1997, 1999, and 2016 Honda Africa Twin Comparison

Text: Jon Beck • Photography: Jon Beck

Looming nearly 6,300 feet above the French countryside, the brilliantly lit peak of Mont Ventoux draws closer. Rather than follow the incessantly curvy pavement towards the top, our small band of riders elects to veer off the famed Tour de France route onto unpaved roads. Steep drops, threatening us at the edge of nearly every loose gravel curve, are never a concern. Three Honda Africa Twin motorcycles, representing nearly 20 years of development, demonstrate they clearly have the pedigree to handle this terrain as they confidently drift through miles in the south of France.

New editions of “classic” motorcycles can often pale in comparison to their predecessors. Honda’s latest offering can meet, exceed, or fall short of expectations, depending on one’s perspective. The Africa Twin’s roots go back to the legendary NXR750, which in the late 1980s rolled through the Paris-Dakar finish line in first place four times. Then in 1989 Honda released the XRV750, which borrowed from this storied and capable platform. Various iterations of this motorcycle were produced until the model line ceased in 2003. Maintaining a rabid following in the European used market, the announcement of a new Africa Twin model for 2016 is arguably one of the most anticipated model releases for the dual sport market segment, especially in North America.

Chassis and Suspension: A Nod to the Modern Dual Sport Rider 

At first glance, the lines of the new Africa Twin should not disappoint those familiar with the bike’s history. A low front fender, articulating underneath a beakless cowl, provides the open and unobstructed look that inspires even casual riders to attack the desert with visions of Dakar greats such as Meoni or Despres. However, while the long travel suspension (230mm front / 220mm rear) is more than sufficient for the average dual sport rider, this is no Dakar bike. Fortunately, no one walking into a dealership to purchase an adventure motorcycle will be expecting to ride like Meoni or Despres. With that in mind, the bike’s pedigree begins to reveal what it has to offer the modern dual sport rider.

Among the pantheon of greats in the dual sport realm, there are a few obvious standouts: KTM for its proven off-road oriented design, BMW for its history, Triumph for its unique use of a three-cylinder power plant, and Honda for its Dakar-winning Africa Twin. Setting their sights clearly on the off-road market, Honda equipped the 2016 Africa Twin with the aforementioned 230mm/220mm stock suspension. This exceeds even KTM’s suspension standard at 210mm front / 210mm rear travel for its 990 model. Delivering approximately 94 hp, the Africa Twin’s 998cc power plant may seem a bit anemic on paper but is more than adequate on the trail. Understated but entirely effective, power rolls on quickly and in a linear fashion—there’s no massive “hit” like early KTM 990 models or behemoth BMW boxer torque. 

Powertrain and Performance: Exceeding Expectations

Applying power to one’s gear selection is quite possibly the standout feature of the new Africa Twin. In 2016, buyers will see the inclusion of Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT). DCT allows the rider to operate the motorcycle through various settings of a fully-automatic shifting mode or a semi-automatic shifting mode where the rider can click through gears by way of a handlebar-mounted switch—no clutch necessary. 

In full-automatic mode, the Africa Twin seems to read the rider’s mind—both on and off-road. Accustomed to a traditional clutch/shifter mechanism, I found myself reaching for imaginary clutch levers and kicking at imaginary shift levers, while the bike simply changed gears when it was necessary, every time. The option is there to activate “manual” shifting by way of the handlebar buttons; however, the need to do so almost never seemed to exist. 

Descending steep unpaved roads, the Honda would deftly downshift whenever the speeds merited use of a lower gear. For riders coming from a traditional clutch/gearbox mechanism (most likely everyone), there is a degree of trust that needs to be achieved to make the system work. You no longer use the clutch as a brake by feeding it into a lower gear. Instead, simply hit the brakes when you need to slow down. 

