Honda Transalp XL600V

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One of the most unusual bikes Honda's ever offered, the Transalp was good at just about anything you threw at it and is still a great, practical, do-it-all motorcycle.
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Larry Garrett shows us his Transalp's off-road abilities.
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1989 Honda XL600V Transalp.
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Contender: BMW R100GS
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Contender: Kawasaki KLR 650

Honda Transalp XL600V

Years produced (U.S.): 1989-91
Total production: N/A
Claimed power: 52hp @ 8,000rpm
Top speed: 110mph
Engine type: 583cc, liquid-cooled, 4-stroke V-twin
Weight (wet): 204kg (450lb)
MPG: 39-58
Price then: $4,498
Price now: $3,500-$4,500

If motorcycles were tools, the Honda Transalp XL600V would be one of those nifty Leatherman Multi Tool combos we seem to see hanging off the belt of every handyman we know.

Styled to look like it was made for cooking across the desert, dodging brush and flying over sand dunes, the Honda Transalp was built to capitalize on the company’s Paris-to-Dakar rally victories in the mid-Eighties.

Offered in Europe for two years before coming Stateside in 1989, the bike is an unusual combination of parts and pieces that worked better for more kinds of riding than most anyone expected. Seventeen years later the bike is still a fun and versatile mount with a short list of limitations.

Defined at the time as a “new-concept touring bike” by Honda’s PR department, the Transalp was a motorcycle that bridged the gap between different types of bikes without being exactly like any one of them.

It’s not a dirt bike or an enduro, and despite being covered in plastic, its long suspension, deep-tread tires and sit-up-and-beg riding position make it very different from the common sportbike.

In fact, this type of bike is more common in today’s American market than it was 17 years ago when it was first offered here. Today, there are bikes like the Triumph Tiger, KTM’s Adventure models, Buell’s new Ulysses and a couple of mounts from BMW to choose from, and yet the Honda Transalp still makes a perfect alternative to these newer (and obviously more expensive) motorcycles. While Transalps are loved by their owners and consequently aren’t the most common bike out there, they can be found for a pittance compared to the cost of a new F650GS Beemer.

The engine hiding behind all that plastic is a 583cc, liquid-cooled, four-stroke V-twin that’s essentially a bored-and-stroked version of Honda’s old VT500 Ascot engine.

The cylinders are arranged 52 degrees apart and breathe through 32mm constant-vacuum Mikuni carburetors. The engine features a compression ratio of 9.2:1, and two spark plugs per cylinder work to guarantee a quick and clean burn.

Weighing in at about 450lb fully fueled, the ‘Alp was light for a streetbike, but downright porky for serious dirt use.

That said, it was (and still is) a great bike for light touring and trips across town. It’s fun on a curvy back road when ridden within the limits of its tires, and will handle gravel and good dirt roads with aplomb.

Single-track trails aren’t impossible on this machine, but rider skill becomes more important offroad. And with a seat height of 35.3in, well, let’s just say you don’t want it getting the best of you. While an experienced trail rider may be able to keep the bike shiny-side-up going downhill through the trees, it wouldn’t be a walk in the park.

Even so, generous suspension travel, 8.7in of ground clearance and a narrow engine keep things from getting bashed in the dirt, and make it nearly impossible to scrape any part of the bike on a twisty paved road — unless you drop it.

While complaints about the Transalp were few and far between when it made its debut in the States, some testers complained the soft-mounted handlebar gave rubbery steering response in quick side-to-side transitions. And tires designed to handle both onroad and offroad duty return better performance on the street then they do in the dirt.

On the plus side, nifty touring features abound, including a short — but useful — windshield/fairing combination that’s big enough to keep the wind off your torso (but not your helmet), along with a standard luggage rack.

As Cycle World said in a September 1990 test of the bike, “The Transalp is, in short, a terrific motorcycle for those of us who have to make what may be the ultimate compromise: ownership of just one motorcycle. But for those who have ridden the Transalp, that’s a pretty easy compromise to swallow.”

The Transalp may not be the best motorcycle out there for any one kind of riding, but its ability to handle so many different kinds of riding so well makes it the perfect multi-purpose motorcycle.

If only we could hang one off our belt. MC

Dirt-worthy alternatives to the Honda Transalp


– 60hp, 112mph
– 980cc
– Air-cooled
– 5-speed
– Single-disc front, drum rear
– 511lb (wet)

Like the KLR, the BMW R100GS might not be a mirror image of the honda Transalp, but it’s still a worthy competitor, and was one of the closest offerings to the Honda back in the day. While the KLR might be better suited to dirt work than the Transalp, the big Beemer, though still capable in the dirt, is more street oriented than either the Honda or the Kawasaki. Its bigger, more powerful engine makes it more comfortable at highway speeds, and with its added weight (511lb wet, compared to 450lb wet for the Transalp and 407lb wet for the KLR) it can be a bit of a handful when the road gets really rough. Its small windscreen helps keep the breeze at bay, and the optional factory hard luggage (an expensive option on what was already an expensive motorcycle) makes it the best touring option of the three.

Kawasaki KLR 650

– 42hp, 107mph
– Liquid-cooled
– 5-speed
– Single-disc front, disc rear
– 407lb (wet)

Kawasaki’s KLR 650 isn’t really the same kind of bike as the Transalp, but it’s often used for the same purposes. Both make great onroad/offroad tourers and are great in town, but if your riding seems to steer a little more towards the dirt, the KLR may be a better option than the ‘Alp. With roughly 40 fewer pounds to carry around (wet) than a Transalp, the 650 looks, sounds and handles more like a dirt bike than the ‘Alp or the BMW R100GS. That said, it still has its limitations offroad, and single-track trails can be a stretch unless the rider really knows what he or she is doing.

Nearly unchanged since its release in 1987, there are lots of these bikes out there, ranging from bone stock to heavily modified. You can buy a brand new one for a little over $5,000 or pick up a used one for quite a bit less, depending on the year and the condition. They’re rugged, tough, dependable and about as utilitarian as a motorcycle can be.

Motorcycle Classics Magazine
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