Backtrack Tuesdays - 2005 Honda XR650L - Long Run Test
Part 1: The First 500 Miles
It stared at me from the trailer, one eye, never blinking, in the rear-view mirror. The brilliant red statuesque bike sparkled in the sunlight as it was transported from Honda North America back to DSN HQ. Its bright red shiny plastic reflected the sun. It was calling to me. “Let’s go riding” it said.
“Damn right.” I thought. Shortly after unloading the long term test bike I affectionately nicknamed it The Red One. It wasn’t long before the bike was put into service as a DSN errand machine. Thus begins our long term test.
The XR650L is a tall, rather thin machine. With a stated seat height at 37 inches my concern was that getting on and off the bike would be a bit awkward, if not uncomfortable, for frequent stopping around town. Indeed for the average 32 inch inseam person, the bike is a bit tall. However, over a few days of casual errand running, the charms of this bike’s performance and handling began to sink in. After some miles, I tended to forget about the stretch to touch-down at stops. However, mounting and dismounting remained slightly out of my comfort zone. A longish kickstand emphasized this, as it seemed to hold the machine nearly vertical when parking. These factors were the only disappointments I found during the first 500 miles of riding the machine.
The XR650L is simply a treat to ride on the street. There are a number of reasons we can point to for this. One is the cockpit configuration, and how it influences the bike's handling. Relative handlebar, seat, and peg positions remind you of a motocrosser; everything is close in. With subtle application to the controls you experience deliberate predictable results at the bike's extremities. Well engineered and tuned suspension is one reason for this, especially when the machine has 11 something inches of travel. Another reason is the solid frame with proportions determined from years of offroad endurance and racing experience. A deliberate power source, with extensive torque is yet another. Throw in well tuned/engineered brakes with plenty of feel, and you're beginning to get the picture.
It was now time to venture with the XRL off road. I loaded up the bike and decided to take it on a run with some buddies who were riding the Barstow to Laughlin this year. Still not quite broken in, I unleashed the bike out in the Mojave.
Our crew was early to start. First we hit pavement for twenty miles, then the route turned off into the outback. We trekked our way along powerline roads for about an hour before the route led us into some deep, soft sandy washes. It took me a little while to feel the bike's desires as the terrain changed. Before long though, the bike began happily tractoring through the deep loose sand. We angled down a wide wash that untangled its way out of the mountains and, depending on our path, we'd run upon various densities of loose rock. Sometimes we'd be plowing, almost like sledding down the loose sandy trail. Then we would come to a rock section with varying degrees of length. With my weight over the rear tire, as long as I kept my hand in the throttle, the front tire would absorb the conditions gracefully. At times when the trail turned and narrowed, particularly on the downslope, we'd occasionally catch an edge or two, but this was normal.
Several qualities impressed me about the machine. For one its weight, scoffed at by some, actually seemed to favor the bike when traversing these conditions. The terms 'tractor', or 'sledding' aren't too inappropriate here. Indeed, the bike's weight aided in its ability to blast through larger silty berms, which can often be a real advantage. Another feature, the long well tuned suspension, made for what might be considered a caddy-like ride. It’s downright luxurious by old school dirt standards. To enhance these qualities, a well-fit very responsive cockpit and controls, and a barrel full of torque put the icing on the cake.
We tackled about 220 miles of powerline roads, trails, washes, and tarmac the first day, and the second day was even more fun. Day two, though only about 160 miles, featured more rugged terrain and some climbing and outlooks to throw in the mix. It was on this day the bike really caught my favor. One point in particular was while we wound up on some very loose rocky trails. By any standard, though not steep, these trails had grit. Anything from potholes, to gravel, to loose one foot rounders were strewn on the trail, and the bike bombed through it wonderfully. Torque and suspension made the work easier, and once again, the bike's responsive handling provided sure-footed, predictable trail riding.
Finally, and for a second time, we hit a tarmac stretch heading back to the barn. Thirty something miles of highway with the XRL seemed no particular chore. I had committed to memory the fact I was running a 14 tooth sprocket, one below stock. This wasn't particularly a drawback for the bike on the highway; in fact it might be a necessity.