Trust in the bike’s computer system extends from the transmission to the brakes at this point. While the rear ABS can be deactivated, the front cannot. Wiring connected to those front binders stretches well beyond the early days of ABS that would send riders careening largely unchecked down extreme off-road sections if the system was left on. Cornering gravel descents, no chatter or other ABS feedback was felt. On pavement, the Africa Twin’s 310mm dual front discs and 256mm rear disc flaunt the modulation and response one would expect from a modern dualsport machine.

In certain RPM ranges the DCT occasionally felt as if it was shifting a bit early or a bit too late, but it never failed to shift when necessary. The feeling of delay in shifting may very well have been due to unfamiliarity with the ample torque reservoir of this new bike. Use of an automatic transmission in an adventure motorcycle is a ground breaking and daring idea. Honda’s application of this technology seems to have hit the mark with its first iteration. 

For those who wish to maintain direct control, a traditional six-speed manual transmission is available. While the new DCT will likely garner the most attention by virtue of its unprecedented uniqueness in a dual sport machine, the Africa Twin has much more to offer beyond automatically clicking through gears. 

Features and Ergonomics: 
Making the Grade in Geometry

Seated or standing, the Africa Twin felt more than at home in every environment our group encountered. Ideal seat-peg-bar geometry is key with any dual sport motorcycle and difficult to achieve. And the Twin did just that—even with me at 5 foot 11 inches tall and with a 32-inch inseam. Seated and standing riding positions alike require positioning which allows the rider to properly control the motorcycle through both pressure on the footpegs and gentle input on the handlebar. Equipped with Touratech handlebar risers, our test version of the Africa Twin felt balanced on the unpaved and, often technical, backroads of southern France. 

With an almost KTM-like cockpit arrangement, the Africa Twin begged to be ridden beyond its limits and did so comfortably all day. Whether relinquishing control of the transmission to the DCT system, or electing to click through gears manually by way of the handlebar switch, the Africa Twin delivered more than ample power to push the bike through every situation we encountered. While the roots of the new Africa Twin run through the sands of Dakar, it is not a rally bike. Like its storied predecessors, the Africa Twin is designed for the adventure rider.

A full range of genuine Honda accessories will be available, including a top box, panniers, smoke screen, high screen, upper and lower wind deflectors, rubber pillion step, DCT foot shifter, heated grips, 12V socket, fog lamp including cowl bar, wheel stripes, and an alarm system. 

Late-Model Comparisons: How They Stack Up Against the Newbie 

Sharing the same roads with the hyper-advanced 2016 Africa Twin were two other representatives of the Africa Twin lineup—the 1997 and 1999 models. These two machines lacked the computer control of Honda’s latest offering but embodied the adventure-rally history, which the current model aims to reproduce. Power on the older models was noticeably less in comparison to the 2016 model, as was cornering precision—especially on pavement. 

While the seating position of the older models left your arms in slightly unfamiliar territory, hearing the growl of the classic V-twin and feeling the “old school” torque profile push the machine forward was a visceral demonstration of the bike’s rich history. Where the new Africa Twin wants to push your adventure riding limits, the original version reminds you why you started riding in the first place.

Summing It Up

There are some bikes you ride once and that’s plenty. The Africa Twin is not one of these. Like a mechanical pusher of two-wheeled addictive drugs, getting a taste of Honda’s latest offering of this classic platform leaves the rider wanting more. 

At first the DCT system is perhaps awkward to the “traditional” dual sport rider. Becoming accustomed to this system can be compared to Apple introducing a touch screen on the iPhone. The initial growing pains were soon forgotten, and the technology has now become the standard for smartphones and beyond. People in the 1940s must have been trying to kick holes in the floorboards of their cars, searching for clutch pedals, as automatic transmissions first made their way into production lines. Technologies like these became universal standards in short order, and Honda’s daring inclusion of an automatic transmission in an adventure motorcycle is perhaps a harbinger of things to come. 

A versatile cockpit layout readily embraces the DCT technology and begs to be experienced in the variety of terrain a long adventure ride can offer up. For anyone desiring a motorcycle that can meet or exceed the needs of modern adventure touring, the Africa Twin may prove to be that machine.