2015 Honda XR650L - "First" Impression

No change but makes a lot of cents.

It’s kind of hard to call this a first impression since the 2015 Honda XR650L is practically the same bike that was first introduced in 1993. It is sort of a living fossil, with one of the longest produced engines Honda has ever made. That being said, this bike is based on the XR600R, a bike that won many GNCC titles in the hands (literally, since he used to physically pick his machine up bear-hug style) of Scott Summers and Baja 1000 victories with many different pilots aboard.

In recent years the XR650L has garnered a bit of a cult following, and I think this is for a couple reasons. One, since the bike has been unchanged for over two decades, which means the aftermarket and DYIers have had PLENTY of time to come up with a million different mods and parts. Second, this bike was available at a time when capable off-road bikes with license plates were hard to come by. In the pre-EXC (and other like models) era, a 644cc air-cooled SOHC single didn’t look as heavy and outdated as it does today. The XR650L in stock form has retro overall ride, which is very familiar and comfortable, even though I was six when the first 650L rolled off the assembly line. The cold-blooded thumper likes you to use the choke (conveniently mounted on the bar) when first starting it up in the morning. Given the racier XR650R’s proclivity to be a nightmare to kickstart, I imagined the 650L would share some of this reluctance to light, yet the street-legal bike started immediately after a quick stab to the e-starter nearly every time, in gear or neutral. In fact, it started better than some modern electric-start off-road only machines I’ve ridden lately.

The power of the big RFVC (Radial Four-Valve Combustion Chamber) motor has an overall soft feel, but tons of torque and it is nearly impossible to stall. I found myself on a tight, steep single track trail that would have been a serious challenge on a trail specific bike, let alone this heavy machine. But in first gear, I found that just off the bottom – almost a fast idle – the torquey motor would just keep lugging and grabbing traction in the slick muddy rocks. Once into the mid-range the power is appropriately sufficient for a 650 single. Nowhere does the bike want to rip out of your hands and the power is extremely linear. The top end isn’t very long and the red machine likes to be short shifted. Speaking of shifting, there is a big, abrupt jump between first and second gear. I’ve been told by Mark Lindemann, long time motorcycle journalist and XR650L owner, that this is a known issue and a common DIY mod is to replace second gear with one from the XR600R. On the tarmac the Honda is very well behaved and can get ahead of traffic with little effort. For extended highway miles, rubber mounts for the bar would be good since my hands were tingling after a 75-80mph freeway buzz.

It might not look like it with its swooped out seat, but, combined with the width of the seat, the XR650L is tall, even more so when I put a turn on the spring to set the sag for my weight. I’m 5’8” and I could just barely tippy to at a stop – often I had to shift my weight to one side if stopping on uneven ground. A tall seat normally comes with a tall bar, but the XR’s stock bar is awkwardly low, especially for standing while riding.

The bike handles like you would expect a (claimed) 346-pound, 13-inch ground clearance dirt bike to handle. It feels tall and heavy, like trying to ride a slightly inebriated horse (I would imagine). It is sluggish to rider input and sort of feels like it just goes where it wants to. In tight trails, you have keep your eyes well ahead of you so you can set up for turns and obstacles. Yet, this isn’t where the XR was meant to be ridden. On dirt roads and two-track, the bike responds well to a dirt-track, sliding-the-rear-end turning style and on the asphalt, I could lean the machine with a surprising amount of confidence.

The suspension, though dated, actually works really well in both low- and high-speed situations. While I felt like I was fighting the bike to turn where I wanted, in single track, I was not fighting the bike to get over the obstacles in front of me. The abundant, traction-grabbing torque combined with the compliant, long travel suspension kept me on course and driving up and over ledges, rocks and roots. This was a good thing considering I couldn’t dab a foot if I wanted to. When speeds picked up on Jeep roads, there weren’t any serious obstacles but I did slam through some gnarly potholes and the fork and shock did a great job of handling quick, repeated, sharp hits, as the bike stayed planted and controlled. I plan on taking this bike out to the desert to find some gnarlier high speed suspension testing.

The next step for the 2015 Honda XR650L is a few common (and some not so common) mods to liven and lighten up the big red bike. Stay tuned to the pages of Dirt Rider for a full test of this machine.

Unchanged does not mean unworthy. The Honda XR650L has stood the test of time.
On wide trails the XR650L can handle itself pretty well. Get into the tight stuff and you’ll be feeling its weight and size.
Cruising from town to trail and trail to town isn’t a problem on a XR.
The XR650L’s tank is on the small side for a dual-sport (2.8 gallons) so planning fuel stops is a must for long trips.
Its tall seat height is can be a negative off-road, but on-road it gives you a commanding view of traffic.
Torque is what this motor has in spades and it helps when heading over, or through, obstacles on the trail.
In stock form the XR650L is mild, but there are plenty of aftermarket companies that can make it wild...ish.
There is no point in revving this bike out. It makes the most power down low.