Overall it's easy to understand why the bike, when working so well as an in town run-around machine, could easily be shod as the offroad warrior and lead a respectable charge. During this first 500 mile period with the bike I'm really quite pleased with its performance.
As I look forward to the long-term test of this machine there are a couple items I've become quite curious to learn more about. For one, though its height is an issue, I'm curious to research some possible aftermarket answers for a change there. And, perhaps more importantly, I'm itching to know how well this bike might perform when used more as an adventure tourer. I will be looking into these things and more as the long term test of the 'Red One' continues. Stay tuned...
Part 2: The Next 250 miles - Trails
So far this machine has proven itself to be a treat on the street while running around the city and during commuting. On the trail, more of the Honda XR650L’s features are put to the test, revealing a greater depth of character.
The cockpit of the XRL is rather close-in. Seat, handlebars, and pegs relationships are quite similar to what you find on motorcross machines. While wonderfully suited for most kinds of off-road riding, this usually means compromised comfort on longer rides or pavement. So far, within a couple hundred mile range it has been acceptable. During off-road riding, the benefit to this configuration is that it permits exceptional control. Since controlling the bike happens within a small proximity, whether standing or seated, the rider may respond to a surprisingly wide variety of terrain changes quite easily. Here, a rider can easily influence the bike to do all the work. Minimal exertion and minor extension effectively and predictably maneuver the bike through ever-changing trail nuances. Actually, considering the bike’s weight and dimension, maneuvering is surprisingly easy.
One nearly missed benefit to this bike’s close-in cockpit is that it permits you to let the bike’s front or rear wheels rise or fall surprising distances. Hence, you can let the bike rock underneath you to more effectively ride over rougher terrain. I noticed myself tending to dismiss larger sized whoops and obstacles that I normally would have slowed down for on other machines. While great suspension, wheel diameter, and good tires played significant roles when negotiating rugged trails, to my surprise, I felt the rocking motion of the bike further enhanced the bike's ability to ride over rougher terrain. This could be the one 'something special,' an inherent 'best of ability' I look for in all machines.
Another aspect of cockpit configuration, controls, influences trail enjoyment as well. Hand controls ideally should be at the proper angle of rotation on the handlebars. Furthermore, levers should not angle too far forward from the bars nor have excessive throw or slop. They should transmit a certain amount of feel so that the rider can sense by touch when, and to what degree, brakes, throttle and clutch are applied ...or not. These characteristics all seemed fine with the Honda. To add, hand levers have nicely well rounded smooth surfaces allowing fingers to pull without kinking, thus inhibiting fatigue. Foot controls need similar qualities, and their rest positions should be level with the pegs. On the XRL the distance from toe pads (both shift lever and brake) to foot pegs is rather short - fine for aggressive riding, but otherwise a bit tight.
While trail riding I took note of two additional features, hand guards and turn signals. Like many plastic only hand guards, the XRL offers two rather unsupported ones. Though these provide some light brush protection, major limbs and branches will find their way through the guards to tag your levers or fingers. Turn signals have a nice component however. They are mounted on some of the most flexible rubber posts I've seen anywhere. In terms of being able to absorb impacts without breaking, the XR650L has excellent turn signal posts.
With its specified height at 37 inches, and a ground clearance of 13 inches, this bike is no cruiser. By inference, one would think, these statistics should point to some sort of trade off of course... and indeed it does. While the tall XRL with its 11-inch nicely tuned suspension excels upon virtually all open, moderate (read cow trails), or woods type trails, its long legs are a bit of a stretch, literally, for black diamond (read goat trail) situations. On advanced technical trails sometimes the bike is too tall. Ideally a trail rider likes to be able to slip off their bike seat, to one side or another, and plant their foot on a perch from time to time. This prior to the bike leaning too far, so one can make the intermittent 'save' we occasionally do - without falling off a mountain, or into a cactus for instance. The XRL is so tall, it is likely the bike will be farther than halfway down before a rider could catch it. If this machine were to be used as a dedicated trail machine its height should be lower. To address this, some aftermarket companies offer lowering links. This is something I will address later on in the long-term test.
