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Honda XR650L: King off the road

2012-02-20 09:35


The bike market is very much driven by innovation and bike manufacturers often add bells and whistles to their machines for the sake of sales. Only very occasionally do you find a bike that has stuck to its original design for any length of time.

Honda's XR650L is one; a direct descendant of Honda's Baja-winning XR600R, the 650L has remained virtually unchanged since its introduction in 1992. Although it has only officially been available in South Africa since 2011 a number of XR’s have been brought in independently in recent years.

No doubt their success contributed to Honda offering the XR650L as part of its range.


What Honda’s engineers apparently did was design an off-road bike then tack on the minimum number of accoutrements to make it street legal. The 650L will never be mistaken for a road bike – it is a dirt bike for occasional road use and it very clearly looks the part.

The engine is an air-cooled SOHC 644cc four-stroke single with a dry sump, placed in a semi-double cradle steel frame. As per Honda’s tradition, the front suspension consists of 43mm Showa forks with 16-way adjustable preload. A fully adjustable Pro-link Kayaba suspension takes care of the other end.

The first thing that struck me about this bike was how tall it was. At 1.78m I’m not the shortest person you’ll meet and the toes of my boots only just touched the ground when I sat on the bike. The intended effect of the bike's height is ample ground clearance and the result is that the XR can take on just about any challenge the terrain throws at it.

OUT WHERE IT BELONGS: The XR650L is light - but watch out if you get it past its centre of gravity!

Combined with ample torque from the big thumper mill, this gives you confidence to keep exploring long after the road has ended.

When you venture off the beaten track you start appreciating the back-to-basics approach Honda took. This is a bike designed to survive being dropped; vulnerable appendages such as indicators and the tail light are mounted on flexible stalks.  Unfortunately dropping the bike is an ever-present spectre; although light by road bike standards and nimble despite its size, the XR's 158kg wet weight makes it a handful in the veld – if the bike tips over its centre of gravity, keeping it upright isn't easy.

On the road, the long-travel suspension helps to smooth out the ride -- the XR turned out to be a lot less bone-jarring than I had expected it to be. That said, it had the drawback of causing the bike to nose dive rather alarmingly under braking.

As expected from a big-bore single, the 650L's engine; produces a lot of vibration, especially at highway speeds. While this prevents it from being usable for extended trips on blacktop its lightness and responsiveness makes it an unexpectedly good short-distance commuter.

DESIGNED FOR OFF-ROAD: Plenty of torque from the big single that's slung in a steel cradle.

Another aspect that all but kills any potential for using the XR for out-of-town jaunts is the tiny 13-litre fuel tank. Along with the fairly thirsty motor, this meant I routinely got fewer than 180km between fills. It is possible to fit a larger tank, along with myriad other after-market bits and bobs available for off-road and dual-purpose bikes.

If youre looking for a bike to use over long distances, best you give this one a pass – that’s simply not what it was designed for. On the other hand, if you want a bike that will spend  more time off the road than on it, the Honda XR650L makes a very convincing argument.

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