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ADV News2020 Honda Africa Twin: Major Leap Forward For The Legend?

2020 Honda Africa Twin: Major Leap Forward For The Legend?

 Honda’s lighter, faster, feature-packed CRF1100L gets put to the test!

Published on 07.03.2020

Honda’s Africa Twin has an interesting, legendary, and perhaps fractured history. In the late 1980’s the NXR750 sealed its position as a world-class off-road machine by winning the Paris-Dakar Rally not just once, but four times consecutively. Before the end of that same decade, Honda released the first XRV650 Africa Twin in 1988 based heavily on their Paris-Dakar Rally winning bike. Then they updated the Africa Twin platform in 1989, with the introduction of the XRV750. This model line continued on for the next 14 years with minor changes until ceasing production in 2003.

The return of this legendary bike to the world stage in 2016, in the form of the CRF1000L Africa Twin, was arguably one of the most anticipated model releases for the adventure bike segment. Now four years later, Honda has released a new CRF1100L Africa Twin that is perhaps as much a reinvention of the bike, as it is an update. Honda not only added more power and an array of new technology, they also reduced weight, refined the suspension and slimmed down the chassis. Read on for a full breakdown of what’s new with the latest rendition of the Africa Twin and how it performed after roughly 2,000 miles of testing on a wide-range of terrain.

First Look

Honda CRF1100L Africa Twin review

At first glance, the 2020 CRF1100L Africa Twin looks very similar to earlier models going back to 2016. Design cues such as the more accentuated “Angry Bird” look are changes in keeping with the overall model line, however beneath the surface are several new updates which separate the latest model from its predecessors in a much deeper way. 


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Some of the more significant updates include a narrower frame and a more-powerful 1100cc engine, both of which have shed several pounds over the previous model. A redesigned swingarm is now both lighter and more rigid, and the suspension internals have been refined both front and rear. A heavily-updated electronics package now includes cruise control, a six-axis IMU, and a 6.5-inch touchscreen display complete with Bluetooth integration. Our test bike came in the six-speed manual version, which has a wet weight of 501 pounds — 23 pounds less than this year’s DCT automatic transmission version and about 7 pounds lighter than last year’s manual transmission version.

Honda Africa Twin review
CRF1100L skid plate

Other weight saving measures are apparent in things like the bike’s continued lack of a center stand and the thinnish-looking skidplate, which is indeed light, but equally fragile in more extreme riding situations. To ensure we could thoroughly explore the Africa Twin’s off-road potential, our test bike was fitted with Bridgestone Adventurecross AX41 tires and included a set of fairly-robust crashbars and larger footpegs, which are available options through Honda.

While the seat height hasn’t changed a redesigned seat is narrower in keeping with the new frame.  Two seat height options are available by choosing between an upper or lower set of tabs, which results in a standard position of 34.3 inches and a low position of 33.5 inches. Compact handguards, revised bodywork, and a small windscreen all work to provide a more enduro-style look to the bike.

The Electronics

Before getting to any evaluation of the chassis, motor, or riding characteristics, one has to start the bike up. That reveals the elephant in the room — the computer. Turning the key initiates a welcome graphic, followed by a legal disclaimer, both of which are part of a “boot up” cycle that takes about 20 seconds. While you can fire the bike up and ride off immediately, features accessible via either the touch screen or handlebar controls won’t be available until the system fully wakes up.

New 6.5-inch touchscreen on the 2020 Honda Africa Twin
The “Gold Screen” gives the rider access to the most information and more on-the-fly configuration options.

This long digital startup procedure hints at the complexity of the system. The elaborate switch clusters are a lot to take in visually and mentally at first, however the buttons themselves are easily manipulated while riding. Many of the features in the electronics package are accessible via the touch screen interface as well, but only while the bike is at a standstill.

