Africa Twin: Old vs. New

Riding a 1991 Africa Twin side by side with a 2019 model.

Africa Twin test
We put a 1991 Africa Twin to the test against a 2019 Africa Twin. The results were surprising.Llewelyn Pavey

They don't make them like they used to. Correct, they don't. It's hard to believe that the original Africa Twin is now 30 years old, but park it next to a 2019 model and it shows. No ABS, no traction control, no rider modes, and a couple of these contraptions called carburetors remind you how far bikes have come in the space of a few decades. And for every person who swears by low-tech bikes for traveling, there's another flying the flag for a newer, more reliable motorcycle. For every rider whose old bike has broken down on a trip, there's a rider cursing their brand-new bike that has conked out and ended their ride early.

There are valid arguments for both options; the right answer always comes down to personal preference. Part celebration of a legendary adventure bike, the real aim of this test was to put some facts in to the age-old argument that old adventure bikes are more fun to ride than new ones.

Okay, so there is a caveat here. The 1991 Africa Twin we have here isn't technically the original Africa Twin; there was an earlier, limited-production version with a 650cc V-twin in 1988 built at HRC to replicate the Honda NXR Dakar Rally bikes. For model code aficionados, that is the RD03, replaced by the bike we have here, the RD04 in 1990. The 1991 Africa Twin on this test is in fair condition for its age, with 36,000 miles on the clock, and was given a full service prior to the test. The claimed figures when this bike was new were a peak power of 62 hp and weight of 460 pounds.

For anyone with an ounce of Dakar excitement in them, it is a bike that stirs up dreams of hauling ass across the Sahara Desert with nothing but a compass bearing to keep you on track. What is perhaps the most special thing about this Africa Twin is that it was a bike derived from the HRC Dakar racebikes. Sure, it was watered down and de-tuned for reliability, but people actually raced the 650 Africa Twins at Dakar, so there's a feel of legit race heritage that you simply don't get from the new model. Of course, the reality is that the road-going Africa Twin was considerably heavier and less powerful than the NXR rally bikes, but try telling your heart that.

The 1991 Africa Twin has aged well and still excites those who dream of Dakar.Llewelyn Pavey

While it may be low on tech next to the 2019 model, there are some neat touches that have aged as well as the looks. On the left side panel there’s a tool compartment, accessible without taking the seat off and big enough for a useful tool kit. There is a two-stage fuel warning light to give you plenty of notice when you need to fill up, and the multi-gauge dash tells you speed, rpm, and engine temperature. No average speed, miles per gallon, or distance to next service data here though.

The 2019 Africa Twin, in terms of specification and equipment, couldn’t be further removed from the old bike. Next to the carburetors, floppy turn signals, and wobbly speedometer needle of the RD04, the new bike feels like the starship Enterprise. The model here is the Africa Twin Adventure Sports with the optional Dual Clutch Transmission (DCT) automatic gearbox. Compared with the standard 2019 Africa Twin, the Adventure Sports has longer-travel suspension, more fuel capacity, a bigger screen, and gravel mode added to the rider mode options. The DCT option features two electronically controlled clutches—it’s a sophisticated automatic system that lets you use the bike as a twist-and-go, or you can shift gears up and down manually using the buttons on the left side of the handlebar. The numbers eclipse the older bike too; power is now listed at 93 hp although the weight has climbed to 535 pounds.

2019 Africa Twin Adventure Sports DCT
The 1991 Africa Twin weighs in at 460 pounds versus the claimed 535-pound weight of the 2019 Africa Twin Adventure Sports DCT.Llewelyn Pavey

Checking out the two Africa Twins parked next to each other, you can tell there’s so much lineage that links the two bikes. Honda has taken more than its fair share of stick over the years for making bikes that lack character, but the features from the 1991 bike echoed in the new bike are a neat touch. From the closely matched color schemes to the shape of the tank, the seat, and the Adventure Sports tagline, the new bike pays a fitting tribute to its ancestor. But it does make it look like a minibike.

When the Africa Twin came out in the ’90s, road riders lamented the high seat and dirt bike guys poked fun at the weight. By today’s adventure bike standards, it feels compact, manageable, and nimble. The new Africa Twin, by comparison, feels enormously tall, top-heavy, and hard to be the boss of in tight situations. Even after miles of testing, every time any of the riders on the test kicked the stand up on the 2019 bike, they were having to be that little bit extra cautious with their balance. And two riders on the test were Dakar rally finishers, with decades of adventure bike experience between them. The old bike was always the one being thrown around, hopped over rocks, spun round on the gas—its diminutive size and light weight by the standards of this test made you feel invincible on it.

