There’s been a lot of anticipation for the new Honda Transalp adventure motorcycle, and especially from me. I once owned a Transalp and I remember it as the best motorcycle I ever bought.
I paid $4,000 cash for it in 1989, liberated from the showroom of Shepherd Motors in Alexandria, Ont., near Cornwall. The salesperson just wanted it out of there. That was the only year it was imported to Canada, and the bike had languished in the window for months while riders checked out the cruisers. Nobody then knew what an adventure motorcycle was, with its long shocks and wide handlebars like a dirt bike, but with a smooth and strong engine for effortless highway riding.
It wasn’t until the actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman rode a pair of big BMW GS models around the world for their 2004 TV series Long Way Round that the genre took off in North America. It had already been popular for years in Europe, where the Transalp was sold until 2008 alongside competitive machines from every other motorcycle maker. Interest has only grown since McGregor and Boorman’s subsequent journeys: the GS is BMW’s most popular motorcycle, and the adventure-tourer is the two-wheeled equivalent of the SUV.
Honda has never been a company to rush headlong into marketing decisions, and it took until 2017 to introduce the Africa Twin as its halo adventure bike. The Africa Twin starts at $18,378 and makes 100 horsepower from its 1,084-cubic-centimetre parallel-twin engine. Now, the Japanese maker is finally reintroducing the mid-sized Transalp as a more affordable and more rider-friendly motorcycle. Could it possibly be as good as that 1989 machine?
The answer is not so straightforward. The technology is obviously a considerable improvement over that 34-year-old ride, but my memories have also been fogged by 34 years of rosy forgetfulness. I sat on it for the first time and thought, “Oh, is that it?”
The new Transalp is night-and-day different to that original, as it should be. The old machine made 41 horsepower from a 583-cc liquid-cooled V-twin, while the modern bike makes double that from the same 755-cc parallel twin engine that powers the CB750 Hornet street motorcycle. That’s a seven-horsepower decrease from the Transalp sold in Europe, apparently owing to California’s stricter anti-pollution laws. The other major difference is that Canadian bikes are only sold in black, but that’s okay – the black paint looks pretty sharp.
My test bike was loaded with more than $6,000 worth of every accessory Honda could think of, including hard luggage and a taller windshield. That stuff was expensive and not particularly good: The panniers alone cost $1,550, including the hardware needed to fix them to the bike, and both bags had finicky locks that kept sticking. Personally, I’d use soft bags and consider aftermarket hard luggage if I still wanted it.
I swung a leg over the saddle and was surprised at the height of the bike. I have a 32-inch inseam and it was a stretch to reach gracefully onto the 855-millimetre (33.5-inch) seat, which is about the same as the Africa Twin. The stock seat does not adjust, but there’s a seat that’s 20 millimetres lower available as an option. Once on, however, the saddle was comfortable and the riding position was glorious. The fully digital instrumentation was clear and useful. The optional taller windscreen certainly helped with comfort on the highway, but it’s a shame it’s not adjustable; for riding around town, it’s obtrusive, and on the trails, I had to stand for a clear view of the rocks ahead.
That’s the conundrum of the Transalp: It looks like a trail bike and it can certainly handle rough roads easily, but it’s not really happy on them. If you plan to ride much on gravel or dirt, then you’d be wise to invest in the $700 side piping that protects the plastic fairing in case the bike is dropped, not to mention the optional skid plate and engine guard. The tubed tires are fine, with an 18-inch wheel on the back and a 21-inch wheel at the front that flicks cheerfully back and forth around corners, but if you’re a serious back-roader, you’ll want a more serious back-road dirt bike. Of course, you won’t get the 400-kilometre range of the Transalp’s 16-litre gas tank.
I rode a 600-kilometre loop through Algonquin Park, and my neighbour Andrew followed on his much larger and heavier Honda Varadero, which makes 10 horsepower more. We were a well-matched pair and rode for an hour on dirt and gravel, but the Transalp was most assured on pavement. It didn’t matter if the asphalt was choppy or rutted – the long suspension at front and back soaked up all the bumps. I could change the five different electronic ride modes on the fly, and even switch off the anti-lock braking system on the back wheel for more control down steep dirt hills. The bike didn’t snap my neck back on acceleration, but it was still quick and easy to manage in every circumstance.
I also rode a shorter loop with my wife in the pillion seat behind me and that’s when I found the bike’s biggest flaw. The rear shock is adjustable only with a fiddly C-wrench and I skinned my knuckles trying to tighten it a couple of notches for the extra weight. The front spring preload can be adjusted with a box wrench, but I didn’t bother because my knuckles were still sore. This is, at least, an inexpensive approach to adjustment and helps explain why the Transalp is less costly than its direct competition from Suzuki and Yamaha.
There wasn’t as much space on the seat for the two of us as there had been back in the day – motorcycle seats must have shrunk since we were in our 20s, or so we told ourselves – and our ride was sedate. How we did it with 41 horsepower, I can’t even imagine. Back then, we rode from Toronto to Newfoundland and I even shipped the bike to Europe, where we rode all over France and into Spain, with no complaints. When I sold the Transalp in the U.K., with 60,000 kilometres and a few dents, I got more money than I’d paid for it.
They’re all fond memories, but you can’t go back. Honda hasn’t gone back with this new bike, either, but brought it very much up to date. There should be no more comparisons with that decades-old model – the new Transalp is a modern adventure-tourer in its own right, and it will surely give its riders happy memories for years to come.
2024 Honda Transalp
- Base price/as tested: $13,488 / $19,620, plus taxes
- Engine: 755-cc parallel twin, 83 horsepower
- Alternatives: Suzuki V-Strom 800DE, Yamaha Tenere 700