Even when burdened with smog equipment, this air-cooled single four-stroke has plenty of power and a gradual roll-on throttle. Though some XRLs have been reported to backfire, our bike has only exhibited minor backfiring a few times. This occurred when decelerating rapidly from high rpm's on whoop filled downhill trails. While an extreme off roader might dismiss this bike as being inferior either weight wise or power wise for off road riding, I believe the margin between this bike and its race counterparts isn't a world away. When counting the wide variety of duties this machine will happily perform in and adding to that its quotient for OEM dependability, the scales begin to favor it.
As a reminder, our test bike came equipped with a fourteen tooth (one less than stock) primary gear in the drive train. This change is a must, in my opinion, for trail riding and probably for all but long distance dual sport riding. In cases where this bike would mostly be used for trailing, even a lower primary might be considered. Otherwise, the gearing spread of the XRLs five-speed transmission seems well suited for thoroughly enjoying this bike in a wide variety of ride conditions.
With a weight of 324 pounds, the Honda XR650L is not a featherweight. On the other hand, the machine is still of a lightness that translates into more fun than work on the trail. For instance, when necessary, you can grip its tank between your legs and easily throw it about should sudden inspiration strike. When considering the bigger view, this bike is about as light as you'd want when it comes to not being easily tossed around by crosswinds on the freeway ... at freeway speeds. Generally, I think this bike's weight is in a range which I believe might be ideal for a bike of many uses.
The XR650L is a surprising trail machine. There are a number of reasons for this. For one, well tuned long travel suspension does an excellent job of absorbing the greater part of rough terrain. Full size rims, 18 inch rear and 21 inch front, also help to smooth the trail. While the bike's close-in cockpit provides for wonderfully responsive off-road maneuvers, it offers one additional unexpected surprise. That is, it allows the rider to let the bike rock, while using foot pegs as fulcrums, so the bike can further absorb even rougher terrain. The XRL's big four-stroke single provides plenty of torque throughout and its 5 speed transmission is spread so that fun seems to be on tap everywhere. On a rating of one through ten I would give the big thumper a nine in terms of all around off-road fun. Thus far our test bike has performed well during short range city driving and when off-roading. Next we will look at how the bike likes longer distances.
Part 3: In the Long Run
Having looked at commuting and off-roading aspects of the XR650L, now we learned how the bike performs in a longer venue. Miles 750 through 1,500 were run on freeways, two lane highways, and through twists. In order to find what this bike could be, in terms of longer range capability, I first outfit the bike with a number of aftermarket items.
Rather than outfit the machine with full on touring gear I chose a short range rigging on the XR650L. I chose to fit a lighter array of gear on the bike to see how it would act as a medium range tourer... say up to 2,000 miles. From this point I figured its longer range performance might be estimated. The gear I chose included the following: Clarke 4.7 gallon natural color plastic fuel tank, Saddleman seat, Cee Bailey's windscreen, Renthal Vintage Hi-Desert Bars, Renthal Medium Diamond hand-grips, bar risers by Formatech, lowering link by PerformanceDesign, OSR side rack protectors and luggage rack from Happy-Trails, FMF Q Series exhaust, and Aeropack II saddlebags by Chase Harper. I will discuss more about this gear and the bike's outfitting in Part IV (the conclusion). Now we turn to performance.
Thus far, in stock form, the XR650L appears to be a true 50-50 dual-sport. This is true of course in the shorter term venue, say up to about 200 miles of pavement in a day. On a rigorous days route one might travel 100 miles, go trail riding for say 50 to 75 miles or more, and then turn around and ride 100 miles home. All of this can be done with enjoyment. Both on and off road riding are fun within this venue with the XR650L, and in my view there aren't many bikes, of any kind, that can boast that.
Outfitted with the gear chosen our XR650L begins to act as a somewhat of a different pony. Suddenly, with a new minimum range of approximately 150 miles, the Clarke tank permits longer treks before having to refuel. The Cee Bailey's windscreen and Chase Harper saddlebags, along with a Saddleman seat make longer distances more realistic. The Renthal bars and Formatech risers help tune the cockpit to fit this rider better for long static position riding. For the most part this medium range outfitting of the XR650L was successful. One step farther with fine tuning of various items ultimately honed the bike to completion.