Apple CarPlay for those with Apple phones

As one of the most-robust and feature-packed rider interfaces of any motorcycle in this class, the 2020 Africa Twin’s computer can be a bit confusing to the uninitiated. Exceedingly adjustable ride modes, customizable screen configurations, Apple CarPlay connectivity, and more, are all accessible through both the touch screen and switch clusters that would make the Starship Enterprise proud. This accessibility comes at the price of some fairly non-intuitive aspects to the interface.

Africa Twin CRF1100L configuration screen

Before setting out for my first rides aboard the bike, I needed to dial in aspects of the rider assist modes. To do that requires being able to see them first. To see them, you have three options for display configurations of “Gold”, “Silver”, and “Bronze”. These names have no specific connection to colors on the screen however. Instead, they refer to the amount of information presented to the rider – “Gold” being the most information, “Bronze” being the least. These three display configurations can be independently selected for each of the Africa Twin’s six riding modes, resulting in 18 different displays to choose from. 

Once a display style has been chosen, diving into the ride modes reveals four preset configurations of “Tour”, “Urban”, “Gravel”, and “Off-Road”, plus two user-customizable options. The general idea between each mode can easily be seen as the names reflect how the power, engine braking, and ABS gauges are modified as one flips through the modes. Referencing opposite ends of the spectrum, “Tour” mode offers the most power and “on-road” ABS, while “Gravel” mode tames the motor to the lowest power setting and activates “off-road” ABS.

Africa Twin CRF1100L handlebar switches
Both the touch screen and handlebar switch clusters would make the Starship Enterprise proud.

Seven levels of torque control and three levels of wheelie control are adjustable in tab four of the “Gold” display mode. While last year’s Africa Twin also had seven levels of torque control (i.e. traction control), for 2020 the range of intervention has been spread out. A setting of “1” now allows the rider to steer with the rear even more coming out of turns, while “7” will rein things in to a greater degree than the same setting would on previous models. 

Wheelie control is a new addition which behaves like three levels of launch control. Either of these two modes can be turned off entirely as well, and this same tab offers the ability to cancel ABS, but to the rear wheel only. All of these features filter through a new six-axis IMU which monitors bike position (yaw, pitch and roll), power, and braking, and adjusts the traction control, wheelie control, and cornering ABS accordingly.

CRF1100L Traction Control HSTC settings.
The new Africa Twin’s seven available traction control settings are now more spread out for greater sensitivity.

For all its deep complexity, once the 2020 Africa Twin’s feature set had been explored, I found I ended up distilling things down to just three primary configurations: one for general riding, one for off-road, and one for twisty pavement. Much of the time, the least amount of computer intervention was preferred. Some of the preset ride modes can feel like they’re veiling the character of the bike, and dialing back the various parameters to lower levels in the available user settings allows more of the redesigned chassis and motor to shine through. It’s a lot of bike however, so how much of the machine is freed up is a direct function of one’s skill and comfort level.

Just when you’re beginning to scratch the surface of all the things this display can do, plug an iPhone in, and Apple CarPlay takes over the entire main screen with its host of features. While CarPlay is active, the bike’s lower screen contains key rider information such as speedometer, odometer, and gear selection indicator. Switch cluster button assignments change as well, and the same buttons previously used to dial in ride modes can now be used to flip between tracks in a playlist, pull up a map, or answer a text message.

The Motor

If a single standout improvement on the 2020 Africa Twin had to be selected, it would likely be the redesigned motor. More power, more torque, yet simultaneously both smaller and lighter.  Where the 2016 through 2019 models had little difference in terms of performance, the 2020 model pulls away from its predecessors – literally and figuratively. Immediately, the motor leapt out as something very different than before. 86 additional cc’s of displacement are housed in redesigned heads with a 6.5 mm longer stroke. These improvements, combined with revised ECU mapping, new valve timing, and larger throttle bodies provide a claimed 6% power increase and greater torque. The 270° phased crank remains for 2020, giving the parallel-twin that v-twin sound and feel.

Honda CRF1100L Africa Twin Review
Immediately, the motor leapt out as something very different than before.

