The 2018 Honda Rebel 500 is categorized on the Honda Canada website as a “cruiser”, mainly due to its retro styling, but this does not really do it justice. It may look superficially cruiser-like, but its charm is well beyond that narrow classification; the Rebel is, in some ways, more like a Universal Japanese Motorcycle, refreshingly simple and versatile. This $7,099 retro-UJM has only the necessities, a blank canvas, with none of the unnecessary embellishments of the typical cruiser.
The Rebel is simply a fun motorcycle, with just enough grunt from its 471 cc parallel twin to be entertaining without being intimidating. Off the very bottom it is a little weak, and in the upper reaches of the rev range it runs out of breath, but the power in the middle bits, where it counts most, is plentiful.
Honda says it attempted to give the motor “an authentic cruiser sound,” but thankfully that’s resulted in a pleasant low rumble, not the window-shaking sharp staccato favoured by some. The throttle response has that tiny bit of lag that will aid novice riders in being smooth in traffic, but the lack of a tachometer is a little annoying once the road opens up – when you bump off the rev limiter doing your best Marc Marquez impression on the Gardiner Straight at Phillip Island.
With such a low seat height and low weight, the bike handles quite surefootedly around town and squirts in and out of traffic with ease. Steering is not razor sharp, but decently responsive. 16-inch wheels might normally result in twitchy handling, but the tires are tall enough that their outside diameter almost mimics that of a more conventional 17-inch wheel and tire setup. In the city, when the pavement at stop lights is rippled with peaks and canyons from buses and trucks, the low seat height makes putting your feet down a much less precarious proposition, especially for shorter riders. The Rebel would be a great choice for a downtown commuter.
Open road tourer, notsomuch. The lack of wind protection and the upright riding position means having to hang on to the bars for dear life at higher speeds, as your chest becomes a literal parachute. The brakes, a single disc front and rear, lack power when asked to arrest triple-digit speeds. This is a little alarming at first but fine once the rider adjusts to it. The ride is a bit harsh over bumps, which is surprising considering the tall sidewalls of the tires. The uncontrolled rebound of those sidewalls may actually be the culprit here, but the budget suspension bits aren’t helping things, either. It is not kidney bashing or even that uncomfortable, just noticeably unsophisticated.
With such a low seat height, the legroom is a bit cramped for taller riders. I’m 6-feet-1 with a 32-inch inseam, and for longer stretches, I had to keep the balls of my feet on the pegs to avoid inadvertently pushing on the shifter and brake, which effectively reduced the legroom even more. I’m used to having the balls of my feet on the pegs when riding sport bikes, but those tend to have considerably more distance from seat to peg. Highway pegs and an aftermarket windscreen might be in order for Rebel riders who want to cover longer distances.
Yet that is one of the charms of the Rebel, as it comes bare-bones, ready for customization or even further simplification. The small, round digital instrument cluster features speed, fuel level, odometer/trip metre, and time. Below the LCD screen are warning lights and a neutral indicator. It is a little hard to read in direct sunlight, but there’s not much to see, and, really, what more do you need? Maybe a tachometer, but with a little more riding time to familiarize oneself with the motor’s rev range, even that would be superfluous.
The passenger seat, passenger pegs, and the rear fender are easily removable. Honda offers accessories such as saddlebags and a windscreen, and the aftermarket is already brimming with available accessories and add-ons.
The previous Rebel was a spindly, seemingly three-quarter scaled bike, with an air-cooled motor and lots of chrome, that was largely unchanged for decades. This new one catapults the Rebel into the 21st century with liquid cooling, fuel injection, a six-speed transmission and ABS. Everything is black (“murdered out” in the current parlance), with the exception of the painted tank, fender and some brushed silver metallic on the exhaust tip and headlight surround.
In the Matte Ray Silver of my tester, the bike looks a little World War II Indian, what with the fat tires and bobber-shaped seat. Delete the rear fender and add some Clubman bars, and it turns café racer quite easily. The styling is more retro than cruiser, harkening back to an era when motorcycles were simply motorcycles, without the need for any such defined categorization.
The only thing I couldn’t get used to was the look of the tank: very narrow with a pronounced bulb on top, for lack of a better word. That aside, the Rebel has a classic look that one could ride with tassels and chaps or a racer replica jacket and you wouldn’t look out of place either way.
As for competition, the Harley-Davidson Street 500 ($6,999), Kawasaki Vulcan S ABS ($8,199), Suzuki Boulevard S40 ($6,199), and Yamaha V-Star 650 Custom ($7,249) all play in the same general ballpark as the Rebel 500, although each goes about their business a little different from the next. As the least expensive, the Boulevard is also by far the most dated, very similar to the previous generation Rebel, and it has not been significantly updated in years. The Harley would be the purist’s choice for a cruiser, the Kawasaki a little more modern, and Yamaha the most traditionally cruiser-styled. With the exception of the Suzuki, these are all 30 to 40 kg heavier than the Rebel.
One of the biggest selling points of the previous generation Rebel was that it was a good beginner’s bike: very low, light, and easy to ride. This new generation should do just as well in this regard, but it may also bring in more intermediate, returning, and commuter riders.
For those beginners looking for an even lighter, less powerful bike, the $5,199 Rebel 300 should fit the bill nicely: the 500 and 300 are identical except for the engine, which has a single-cylinder on the 300 that shaves about 20 kg from the overall weight. The CB500F ($6,999), on the other hand, is a completely different motorcycle with the same engine as the Rebel 500, although tuned more for outright horsepower rather than the Rebel’s focus on mid-range punch. The CB is more of a naked sport bike, with a much higher seat (785 mm vs. the Rebel’s 691 mm), just a tad more weight, and modern, almost futuristic styling.
If you are in the market for a versatile, affordable, classy motorcycle, something that is fun to ride but retro styled, with a low seat height and vast possibilities for personalization, the Rebel 500 fits the bill nicely. It might be under “cruiser” on the maker’s website, but only because Honda doesn’t currently have a “retro” or “heritage” category, and putting it in the “naked” segment might crowd the CB500F a little too much. Regardless, the Rebel deserves a look, even if a cruiser is not on your radar.
2018 Honda Rebel 500 Key Specs
Engine: 471 cc parallel twin
Curb weight: 188 kg
Wheelbase: 1,491 mm
Length: 2,188 mm
Seat height: 691 mm
Brakes: Single 296mm disc, two-piston caliper front, 240mm disc, single-piston caliper rear, ABS equipped
Front suspension: 41mm telescopic fork, 121mm travel
Rear suspension: Dual shocks, five position spring preload adjustable, 96mm travel
Tires: 130/90-16 front, 150/80-16 rear