There is a reason why the Honda XR650L has been around all these years.
In its day, the Honda XR650L was the bike to have. Off-roaders loved it for its above-average suspension, versatility, license plate, and its torquey, forgiving and low-compression engine that was more reliable than an anvil. Okay, so the 650L was a little (okay, a lot) on the heavy side and ridiculously tall, but if you wanted the freedom to go almost anywhere and have the confidence that, where ever you did go, it you would get you home safely, those downfalls were easily overlooked. It was just a great bike for so many reasons. Funny, when you think about, it still is, and that’s why it is still around.
Since the XR650L’s introduction in 1992 as a 1993 model it’s virtually unchanged. That, right there, goes to show you just how good a motorcycle it was—and still is (but in a different kind of way). The original XR650L was basically a street-legal version of the off-road-only XR600R, a bike you wanted to be on in long-distance off-road races such as Baja, and even shorter and more technical ones like GNCC. Although the XR600R wasn’t everyone’s first choice for GNCC racing, mainly because of its weight, it worked quite well in the right hands, such as those of GNCC superman Scott Summers, who showed the world what the big bike was capable of doing on tight trails and in the woods, and that was, in his case, winning five GNCC championships.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY KIT PALMER
Okay, in reality, the XR650L was no XR600R. To make it more appealing for roadwork, the L’s air-cooled SOHC, dry-sump, RFVC single-cylinder engine was given more displacement (aka more power), as well as electric starting. (It needed more power to make up for emissions.) But rather than design a whole new engine for the street-going XR650L, Honda simply took the XR600R frame and fitted it with an already CARB-approved engine from the NX650 Dominator dual sport, then, of course, added turn signals, mirrors, and a metal fuel tank with those funny-looking attached “scoops,” which were added at the last second when Honda found out in testing that the engine ran a little hotter than they liked while traveling at a high rate of speed for an extended period of time; the scoops redirected air to where it was lacking and, tada, problem solved.
Time and technology have indeed passed the XR650L by; instead of being the best-performing dual sport bike of its day, it now serves its new role extremely well—being an affordable, around-town commuter and a remarkably capable trail bike, complete with that golden key on the back that opens the gate to the world, aka license plate.
The XR650L is still a blast to ride, thanks to its super-smooth and torquey engine, and suspension that is surprisingly good. The semi adjustable 43mm Showa cartridge conventional fork, which was the hot ticket back in the early ‘90s for the serious off-road racer, still performs well despite being a little on the “springy” side (not to mention stiff). But these forks have been around a long time and any quality suspension shop will know how to make these things really sing. The rear isn’t perfect but does its job admirably; the Showa shock is fully adjustable. The front and rear disc brakes are strong (enough), and we certainly appreciate the stock hand guards and even the old-school rear fender bag; I actually used it a lot.
As mentioned, the XR650L is heavy, really heavy. Honda claims 346 pounds wet and it feels every pound of it; it does not hide its weight very well, and a lot of that has to do with its nosebleed-high seat. At 37 inches—you almost need a stepladder to get on it—the 650L feels extremely top heavy. Once it starts tipping over, watch out, it’s hard to stop it. I’m 6’1” and the 650L still feels a little intimidating to me, especially with the wide—but comfortable for long rides—seat that makes it tough to reach the ground.
If you have any plans at all to take the 650L on dirt, I’m warning you: Don’t do it before you swap out the stock tires for something with a little more meat on them—like Dunlop’s D606s—if you want to have any fun at all. The dirt-orientated D606s I installed are DOT-certified and perform well at both ends, on and off the road. They are excellent dual sport rubber for any dual sport bike, especially if you plan to spend a lot of time on the dirt.
The stock handlebars have to go. I have no idea who they were designed for, certainly not a human. Taller bars with a flatter bend are needed, as are wider footpegs.
Even with its seemingly glaring flaws, I had a blast hanging out the ol’-but-new XR650L. Often times when I had a few hours to spare, I’d throw on a helmet, pants and boots and head out for the nearby hills for a quick, or sometimes long, recharge. The smallish 2.8-gallon tank will/should/might get you just about 100 miles of light-duty street riding.
But the XR650L is capable of a lot more than just local rides. I feel that the $6899 XR650L would make a good-performing and very affordable adventure bike; when you look at it in that light, suddenly the 650L doesn’t seem quite so heavy, and with a few personal mods and some simple must-have bolt-on accessories, like a larger fuel tank, saddlebags, stouter lights, etc., you have yourself a super-reliable and agile ADV bike that can certainly handle technical trails better than some of its higher-priced and more technically advanced rivals. As is, though, the XR650L is a fun, affordable dual sport machine that has tons of potential for being a super long-distance roamer, both on and off the road—as long as you’re not in a bit hurry.
As far as I know, Honda has no plans to drop the XR650L from its lineup anytime soon, but I do know for sure that it returns as a 2018 model, happily and exactly like it was last year, and the year before that, and the year before that and…
If It Was Mine…
…I wouldn’t wait for the original tires to wear out; that is for sure. Since my personal XR650L would see far more terra firma than tarmac, I’d—like I did with our test bike here—swap them out for a set of more dirt-worthy DOT Dunlop D606 tires, stat, and I’d most likely toss out the handlebars at the same time, or soon after. I’d also ditch the mirrors for plastic retractable mirrors, and replace the turn signals with sleeker ones. Next, I’d throw the footpegs in the same trash bin as the handlebars and replace them with something wider than a fingernail file. (A brighter headlight would be on my Christmas list, too.) Now, I would be quite happy riding and living with it this way for quite a while before ponying up for a larger fuel tank. Then I’d think about gearing it down a bit, perhaps adding three or four teeth to the rear sprocket to give it a bit more snap on the trails, and then start figuring out ways to lower the seat height and lighten ‘er up as much as possible. There are plenty of ideas out there on how to do that, though I wouldn’t be in any hurry to replace the stock muffler; yeah, I know, it’s heavy and ugly but I like quiet bikes. CN
SPECIFICATIONS: 2017/’18 Honda XL650L ($6899)
Air-cooled, dry-sump, 4-stroke, single
BORE & STROKE:
100mm x 82mm
SOHC; 4-valve, RFVC
42.5mm diaphragm-type CV carburetor
Solid-state CD w/electronic advance
#520 O-ring sealed chain; 15T/45T
43mm air-adjustable Showa cartridge fork w/16-position compression-damping adjustability
Pro-Link Showa single-shock w/spring-preload, 20-position compression and 20-position rebound-damping adjustability
FRONT WHEEL TRAVEL:
REAR WHEEL TRAVEL:
Single disc w/2-piston caliper
346 lbs. (claimed)