Six percent seems a small number compared to the powerful feel on the road or trail however – the new redesigned twin is a monster by comparison to the previous model. This power increase comes with the additional benefit of the engine being both smaller in overall diameter and lighter weight by several pounds; the six-speed manual version has shed 5.5 pounds of engine weight, while the DCT version is lighter by nearly as much with a loss of 4.9 pounds. 

While the CRF1100L’s horsepower figures still occupy the lower end of the Liter+ category, the increase in power and performance over the 2019 model feels far greater than the published numbers would indicate. The fly-by-wire throttle is smooth, although has some quirks in how power both rolls on and off. These “quirks” change as you work through the myriad of options in the new operating system.

Fuel consumption in testing varied by as much as 10 mpg, depending on how heavy handed the riding was. Numbers for fast “Baja-style” offroad riding dipped to 37 mpg, while more casual long haul runs saw 47 mpg results. Overall average for typical riding was around 44 mpg.

The Chassis

The new powerplant and all this digital communication beaming about rolls along in a chassis that gives this adventure bike characteristics Honda says were borrowed from its motocross line. The 2020 Africa Twin’s swingarm has both shed one pound and gained rigidity with a new swingarm design inspired by the CRF450R motocrosser. The new bolt-on (previously welded) aluminum rear subframe is also a narrower and lighter MX-style design. These aspects, combined with an overall frame weight reduction give the 2020 Africa Twin a more nimble feel than its predecessors. 

Honda CRF1100L frame and chassis
A lighter subframe now bolts on and is 40mm narrower, while the CRF450R-inspired swingarm is 1 pound lighter with improved rigidity. Plus the main frame has been lightened, strengthened and has new steering head geometry.

Suspension travel on the 2020 Africa Twin remains at 9.1 inches front and 8.7 inches rear. Where the bike has always had a plush feel to the ride, this often translated to an overly soft or “wallowly” feel in the earlier models, and could blow through the travel quickly in higher-speed situations. Due to spring rate, damping, and oil capacity changes, the newer model makes better use of this travel.

Honda Africa Twin Review
The new Africa Twin features a narrower chassis and higher bar position.

The handlebar was raised 22.5 mm and rests on two tall perches attached to the upper triple clamp by 17 mm hex nuts. Either seated or standing, the bar position is quite comfortable for my 5’11” build. Our test bike’s optional enduro footpegs, with their larger base, also made controlling the bike that much easier and more comfortable.

Off-Road Test

CRF1100L off-road on steep decent
The manual transmission version’s slip-assist clutch keeps the rear wheel rolling smoothly on steep descents.

An initial ride in Southern California’s San Bernardino Mountains provided rocks, sand, water, steep hills, and descents to put the Africa Twin through its paces. Once the computer was set up as desired, the new chassis was immediately noticeable. Lighter and more “flickable” characteristics made the bike easier to maneuver, especially in the more sandy or tight single track conditions. It does remain an “adventure motorcycle” however, and the large fuel tank/fairing combo detracts from the underlying dirtbike-like characteristics to a degree. At 5’11”, the peg-bar arrangement felt great, regardless of whether the bike was on a steep climb, descent, or flat ground. If anything the bars tread a line of almost being too high for me, however taller riders will most likely appreciate this positioning.

CRF1100L Hill Climbs
Honda Africa Twin CRF1100L review
Excellent traction from the torquey motor and grippy Bridgestone AX41 tires, meant dirt bike trails were open for business.

Whoops, muddy water crossings, and rutted hard pack terrain allowed the riding modes to stand out from one another. “Gravel” mode makes fire roads easy, almost too easy, by mellowing out the throttle to the greatest degree. “Off-road” feeds a bit more energy to the power plant’s response, but the difference is subtle. Traction control is adjustable independently for either mode, and at level seven (most intervention) it’s virtually impossible to break the rear loose on any surface. Clicking to the opposite end of the scale, at level one the traction control only steps in when things get really sideways. For terrain such as deep sand or exceptionally loose climbs it was preferred to deactivate this system entirely, as the throttle could feel disconnected from the terrain while the computer decided what to do with the rear wheel. However, diligent attention to the throttle is required if traction control is turned off, as the fly-by-wire setup on the 1084 cc engine can deliver power with a sudden hit. 