As we get ready to leave on the first ride with the two bikes together, immediately the old bike lands a shot on its high-tech descendant. I switch the ’91-spec ignition on, touch the starter button and, after I remember how to use a choke lever, the bike fires into life with a nice rumble from the period-spec Arrow exhaust. Laughing at me fiddling with the choke lever, one of the testers jumps on the new bike, pulls away, then stops to work out how to change rider modes.

1991 Africa Twin
Analog everything, the 1991 Africa Twin takes you back to the good old days. Think Walkman versus iPod.Llewelyn Pavey

At every intersection, fuel stop, or pull-in, our heads are buried in the dash of the 2019 Africa Twin, looking for a more aggressive throttle setting, manual mode on the transmission, gravel mode, or the button to turn the ABS off. It’s fantastic to have such adaptability in modern bikes, but it sure does result in a lot of time scrolling through menus. Meanwhile I was hopping the analog machine over curbs and amusing myself with brake slides. For sure, when we had the system understood, it was much faster to get the new AT into the setting you wanted, but you still had to reset a few things, like ABS and manual gearshift mode, every time you restarted the motor. On the road it was a minor niggle; off road, where we were stopping more frequently for gates and map checks, it became pretty irritating. Stop. Engage parking brake. Stand down. Switch off. Switch on. Stand back up. Release parking brake. Select drive. Select manual mode. Turn rear ABS back off. Pull away.

2019 Africa Twin
Modern tech can make riding much easier, but it can also be a hindrance when the ride includes multiple stops. The 2019 Africa Twin required resetting of several setting each time the motorcycle was turned off.Llewelyn Pavey

Any time lost in the menus of the DCT Africa Twin is soon made up out on the road; longer gearing and a significant power advantage make it easy to reel in the 62-hp 750. And with the transmission set to fully automatic, the new bike is a comfortable, relaxing ride, munching through the miles with ease. The Adventure Sports model gets a tall seat and high screen that come into their own on this relaxed style of ride, giving you a high vantage point for planning turns and overtakes, but plenty of wind protection to hide behind. The auto transmission is silky smooth, letting you roll on and off the gas with no further thought about what gear you’re in. At this point, once the novelty of the old bike’s charm starts to wear thin, the heavy clutch and clunky transmission can get tiresome.

original Africa Twin
There is something about the original Africa Twin that makes it a playful motorcycle, even compared to motorcycles 30 years its junior.Llewelyn Pavey

To keep pace with the new bike on a cruise, you have to work hard or accept a slower pace of life where you can enjoy the smooth torque curve and sublime throttle response of the carburetor-fed motor. The old bike is actually a scream to ride fast, squeezing every last bit of power out of the V-twin motor, hammering the surprisingly good brakes before hucking it into corners until you’ve no more boot left to scrape. The old suspension behaves well on the road, never offering the best ride quality, but never doing anything alarming either. Rolling into a rest stop at the end of an epic mountain pass, I’ve broken a sweat, the engine is ping-pinging with the heat, the tires look frazzled, and every corner now has a 130/70-17 skid mark from braking point to apex.

As the new bike rolls in behind me, Llel looks like he’s just stepped out of a spa retreat. That’s what 30 years of development has done—the same pace, the same road, riders of a similar ability, and two totally different experiences. I’m babbling at 40 words per second about how good that last downhill left-hander was, and Llel just sat there the whole time chilling, listening to his tunes, and enjoying the view.

2019 and 1991 Africa Twins
On the road, the 2019 easily outpaces the 1991 Africa Twin.Llewelyn Pavey

Swap roles and when the new bike is pushing on, I can barely keep it in sight. Midcorner speeds are similar, but the 31-hp deficit is hard to claw back at the end of each straight. The two riding experiences on the road are so vastly contrasting—you’re always busy when trying to ride fast on the old bike, and it feels happy to be pushed, playful even. The new bike will happily sit behind the old one, passing at the first opportunity, and then waft off into the distance. It’s more comfortable, the brakes are better, and there’s always power to get past other vehicles. Yet somehow it doesn’t urge you to misbehave in quite the same way.

