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Honda NX650 Dominator V BMW F650 Funduro

"Two Wheels", November 1995

Itís funny how quickly even familiar can catch you out. One moment was pondering the irony that we were out riding a German bike and a Japanese bike which were both made less than 100 km apart - in Italy - when I saw the F650's rear wheel skip sideways, throwing up a shower of tiny gravel particles. In the next millisecond I lost sight of the BM as I concentrated on hauling the bike upright and hauling the brakes on as hard as possible. I could feel the tyres squirming in protest before it was off the brakes again and the bike was committed to a different line in an attempt to make the corner and miss whatever was coming the other way.

Fortunately nothing was. It was just one of those things, the council doing roadworks just over the crest of the hill about on the apex of the corner. No signs warned of the road hazard.

The rest of the day was great fun as we put the two machines through their paces on a variety of surfaces from 4WD territory to fast, smooth bitumen with everything else thrown in between. And it was all achieved in a day and within less than 200 km of Sydney. The Great Dividing Range is truly a wonderful thing, and more than enough to sort out the differences in the two machines - as well as their strengths and weaknesses.

Despite the similarities - both machines are on/off road bikes featuring four-valve, balance-shaft, single-cylinder 650-cc engines - the differences are what really startle. The best way to describe the machinery is to imagine the motorcycle market issuing instructions to Honda and BMW for a challenge. A contest to build the ultimate road-trailie single, and may the best marque win.

Both companies chose Italy as the battleground. And why not? For BMW it was a joint venture with Aprilia, a symbiosis which alleviated a shortage of capacity at the Berlin plant as well, no doubt, as providing some useful international trade. For Honda, it was much the same, as well as allowing a machine to bypass the problems of the Yen's strength.

It is as if BMW took a road bike and Honda took a dirt bike and then worked towards each other, hoping to meet in the middle, but never quite achieving it. These bikes stand in the middle of the road-dirt spectrum, but are very definitely side by side. There is no overlap.

The three crucial differences, the three things which really set these bikes apart are the seat heights, the front wheel diameters and the tyre sizes. The BM feels like a road bike, the Honda feels like a trail bike. Both will do everything competently, but each has its sphere of expertise.

The 21-inch front wheel and 90/90 section tyre of the Dominator, with its more aggressively dirt-oriented tread pattern gave the Honda the advantage in the rough downhill section out the back of Mt Irvine. The bike steered better and the front felt more planted, cutting in through the surface layer to the road beneath. The BM, on the other hand, felt a bit vague, with the wider, more road-oriented tyre seeming to skate across the surface. The odds were reversed on the way back into Mt Irvine when the BM came into its own on the narrow, often tricky (and always challenging) ribbon connecting Mt Irvine with Mt Wilson as the wider tyres and smaller front wheel gave much more feedback and grip on the bitumen.

The first coffee stop, at the base of Victoria Pass, had us warming our hands by the roaring fire and agreeing that round one was a tie on points.

The road to Cox's River from Little Hartley is an undiscovered gem, leading bike and rider down to the river across and around the foothills of the mountains, and always offering sudden views to take the breath away. Then the narrow ribbon of tar changes to a broad, flat expanse of hard-packed clay with fresh gravel lightly strewn across it. The road c1imbs, cut into the sides of the hills with a wall on one side and a sheer drop on the other. No place for heroics. Here the BM was at sea, the wide tyres never quite gaining the grip to give confidence, despite the fact that you could break the rear end loose at will. The front felt pretty good, but not as solid as the Honda's and Martin delighted in fourth-gear powerslides while I was content to let discretion play the better part of valour, sliding here and there but not with anything approaching gusto.

After a while the road tightens again and winds its way between hillsides and clumps of trees on the way to Marsden Swamp before suddenly leading onto the brilliant bitumen strip that is the Jenolan Caves road. Time for a swap.

The Honda felt loose on the road in comparison with the BM. At speed you can feel the tread blocks of the tyres distorting and the feedback becomes less precise, warning you that it would be advisable to back off a little. Don't do it in the middle of a corner, though, or the combination of the narrow tyre, large diameter front wheel and the unloading caused by backing off will result in a front-end vagueness that doesn't bear repeating. Keep the throttle on and it disappears. It was on this stretch that we discovered the local council's roadworks-without-warning policy.

We also discovered an odd thing about the Dominator's engine. On the dirt it had proved the lazier of the two, willingly lugging from around 3000 rpm while the BM's, though smoother, was happiest from 4000 and demanded more frequent changes to keep it on the boil. On the tar, though, the Honda seemed to set its own speed limit, sitting happily at 110 km/h and reluctant to go further until forced, when it would settle again at 130. It was like there was a comfort zone for the bike which it was reluctant to leave. It would go faster and quite happily, provided you were happy to force it over its rest stop. The BMW was happy at any speed, and sat willingly at around the 140 km/h mark over hill and dale.