'Riding there is everything' is the line that came to me after several hundred miles of long, straight open highway with this machine. The experience has further solidified my view that the 650 sized machines, overall, seem to be just fine for all venue riding. While this bike was slightly more fatiguing than say Dakar 650s by BMW or the KLR 650s by Kawasaki for example, it sure outshined them both when hitting the trail at the end of the stint.
For solo riding, especially when not overloaded with tour gear, the XR650L steadily pulled long straight uphill grades, this with nearly any flow of traffic. When trekking through high winds the bike was pushed around some. However, this was marginalized when carrying more cargo. With a light load the bike is just heavy enough not to feel tossed around when drifting around huge trucks on the freeway. With well balanced pairs of Avon Gripsters, and later TKC 80 Continental tires, vibration was acceptable, in my view. In the twists, performance was quite proportionate with a load. The lighter the cargo, the greater the seat of the pants fun. Fully loaded the bike handled acceptably in a long distance context, but a bit encumbered for the weekend canyon romp scenario.
It is no surprise to me when I hear about more and more riders choosing this size machine for round the globe treks. Even without water or oil cooling features, for someone with rugged terrain in their destination, this bike could make it through certain places where others would get very stuck. Excellent suspension and overall lighter vehicle weight are two of the bikes more important features here. This could be quite reassuring when thousands of miles from home.
Even without the longevity providing features of oil or water cooling, this bike's motor seems to keep ticking along without hesitation. After 700 miles of steady trekking on pavement, and 1,500 miles over a few month period, the machine won my confidence.
This was in spite of a float sticking once, after a several week sit. I give the Honda the thumbs up for long distance pavement riding when outfitted correctly, especially for those who really want to do some off-roading along the way or at their destination.
In conclusion, one of the biggest secrets in dual sport riding are the 650 thumper size machines. They offer lighter weight, greater suspension, greater economy, and an upright ride position that is most comfortable and arguably most positive when maneuvering. In this category we find the Honda XR650L as a shining example of a machine that has been refined over years of off-road competitive experience... and if a bike handles off-road well, guess what? Yep, it works quite well on pavement too...
This bike is of a weight and powerband that lets it do a lot of everything, and do it predictably and dependably. If you want a little adventure in your life, add one of these to your stable!
Part 4: Conclusion
On snap judgment hard critics of the off-road oriented crowd might dismiss the XRL as being inferior to today’s high-end off-road machines. And by contrast, the exclusive minded sport bike or cruiser pilot may look at this beast, only to draw a blank. Gentleman, look again! Find one of these machines and test ride it for an honest moment. You may discover a machine whose features invite ride fun in far more ways than just blipping throttle. In a power, weight, and suspension class that I believe is perhaps best for doing it all, it’s no wonder we find owners modifying the XR650L to do everything from supermoto to global adventure.
It is true that from the factory, one need not add much to this bike in order to enjoy it in a variety of settings. After eight months and over 2,000 miles, the bike has offered little to criticize. The biggest gripe, the hand grips, tend to leave the palms of hands (of gloves) black from the rubber which apparently rubs off them. Another shortcoming is long range comfort of the seat. As a third complaint, it seems Honda might have devised an easier method of adjusting the headlight height. Currently, removal of the front shroud is required. Finally, after several weeks of sitting, the bike developed a stuck float. Other than that, so far we're running assured.
In the last part of our long-term look I outfitted our XRL with a number of aftermarket items in order to assess how the bike might be suited for longer range. Overall, the results have been positive. I have provided an evaluation of our accessorizing of the XRL at the end of this article. I've also included some thoughts on possible alternative setups for the bike.
What I can say is I highly recommend this bike. For fun and dependability, for economy and versatility, the XR650L has to be one of the greatest bang for the buck bikes the market has to offer. No it won't haul you two-up to Bolivia as cushy as a beemer... so get another one for the missus. No it won't GP like a full-on race motard. But it will easily ensconce you into the arena of big fun in both of those venues, and everywhere in between.
Originally published June 2005.