2019 BMW F 850 GS vs. Honda Africa Twin

Adventure-touring twins in more ways than one.

BMW F 850 GS and Honda Africa Twin on a dirt track
The 2019 BMW F 850 GS vs. the Honda Africa TwinSpenser Robert

Before you dive into this comparison of the BMW F 850 GS and Honda's Africa Twin, take a minute to think about what, in motorcycling, is important to you. Imagine your average ride, the scenery or city easing past, and then ask yourself about each one of those sensations that makes you smile. How important is the exhaust note? Do you have a passenger getting on and off all the time? What do you care about most when you're rolling down the road or stopping for gas? It sounds esoteric and silly, but this is important because bikes like these will answer just about any call to action you have. In other words, when it comes time to choose, make sure it's for a reason that means something.

First, some background. BMW’s F 800 GS twin first hit showrooms in 2009, offering a smaller and less complicated option for buyers who wanted the R 1200 “Gelände Strasse” spirit for a lower price. Instead of the R 1200’s shaft drive and fancy, paralever/Telelever suspension it used more proletarian chain drive and a conventional fork, as well as a 798cc parallel twin. For 2018 the Germans revitalized the F-series adventure bike with a new frame and engine design, and updated technology and features from stem to stern, and have dubbed it the F 850 GS.

Riding in the scenery
It’s worth pointing out that BMW’s F 850 GS is a global machine, including German engineering prowess and an engine made by Loncin in China. The Africa Twin is old school, with everything built in Honda’s Kumamoto factory in southern Japan.Spenser Robert

You might remember when Honda first showed what would become the modern Africa Twin to the world. It was called the “True Adventure.” It was a rakish, burly take on a Dakar-ready touring bike and most people agreed it was spectacular. As with many concept bikes that make production, it softened and lost some of its backroom-R&D muscle tone, but even so it debuted to wide acclaim and has become a proud flagship for Honda’s adventure lineup—so much so that there is now an Adventure Sports option with more fuel and taller suspension.

Even though the backgrounds are different, the marketing and the purpose behind these machines are practically aligned. Bottom line, we got these two bikes together and compared them because we figured that’s what a lot of consumers are doing. They both use 270-degree firing orders in big parallel twins (853cc for the BMW, 998cc for the Honda), not to mention 21-inch front wheels, 500-pound claimed weights, saddlebags, long-distance potential, and rugged, transcontinental looks. To top it all off, the paint schemes are almost the same. It seems pretty clear that these two ADV cowboys are walking away from each other on a dusty road, hands trembling over their holsters—it was high time someone shouted, “Draw!”

joy in adventure-touring
This is where the joy in adventure-touring machines really lives—whether it’s a commute across town, a Sunday ride, or a weeklong tour, ADV bikes will deliver the best of most worlds.Spenser Robert

As with just about any comparison, it doesn’t take long for the differences (no matter how small) to reveal themselves. Swing a leg over these two, for example, and you’ll notice the F 850 GS feels a little taller than the Africa Twin. The seat heights are within half an inch of each other, so there might be more in the feel of the cockpit than the actual data. The Honda’s heavily scooped seat and tall fuel tank create the sensation of sitting in the bike rather than on it. A tall windscreen and wide handlebar do the same. On the BMW the tank feels flatter and the little potato-chip windscreen easily falls out of your field of view.

Then fire them up. BMW’s new F 850 powerplant jumps to life like James Bond coming to after being chloroformed by the bad guys—eyes darting around the room. It’s energetic and quick to rev, with a higher idle and a little less noise than we were expecting. Honda’s engine stirs more like a basset hound waking up from a nap. Listening to it lope through the revs could convince you it’s a 1,200cc engine—it feels substantial, like an expensive watch. The Africa Twin has a calm idle and a lovely, thumping bass churning out of the pipe, thick and rich enough that you want to spread it on a cracker.

Africa Twin and F 850 GS riding through the brush
For those curious, adding the factory options from Honda for a quickshifter ($530), centerstand ($240), heated grips ($288), a 12-volt socket ($24, why not), plus the $725 saddlebags rings in just a shade north of $15,400. Still a few grand less than a fully loaded F 850 GS.Spenser Robert

Even though the powerplants are similar in design, their character does a lot to define the overall attitude of the machines. After we had logged 100 miles or so, the BMW stood out as more sprightly and nimble—from leaving traffic lights to navigating in and out of parking garages. When we hit twisty roads, the feeling continued, with the BMW’s up/down quickshifter popping quickly through gears and goading you to open the throttle.

Honda Africa Twin switch gear
Honda’s switch gear is simple but well built, aside from the horn button in the wrong place. Ride modes and engine characteristics are changeable on the dash, via the Mode and Select buttons.Spenser Robert

It’s important to acknowledge this powerplant is a big step forward from the 360-degree crank setup in the F 800 models. Die-hard BMW fans will miss the nasal drone of the old mill, since it sounds more like a boxer twin, and they’ll be sad to see Germany conform to the V-twin soundtrack of a 270 crank. But the fact is this engine is better—it’s smoother and it puts down power more agreeably. Unfortunately the quickshifter isn’t tuned impeccably, so shifts vacillate between MotoGP-perfect and unnervingly sloppy.

