The "adventure" segment is one of the fastest-growing in the motorcycle industry, and one of the most competitive, as all of the major manufacturers have built big bikes for this niche market.
BMW has traditionally owned this space, with its GS1200 series, and claims to be the dominant brand today, in the United States and around the world, outselling all others.
But KTM's Adventure, Ducati's Multistrada, Yamaha's Super Tenere, Triumph's Tiger Explorer, Suzuki's V-Strom and Kawasaki's Versys have been taking away market share.
Honda, the world's largest motorcycle company, has not been a player. Since retiring its successful Transalp touring bike, the Japanese giant has watched from the sidelines as U.S. riders have increasingly embraced this new kind of riding.
Until now. After much delay and much expectation, Honda has delivered the Africa Twin. After a week on the new machine, I have determined that it was worth waiting for.
The AT, which is also known as the CRF1000L, is a very likable, very rideable machine. Well-made and well-balanced, it's slender amid ships and rides much lighter than its 511 pounds — with its 4.9-gallon tank full of fuel. (By comparison, the BMW R1200 GSA weighs 565 pounds, with its 8-gallon tank full.)
The upright sit position, wide handlebars and long suspension travel will be instantly comforting to anyone with a dirt bike background. The narrow seat is surprisingly comfortable. My first full day on the bike, I rode for about five hours without any derriere distress.
Honda media materials pitch the AT as a serious off-road operator, but they've made it a very good road bike, too. The windscreen is effective, and creates a tidy rider pocket on the freeway — even keeping me dry during a brief rainstorm.
Nimble enough to carve a canyon, it's also stable on the freeway. I'm not saying I would know this from personal experience, but I bet the AT would feel sure-footed at 90 miles per hour.
One of the AT's principal attributes is its DCT, or dual-clutch transmission: Yes, it's an automatic. Featuring no clutch lever and no gear shift lever, the DCT system makes it possible to roll to a stop, start up again and accelerate through the six-speed gearbox without using your left hand or left foot, much as you would on a scooter or maybe on the Honda CTX700, where I first encountered this technology.
For the first 15 minutes on the Twin, I found this disorienting. Then I was used to it, and hardly thought about it again, except to imagine how useful this feature would be, off-road, stuck in deep sand, trying to get up a hill, and being very happy to be able to keep both feet on the ground and both hands firmly on the grips.
The DCT is an $800 option on the Twin, which also comes in a traditional transmission format. (Honda says the take rate on the DCT is expected to be about 45%.) And the DCT offers a paddle-shift, too, for a little more rider input. I relied on this for downshifting to gain engine braking going into turns — the only place where I felt the DCT could have done a better job.
I didn't have the chance to do much off-road riding, though I got onto a short bit of trail and had the opportunity to ride the Twin on a golf course for a while — the first time I've ever ridden on that surface.
I came away thinking that, despite the CRF1000L moniker that connects the Africa Twin to the off-road-ready CRF250X and R, and CRF450X and R, the Africa Twin is more of a road bike than a dirt bike.
Knobby tires and some suspension adjustment might change my mind about that. Other reviewers have found it quite capable in the rough.
Cycle World named the Africa Twin its Adventure Bike of the Year for 2016 and Editor in Chief Mark Hoyer gave the machine high marks.
"Honda has a brand reputation for technical excellence and reliability — things that are important to an adventure rider," he said. "You get the feeling that you're going to get there, no matter what."
I had to look hard for quibbles, but that's part of the job. I wasn't happy that the windscreen isn't adjustable, because it wasn't quite the right height for my frame. I had difficulty with the locks on one of the side bags, which didn't feel sturdy enough to withstand much off-road bouncing around. Also, the side bags can only be opened when unlocked and with the key inserted. That meant the bags couldn't be open at the same time.
I also wished the bike had come with a helmet lock (though a full-face helmet fits comfortably in the left-side pannier) and self-canceling turn signals — two things that, really, no motorcycle should be without.
The AT comes standard with some appealing features, like spoked wheels, adjustable seat — standard position is 34.3 inches, low position is 33.5 inches — and buttons for switching riding modes and turning on and off ABS and traction control on the fly.
But many things that riders will want included are only offered as options, like a center stand, heated grips, side panniers and a top box, as well as a taller windscreen.
Those extras will whack your wallet a bit — about $850 for side and top bags, and $199 for a center stand.
But a new BMW GS, KTM Adventure or Ducati Multistrada Enduro will cost $19,000 and up — way up, with all the options.
Honda executive Jon Seidel said those prices were a strong inducement to develop the Africa Twin. "We saw this segment was heating up, and we were trying to get to the market as soon as possible," he said. "And we were shocked by the target MSRP."
That's because the Africa Twin, positioned as an affordable alternative to the slightly larger, more expensive European bikes, starts at $12,999.
At that price, and with its many appealing attributes, Honda is going to sell a lot of them.