike’ photos. Udaipur, the venue of the ride, had been witnessing incessant rain over the past 10 days. There was no place to ride that would leave the bike clean and by the time we reached the point where photos could be taken, the Africa Twin was already looking like it had been through its element!
Few could have predicted that a television series starred by two non-descript actor motorcyclists would change the way motorcycling would be seen a decade hence. Evan McGregor and Charlie Boorman’s documentary ‘Long Way Round’ glorified the trans-continental motorcycle tourer to no end and the dual-purpose motorcycle just came along for the ride. Not just for the ride but to stay. Since then we’ve seen the times of the dual sport or the dual purpose ‘go anywhere’ kind of motorcycles dawn upon us in earnest. Most other manufacturers across the globe were quick to realize that touring is the most popular form of motorcycling and so any and every motorcycle maker worth his name soon had a model or two in this dual-purpose category in their offer list. Honda has been a little slow in getting onto the bandwagon here, almost 10 years late actually though they are by no means a new player in this game by any standards. The Honda Africa Twin is an old timer but getting it up and ready for modern times took them a while. Finally they are here with the new Africa Twin formally numbered the CRF1000L. It’s new, up to date, bristling with technology and ready to take on anything either on road or off it.
The strong yet quiet thrum of a liter class parallel twin pervades my senses as I, literally and figuratively, use my right wrist to fly through the unusually green countryside of Udaipur. The Africa Twin, born for the ultimate battle in the world’s largest desert, the mighty Sahara, was quite fittingly given to us media riders for a first experience ride in the Sahara’s smaller and less glamorous cousin, our own Thar desert in Rajasthan. The progeny of the legendary NSX750 that won Honda four Paris Dakar titles in a row when the race used to happen in the Sahara, this modern day technology loaded avatar of the Africa Twin is no less revolutionary and robust in what it brings to its rider. And yet it remains in spirit and essence a humble, immensely capable and a thoroughly relatable machine that takes no time in becoming an extension of the rider’s self.
Not really dramatic to look at except of course in the rough with both lights on and the front lifted skywards, The Africa Twin is more of the function over form thing in person. The front looks strong and purposeful while the tail seems somewhat lack-luster, almost anemic. The bike though looks a lot better with the ride in the saddle than as a stand-alone. But then who would leave a machine like that standing alone and unattended! The simple and robust looks don’t really reveal the extensive state of the art tech hiding within. The bike has evolved into embodying the state of the art automobile technology and translates it into a completely user friendly and user beneficial form. Things like the auto transmission might feel a trifle alien for a while on a bike of this kind, all the more so while the left hand keeps searching for the missing clutch lever and the left foot for the gear lever but a few uncluttered miles on good tarmac makes this ‘new’ set up seem so very natural. You wonder why the DCT coupled with this auto-box was not around earlier.
The LED powered headlamps (18W high beam and 17W low beam) in off and on condition.
A basic read-through of the owner’s manual of the Africa Twin is strongly recommended or you’ll be lost in the profusion of buttons and levers clustered around the bar ends. And of course you’ll not really be able to fully enjoy the bike without knowing what all you can make it do. The bike looks tall but once you swing a leg over it and settle down in the seat, its height (adjustable between 820-840 mm) gets reduced by quite a bit. The rear seat ‘rears’ up quite high and you need to swing that right leg way up to clear it while saddling up. A better way is to stand on the left peg and mount. There’s an appreciable amount of sag in the suspension and so what seemed tall visually becomes just right when you settle your weight on the seat. For the more well endowed in the weight department like yours truly, the settling down is substantial. The cockpit does seem a trifle confusing but if you’ve been through the manual or were briefed by someone who knew about it, things do appear pretty logical. Switch on the conventionally placed ignition switch, flick the engine kill cum starter switch to run and press down further to start the engine (the kill switch cum starter button is a lovely new innovation). The motor comes to life without any hesitation and settles into a steady soft idle. Blip the throttle and it responds with alacrity.
The kill switch cum starter button. There’s the Drive mode selector with N – Neutral, D – Drive and S – Sport selection. Bottom row switches are Hazard lights on left and Automatic/Manual gear shift selector on the right.
The bike looks tall but saddling up makes it very approachable even for the less tall riders.
