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2003 BMW F650GS Dakar vs. Honda XR650L Road Test

Friday, May 23, 2003
Flying high at Oceanside  the Dakar version of the F650GS has a 34.3-inch seat height compared to the standard version s 30.7 inches.
Flying high at Oceanside, the Dakar version of the F650GS has a 34.3-inch seat height compared to the standard version's 30.7 inches.
On The Road Again

Just as the XR is right at home on dirt roads and trails, the BMW shines brightly on the street. The very characteristics which make the BMW cumbersome off-road helped it excel in the streetbike domain. The 652cc single-cylinder, liquid-cooled engine is smooth as a pina colada at 11:00 a.m., and it is evident this bike was born to be wild - on the road, that is. The Dakar feels like a full-blown street machine, with ample wind protection, a willing motor and stylish gauges that include a clock. One particular journey exposed both the strengths and weaknesses of the BMW. A 1000-mile round-trip from Medford to Oceanside for the annual Oceanside Fly-in made good use of the windscreen and plush saddle while revealing a surprisingly smooth ride and adequate rider accommodations during 300 miles of freeway droning.

When darkness fell, the high-beam indicator reflects off the back of the windscreen, making it difficult to see the road ahead. The GS's low-beam, however, was not bright enough to cut through the dark coastal sky. Stuffing a sock around the gauges fixed the glare problem but didn't gain the bike any brownie points. Other than that niggle, it is clear that long-distance comfort was part of its design philosophy. Thankfully, our test bike's ABS brakes were ready to scrub off speed without drama at a moment's notice.

The fly-in event drew nearly 80 hang glider and paraglider pilots to the quaint ocean village, and the coastal terrain was a perfect opportunity to test the dual-purpose capability of the Beemer. The Dakar is perfectly suited for retrieval-vehicle duty, as it is capable of navigating the curves of Highway 1 as well as the gravel and mud "roads" to the launch area. Many pilots and spectators commented on how cool-looking the GS is and how they wish they could afford to add something like it to their garage-full of goodies.

When we first tested this pair of bikes we felt as though the F650GS Dakar was 60/40 street/dirt, but after spending some time on both bikes it became apparent the BMW was more accurately a 70/30 split. This is a bike that truly belongs on the street yet retains the right to venture off road.

2003 BMW F650GS Dakar vs. Honda XR650L
Both the BMW F650GS Dakar and the Honda XR650L are powered by single-cylinder 4-stroke engines but the liquid-cooled BMW powerplant is smoother and makes a bit more power than the XR's air-cooled lump.
The dirt-oriented XR650L is not as refined as the Dakar but, make no mistake, the XR can handle the tarmac pretty well. The XR doesn't protest when pushed hard along twisty rural backroads, and its minimalist brakes do a fairly good job at slowing the bike. Honda didn't begin with a street-going machine but they did a pretty good job of making the XR capable of moving right along at speeds that are on the cusp of the legal speed limit. At higher speeds, the XR does't feel nearly as stable as the GS and the windblast is overbearing at 65-70 mph. The Honda thumper also transmits substantially more vibration to its rider.

Still, the XR is fun to ride on the street. It makes its rider feel as though he's doing something illegal to be riding it on the street because of its dirt bike origins. It's easier to succumb to that hooligan feeling on the XR, too. Wheelies are a snap, and the mundane powerband makes throttle modulation a piece of cake. The dirt-bike stance also brings up an interesting topic: What if you blow a corner on the XR? Should you just gas it and try to clear the ditch or what? After all, it is a big dirt bike and the rule has always been: When in doubt, gas it.

The BMW emerges as the far better streetbike. Whether riding on twisty backroads or long, boring freeways, the F650GS has a decided edge. Keep in mind, though, that the Honda performs better on the street than the BMW does in the dirt.


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