Test Ride: Honda XR650L

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Words: Rob Harris, Jon Lewis Photos: Richard Seck

GROUNDING OUT

Enormity is an asset … unless it’s laying on yer leg!Photo: Editor ‘arris

As I lay there, half way up a steep rocky hill, left leg pinned under an almost brand-new Honda XR650L, I proceeded to work through my post-crash checklist:

Breathing – check.

Clear vision – check.

Feeling in body extremities – check.

Okay, now where does it hurt?

Ribs – definitely sore.

Hip – yep, there’s pain there too.

Leg – can’t tell, big fookin’ bike laying on it.

The XR felt so good, I even considered riding up this.No I didn’t …

Photo: Editor ‘arris

It was day two of a two-day ride organized by MotoRally Canada, from St-Alexis-de-Monts to La Touque (both located somewhere between Montreal and Quebec City).

Moments before I had been in a perfect groove – freshly recovered from a summer of gut health issues, I had been reveling in my new found energy levels and was riding the second day like a frustrated 19 year-old.

Nothing now could stop me, as I had found my new best friend in the shape of the dual sport XR. We’d bonded almost immediately, and in the two days of the tour we’d quickly escalated our riding levels, easily surpassing those experienced before. Even in soft sand (my personal nemesis in the dirt world) the XR didn’t flinch.

I was riding like a pro, and by day two I found myself sliding sideways through corners and blasting down the damp forest trails without a care in the world – the instant familiarity of the XR meant that I would flog it mercilessly, yet it would deliver all the way. I was one with the bike (and more so than any other dualie to date) – fast and but still within my own safety margin.

Yet all good things must come to pass.

In fact, only moments before my ‘incident’ I’d actually pondered the reality that with only 20 minutes left of the grueling day’s ride, I was well and truly in the “… it’s the end of the day and you’re riding too fast and you’re tired …” zone. But today I was 19 again, and therefore indestructible.

A punctured tube was the only thing to slow me down. Well, for twenty minutes anyway.Photo: Jim Vernon

The reality check came as I approached the base of the long, steep, rock-strewn trail ahead of me. Rather than pausing to pick a sensible route through the rocks, I carried on the way I had been – sticking it down a gear and hitting the base with gusto.

My undoing occurred about mid-way up. I was maintaining a good clip (25km/h or so) and the XR was being typically obedient. But for one brief second, I failed to look far enough ahead, strayed into the centre hump of the trail and right into a minefield of sharp jagged rocks.

My brain, slightly addled from the intensity of the two-day ride – and unable to process a mass of events at 25 km/h – kicked in a fraction too late in order to take evasive action from the goodly sized rock in front of me.

Time now went elastic, and the next second stretched out like a rubber band as my brain went into turbo-mode, absorbing the full extent of exactly what this sequence of events would lead to.

It’s not like it was invisible … (sympathetic Mr. Lewis comment).Photo: Editor ‘arris

BANG!

The elastic moment snapped back as the XR’s front wheel hit the rock head head-on and in a millisecond I found myself being whipped into the ground. No longer a pilot of my own destiny, as the forces of mass and acceleration came together as one, and with a thwack, my helmet hit the hard earth of pain.

Ouch.

Two things came to the fore:

1) The 19 year old party was over.

2) The Honda XR did have some limitations after all.

THE XR650L

Emission control breather system is a tad clumsy.

The XR650L goes back a long way. Debuting in 1992, the 650 was a replacement for the XR600, with a bigger 644cc motor, and an electric starter. To keep the decent ground clearance, the motor has a dry sump (thus negating the need for a space at the bottom to store the oil), with the oil stored in the bike’s frame.

In order to comply with increasingly restrictive emissions laws, Honda fitted a rather awkward-looking engine breather system to the left side of the cylinder and leaned leaned-out the carburation. The result is a rather cold-blooded beast – needing a good ten minutes after starting from cold before it will run smoothly, and even then it still pops and farts somewhat on the over-run.

Once warm, the carbureted engine is crisp and responsive, with large amounts of torque through the rev range. The clutch is smooth in action and medium-light, and quick clutchless changes were easy, thanks to the excellent five-speed gearbox.

