Review: 2013 Honda XR650L

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Affordable, proven and capable, the 2013 Honda XR650L dual-sport has been in production, unaltered, for two decades. Can it still get dirty in 2013?

What’s New
There is one update for the 2013 model year — a different color sticker on the gas tank. Other than that, the XR650L remains as it was when it first entered production in the early 1990s.

A steel tube frame which contains the oil cradles a 644cc, single-cylinder, dry-sump, air-cooled motor. A low compression ratio of 8.3:1 means it’s unstressed, but that and its age don’t mean it’s a total dinosaur; there’s four-valve head run by a single overhead camshaft.

The XR is also equipped with an electric starter and, surprisingly, no kick start.

At the rear of that frame is a square-section aluminum swingarm connected to a Pro-Link Showa shock with a very serious 11 inches of travel and 20 adjustment positions for both rebound and compression damping. Fork travel is even greater at 11.6 inches. Those 43mm Showa cartridge units are adjustable in 16 positions for compression damping. That’s actually a really nice suspension setup for a basic dual sport, giving the XR nearly as much suspension travel as a dedicated dirt bike.

The XR uses a five-speed gearbox with a very, very short 1st gear, then wider ratios following that.

50-state legal, the Honda even comes equipped with passenger pegs and enough room on the back for a pillion. But, it keeps true dirt-size 21 (front) and 18-inch (rear) wheels, making tire-choice easy.

The Ride
I rode the XR650L for three days straight through the eastern Sierras on the Wilderness Collective trip. Honda supplied the bike, so it was a brand new 2013 model with break in miles on it only and in completely stock trim, down to the Bridgestone Trailwing tires.

Most of the riding was on dry, firm fire roads. Some sections were very rough, covered in deep ruts and pot holes, there were several rocky water crossings and one miles-long stretch was over sharp, protruding rocks. The last day saw us do about 45 miles on winding, paved roads.

All of that’s a lot less than the XR is capable of handling, so the biggest limiting factor came from the truly awful tires and some bad decisions in the ergonomics department. Sadly, that means that I could neither stand on the bike, nor find much traction.

Given those constraints, the Honda actually proved a fairly willing companion, so long as I dialed back the speed a bit. The motor’s low down torque mind climbs a cinch, even at fairly low speeds and in the higher gears. There were times where I was convinced it was going to stall, but instead, it just willingly chugged its way up any hill I asked it to.

Putting in over 100 miles off-road each day, it was also remarkable how comfortable and easy the XR remained, even when hot and tired. And remember, I was definitely sitting down the entire time.

What’s Good
Easy to ride and capable, the XR does real dirt bike stuff thanks to that long-travel suspension and torquey motor.

And, as you’d expect, that suspension just totally eats bumps, jumps and landings.

The utter lack of traction at least made slides easy. Something the XR’s intuitive feedback and smooth, easy torque made very accessible.

With mostly novice riders along on the trip, crashes were many. At no point did any of the XR’s sustain more damage than a bent lever.

Returning 52mpg, the XR’s motor is efficient in addition to being simple and indestructible. Vibes aren’t even that bad. This would be a great platform on which to find yourself a long way from the nearest mechanic.

What it looks like when I try to stand up on the XR.

What’s Bad
Despite their knobs, Bridgestone Trailwings are some of the worst off-road tires on sale today. I experimented with pressures as low as 7psi and never once felt I wouldn’t have been equally well-served by a slick tire. Why, oh why does Honda spec such garbage, utterly removing any true dirt capability from a dirt bike?

The 37-inch seat is a stretch even for my 6’2” frame and 34-inch inseam. But, the pegs are so high that my knees are above the gas tank when I stand. And the bars are so low that I had to bend 90 degrees at the waist to reach them while trying to stand. To actually be able to ride the XR off-road, you need to have at least a 32-inch inseam, but be under 5’10”. I’m going to hazard a guess that excludes most of the population. Again, why would Honda spec such silly ergonomics, again destroying the motorcycle’s capability?

That very low 1st gear would be great for climbs and obstacles, if the tires could supply some traction to counteract its torque. In stock form the XR’s back wheel spins instead of hooking up throughout 1st gear, rendering it pointless. Then, 2nd is too tall to work at low speeds, so you’re just sorta screwed.

The 2.8-gallon tank is only good for around 100 miles of reasonable off-road riding. You’ll want a larger, aftermarket item if you realy head out into the boonies.

Owners report problems with subframes cracking when the XR’s seat is loaded down with gear or a passenger and then subjected to big impacts or landings. Still, welded gussets or bracing should set you back less than $100.

