Here was a slightly new approach to the widening dual-purpose market, an electric-start 650 single with a bikini fairing, a couple of plastic body panels on the tank, a couple more to cover up most of the two mufflers, and a 21-inch front wheel with a close-fitting fender. This was a perfect round-town bike with some minor pretensions at dirt-roading, though the low fender meant one did not want to venture into sticky mud. And the panels indicated that it would not be in the wallet’s best interest to have this bike go flip-flopping down a hill.
One could look at the NX650 as Honda’s first go at building an “adventure” motorcycle, a concept initiated by the BMW R80G/S back in 1980. However, in truth, with the NX the Big H had come up with an urbanized trail bike, much like the successful street-scramblers of the recent past.
In the late 1980s, Honda appeared to be churning out new models on a monthly basis, with the American importer putting them on the market with very little planning, then dropping them after a couple of years. In 1988 and ’89 we saw the arrival of this NX650, the Hawk GT 650 twin, the TransAlp 600 twin and the GB500 single. The Hawk had a reasonable run of four years, the other three, just two.
Let’s say the boys in Japan were putting pressure on the Americans to bring in models that had been designed with the Europeans in mind. And Yanks had tastes very different from the Euros when it came to buying motorcycles. The suits in Torrance, California, at the U.S. importer, acceded to the heavily weighted “request” to do what was necessary to import the NX650. Actually, it was a three-version package, with a 125, a 250 and the 650—but we’ll deal only with the last.
The factory had built the NX650 down to a price, a fairly reasonable $3,500 ($7,000 in inflated 2014 prices). The engine was a slightly enlarged version of the tried and proven XR600R, around since 1985, with the 97 x 80mm bore enlarged to 100mm, stroked to 82mm, for a total of 644cc. Which generated a healthy 36 horsepower at 6,000 rpm, with 35 lb-ft of torque at 5,000. It wasn’t a race-winner by any stretch, but nor was it meant to be.
To smooth out vibration, a gear-driven counterbalancing device was installed, though the rider could definitely feel the engine in the 2,000 to 3,000 rpm range. A pair of chain-driven overhead camshafts pushed down on the four valves, and the compression ratio was a modest 8.3:1. Intake was via a 40mm Keihin constant-velocity carburetor, and a gentle hand could easily get 50 mpg from the 3.4 gallons in the tank.
Exhaust gases went out through two header pipes swooping around the right side of the cylinder and exiting via two mufflers, tucked neatly alongside the rear fender. The powertrain began with a primary drive via straight-cut gears—a tad noisy—through a wet clutch, into a 5-speed gearbox, and a #520 chain going to the back wheel.
All this was bolted into a full-cradle steel frame, with a steel swingarm. The backbone of the frame carried the oil supply, as this was a dry-sump engine—one did not have to worry about a deep sump getting smashed in the rocks. A pretty useful skid plate was included.
The non-adjustable fork worked well enough, having hefty 41mm tubes and supplying 8.5 inches of travel; rake was 28.5 degrees, trail, 4.5 inches. A fork brace was built into the underside of the fender—one reason for keeping it so low. Front wheel was a spoked 21-incher, carrying the standard 90/90 tire. And it had a single brake disc with twin-piston caliper.
At the back, the single-shock setup did allow for preload alterations…at home, since this had a threaded collar and locknut, requiring some major tools. It was comfy on the pavement, a bit soft for use in the dirt, with the rear wheel moving up and down 7.5 inches. On the 17-inch wheel, a reliable drum brake did the slowing down. Between the axles was a short 56.4 inches.
Getting on the NX was a bit of a chore, as the long suspension dictated a seat height of more than 34 inches. Just use the footpeg as a stirrup. Speaking of pegs, they had rubber inserts, which appealed to the urban rider. If someone were interested in tackling some less accommodating terrain, the inserts could be punched out, leaving saw-toothed metal pegs that are useful in slippery situations.
Key on, push the button, and an 8 amp-hour battery activated the electric leg. Street work was great, and the passenger seat was even tolerable for a while—presuming the rider was not too tall and pushed the passenger back onto the fender. Handling was good; power came on smoothly, brakes worked fine. On good dirt roads, no problem, as long as the rider remembered to use the brakes gently. On single-track stuff, not so good. Especially when it came to things like uphill 90-degree turns. The Bridgestone Trail Wings were too street-oriented to get a good grip, but a light hand on the clutch could work minor wonders.
The NX650 sold, but not in numbers that American Honda had projected, and when a bike doesn’t meet expectations, away it goes. The NX650 was off the market after two short years, while the European version, called the Dominator 650, sold well all the way through 2001. Today you can buy the same engine in the $6,700 XR650L.
P.S. The owner has bolted on a pair of Pelican 1500 side cases to hold all of his decals, and a set of UFO plastic hand guards.
(This Retrospective article was published in the January 2015 issue of Rider magazine.)