Dual-sport motorcycles are the great enigma of the motorcycle industry. They are a breed which allows adventurers to branch out and ride on virtually any terrain at any given moment. That's the theory. However, as well we all know, freedom comes at a price, and the freedom offered by these dual sport machines is no different.
We chose two-dual sports with opposing strengths to see if it's best to have refined street capabilities or a taste for the dirty stuff. Honda's XR650L is a bike that has gained a legion of fans thanks to its powerful and dependable persona since its introduction back in 1992. Since then it's won Baja races too numerous to count.
The opponent for the XR is the BMW F650 GS, a bike that has a superb pedigree (2000 Grenada-Dakar rally winner) and owner loyalty to match, if not exceed, that of the XR faithful. Our Beemer tester came in Dakar guise, which means that it has a longer-travel suspension, larger-diameter wheels and knobbier tires than the regular GS.
We logged many miles aboard these two bikes on the pavement, dirt trails, and everywhere in between in order to determine if it is possible to purchase a machine that truly fills the promise of the dual-purpose moniker.
Creating a motorcycle that is truly capable of performing off-road while being legal for public streets requires certain compromises be made. For some, it's best to compromise street-going ability because the majority of their riding is done off-road. For others, street capabilities are more highly regarded while dirt duty is merely a bonus.
The Honda XR650L heritage is rooted in the dirt like an undying weed. It was always intended to be a bike with the minimal street-going capabilities. In contrast to the minimalist highway-duty approach of the red ripper, the BMW embraces the open highway. With a relatively smooth, fuel-injected engine, tall gearing and plenty of wind protection offered by the front fairing, the BMW revels in paved roads. However, all of that street-going refinement comes at a price.
The XR is a capable trail bike although it does have limitations. It's a fun playbike in all but the gnarliest conditions.
The XR is fitted with all the necessary legal components to keep law enforcement officials off your back when you're navigating paved roads. A speedometer with odometer and tripmeter is nestled smack dab in the front of the bars, and highly visible blinkers in the front and rear serve their purpose. All the controls are easy to access and basic functions such as signaling, horn honking, and high-beam adjustment are where you expect them.
The ergonomics of the XR are a bit unusual, even for someone who frequently rides on the dirt. A high seat height of 37.0 inches coupled with unusually low bars give the rider a very on-top-of-the-bike feeling, which is awkward until the rider gets accustomed to it. Furthermore, the high seat perches a rider higher than the headlight-surround-cum-numberplate can deflect oncoming air, making high-speed travel uncomfortable. The XR can hardly be faulted for a lack of street refinement; it is, after all, based on a machine designed for the dirt. And it's in the rough stuff where it feels right at home. This big dual-sport feels like a dirt bike off the pavement, exactly how you want it. Sliding the rear wheel around corners was a breeze, thanks to the grunt from the happy-as a pig-in-mud 649cc air-cooled engine (not the XR650R's liquid-cooled beast).