Two-lane blacktop
Two-lane blacktop is where these bikes really belong, and both are great at logging miles.Spenser Robert

Practically and statistically the F 850 powertrain is fine, it just never really stacks up to the Honda’s bassy purr and high-caliber feel. It might seem aloof at first, but the Africa Twin’s engine has plenty of punch on tap. It’s as satisfying to fire up an entrance ramp to the highway as it is to slide sideways through a gravel corner. When it comes to dancing down two-lane, the Africa Twin doesn’t necessarily feel heavier than the F 850, it just moves with more purpose, as though Honda leaned more toward stability and poise rather than agility. No surprise, really, considering the two companies’ history of flamboyance. But we’re really splitting hairs here; both bikes are a treat on a twisty stretch of tarmac and will entertain you all day long.

F 850 GS’s 305mm brake disc
A 21-inch front wheel makes the F 850 GS’s 305mm brake discs look small. There’s enough power in the Brembo calipers, but the brakes don’t have the sharp bite of most BMWs. Note the tubeless rims, a great feature the Honda doesn’t offer.Spenser Robert

Arguably, the open road (read: highway) is where bikes like these should really shine, and it’s one place where they differ the most. Comfort-wise, you’ll likely be happy in either cockpit. The Honda’s seat proved too soft for our buns, though the weather protection is better—but it’s not like if you’re buying these bikes, you should be shy about experimenting with aftermarket parts to keep you happy on the long haul. Among the biggest surprises is the Africa Twin’s lack of cruise control. Why a bike with such excellent touring ability, and ride-by-wire throttle, wouldn’t have a simple cruise setup is baffling. To be fair, it’s better than the F 850 GS’s biggest flaw, which is abysmal fuel range. Even getting an impressive 45–55 mpg, the 4-gallon tank means you’ll be worrying about gas at least every 180 miles. At one point the fuel light came on at around 125 miles—unacceptable! The Africa Twin’s mileage is a little worse, but holding an extra gallon of fuel goes a long way. Literally.

F 850 left switch gear
The F 850’s left switch gear is busy but useful. A menu rocker and rotating selector (far left) navigate the enormous dash, while ABS, traction control, and shock damping can all be adjusted on the fly—preload must be done at a stop. Initiate cruise with a simple swipe of your index finger.Spenser Robert

Halfway through our journey we trundled off the pavement to climb a spine of the California coast, for the sake of exploring our state and the limits of the bikes. Both have adjustable throttle maps and some amount of ABS adjustability, not to mention brochures flooded with images of rough-and-tumble people living their best lives in the wilderness. But with gear piled on the luggage rack, full saddlebags, and 35 psi in the road-biased tires, we were pushing our luck and probably pushing 550 pounds of machine each. There was very little front-end feel, but aside from that these glorified touring rigs held their own. We blasted through loose corners, roosting gravel and laughing in our helmets. The Honda’s mellow engine makes it a treat to use when traction is low, and the BMW powerplant essentially matches step for step, though it’s not as charismatic or satisfying to use.

Africa Twin dash
On the Africa Twin the dash is a more utilitarian setup. Information is stacked vertically on a two-color screen, flanked by typical warning lights and indicators. Note the button on the right to shut off rear ABS.Spenser Robert

Both bikes allow ABS to be disabled on the fly, which was handy as we descended through hairpins covered in a few inches of silt. Locking the rear wheel put less impetus on the front wheel having to steer. We jumped over roots and rocks jutting out from the banks of the road, and backed into corners, pretending we were in the last stage of the Dakar. At one point the beautifully graded road turned to eroded chop over a rise—the bikes slammed through the suspension stroke and made ugly noises, but neither of us went down. We exercised some amount of poor judgment, but all for the sake of science. We learned, yet again, that the state of the art in adventure-touring machines is good enough for just about whatever you’re willing to attempt on a streetbike.

CRF1000L brake rotors
The CRF1000L’s brake rotors are a little larger (310mm) than the BMW’s. Both bikes have exhaust headers that route to the side of the engine, increasing ground clearance and keeping the pipes from getting crunched.Spenser Robert

What separates these two seems to be the overlying theory of how to build a machine. The BMW is candy coated. Nearly every version that’s imported is dripping with features and tiny slices of technology meant to elevate the F 850 GS riding experience above its competition. There’s a fancy display, a quickshifter, tubeless rims, heated grips, a centerstand, and electronically adjustable rear suspension, none of which a typical Africa Twin has sitting on a showroom floor. It’s more expensive—we’ll get to that—but it’s also a lot of really nice kit. (The only thing the BMW truly can’t match is Honda’s offering of the dual-clutch transmission; undeniably cool technology that only costs an extra $800.)

