Photos by Kevin Wing
Venice Beach, CA—There are very few motorcycles that have had an uninterrupted run for almost three decades, with no changes other than the paint scheme, and one of them is the Honda Rebel. The quarter-litre cruiser was introduced in 1985, and was built around an already aging air-cooled parallel twin that dated back to 1978. In Canada the Rebel was available until 2009, and it enjoyed an even longer run south of the border, where it was available until just last year.
The Rebel was designed for beginning riders, with an ultra-low seat height, a very modest output, and easygoing handling. It was also kind of small though, more like a three-quarter-scale bike, and it was easily dwarfed by riders of average height. All of these traits, combined with its long production run, did put some equity in the Rebel name, especially among new riders, so this year Honda has resurrected the Rebel, and has refocused it to woo trendy millennials.
Honda held the world riding launch of the 2017 Rebel 300 and 500 in trendy Venice Beach, California, and we’re here to ride both.
Aside from the name, the new Rebel shares absolutely nothing with its predecessor. What’s really different about the Rebel is that it’s available with two entirely separate engines, a 286 cc liquid-cooled single and a 471 cc liquid-cooled parallel twin. The single claims 30 hp and 20 lb.-ft. of torque, while the twin claims 45 hp and 32 lb.-ft.
Though utilising two different engine configurations might not seem unusual (the CBR300R and CBR500R from which the Rebel engines are derived, also use different engines), what is unusual is that everything else on the two Rebels is identical. The frame, suspension, brakes, gas tank, lights, wheels — everything — are the same components. The only other differences between the two machines are the engine mounts, and the 500 comes standard with a passenger seat, which is a $162 accessory on the 300.
Either engine is mated to a six-speed gearbox, and considering the Rebel’s novice-friendliness, availability of a dual-clutch automatic gearbox wouldn’t be a stretch. However, both engines are derived from an existing model, and it would be just too costly to add such a luxury.
What you think of the Rebel’s styling is likely connected to your age. Most of the older Gen Xers I’ve heard from don’t particularly like the styling, while Gen Y youth think it’s cool, and they are the target market, after all.
There’s a lot I like about the styling despite being of the older generation. I appreciate the Rebel’s simplicity, and the fact that it is now a full-sized bike. It features stylishly bobbed fenders, rolls on fat 16-inch tires (the 130/90 front and 150/80 rear sizes are identical to Harley-Davidson’s Sportster Forty-Eight), and has an upright riding position.
I especially like that, despite being classified a cruiser, it doesn’t feature clichéd cruiser styling, with a pull-back handlebar, a chopper-esque silhouette, and an Easyrider-like feet-forward riding position. It also has an exceptionally low seat height: at 690 mm, it’s 5 mm lower than the Harley Sportster Superlow.
The high-mounted gas tank does seem a bit wonky to me, but not so much when it’s painted in a sombre colour like black, or matte silver (more of a grey, really), which I think suits the bike exceptionally well.
The Rebel is also designed to facilitate customisation for budding bike builders. The rear fender and struts are easily removable, leaving nothing aft of the seat but a curved frame tube, and the handlebar is one inch in diameter so that any handlebar found in a Harley accessory catalogue will fit. Honda, however, does not offer any styling accessories, so you’ll either have to make your own parts, modify the existing ones, or wait for the aftermarket to fill the demand. There were a couple of customised Rebels on display at the launch, and the body parts on them were custom made.
Riding the Rebels
Once seated, the Rebel is surprisingly roomy (I’m six feet tall), with a modest forward reach to the handlebar and a relaxed bend at the knees. Levers are an easy reach for me, but they lack adjustability for riders with smaller hands (I wear size XL gloves). The instrument is a simple round gauge that has a rectangular digital display. It offers just basic info, like speed, fuel level, trip meters and time, with a few warning lights above and below. Since the Rebel is considered an entry-level machine, a gear indicator would have been a logical addition.
I began the day on the 500, which has a light clutch, feathery-light gearbox, and drones along effortlessly at highway speeds. It’s a cinch to lift the bike off the side stand, something that will benefit shorter riders, as well as novices.
Although it can surely handle some longer highway stints, the Rebel is mostly a city bike, evidenced by its 11.3-litre fuel tank. Our planned route threaded through Los Angeles along wide boulevards, narrow streets, a couple of stretches of interstate, and included a couple of stops at some fashionable bike shops.
Despite its fat tires, the Rebel 500 exhibits light, neutral steering with nearly unwavering stability, and proves to be an ideal urban runabout, easily slipping between cars while splitting lanes in congested traffic (no, you can’t do this back home). It accelerates smoothly and remains smooth at 110 km/h.
Although the 300 has the same riding position, its lighter weight is immediately noticeable (wet weight ranges between 165 kg for the non-ABS 300, to 188 kg for the 500 with ABS). It’s much buzzier at highway speeds and doesn’t have the 500’s reserve of acceleration to pass, though it does top out quite easily at just over 130 km/h.
The problem I see with these new Rebels isn’t with the bikes at all. They handle well, they look good, they have low seats, and their respective pricing, which starts at $4,799 for the Rebel 300 and $6,899 for the 500, is quite appealing. Factor in the extra $200 for ABS and they’re still each $100 cheaper than their respective naked CB counterparts.
Nope, the problem I see is more with Honda’s intended marketing. The Rebel is aimed squarely at Gen Y (don’t call us) hipsters, who when shopping for bikes prefer to spend their disposable income on decades-old Japanese bikes, and then transform them into personalised caféscramblerbobbers, instead of heading to the local dealer and buying new. While the Rebel has the right parts and the look to fit the bill, it might not be shaky/leaky/rusty enough for these contemporary mods and rockers.
However, there’s probably a whole slew of more independently minded new riders who aren’t swung by trends in fashion, and who want a bike right out of the box with the traits in which the Rebel excels, especially its easygoing nature. They will likely enjoy the new Rebel, and as more than just a fashion accessory.