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Secret Weapons

The '99 Dominator has more than meets the eye

You only have to ride the latest version of Honda's 650 dirt tourer out of the driveway to realise that things have changed, and changed for the better.

Over the years I've picked up more tickets on Dominators than any other bike, so I was taking it easy as I took the Hume out of Sydney, headed for Canberra. My problem with the Dominator and the law is the bike's fault, pure and simple. It likes to sit on 120, then creep up to 130 whenever your attention wanders. The engine stays smooth, the fairing tosses the wind nicely over your shoulders without buffeting the helmet and there is generally a relaxed feel to the entire plot. A relaxed feel which has all too often been terminated by blue flashing lights and the loss of another three points …

I had plenty of time to ponder this phenomenon as the Honda and I slipped south, the strong headlight piercing the dark. After 160ks of copper-free riding though, I decided that my run of luck on the 650 may have changed with the introduction of the new model. After all, the fairing was slightly squarer, the indicators new and the sidestand warning light had shuffled from the fairing to the instrument cluster. Such major changes may have produced a shift in luck! Eventually I pulled into a rest area near Collector and made camp at 11pm, as it turned out, right next to a warning sign for snakes …

Distance Runner

The Dominator/NX650 has been around for a decade now. Major changes have been few and far between but what has been done has worked well. The first model has a drum rear, replaced shortly after by a welcome disc. Things stayed pretty much the same for the next few years until production was shifted from Japan to Italy for the 1995 model. Although the factory listed minor changes such as a shorter inlet tract for a snapper throttle response from the CV carb, it became apparent that the shock had been changed as well, along with crucial items like the tank, fairing and muffler mounts. No-one realised this until owners tried matching aftermarket accessories to the Italian model and found they wouldn't fit.

Sidetrack bought one of these bikes and it still lurks in the shed, having done upwards of 25000ks without a hiccup. Okay, there might be a hint of cam chain noise but it uses zero oil between changes and has had nothing more than regular services, the odd wheel bearing, brake pads and chains and sprockets. Dominators have always been rock-solid reliable and I see no reason for this to change with the introduction of the new X model.

Cold Comfort

A light drizzle played over the top of the tent when I woke. Outside, the sky was leaden and the Dominator sat quietly dripping. Despite the cold it fired up easily, showing no signs of the headlight left on with the engine dead while I pitched camp the night before – bikes with batteries do offer unexpected bonuses. Again I watched the speed on the run through Cooma to Jindabyne, but south of the snow town I admit that caution slipped and the speeds rose. The Dominator will cruise happily at 140kph, at which the tacho is reading around 5,500rpm.

At these speeds fuel consumption suffers but I got consistent figures of 14kpI throughout the trip, rising to 16kpl for the run into Melbourne and its associated paranoia with microwaves and cameras. With the 16 litre tank then you can expect to get between 220 and 260 ks between drinks. This is a handy range for most applications but if you really must go further Acerbis has a 23 litre tank which will take the range out to around 350ks. In a pinch the Dominator will give figures as good as 20kpl but you have to back off to 80kph to achieve it.

Thoughts on fuel range were happily well buried on the Barry Way, a blissful big bore dirt road that traces the Snowy River as it drops towards the sea. The scenery on this stretch is stunning, but the real action is in the hundreds of slippery twists and turns as the road makes its way to Buchan in eastern Victoria. You could get a Z50 sideways on this road, so on anything with torque it is absolute heaven.

The trouble was, it started to rain again just as I reached the banks of the Snowy. Trouble? It came from two directions, the tyres and the footpegs. For the first time ever I had left the rubber inserts in the footpegs figuring that it was 'just a road ride'. Big mistake. Once the inserts get wet you might as well try locking your boots to a Murray River eel. Take 'em out and throw 'em at your neighbour's kids — it's all they're good for. The tyres are slightly more useful — at least you could use them to start a signal fire when they leave you stranded on a muddy trail. In the dry. on the tar, no problem. Pretty bloody good even, especially in corners. As the rain got worse though the front end started sliding at will on the clay sections of the Barry. With more aggressive dirt tyres the Dominator will take on a surprising amount of rough and tumble, so it was frustrating to have to back off on a mere dirt road.

Speaking of rough, a steady pilot on a well-shod Dominator can go just about anywhere. I remember riding one at the NSW Suzuki SARS round a couple of years back in nasty conditions —mud, rain, hills, all on tight single tracks. The big beast completed the course without drama, leaving many a stunned enduro-bike jockey stuck on hillsides or wrapped in lantana with rain pouring down his neck.

For a big bike it steers remarkably well and the brakes are neither over-kill in slow mud or under-kill on fast tar. A pretty nice compromise all round, actually.

Suspicion vs Proof

Half way down the Barry Way I had to take to a fire-trail to test the theory that had formed in my first few seconds on the bike. Was the suspension really better or was it an illusion?

Despite what the parts book says — and we checked it in Melbourne — the NX650X has undergone some pretty impressive suspension changes. mainly in the forks. Things are now very much stiffer up front, capable of taking far bigger hits in a much smoother manner. Crikey you can even get the beast reasonably airborne without bottoming it on splash-down. Also tamed is the rebound rate at slow speeds. Dominators of old were prone to springing back in rocks, an unsettling trait in a bike weighing over l60kgs dripping wet. The X model though is much more restrained in this area.

As I said, we searched the parts book for the reason behind this improvement but it revealed nothing. It is definitely more than a shift in oil weight. more likely a new spec for the damping rods. Unfortunately we won't know for sure until someone pulls a set of the X's forks down and compares it to an older model's.

Into Hiding

I was beaten by the cold that night, pulling into Warrigal just after sunset. The Dominator, having at the characteristics of a good long-distance hauler had coped well with the day's 650k of mixed riding. The carrier has ample and secure tie-points so the gear there never shifted. The seat is wide and comfy so it wasn't until the last 100ks or so that the bum started to lose circulation. The gearbox and clutch offer a slick combination, and the fairing protects the rider without intimidating him with acres of plastic. The bash plate is a good one, the big fat disc guard has thankfully gone from the front disc and the handguards do an excellent job of keeping your gloves warm and dry. Above all, the bike is deadly quiet to ride, reducing fatigue levels.

Since the NX's original release in '89 the market has seen some strong new players. Yamaha's XTZ660 leaps to mind, as does the BMW F650 and Suzuki DR650. All three relative newcomers are right on the money in this section of the market albeit with enough differences in the specs to tempt riders one way or the other. The significant area where all three beat the NX was in the suspension but Honda has gone a long way towards closing that gap with the X model.

In simple terms then, potential buyers are faced with a difficult choice between four fine motorcycles. The bright side is that whichever they choose, they won't end up riding a lemon!

The Dominator though is well-supported by aftermarket accessories and is keenly priced in what is already a very value-packed section of the market. You get a lot of bike for your buck here so those in the market for a good long-haul bike could do a lot worse than the NX650X.

Story and picture by Tony Kirby
"Sidetrack" June-July, 1999
Copyright 1999 Sidetrack Publications Pty Ltd

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