This year Honda has pumped up the power for the Africa Twin platform, along with other changes to the line. 2020 is the debut year for the Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports ES DCT, and the ES stands for Electronic Suspension. Along with the 86cc displacement boost, this moves the top-of-the-line Africa Twin even more securely into the premium category. Getting on the new Africa Twin is easy—getting us off it took a bit more effort. We’ll let you in on the ride.
The 2020 Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports ES DCT is not an easily categorized motorcycle. It has an off-road-ready 21-/18-inch tire combo, yet the Adventure Sports designation tells us that it is the more street-oriented model in the AT line. Honda shortened the suspension travel for the AS version, as it is less of a dirt bike—though still getting the CRF designation—so we are a bit surprised that the engineers didn’t go for a 19-/17-inch rim pairing that would be expected on a Sports model with a pavement focus. Also, AT AS gets a huge 6.5-gallon fuel tank, which we associate with off-roading, far away from fuel stops. The addition of semi-active suspension is definitely a nod to street performance, so the pendulum swings again. As we often hear in life, it’s complicated.
The additional 86cc came from an increased stroke. That means torque was the goal, which is a laudable choice on an ADV motorcycle. Still, Honda says that the new 1084cc motor gets a six percent increase in horsepower, which is welcome, and updates on the intake and exhaust helped produce more power. In the implementation on the AT AS ES DCT—initials gone wild—the power increase isn’t as apparent due to the DCT. No one complained that the liter-sized Africa Twin was overpowered, so we will take more with a smile on our faces, even if it still doesn’t knock our socks off. Yes, it has Sports in its name, but Touring would have been a more accurate appellation.
Showa’s Electronically Equipped Ride Adjustment is the Japanese company’s brand name for its active suspension, and it works. We love the magic of active suspension, and the constant damping adjustments work superbly on the Africa Twin Adventure Sports. With the help of a six-axis IMU and skyhook-flavored software, the chassis provides eerie stability on the rough roads favored by the adventurous. The frame is isolated from potholes and deteriorating asphalt as the ES glides above the mayhem. We became most aware of that via the observations of following riders with traditional suspension. Yes, the chase riders were amazed and jealous at the suspension’s behavior—it is something to watch, and experience.
A dazzling array of suspension adjustments can be made via buttons on the left handlebar and displayed by the new 6.5-inch TFT touchscreen. Honda offers four preset ride modes—Tour, Urban, Gravel, and Off Road—along with two user-configurable modes. The user modes allow a wide variety of adjustments, including four damping settings—Hard, Medium, Soft, Off Road—with three sub-settings per setting. There are also four spring-preload modes—Rider, Rider + Luggage, Rider + Passenger, and Rider + Passenger + Luggage—with 24 settings for each mode. Fortunately, the two User modes let you select a couple of favorite settings, save them, and not spend the rest of your life making adjustments. Oh, if you don’t like the button array, the TFT allows you to make changes directly on the screen at a stop.
The four ride modes make changes in a wide variety of additional electronic wizardry in the Twin’s software. In addition to the suspension, the modes change the power, engine braking, ABS, torque control, wheelie control, and the arcanely named G switch. You can either engage G or not—there’s no adjustability. According to Honda, it reduces the DCT’s clutch slippage off-road for a more direct feel. Like many of these adjustments, it helps to be Ricky Brabec when it comes to a precise appreciation of the incremental changes.
For the vast majority of riders, the four preset ride modes, along with the two custom modes, will get it done. I set up User 1 mode for the street and User 2 mode for the dirt. My User 1 mode is based on the Tour mode (note that there is no Sport mode on the Adventure Sports), with maximum engine braking, and a bit more torque control. For User 2, I started with the Off Road setup and boosted the torque control. The wheelie setting didn’t matter to me, as I prefer the Africa Twin with both wheels on the ground.
As if all this isn’t enough, there are also multiple DCT settings. Your first choice of the day is selecting either the Drive or Sport mode. The Drive mode is for the most milquetoast of riders. It shifts up as quickly as possible, for leisurely performance. It takes some time to get used to the ultra-low revs that the motor is turning—it can feel like it’s lugging rather than chugging. The Sport mode shifts as you would likely shift, though more seamlessly.
Someone at Honda lobbied for three levels in the Sport mode. The levels aren’t really all that much different from one another, and the highest-level delays upshifts as long as Honda deigns acceptable—this is what most Africa Twin riders will want. The shifting seems natural at the Sport mode’s highest level, and I would only resort to the Drive mode in the rain. You have to be really picky to have a favorite Sport level, other than the most aggressive.
Once you have selected the DCT mode, you can dispense with the automatic shifting and use the paddle shifters to shift between gears. Even when you do that, the DCT will still babysit you. If you are going too slow, it will downshift for you. However, it won’t upshift without your permission—you can let it bounce off the rev limiter all day long, if that’s your style. There will be instances where you will want to prevent upshifts, mainly off-road, so the manual shift does come in handy for that. The most aggressive canyon riders will likely avail themselves of the paddle shifters, and enjoy the satisfaction that comes with initiating every shift. However, it is simply not necessary.