Africa Twin dirt roads

Both “off-road” ABS, as well as “ABS RR” (rear-wheel ABS deactivation) were tested in the dirt. Outside of the most extreme terrain, the system always behaved for the most part in the vast majority of “adventure bike” style riding. Only in the loosest, steepest, or rockiest conditions could the front brake lever be felt “pumping up” and fighting you. The bike keeps slowing as it should, the controls just feel funny when the going gets really rough.

Africa Twin CRF1100L catching air, jump.
Deep sand riding on the 2020 Honda Africa Twin CRF1100L

While the suspension travel remains the same as last year, the added “motocross” style engineering to the swingarm and subframe, lighter and narrower frame, and lighter engine all take advantage of the new changes in spring rate, damping, and oil capacity. For my weight of 185 lbs, the bike feels more “plush” than “soft”, and only blew through the travel and bottomed out on rare occasions. This “plushness” has the side effect of making the bike feel imprecise in certain situations until you get used to it. Focusing on the terrain itself, very little harsh feedback was felt when hitting high-speed rocky climbs, jumps, or tighter berm turns. At times, the view of the large machine in front of you while riding doesn’t seem to match its nimble handling.

On-Road Test

While the trails in the San Bernardino National Forest  provided a concentrated (sometimes brutal) test of the bike in more extreme off-road situations, extensive “adventure travel” miles revealed the long-haul characteristics of the new Africa Twin. Over 1,400 miles of highway, dirt roads and trails were ridden between Owens Valley in California and Baja Mexico. 

The new Africa Twin CRF1100L showing off its power.
The power boost from the new 1084cc parallel-twin engine (up from 998cc) feels much greater than the 6% claimed increase in horsepower.

Several things stood out as “the most noticeable thing” on long road stretches, but the addition of cruise control as standard equipment for 2020 is near the top of the list. Arguably one of the more straightforward button setups on this advanced machine, the throttle side simply has a large button to activate the feature, and a toggle to set, increase, or decrease speed in one-mile-per-hour increments. Chosen speed is displayed on the dash, and the bike holds it extremely well.

The Africa Twin now comes with a shorter windscreen that is still non-adjustable. I preferred the smaller windscreen though, as it allowed for greater visibility, looks better on the bike (for my part), and still provides smooth airflow (although direct). Adjusting the seat between the high and low positions affected airflow to a minimal degree, and even on the road, the higher “standard” position was preferred.

Twistie asphalt on the Honda CRF1100L Africa Twin

At the top of the “most notable thing” in the road category would be the new motor. Acceleration and “hit” feels huge, despite stated maximums of 100.6 horsepower and 77.4 ft-lbs of torque which are lower numbers when compared to many other adventure motorcycles in the liter bike class. Whether in the twisties or in city driving, the bike can hold a higher gear for a surprisingly long time before requiring a downshift. Even after a day of several hundred miles in the saddle, hands didn’t feel buzzy afterward.

On smaller, tighter roads, the new chassis and suspension changes could shine. The combination of narrower seat and frame, and less dramatic fork dive results in an overall more precise feeling on the road compared to previous Africa Twin models. While the high bar position gives the bike a distinct “offroad” feel even while on the road, diving into, and powering out of tight corners remains a blast, especially when one takes advantage of dialing in the lean-angle sensitive traction control. Having the ability to dictate just how much you want the IMU to keep an eye on the rear wheel is a welcome safety feature which you can tune to your own comfort level.

Long distance travel on the 2020 Africa Twin CRF1100L.

Wheelie control and adjustable engine braking were slightly more mysterious on the tarmac. As the only motorcycle in the adventure class I’ve ridden which has these features, applying them to various riding situations was a unique experiment. Toggling between engine braking settings of “most” and “least” set up in the User 1 and User 2 modes revealed the sensation of drag was felt more in some situations than others depending on factors such as gear selection and road conditions. Sometimes it’s sudden, other times mellow. Rolling off can feel either like you’ve got a parachute dragging behind you or you’re on a coaster bike going downhill… it all depends on the gear, the riding environment, and how good of a programmer you are.