F 850 GS dash
The F 850 GS’s dash is a colorful and clean 6.5-inch display lifted from the flagship R 1250 GS, and it’s as cutting edge as any option on the market today. The black background blends with the matte finish of the bezel running around the screen, and the animated option screens are smooth and brightly colored.Spenser Robert

What this comparison showed us is how a simple bike can compare directly to one laden with features, and do it gracefully. The Africa Twin doesn’t have a quickshifter standard, but it does have a more satisfying transmission and better clutch feel. It doesn’t have Bluetooth connectivity to the dash, and yet it’s easier to reset the tripmeter. And, no, it doesn’t have a button to change shock preload but it does have adjustability in the fork (which the BMW somehow does not) and good compliance in general, even if the spring rates are a little soft.

BMW saddlebag
BMW’s Vario cases are are a shade smaller than the Honda’s (39 liters in the left bag, 29 in the right), but you can close them and leave them unlocked. Plus, a lever built into the interior of each bag swings 180 degrees and compresses the outside of the case toward the bike, which collapses the hard bags to capacities of 30 and 20 liters (respectively) as well as narrowing the stern by 4.7 inches. Nifty.Spenser Robert

If money is most important, it’ll be a Honda. For $13,599 you get the machine we tested here, and if you add the saddlebags for $725, the total is $14,324. Simple. The F 850 GS base price is technically $13,195 but BMW doesn’t import any of those versions—at minimum it’s the Select Package, which includes the quickshifter, heated grips, cruise, Pro ride modes and ABS, traction control, saddlebag mounts, GPS-ready preparation, and the fancy dash, for around $15,800 depending on paint choices. The Premium Package means keyless ride, the LED running light, tire pressure sensors, and the electronic Dynamic ESA suspension for about $1,000 to get to the fully loaded price of $16,920. Add the clever Vario side cases for $1,161 and the price will clear $18,000, which is how we tested the bike. A few thousand bucks delta in price is worthing chewing over, we think.

Africa factory luggage
The Africa factory luggage is hard bags with a total capacity of 70 liters (40 in the left, 30 in the right), aTwinnd overall they get a thumbs-up, even plastered with 1,000 miles of bugs and grime.Spenser Robert

This all brings us back to asking what you want underneath you when you’re in the midst of your perfect ride. Depending where and how the road takes you, will there be more concern about a Bluetooth connection to the dash, or the adjustability of the fork settings? An electronically adjustable shock, or a transmission and powertrain that feel and sound close to perfect? Cruise control, or an extra 40 miles of range? No matter how you slice it the Honda can’t keep up with the sophistication of the BMW, and at the same time the BMW’s foundation is simply outclassed by the Honda. The features and technology of BMW’s F 850 GS worked well and added a premium feel, but not enough to overcome our frustration with weird clutch feel and poor fuel range. Honda’s Africa Twin is uncomplicated, for better and worse. For us, even without cruise control and tubeless rims, it’s better.

F 800 GS and Africa Twin
The previous F 800 GS did well in the market in part due to a lack of competition (aside from the Triumph Tiger 800, which wasn’t much of an off-road bike in its early iterations). When the Africa Twin was reborn for the 2016 model year, the landscape changed.Spenser Robert

SPECS

2019 BMW F 850 GS

PRICE $18,081 (as tested)
ENGINE 853cc, DOHC, liquid-cooled parallel twin
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain (with up/down quickshifter)
MEASURED HORSEPOWER 78.56 hp @ 8,380 rpm
MEASURED TORQUE 54.43 lb.-ft. @ 6,460 rpm
FRAME Steel twin spar
FRONT SUSPENSION 43mm inverted fork; 8.0-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Rising-rate shock, electronically adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping; 8.6-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Brembo 2-piston calipers, 305mm twin discs w/ switchable ABS
REAR BRAKE Brembo 1-piston caliper, 265mm disc w/ switchable ABS
RAKE/TRAIL 28.0°/4.9 in.
WHEELBASE 62.7 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 33.9 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 4.0 gal.
CLAIMED WET WEIGHT 504 lb. (w/o bags)
CONSUMPTION 50.8 mpg avg.
AVAILABLE Now
CONTACT bmwmotorcycles.com

2019 Honda Africa Twin

PRICE $14,324 (as tested)
ENGINE 998cc, SOHC, liquid-cooled parallel twin
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
MEASURED HORSEPOWER 82.4 hp @ 7,500 rpm
MEASURED TORQUE 65.6 lb.-ft. @ 5,600 rpm
FRAME Steel semi-double cradle
FRONT SUSPENSION Showa fully adjustable 45mm inverted fork; 9.1-in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Showa fully adjustable shock; 8.7-in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Nissin 4-piston calipers, 310mm discs w/ ABS
REAR BRAKE Nissin 1-piston caliper, 256mm disc w/ switchable ABS
RAKE/TRAIL 27.5°/4.4 in.
WHEELBASE 62.0 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 33.5/34.3 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 5.0 gal.
CLAIMED WET WEIGHT 507 lb. (w/o bags)
CONSUMPTION 46.6 mpg avg.
AVAILABLE Now
CONTACT powersports.honda.com