The manual for the 2020 Honda Africa Twin Adventure Sports ES DCT is 376 pages long. About a third of those pages involve what you’re looking at on the TFT display, so we’ve only scratched the surface. That is why it has taken so long to dig into what it’s like to ride the AT AS ES DCT—it is a technologically complex machine. While the user interface is okay, it falls short of being intuitive. As daunting as it is, you will want to dig into the settings initially. However, once you’ve set the AT up for you, just ride it. If you love to fiddle, the Africa Twin will entice you to push buttons until you develop fingertip calluses. We could go on about Apple CarPlay and more, but we’d rather talk about riding.
After setting the Adventure Sports to your liking, you will find it difficult to avoid falling in love with the motorcycle. It is truly a pleasure to ride, and it will inspire hours of concocting various routes to tackle. Most of those trips will be on pavement, as those most dedicated to dirt should go with the standard Africa Twin configuration—still with DCT, of course. Suspension on the AT AS is fantastic, and the handling is delightfully neutral with light steering.
The 21-inch front wheel doesn’t earn any negative attention, though we’d still be interested in a more street-friendly 17-/19-inch combo. We will guess that Honda tried that configuration and abandoned it for reasons that only the R&D department will know. Luckily, the handling is outstanding, as is, without our suggestion. Due credit goes to the Bridgestone Battlax Adventure A41 tires, which provide confident cornering, even with a front tire just 90mm wide.
The additional power adds confidence on the open highway. Most of the time you won’t need the Twin’s extra 86cc, though they are there when it comes time for passing a slower vehicle—particularly at high speeds. The DCT will downshift appropriately if you wick the throttle on hard, though the paddle shifters provide peace of mind knowing exactly when a shift will come. Although the DCT is unspeakably smooth, there are times when you will prefer overrev to an upshift.
The DCT’s performance in corners is up to you. If you ride the canyons hard, and that includes aggressive braking, the DCT responds by quickly upshifting and downshifting as needed. For those who like to ride the twisties smoothly, using throttle control and minimal braking to negotiate corners, the DCT will rarely shift. While the DCT software is not imbued with machine learning, the software engineers have done an outstanding job of divining your intent. The Adventure Sports ES DCT is a fully adaptable motorcycle, so you are almost always going to be satisfied as long as you remember that you’re on a 553-pound ADV motorcycle.
Honda positions the 2020 Africa Twin Adventure Sports ES DCT as a touring mount, and that’s what it does best. Sure, you can buy a Gold Wing and rule the highways—the parallel-twin is not nearly as smooth as the Wing’s flat-six. By going with an AT AS ES DCT instead, you can take the scenic byways that might have questionable road conditions. If the route is more 4×4 style, that’s where the standard Africa Twin comes in. With the Adventure Sports, you get a cavernous 6.5-gallon fuel tank, a taller windscreen, a rear rack, heated grips, a power socket, and a large skidplate. Oh, and the DCT has a parking brake, using a locking lever where the clutch lever usually resides—don’t neglect to engage it every time you park, as the transmission is unalterably in neutral.
Our test bike came with some essential items for touring. The aluminum panniers ($764 for both) are beautiful and absolutely functional. They are durable and have a vast carrying capacity—37 liters on the left and 33 liters on the right. The top lids are water-resistant and locking. I’d like to be able to leave them unlocked, but Honda says no. It had a $156 centerstand to make chain adjustment easier—you won’t need it to repair the tubeless tires. There’s a 42-liter top case available, which runs $556, including the mounting hardware.
A light bar was installed on our test unit, which is a bit embarrassing without lights attached. It reminds me of the dreadful short-lived fad of putting headlight brush guards on Range Rovers that never left Beverly Hills. Keep in mind that it is a $305 light bar, not a crash bar, and the Adventure Sports looks much cleaner without it. But, if you like it, or want additional lighting, don’t let my snarky comments dissuade you.
The 2020 Africa Twin Adventure Sports ES DCT does what every motorcycle should do—it makes you want to ride. Every time I see the Adventure Sports in the garage, I want to jump on it and go for a ride. Once underway, I imagine myself crossing the Rockies and back in style. Part of a successful motorcycle is making the rider feel cool, and the Africa Twin Adventure Sports does that. Adventure bike styling can be controversial, yet Honda makes the AT look sleek, and does so without the increasingly clichéd front beak. Inspirational motorcycles are always favorites of mine, and the Africa Twin accomplishes that goal without breaking a sweat.
This week, Senior Editor Nic de Sena rides the all new Ducati Monster. Big changes have been made by Ducati–has the company ruined the considerable heritage of the iconic Monster–or are the changes worth it? In the second part of the show, we chat with Nick Ienatsch, Founder and Head Instructor at the Yamaha Champions Riding School. He says: “We aim to change your riding life by introducing you to Champions Habits: The techniques, approaches, skills, and the mindsets of the best riders in the world. These Champions Habits are the foundation of safety and consistency to whatever speed you ride, in any venue on any bike. Street riders, this is just as much for you as track riders. The best way to make safe riders is to make good riders.“ We hope you enjoy this episode!