Although there is a balance shaft inside, some low frequency vibes make themselves known. Although relatively unobtrusive, they do become a factor at highway speeds, but then so does the unprotected, bolt-upright riding position … The small (very small) fairing kicks off the wind blast in a linear flow up to about 120 km/h, at which point you have to be hugging the bike – and for some time – if you want to see an indicated maximum of 150.

Long suspension continues way past the axle. Front brake is minimalist.

The seat isn’t as bad as it looks and was wide enough at the back (which is where a six-footer would be perched) to be good for about two hours on the highway before pain overtook the will to go on. But with a tank capacity of only 10.6 litres, chances are that you’ll be stopping every couple of hours to gas-up anyway. Actually, if you were brave/stupid enough to be flat out at 150 on the highway, then gas economy takes a dive, resulting in gas stops of just over an hour …

It’s got suspension travel by the boat load and as a result has a huge 940 mm seat height (only beaten by the KTM 640 Adventure at 945mm). This also means that you have to be in the six-foot plus range in order to feel comfortable with her.

The suspension matches the bike well. The front forks are air assisted and they’re a good compromise, with enough softness to absorb bumps without excessive diving. Likewise the front and rear brakes work well off each other (good balance), with the front, two-piston caliper being slightly underwhelming when at highway speeds, but not scarily so.

Combine this height with a very narrow profile and torquey motor, and you have the perfect bike for not just blasting down dirt roads, but through the urban jungle as well.

Honda didn’t seem to mind the gouging … or the scratches/bent rim/melted blinker!

But it’s on the dirt roads that the XR really feels at home. I instantly felt very much at one with the bike. It gives plenty of feedback to the rider, and not once did it give me that “oh, I don’t think we should be doing this” feeling (something that usually happens at least twice when I’m pushing a dualie in the dirt). Well, except for when I crashed, but hitting a big rock tends to do that, no matter what.

There’s so much suspension travel that it’s an absolute pleasure over the rockier stuff, and the oozing torque of the motor makes it easy to control the back end in the corners. With the slower speeds encountered off-road, the brakes were perfect, save for a bit of uneven grab at the front at very low speeds.

Although I was nervous about possible engine damage, due to the lack of bash plate under the motor (there’s just some additional small tubing there), it survived the dirt flogging remarkably well – despite bouncing off some sizeable rocks – although there was a bit of gouging on the alternator cover after the hill-climb crash. Same goes for the wheels, which had they been the V-Strom cast units, would have been pretzeled by the end of the first day. It took a massive high speed thwack to put just a minor dent in the front, although it was sufficient to puncture the tube in the process!

ISSUES

Clutch cover loses paint quite easily.

Nothing really of any importance. I’m not enamoured with the faux rad scoops at the front, which look like they’ll be the first thing to break off … although they did survive the ‘arris crash test very well. The small tank’s also a bit useless, and Honda could do us all a favour and dump them both in favour of a nice fat plastic jobbie.

There’s not much thought given to luggage. A small, lockable bag behind the seat holds tools, but I wouldn’t leave anything valuable in there. I’d prefer to see a small rack there, which would also supply much needed bungy attachment points, which are currently non-existent.

Other little niggles include an electric start that will still turn with the kill switch on (it can take a while to realize that that’s why the damn thing is refusing to fire up), a clutch cover that loses it’s paint to your boot within a weekend, and a welded-to-the-frame left hand side footpeg (why not bolt it on – and therefore make it replaceable – like everyone else?)

Oh, and although the small ‘bash-frame’ that protects the motor did a decent job, I’d still like to see a more substantial sump guard. After all, this bike loves the dirt; why not give it the protection it deserves?

CONCLUSIONS

One of the last big-bore air-cooled dualies?

There’s no doubt about it, the XR is old technology, and remains essentially unchanged since its introduction in 1992. While just about everyone else is liquid-cooled, the XR is unabashedly old-school.