The headlight is just sorta there to satisfy legal requirements. You’ll need something much more powerful if you plan to ride at night.

The stock suspension is plush, if soft. Fitted with more appropriate rubber, you’d quickly overtax it while riding…enthusiastically.

The Price
There’s two main competitors for the $6,690 XR650. The $6,499 Kawasaki KLR650, which is much heavier and very street-oriented and the $6,399 Suzuki DR650, which is an even older design that’s less dirt-capable. The smaller, $6,690 Yamaha WR250R is actually almost as fast and doesn’t have such compromised ergonomics in stock form.

The Verdict
As a simple, proven dual-sport, the Honda XR650L would excel in stock form if not for some unfortunate specification choices. Spend a couple hundred bucks on real tires and about the same on lower pegs and higher bars and you’d suddenly find yourself with a bike as capable of carrying you around the world as it is playing on local trails or commuting through rush hour traffic. Still a great bike in 2013, if you’re prepared to make it one.

RideApart Rating: 7/10

Gear:
Helmet: Icon Variant Construct ($370)
Armor: Alpinestars Bionic Protection Jacket ($200)
Boots: Icon 1000 Elsinore ($245)
Gloves: Icon 1000 Turnbuckle ($90)

  • Clint Keener

    When I was a kid, I remember watching Scott Summers race a “factory” XR650 at a GNCC event. Back then, he was the only guy racing a 4 stroke.

    Wanted one ever since.

    • Damo Von Vinland

      No time like the present, you can get them for peanuts on craigslist.

  • Tuscan Foodie

    How about highways? I am looking for a bike that I can also use on the highways for long days on the saddle. How does this perform?

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      It’s no Goldwing, but for a 650 single, it’s not terrible. If you’re happy cruising at 75mph, you’ll be just fine.

      • Tuscan Foodie

        Thanks. With my current xr1200x, anything above 70 is impossible anyhow, because of the vibrations…every time I ride that bike I feel like I married a girl who was perfect for a one night stand, but the worst idea for a long term relationship.

  • runnermatt

    With all the new bikes Honda has been coming out with lately it makes me wonder if the XR650L’s day are numbered. I could see it being replaced with a variant of the NC700X’s chassis/engine combo (NC700L or XR700L?), or another version of the 500cc triplets (XR500L?). After all, Honda introduced the CBR250R and a year or so later they replaced the CRF230L with the CRF250L.

    (I just started riding, a CBR250R, last year to save fuel on my commute of 1:15 and 50+ each way. As a long time car nut, I knew very little about motorcycles and have been trying to learn a much as possible since. That said if I say something dumb, please forgive me.)

    • markbvt

      Reason they won’t do what you’re suggesting is that those engines are twins, and the standard power plant for this type of bike is a single. While the power and smoothness of a twin would be nice in a true dual sport package, the problem is that these engines are quite a bit heavier, and in the dirt you want the bike to be as light as possible. But I’m still hoping that they’ll eventually come to their senses and either revive the XR650R engine or use the engine from one of their quads.

      But I suspect that in the end the 650 dual sport segment is probably going to fade away. The more dirt-oriented adventure bikes such as the BMW F800GS, Triumph Tiger 800 XC, and KTM Adventure are plenty capable of the wider-open offroad riding and dirt road exploration, and some of the 250 dual sports (the WR250R in particular) are potent enough to hold their own on the highway while being far more capable for technical offroad riding than any of the 650s. If the market grows for a more powerful dual sport, I expect the 450 engine class will be what the manufacturers will move to.

      • runnermatt

        Good point on the weight. I just checked Honda’s website. CB500X = 430 lbs. NC700X = 472 lbs. XR650L = 346 lbs. I was just figure that a “more off road comfortable” version of the CB500X or NC700X would be a good seller.

  • Shane Duffy

    I like your choice of helmet Wes! ;)

  • VagrantCoyote

    My dad had an old 80s XL500 which was a lot of fun. It only had a kick start, which doubles as a weight loss program as it was next to impossible to kick over without spending a good five minutes on and sweating your butt off in your gear.

  • markbvt

    Good review, and spot on. I’ve owned an XR650L for years and agree with you. Ergos can be helped by installing bar risers/taller-bend bars/both, and it definitely helps to install aftermarket footpegs that provide a larger platform to stand on than the dinky stock pegs. The three other must-have items are a larger gas tank (Clarke, IMS, or Acerbis), better tires, and an aftermarket seat (especially Renazco Racing). Outfitted like this I rode my XR-L over the Trans-Labrador Highway in 2009, and it did great. That suspension works really well for ripping across rough gravel roads at 70mph for hundreds of miles. It didn’t do quite as well on the pavement in Newfoundland — felt pretty tapped out on all the more open, higher-speed paved roads, but that’s to be expected from a 35hp single hauling a 250lb dude, especially when the wind picks up. Here’s a pic of mine outfitted for the trip: http://www.swyve.org/stuff/tl/20090831_xrl.jpg

    Of course, a bike this size/weight is not a great trail bike — there’s a reason it’s nicknamed the Big Red Pig. But for general dual sport duties, and especially for ripping dirt roads, it’s a great choice.