The right hand switch cluster has the Neutral-Drive selector switch. Toggle it to the left and the bike gets into gear with a soft thunk. Careful, don’t blip that throttle now or you’ll take off! The left had side should leave you a little lost initially since there’s no clutch lever our muscle memory is embedded to grab and squeeze. There’s no gear lever under the left toe either. The Honda is letting you get to know it bit by bit. Just roll the throttle and you’re underway. Except for the left hand not working on the clutch (since the DCT working away to glory for you instead), getting to roll and riding is just like you’ve done on every other bike you’ve ever ridden. Roll the throttle and go. The under-square 999cc OHC Parallel Twin is a lusty performer, developing some 87 bhp at 7500 rpm and rolls out 92 Nm of torque at 6000 rpm. The 270 degree firing order makes it not just sound like a V-Twin but it the power output also feels like it is coming from V-twin! No slouch anywhere in the rpm band, it is at its best in the mid-range and that’s where you’ll want it to sit all day if you plan tour on this bike. The autobox does up-shift a trifle early than you would want it to in the default Drive auto mode. Select the Sport mode and things get better with the engine pulling progressively longer in each gear, depending on which Sport level you’ve selected (there are 3 selectable levels). Things getting complex already eh! There’s lots’ more coming your way Mr. Rider.
The left hand side switch cluster. Headlamp hig-low beam selection with Pass switch, LCD display mode selector, clock/trip etc Set button, horn switch, turn indicator and downshift toggle.
Parking brake lever and lock where the clutch lever is. The up-shift toggle (below with the + mark) and Traction level selector above it.
The Manual shift option lets you cycle through the 6-speed box using the two ‘shift’ toggle switches on the left switch gear cluster. The one up ahead (located where we have the day flash switch on most bikes) is for up-shifting while the one below the horn button is for down-shifting (to nit-pick here, the horn button should have been where the down-shift one is at least for our wild-west lawless traffic conditions). Those who have ridden the VFR1200R would be familiar with all this. So your left index finger handles the up-shifts while the thumb lets you downshift. No let-off of the throttle needed for either just like with a power-shifter. Only that the DCT makes it embarrassingly smooth. The Africa Twin though carries the third generation DCT, automatic gearbox and traction control tech compared to the older VFR. There’s also the very comforting accessory option of having a foot gear shifter placed where a conventional gear shifter is. My test bike came equipped with it and except for my tendency to ‘blip’ the throttle at every downshift, something that made the bike momentarily accelerate reminding me that I was trying to be smarter than the DCT, there was no perceptible difference in using the foot shifter. One down and rest up – even the shift pattern was the usual. A must-have accessory for me if I was buying the bike.
Toe shifter – an accessory worth its weight in gold!
The two section LCD type instrument panel.
ABS de-selection and G mode selection switches.
ABS comes engaged as standard though one can de-select it only for the rear wheel through a switch on the dash – a function needed for off-roading. But this needs to be done while the bike is stationary. All other selections can be done on the fly. The other main feature of the electronics is the traction control (the Honda Selectable Torque Control or HSTC). Again selectable with 3 levels offered and can also be totally de-selected. The lesser the available traction, for example with wet or otherwise slippery roads, the higher is the level of traction control advised. The tightest or 3rd level remains engaged as default and the rider can step down to 2nd or 1st through a toggle switch. De-selecting traction control requires a long press of the selection toggle switch. So when you ride the Africa Twin on good dry tarmac, get the Traction control out of the way. Going uphill on loose surface choose HSTC level 1. Any higher and the engine will cut power at the first hint of wheel spin and you’ll take a while getting uphill on a stuttering motor! It is only the wet and slippery tarmac that really needs HSTC level 3. Talking of traction control, there a ‘Gravel’ or “Gradient’ or just plain simple ‘G’ mode that lets you handle gradients with low traction conditions just as you would on a bike with a manual clutch using partial clutch usage. With the ‘G’ mode engaged (through a dedicated push type switch on the dash), the throttle becomes the torque controller for the rear wheel. Any spin of the rear wheels makes the engine reduce power till the wheel re-grips, ensuring power going down when you need it. Serious off-roading of course will demand that you disengage traction control totally to let the rear wheel spin away to glory as you power slide through the turns.