1991 Africa Twin
The 1991 Africa Twin is easy to move around on the trail thanks to less weight and a lower seat height.Llewelyn Pavey

When we switched to the dirt, the first section of trail was a gnarly, tight set of rock steps down into a river and back up the other side. I felt confident on the RD04, able to pick my line accurately, pull it back into shape when it slides out, and use the clutch and low-down torque to punch the front wheel back up the steps. From the outside, with the sound off, the old bike looks like it’s made for this. Turn the volume up, and you’ll hear a clang for every step as the low bash guard shapes itself around the rocks. And possibly a grunt of relief from the rider as the heavy clutch starts to make its presence felt.

2019 vs 1991
Off road, the 1991 Africa Twin fared better but still the more modern suspension and higher ground clearance of the 2019 model came out superior.Llewelyn Pavey

The modern bike feels tall and heavy, but surprised everyone by making up for the weight disadvantage with good ground clearance and well-controlled suspension. Again the DCT system blew us away with predictable response and smooth control just when we expected it to be a hindrance.

As the trail opened out into faster, but still rough terrain, 30 years of technology disappeared off into the dust. The quality of the suspension on the Adventure Sports Africa Twin was sublime. It’s not the most dynamic setup, tending toward stability rather than agility, but it sucked up everything we threw at it, feeling like a magic carpet across rain gullies and rocks. By contrast, the old bike’s fork struggled to keep up with the terrain, giving a nervous feeling on loose rocks and bottoming hard if you hit a gully too fast. On smoother trails the RD04 was really fun to ride and you could overstep the mark and still recover from it. The newer bike’s weight meant that once it did get off balance, it was much harder to catch, but until that point you feel like there’s nothing that will phase it.

2019 Africa Twin
As the pace quickens the 2019 Africa Twin is more stable and planted.Llewelyn Pavey

The DCT transmission system is a work of mechanical brilliance from Honda. Whether you would choose to have it on your own bike or not is a different matter, but we cannot deny that as an automatic transmission system for a motorcycle it worked excellently. We put the big Africa Twin into endless tricky, technical situations and time and time again the DTC surprised us with its dexterity and its ability to pull away on loose hills. If you have really good clutch control off-road and never miss a gearshift, even when rushing, then the DTC isn’t going to be much of an advantage for you. But for everyone else, the electronic clutch setup is a blessing, letting you pull away cleanly without lighting up the rear tire and ending up on your side. Plus the cheeky blip of the throttle when you’re manually downshifting is so addictive.

DCT Africa Twin
The DCT Africa Twin works well in all situations and is a blast to row through the gears using your left hand.Llewelyn Pavey

The Africa Twin, and adventure bikes in general, have come a long way in three decades. One thing that the new bike couldn’t match the old one for was smell. Parked up, there was always a distinct whiff of gasoline around the carbureted bike and following it on a fast road brought back memories of ’90s superbike racing and the lingering scent of unburned hydrocarbons. Perhaps not so good for inner city air quality, but damn it’s good for the soul.

Africa Twins
So which will it be? That depends on the ride. The 1991 Africa Twin is the choice for short and rowdy rides; anything longer, the modern Africa twin is the way to go.Llewelyn Pavey

So which would I choose? Well for jumping on and going for an evening trail ride it would have to be the granddaddy, the RD04 for me. I hate to be a Luddite, but the old bike was so easy to handle, so willing to continue off road way past its comfort zone that it made every trail fun. The caveat to that is that I also love working on bikes, so fixing the speedometer which failed during the test, bump-starting it when the old battery died, and repairing the droopy indicators all made me just as happy as riding the thing.

For longer trips, my choice definitely flips over to the newer bike. For riding hundreds of miles, exploring new trails, and seeing new places, the comfort, power, and quality suspension let you focus more on the trip itself and think less about what the bike is doing. In all the quantifiable senses other than outright weight, the new bike is king—ABS and traction control make it safer to ride faster for more riders, the gas mileage is better, the engine cruises effortlessly on the freeway, and not one component fell off it during the test.

Twin comparison
After comparing the 1991 Africa Twin to a 2019 model, it’s easy to see why so many have a soft spot for the original.Llewelyn Pavey

It’s always interesting to ride old bikes that are held in such high regard and shine the cold hard light of technology on them. In this case the 1991 Africa Twin RD04 stands up proud—it might be slower and less refined than the new one, but everyone who rode it could instantly see where the legendary reputation comes from. It’s a bike that gives you the confidence to push yourself off road, a bike that tempts you to take that one extra trail. And the same bike that will get you home again afterward—with maybe some wrenching on the side of the road, even if home is a four-hour ride away. With so much character, it really does get under your skin, to the point where you’re happy to ignore the occasional puddle of fuel in the garage.