On the tight run down to Jenolan Caves and back up again, the BM was the bike to be on, though it was more fun on the Dominator than it would be on most bikes. The combination of light weight, thumping single-cylinder power and wide bars makes for a heady cocktail and proves that to be quick you don't need a lot of horsepower.

The run back across Bells Line of Road proved the BM the winner on the road comprehensively. The road was all but deserted and we had a clear run all the way to the turn-off to Mountain Lagoon. At a speed which Martin found fast enough and in places a little too fast for the Dominator - the BM was doing it easy. The engines were pretty well matched, with neither bike gaining except through a better line or a better timed gearchange, but the BM's tyres and wheel sizes had it out in front.

Then came the firetrails down to the Colo river and the more open roads around to Colo and the Putty Road. Honda territory again, the Dominator's more dirt oriented suspension and generally more capable dirt manners putting it out in front.

Time for the long, tedious crawl back to Sydney along Windsor Road. Here the BM's seat came into play. Broad, well shaped and well padded, it was the seat to have for the tail-end of the trip. The Honda's by contrast was narrow and hard. Great for the dirt, but hard on the bum at the end of the day. And we had been in the saddles for nine hours.

So for two similar bikes, the differences are clear cut. Take the three criteria mentioned earlier, add comfort and we come to price. The Honda is as good as two and a half grand cheaper. So it gets the nod. Or does it? The finish of the BM is in a class of its own, it offers heated handgrips and hand shields as options, you can fit BMW City Case or K-series style (but built especially for the Funduro) panniers and the bike has a centrestand as well as a sidestand which makes chain adjustment, lubrication and wheel repair so much simpler. Standard, the Honda has U-lock storage in the rear rack and a span-adjustable brake lever (the BM has one only if the heated grips/BMW switchgear option is fitted). Luggage will be an option for the Dominator.

The BMW always felt more sophisticated. It was smoother, much more comfortable both for rider and pillion, had a nicer engine and gearbox and is better finished. Add in the options and you have a very complete bike for all-round use. Ultimately there are only two questions. Where do you want to ride? And how much do you want to spend? I'd pick the BM, despite the price differential. It simply offers more of what I like, road ability primarily, with enough in the dirt to suit me. For someone who is more interested in dirt, then the Dominator would have to be the go. Or an extra set of wheels with dirt tyres for F650.

Jeremy Bowdler

SECOND OPINION

Straight back to 1973, thatís where I was just moments after throwing my leg over the Dominator. I went back there because memories of my first new motorcycle came flooding back to me. At the time the XL250 was the largest single Honda had to offer and it seems that, over the years, the company has managed to retain so many of the qualities that endeared the XL to me.

Before the ride I had already made up my mind that the Funduro was going to be the bike for me; after all, it is made in Italy under German Instructions to fill that market gap that is referred to as dual purpose. But dual purpose Is a description that I found far too restrictive for both machines, for they are both so capable in such a broad spectrum that to refer to them in such narrow terms would be to sell them short.

Rolling through the early evening traffic I couldn't help thinking how this normally tedious task Is made so tolerable with Wide bars, the ability to crawl along at really low speeds, and a superb line of sight. They're just the things for carving up traffic. Early next morning a quick flick of the starter and I was off down the street to show JB that I knew a stretch of road that was going to challenge us at the other end of the range of the two bikes. Passing a sign that told us we shouldn't travel any further made me realise that there weren't too many places this little unit wouldn't go and that without me on board it could probably be taken even further.

A quick swap over to the BMW, shift a couple of gears and I start making comparisons; this seat is better, the Honda feels more stable In the rough, this engine is superb but the gear lever is a touch short for me, I prefer the Hondaís larger diameter front wheel. We hit the tar and there is no doubt that the BMW has the edge, but is it just choice of tyres? The abilities of the two are so close that the changes in road surface are all that it takes for one to edge in front of the other.

BMW's quality of finish is always a high point and this model is no different despite coming from several hundred kilometres south of head office, very pleasing to the eye from an angles near and far. Then, over some darkened water masquerading as coffee, I am informed that the Honda is built in Italy. Is the motorcycle market in a state of change?

In order to chose between these two bikes I would have to balance between the dirt-road ability of the Dominator against the high-speed ability of the Funduro, the innovations of the BMW or the progression through development of the Honda - and, of course, the price. The only thing that could tip the balance for me was the nostalgia.

Martin Shields

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