Wheelie control sounds like it would be a “hero” button, but I wouldn’t quite go that far. If the feature is deactivated, the parallel twin will pick the front end up virtually anywhere. When active, the three levels of this feature feel similar to “launch control” on some bikes. Selecting level one, two, or three seemed to affect both the height and length of time the front would stay up. Regardless which level was chosen, the IMU always seemed to speak up before the front wheel reached somewhere around 45 degrees. A computer kicking in to reign in a wheelie where one’s wrist typically would, takes some getting used to. Like traction control, wheelie control can be fully deactivated, and the bike can hang out around 12 o’clock for those riders into that sort of thing.

The Bottom Line

The 2020 Africa Twin straddles a line between an update and a complete overhaul. Aesthetically, the bike may appear to be just a simple revision. Behind the bars, the riding experience reveals the many aspects of a complete redesign that is a significant improvement over the previous Africa Twin. All these changes came with a price increase of only $800 over last year’s model, and at $14,399, it continues to be an impressive value in its class.

Riding to Baja on the CRF1100L AFrica Twin

With design aspects that borrow heavily from both enduro and street bikes, the 2020 Africa Twin is almost schizophrenic in how its feature set skips around blending the worlds of dirt and tarmac. The bike has an MX-inspired frame and swingarm design, yet it includes cruise control, can send text messages, and adjust throttle or braking inputs based on your lean angle. It has a stubby enduro-style windscreen, but in front of a huge TFT touchscreen display with Bluetooth connectivity. 

Given its adaptability and all-around versatility, positioning the 2020 Africa Twin among its competition in the liter class becomes a question of where in the spectrum of off-road and on-road extremes the bike fits. Overall, the bike doesn’t have the long-haul “touring” feel of something like a BMW R1250GS, nor does it have quite the aggressive off-road “race” feel of something like a KTM 1090 Adventure R. What it does have are strong hints of both of those characteristics sprinkled throughout its design. With its highly-configurable electronics package and advanced rider aids, its temperament can be made to suit a wide range of motorcyclists of different skill levels and riding styles. 

Improved off-road performance of the Honda Africa Twin CRF1100L
2020 Honda Africa Twin Review

For the rider who likes to play with gadgets, you’ll find an almost endless number of settings that allow you to adjust the bike’s performance to suit different journeys. For those less interested in tech, the bike’s on and off-road performance characteristics are likely worth the requisite button pushing. After customizing it to your liking, the Africa Twin’s mix of performance and touring-oriented features give it the capability to handle pretty much anything you might come across on a long-distance adventure.