    But what I will never understand is why Honda discontinued the XR650R and kept the XR-L going unchanged, instead of adding a horn, turn signals, etc to the R and making it the updated L. They would have sold a lot of them.

  • Brian

    a note about Bridgestone Trailwings. While the “Trailwing” name has been commonly bashed, the problem lies with the lack of distinction of what model is being more or less. They have a whole product line with differing capabilities with the name “Trailwing”. Singling out the model for which you are having issue with might be more helpful. Here is a guide from their website to start with. -> http://www.bridgestone.com/products/motorcycle_tires/products/trailwing/index2.html

    I am not in any way associated with Bridgestone, I just prefer information be as accurate as possible when something is being “reported” or “reviewed”.

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      I’ve never gotten along with anything wearing the “Trailwing” name. Garbage. Utter garbage.

      • Piglet2010

        Utter garbage seems a bit harsh, without further qualification, I would expect a tire that was “utter garbage” to have the tread de-laminate or the bead break, etc. during normal use.

        I would not consider the TW31/TW34 combination on the Yammie TW200 to be utter garbage, as they work fine within the limitations of what the bike is intended for.

  • Supermoto Central

    That things belongs in a museum, time for honda to update this one!

  • Piglet2010

    For just a few hundred dollars more, one could get a Husqvarna Terra 650 with much more power – only hitch is that KTM may not keep the model around, so aftermarket support will be minimal. But Honda (and Suzuki as well) should offer something similar, or drop their prices significantly.

    • roma258

      Yeah, Terra seems like a great bike and a good value, but a bit of an orphan. Hopefully Husqy sells so many of them that they have no choice but to keep it going. Would KTM continue to have access to those Beemer engines though?

      • Piglet2010

        If BMW would not supply engines, the engine from the Duke 690 would be a good fit. And/or paint the Terra orange and call it a KTM.

        • roma258

          I remember reading that the KTM CEO’s plan for Husqvarna was to move them pretty hard in a dirt-only direction. Doesn’t seem to leave much room for Terra, but money talks, so hopefully these sell and he reconsiders.

          • Piglet2010

            The Husqvarna dealer I talked too will tell them to keep the Strada and Terra in the lineup.

    • http://RideApart.com/ Wes Siler

      The Husqvarna is not a straight competitor for this XR650. Where the Honda is a true, dirt-specific dual-sport, the Terra is a heavyweight ADV bike with limited suspension travel and road-oriented performance.

      XR650L = street legal dirt bike. Terra 650 = a street bike that can go on fire roads.

  • Marc

    The DRZ-400S is a competent, dirt-oriented DS at ~$6200. Not as modern as the WR-250 but torquier and a more direct comparo to the XRL. Thoughts on how the DRZ stacks up?

    • David Kent

      I’ve owned both. Take my opinion with a grain of salt, since I believe that any dual sport makes the best foundation for an economical do everything mount , and that’s what I try to make of any of them that I’ve had the pleasure of owning. Not looking for a killer dirt ride or a Ninja slayer, just a great all round, entertaining, common sense bike. That said, DRZ is a better offroad bike. The XR isn’t that much better of a street bike, but it has roomier ergonomics. Power is about equal. IMHO, the biggest draw for the XRL is among us old school types who value the simplicity of air cooling and threaded valve adjusters. Both need pretty much the same mods to be considered competent street mounts (upgraded seats, higher bars, larger tanks, higher overall gearing.) After making those mods to both the DRZ and the XRL, I’ll never turn loose of my XRL. My DRZ has been gone for several years now.

  • David Kent

    I’ve pretty much moved away from single track or anything more challenging than a dirt road. With that mindset, I was looking to significantly raise the overall gear ratio of my 05 XR650L. I discovered that a Kawasaki Versys countershaft sprocket fits perfectly and gives me 16 teeth up front. This mod seriously calms the bike down at freeway speeds and makes 70mph a very relaxing proposition. Didn’t seem to lose a lot off the bottom, either. You’ll have to do away with the C/S sprocket cover and substitute the appropriate sized split ring in the countershaft groove, but after 10K miles with this setup, I’ve had no issues. Works great.