I find this odd because Honda have a newer version in the form of the liquid-cooled, aluminium-framed (and 21 kg lighter!) XR650R. The catch is it’s only available as an off-road machine right now.

Going into the test, I’d already reckoned that this would be my ultimate conclusion – hold off buying the XR as there’s bound to be a far more advanced liquid-cooled version coming down the pipe any day now. However, after having such a thoroughly good time with the old-slapper XR, I’ve ended up totally turned around.

Although road-capable, it’s not in its element on the highway. But where the XR is straining to find a happy-place on the highway, it has no difficulty finding a home in the dirt. Where some dual-sport bikes err towards road over dirt, the XR is definitely at the dirty end of the spectrum.

Mr. Lewis (< 6 foot) looks a tad small on the monstrous XR.

If you want an XR then you use it for shooting around the city, and the occasional blast on the highway to get to that remote wilderness spot where you can spank her the way she wants you to. And what a spankingly good time you get too! The XR just loves the dirt, and rewards the rider with the impression of skills that they may not really deserve. Just like a good bike should.

My advice is to buy an XR before it’s too late! It’s one of the last of the classic air-cooled no-nonsense styled dirt-bikes. Sure, it’s not cutting edge, and your riding buddies on their fancy, new, state-of-the-art machines may have a chuckle or two at your expense, but the XR just works so well as a package, that with matching average rider skills it’ll be you waiting at the next junction for them to catch up.


XR650L – ROOKIE VIEW

Welcome to the jungle.

Having owned a brace of mid-eighties 600cc Dual Sport bikes and recently spent some enjoyable hours aboard the KTM 640 Adventure, it seemed rude not to take the venerable Honda on an exploration of my surroundings to find out if the slow march of time had finally caught-up with it.

First impressions were of a svelte build – not up to competition bike standards but pretty minimalist none the less. The finish of the frame welds could have been better, but overall it looked well put together and had the Honda “feel” that means it’s built to last. Having recently scrutinized a well-used 6 year-old XR, this impression appears to be borne out in practice.

Road mileage was limited to around 150 Km – enough to get me to and from the dirt roads and showed the Honda to be a lively performer, considering its low output, although the KTM 640 did have a slight but noticeable edge. The trade-off seems to be a friendlier, less vibratory machine though and a very much more agreeable price tag.

On the trails (nothing too adventurous, as I was solo) I found the Honda to be delightfully easy to ride, responding faithfully to my inept inputs as if determined to flatter my riding technique. Unusually for me (being Captain Caution and all), I even indulged in some low-ish speed, foot-down power-sliding action – the Honda giving me plenty of warning, letting me know politely when I was pushing my luck.

Very small “fairing” offers little protection against the wind.

As is normally the case, a narrow saddle causes some discomfort after 40 Km and high speed blasting (above 120 Km/h) is pretty much purgatory, as the bars tend to push the rider into a mainsail-type stance. This has the further problem of making the rider “hang” on the bars – inevitably making the bike less stable, though exactly what you might expect from this type off-road biased machine.

Overall, a fun little bike, useable over distance if you keep your speed down and a hoot on the rough stuff.

Time may be marching on but the XR seems able to keep one step ahead.

Jon Lewis


SPECIFICATIONS

Bike Honda XR650L Displacement 644 cc Tires, front 3.00 x 21 Fuel Consumption:
MSL $7,449.00 Engine type sohc, 4 valve, single cylinder, air cooled Tires, rear 4.60 x 18 Best 18.1 km/l (5.54 l/100km) – Dirt roads
Dry weight 147 Kg (324 lbs) (claimed) Carburetion 42.5mm CV Carburettor Brakes, front Single disc with 2-piston caliper Worst 15.1 km/l (6.62 l/100km) – Highway at full tilt
Colours Red Gearbox 5 speed Brakes, rear Single disc with 1-piston caliper Average 16.5 km/l (6.08 L/100 Km)
Warranty 12 months (limited) Final drive Chain Seat height 940 mm (37″) Tank Capacity 10.6 L
Wheelbase 1455 mm (57.3″) Avg. Range 175 km (Res @120 km)

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