The engine is butter smooth and the overall vibration and harshness is very controlled, which makes the bike so smooth that you tend to ride it faster than you intend to. Coupled with this overall smoothness are the near-perfect gear shifts done by the DCT. Get into Sport mode or shift manually and you can take the bike past the 100 kph mark in under 4 seconds. The engine is also amazingly thermally stable. Sustained low gear usage in high ambient temperatures while trundling in heavy traffic made no difference at all to the engine. The coolant temperature did not budge even a bit past the half-way mark that it stays at once the engine is warmed up and there was no power drop at all. A tireless performer, this motor gives a decidedly long-legged feel to the bike. What goes must stop and the brakes on the Africa Twin are just great. Twin discs measuring 310 mm dia up front and a single 256 mm one at the rear handle braking duties and are more than sufficient to make the 245 kilo machine come to a stop quickly from scary speeds.
The 256mm rear disc with the ABS slotted ring. Simple, conventional and uncluttered mechanical layout.
The rear brake pedal. The foot peg is smallish. The foot peg rubber inserts can be removed.
Rear foot peg folded away.
Ergonomics are great for touring except that the reach to the wide handlebars feels a bit of a stretch. This ‘stretch’ does come in handy when riding off-road standing on the pegs. Talking of the pegs, they are smaller than usual for some reason and at times feel inadequate, especially on the right side where the engine casing protrudes out a bit. The bars though provide great leverage which coupled with the 43 degree steering angle one side and the surety that the engine will not stall during a turn, courtesy the dual clutch auto transmission, means that you can take really tight u-turns when you want to without the risk of dropping the bike. The seat is wide and well contoured though it did feel a trifle soft for really long days on the saddle. Rider placement is pretty good and the tank and frame shape allows a good and effortless grip on the bike with the knees, vital for rough terrain riders especially.
The well contoured wide two step seat.
Front upside down fork compression and rebound damping adjuster.
Rear monoshock pre-load adjuster.
While riding the suspension felt pretty plush and yet firm for most means and purposes. Yours truly did not attempt those high jumps that the publicity videos show but the suspension did soak up whatever the not so good and the really bad rain ravaged roads threw at it. The bike felt a trifle softly set up for a quick pace on twisty tarmac. The front end tends to dive quite a bit under hard braking. But then this is pretty characteristic in bikes in this category where the need for the suspension to cope with serious off-roading precludes more compression damping. Though apparently there’s plenty of compression and rebound damping adjustment up front range to cater for different rider weights, preferences and road conditions and things can be firmed up for sole tarmac use. The 21 inch spoked wheel up front coupled with the 18 inch rear rim helps the rider make short work of the off-road track. At the same time there wasn’t any perceptible gyroscopic force induced steering rigidity at high speeds, the bane of large diameter front wheels. It’s probably a combination of the bike’s geometry, weight distribution and the leverage provided by the wide handlebars that help here. One drawback of the spoked wheels is the necessity of using tube-type tyres, something that comes with a few disadvantages attached to it compared to using tubeless tyres. So punctures will necessarily mean fixing the tube unlike the usual way of inflating the tubeless tyre and fixing the puncture at leisure.
The short stroke under square engine responds with alacrity to all there inputs anywhere in the rpm band. Fueling is smooth and linear and the bike pulls perfectly in proportion to the input from the right wrist. Honda claims a fuel mileage of around 22 kmpl which translates to the 18.8 litre tank being sufficient for some 400 kms between refills. The 10.1:1 compression ratio will let you refuel from anywhere without the need for high octane petrol. The LED headlamps (17 W high beam which is selectable and the 18 W low beam that is always on) should be good enough for night riding. The 11.2 Ah battery is centrally located and seems sufficient for its duties. The Africa Twin comes with 250 mm ground clearance and will prance its way through Ladakh and Spiti.
A touring rider’s work horse, an off-roaders’ able and trusty companion, a judicious blend of modern technology and traditional engineering, the Africa Twin does look like it will more than live up to its glorious Paris Dakar heritage. We all need a motorcycle that we can ride where we want to ride, a machine that keeps itself together through thick and thin and doesn’t cost the moon to buy and maintain. The CRF1000L Africa Twin is not a pretentious tourer wearing the clothes of an off-roader. It can actually take those jumps and whumps in its stride and then let you blast and swing your way home on tasty smooth tarmac. It is a bike that believes more in doing more with less than in posing with more and getting less done. The Africa Twin can be your machine, riding partner and psychotherapist all rolled into one. And with that killer pricing, you just won’t be able to resist the temptation. Go check it out.