Honda CRF1100L Africa Twin Specs

Engine TypeSOHC liquid-cooled 4-stroke 8-valve parallel twin with 270° crank and Uni-cam
Displacement1084cc
Bore & Stroke92mm x 81.5mm
Compression Ratio10.1:1
Max. Power Output100.6 hp (75kW) @ 7500rpm
Max. Torque77.4 ft.-lbs. (105 Nm) @ 6250rpm
Oil Capacity4.8/4.3 (5.2/4.7 DCT)
Fuel SystemPGM-FI
Fuel Tank Capacity5 gallon (18.8L)
Fuel Consumption48 MPG (20.4km/L) MT; 49 MPG (20.8km/L) DCT
StarterElectric
Battery Capacity12V-6Ah Li-ion battery (20hr)
ACG Output 490 watts @ 5000rpm
Clutch TypeWet, multiplate with coil springs, aluminium cam assist and slipper clutch; DCT – 2 wet multiplate clutches with coil springs
Transmission Type6 speed manual (6 speed DCT)
frame TypeSemi double cradle
Dimensions (L´W´H)91.7 in. x 37.8 in. x 54.9 in. (2330mm x 960mm x 1395mm)
Wheelbase62 in. (1575mm)
Caster Angle27.5°
Trail4.4 in. (113mm)
Seat Height33.5/34.3 in. (850/870mm); low seat option 32.5 in. (825mm); high seat option 35.2 in. (895mm)
Ground Clearance9.8 in. (250mm)
Wet Weight (EU) MT 501 lbs (US); DCT 524 (US)
Front SuspensionShowa 45mm cartridge-type inverted telescopic fork with dial-style preload adjuster and DF adjustments, 9.1 in (230mm) stroke
Rear Suspension Monoblock aluminium swing arm with Pro-Link with Showa gas-charged damper, hydraulic dial-style preload adjuster and rebound damping adjustments, 8.7 in. (220mm) rear wheel travel
Front Wheel21M/C x MT2.15 wire spoke with aluminium rim
Rear wheel18M/C x MT4.00 wire spoke with aluminium rim
Rim Size Front21″
Rim Size Rear18″
tires Front 90/90-21M/C 54H (tube type)
(Bridgestone Battlax Adventurecross Tourer AX41T /
Metzler Karoo Street)
tires Rear 150/70R18M/C 70H (tube type)
(Bridgestone Battlax Adventurecross Tourer AX41T /
Metzler Karoo Street)
ABS System Type2 channel with IMU
Selectable ABS MODE with on-road and off-road setting
front brakes310mm dual wave floating hydraulic disc with aluminium hub and radial fit 4-piston calipers and sintered metal pads
rear brakes256mm wave hydraulic disc with single piston caliper and sintered metal pads. 2-Channel with rear ABS off mode.
InstrumentsLCD Meter, TFT 6.5inch touch panel multi information display
Security SystemImmobilizer, security alarm (optional)
HeadlightLED
TaillightLED
ElectricsDaytime running lights, Bluetooth audio and Apple Carplay, USB socket, auto turn signal cancel, cruise control, emergency stop signal, IMU, HSTC and wheelie control)
Colors Matte Black Metallic, Grand Prix Red (EU only)
MSRP ($USD) MT $14,399; DCT $15,199

Photos Stephen Gregory and Jon Beck

Author: Jon Beck

Jon Beck is fulfilling a dream of never figuring out what to be when he grows up. Racing mountain bikes, competitive surfing, and touring as a musician are somehow part of what led Jon to travel through over 40 countries so far as an adventure motorcycle photographer, journalist, and guide. From precision riding for cameras in Hollywood, to refilling a fountain pen for travel stories, Jon brings a rare blend of experience to the table. While he seems happiest when lost in a desert someplace, deadlines are met most of the time.

Author: Jon Beck
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6 thoughts on “2020 Honda Africa Twin: Major Leap Forward For The Legend?

  1. I have a 2017 AT and I recently got a test ride on a manual shift 2020 model. There is a little more power but other than the electronics it feels the same, like a real dirt bike.

  2. Excellent review, especially video. I Like it that you give it a spin on hard terrains 🙂 much appreciated.

    Small mistake in the chart above shows how complex and messy is within the system. Engine braking is at 3 level not 1 as indicated in the chart captions. 🙂

    Stock comes with the different tire which is road version of AX41. They cut the knobbies and made the AX41T (Touring) which is made in Japan and sold exclusively to Honda as OEM equipment.

    • Hi Martin. Thanks for the kind words. Glad you like the review and video. That chart is from Honda and is in fact correct, although it doesn’t seem to be. You would think level 3 is more engine braking than level 1, but it’s actually less. The electronics are slightly opening the throttle to reduce engine braking. The EB setting should be thought of as how much it decreases engine braking. As far as the tires, there may be differences in the OEM offering depending on the country. We’ll get back to you after confirming with Honda.

      • Honda confirmed to us that there are two different tire options: the Bridgestone Battlax AX41T and the Metzeler Karoo Street. Which tire comes on the bike will depend on production timing but most motorcycles will have two tires to choose from. Our test bike was fitted with the AX41 for the test, which has more aggressive off-road tread than either of those tires.

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