The CB650R is a fantastic commuter bike.
It’s the Goldilocks choice in Honda’s “Neo Sports Café” line-up of naked bikes. If the CB1000R is too hot and the CB300R is too cold, this one should be just right.
But despite all its performance (and aesthetic) upgrades for 2019, this naked middle-weight strikes me as being a much better machine to zip through urban – and suburban – traffic than it does wailing around country curves. So, if celebrating its commuter capabilities sounds like a bit of a backhanded compliment, well, it sort of is.
What’s it like on paper?
Its liquid-cooled inline-four (a unique format in this class of twins) displaces 649 cc, and while you may recall the late CBR600RR had a similar displacement from its four cylinders, this new machine is not a repli-racer at all. It delivers less horsepower but similar torque, and at far fewer revs.
At a peak of 94 horsepower, it surpasses its most obvious competitors, the Yamaha XSR700 and Kawasaki Z650 by a significant 20-or-so ponies, but the Yamaha uses its extra 50 cc of displacement to eke out more torque (50 versus the Honda’s 47 lb-ft), lower in the powerband. This means the 203 kg (447 lb) CB650R is quick, but not as lively as its parallel-twin peers, unless wound up more.
Still, revving the Honda isn’t a chore. Up to 6,000 rpm it’s an impressively smooth engine with enough power to keep ahead of most four-wheeled traffic around town – and it’s quiet too. Call on more revs and the Honda starts to buzz considerably more, eventually reaching almost-feral-sounding levels at the upper reaches of the tachometer. While this is needed to access the meat of the CB’s power, doing so in the city draws an imprudent amount of attention.
What’s it like on the road?
The linearity of the power delivery makes the Honda surprisingly adept in traffic – even in a stop-and-go slog. Left to simply idle along in first gear, the CB pulls contently at roughly 15 km/h without any bucking or hesitation. Try doing that with most twins and they’ll go into fits and convulsions.
The six-speed transmission shifts through its cogs cleanly, and the clutch is really light, making repeated squeezes in traffic a breeze. The mechanical throttle is precise; not being a ride-by-wire setup, there are no varying drive modes for Rain or Race or Running Errands or whatever. They’re not missed.
That 6,000-rpm character change also happens right around 100 km/h in sixth gear, so “normal” highway speeds that are (ahem) slightly higher than the legal limit, equate to plenty of vibes going through the pegs, bars and seat, to the rider.
Of course, traveling much quicker on a naked bike like the CB650R creates a significant enough windblast on the rider to become unpleasant anyway. Aside from that minor discomfort common to all of the Honda’s competitors too, the CB650 offers up a practical riding position. The seat is wide and flat (though it could be a bit softer) and positioned so that there’s room to move around during long stints in the saddle.
The bars and pegs are situated to give a neutral riding position that’s mercifully free of the neck or wrist strain that the CB650R’s mechanical twin, the CBR650R, would produce with its lower bars and more aggressive riding position.
How about the gauges and display?
The instruments are housed in a small, rectangular LCD cluster that provides a lot of information in such a compact space. Most prominent is a digital speed display, but the small, circular tachometer to the left also houses a fuel gauge and gear position indicator. In addition to the odometer, a trip computer, clock and tiny temperature gauge make up the rest of the data available to the rider at all times. It’s an example of clever design, but in bright sunlight, I often wished for a brighter display to compensate for the glare.
From the rider’s perspective, beyond the instrument panel is nothing but open road. The headlight and everything below it is tucked so tightly against the fork, it makes it seem like the rider’s chin is the leading edge of the bike. The mirrors reach beyond the width of the bar-ends, and are large enough to provide excellent rearward visibility. All of this, of course, makes it easy to see, and zip through small holes in traffic.
Those wide handlebars also mean there’s lots of leverage to quickly throw the bike around, making it playful and nimble. The Metzler tires fitted to my tester are more sport-touring spec than outright sticky sport tires, and that suits a commuting role just fine.
The front fork is an inverted 41 mm Showa SFF (or Separate Function Fork), which has a spring in only one side, with the other side housing a damping piston. There’s no adjustability here, and the motivation for this set up has more to do with ride quality than outright performance. That said, the CB650R’s handling is competent enough to provide a good time in the corners on the occasions when one does leave the city behind. The rear mono-shock Showa is adjustable for preload only.
As good as the CB650R’s unique and effective drivetrain is, it’s the bike’s modern take on the Universal Japanese Motorcycle look that is its best asset. From its defining circular LED headlight to its stubby tail and all the ultra-cool bronze-coloured engine, fork and wheel accents, the CB is a stunner. And those four pipes sweeping down to the right, just like they did on the ’75 CB400, is a gorgeous touch.
It also has the most offensive application of the government-mandated rear fender appendage I’ve ever seen, but that’s an easy fix, so we’ll let it slide.
Is it worth it?
Costing $9,500, the CB650R is expensive in this class. There are ample alternatives from the Kawi Z650 to Suzuki’s venerable SV650, to the equally-pricey XSR700’s mechanical twin, the MT-07, all of which are at least a thousand bucks cheaper than the Honda. Admittedly, none of them have the visual appeal of the CB, nor its free-revving 4-cylinder.
Those wanting more sizzle with their naked bike could also consider an MT-09 with its furious 3-cylinder, or the four-cylinder Suzuki GSX-S750, or even Kawasaki’s Z900. A quick scan of autoTRADER.ca’s bike listings produced plentiful opportunities to find leftover new 2018 stock for any of these bikes that wildly outperform the Honda, and can be found for less money.
The Honda CB650R is a beautiful bike that happens to be a great commuter. For its cost, though, I’d prefer a better performance bike that I can also commute on.