The rear wheel skipped and bounced across the boulders, causing my bum to come off the seat and my heart to miss a few beats. But it was cool. The motorcycle and I rattled down the track and rolled to a smooth stop in a cloud of dust at the bottom of the hill. I looked over my shoulder, taking in the gravel and forest and smiled. The Honda CB500X had popped my adventure cherry, and I knew instantly that I couldn’t have enjoyed a better partner to do that with.
I’ve spent the past quarter century striving to ride fast. The sensation of leaning in to a third gear corner and opening the throttle of a motorcycle has been a defining element of my adult life. Trends in motorcycling styles have come and gone, like cruisers and naked revivals and retro bikes, but none of them lured me away from dedicated speed weaponry.
So it is with reluctance and surprise that on my first adventure on a dedicated adventure motorcycle, I can report that the rumours are true. Adventure bikes are pretty awesome.
I collected the CB500X in metropolitan Halifax and rode it across the bridge and out of town to my rural home. Typical for Honda, the bike demands nothing of its master and gives much. In heavy traffic, the tall, wide handlebars afford a commanding position that breeds confidence. Once on the twisting two lane coast roads the bike was planted and effortless to chuck around at speed even with greasy new tires with less than 30 kms on them.
At first glance, the CB500X demands respect. Tall but slim, with crisp modern details like full LED head and tail lights, it looks just right alongside company like Honda’s larger Africa Twin adventure bike flagship. Styling is very bold, with deep sculpting around the knee cutouts in the fuel tank, and another interpretation of Honda’s multi-layered fairing panel design concept. The seat is wide, deeply cushioned and very comfortable. The windshield is adjustable (manually by using a tool, but really, how often does one need to do this?). Passenger and luggage accommodation are stellar.
On closer inspection, one can see that it’s not perfect. To hit its attractive price point, the company has had to build the bike down to a cost. Like its 500 cc brethren, the X is made in Thailand using a lot of components from the Honda bulk barn. A basic steel tube frame cradles the parallel twin-cylinder motor, and holds together an unremarkable bundle of parts that will be familiar to anyone experienced with the brand. Some cost-cutting elements are hard to fathom, like the aluminum frame caps surrounding the swingarm pivot that lack clear coat. They scuff easily, just like those of the similarly Thai-built Honda CBR650 I tested last year. How much does clear coat add to the MSRP?
In motion, the CB500X is neutral and obedient. I decided to try it off-road to test both its claim that it’s a true adventure motorcycle as well as my own limited skills at the same time. Did I mention I have never ridden big bikes in the dirt? No problem. True to form the ‘500X just did what it was told, no matter how ham-fisted I handled it. Pointed down a gravel track following the hydro pylons, the Honda and I chugged gracelessly along, lurching every few seconds as my inexperienced wrist accidentally opened and closed the throttle with the bumps.
I figured it out, eventually, and the ride got smoother and faster. A dozen kilometres or so later the track turned into the woods and got decidedly less refined. I stopped, got off and walked down the rutted gully that passed as a road thinking long and hard about the wisdom of attempting of riding a brand new, 200 kg press bike this way. What the hell, I thought. I knew the principles of off-road riding from years of cross country cycling, the Honda had ABS, and I would take it easy. Besides, the point was to have an adventure.
The Honda CB500X is not unlike a good horse: it follows orders but helps idiots escape bad situations. As a result the bike and I rode down some pretty sketchy paths for about 45 minutes, an achievement that filled me with delight and self confidence. But I could also feel my fatigue building and knew from life experience that this would multiply error. It was time to return to asphalt.
Other than getting filthy, the 500X was deceptively light at the controls, never feeling top heavy and soaking up a lot of severe bumps. Washing the bike down afterward, I had time to contemplate the design. My example was painted in the desert camo beige that is all the rage among Jeep and adventure motorcycle types these days. It’s a colour Neil Graham once called “spoiled milk” and it, together with the orange and white graphic, brought to mind the terribly poor taste car designs of the 1970s rather than the resolute Afrika Korps marching across Tunisia.
If the graphic design smelled of focus groups and marketing bullshit rather than authentic adventuring spirit, then that’s fine because it really is about the only thing I can fault on the CB500X. Over the course of two weeks, I rode the machine to town to run errands, bashed my way down those gravel tracks a few more times and eventually did a 1,300 km road trip to Cape Breton and back. The Honda cruised as comfortably as a BMW RT, sliced through hundreds of kilometres of corners on truly epic B-roads and did all this while sipping fuel, unbothered by poor road conditions or weather.
I arrived at my hotel in Sydney, after a particularly spirited seven hours in the saddle, and was completely fresh. No buzzing hands, and not one sore spot. The CB500X pulled hard enough to illicit joy at every occasion but never spun a wet or dirty tire out of control, despite the Province of Nova Scotia’s Department of Transportation’s neglect of its tarmac surfaces. It also averaged less than 4 litres per 100 km throughout the trip.
I can’t get excited about the Honda CB500X, and like some other mass market motorcycles, I struggle to remember it much now that it’s gone from my life. It doesn’t have looks that will make anyone notice it, nor will the performance take even modestly skilled riders to any new heights of ecstasy. But as an adventure motorcycle for beginning adventurers, it is unrivalled.
I tested the current entry-level adventure champion, the Suzuki DL650 V-Strom, on a gruelling four-day tour to hell with Cycle Canada and as much as I appreciated that bike for its versatility and value, the CB500X is just better in every way. The Honda represents value and capability at a new level and wraps it into a package that includes that oh-so-Honda of qualities: it flatters you shamelessly.
Perhaps there are more memorable middle-class adventure motorcycles, and undoubtedly a Yamaha WR250 or Kawasaki KLR650 can do much more off the road, but the CB500X is capable enough for road guys like me to experience a little adventure rallying when the back road suddenly runs out of asphalt – for 40 kilometres – while also being refined and fast enough for when it’s time to scratch.
If the adventure bike is the Sport Utility Motorcycle, then the CB500X is the Universal Sport Utility Motorcycle. At $7,199 including ABS, it is difficult to imagine why any sane, average person aspiring to a bike for all occasions would look elsewhere.
_________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ About the author
Michael Uhlarik is an international award-winning motorcycle designer with over 16 years of experience creating bikes for Yamaha, Aprilia, Piaggio, Derbi and many others. He is a veteran motorcycle industry analyst and part-time industrial design lecturer. He is based in Nova Scotia.