2003 BMW F650GS Dakar vs. Honda XR650L Dirt Test

MotorcycleUSA Staff | May 23, 2003
2003 BMW F650GS Dakar vs. Honda XR650L
Jumping the big XR is no problem. It feels good in the air, if a little heavy, and its suspension soaks up landings fairly well for a street-capable off-road bike.

Although the XR isn’t exactly light, weighing in at a substantial 324 pounds, you can feel the soul of a dirt bike swirling somewhere within the dual-sport machine. It is in its element in the woods, with just enough low-rpm torque necessary for trail and fire-road navigation. Granted it’s not as adept as a DR-Z400S by comparison, but it can absorb the rough terrain much better than the Dakar. Even leaping small doubles isn’t out of reach for a brave XR rider. According to our resident dirt-guru, Brian Chamberlain, the XR is quite stable off road.

“For as large a bike as it is,” says Chamberlain, “it felt pretty good in the dirt. I wouldn’t want to go race it in a motocross event, but you could tell it was a dirt bike underneath all that weight.”

Honda obviously prepared the XR for minor dirt-jumping excursions, even if its suspension isn’t as high-spec as a contemporary motocrosser. The 43mm Showa cartridge fork, adjustable for air-preload and compression damping, is fairly small in diameter but it is endowed with a bump-eating 11.6-inches of travel. Out back, a three-way adjustable Showa single-shock works through Honda’s Pro-Link linkage to produce 11.0 inches of travel, enough cushion to get a rider safely back on the ground.

The XR’s impressive dirt capabilities can be further enhanced by changing its DOT-approved stock tires, a 3.0 x 21-inch front and 4.6 x 18-inch rear. A more aggressive knobby would considerably increase the XR’s performance in off-road situations, coming close to that of its strictly dirt brother, the XR650R.

While we were a bit surprised by the jumping ability of the XR, the heftier GS protested profusely. Upon landing even the smallest jumps the Dakar would touch down with all the grace of a hippopotamus, with mirrors twirling loose and the normally plush suspension creaking for relief.

2003 BMW F650GS Dakar vs. Honda XR650L
If you’re going to jump a BMW, make sure it’s the F650GS Dakar. Its soft suspension doesn’t like this sort of punishment, but it handles it better than a K1200LT.

“If you weren’t perfectly straight on your landings it was scary,” notes Chamberlain. “It had a scary tendency to wash out upon landing. I don’t think BMW ever envisioned the F650 GS leaving the ground.”

The BMW’s rear suspension can’t handle big jumps, but its 8.3 inches of front and rear travel provides a super-plush ride on the road. The spindly, non-adjustable 41mm fork gets overwhelmed in the rough stuff, but it works fine in most situations. The single rear shock, adjustable for rebound damping, has a very handy wheel that allows a rider to adjust preload while on the move. A GS rider can just reach under his right thigh to add spring preload to accomodate the additional weight of a passenger or the optional hard saddlebags. The Dakar’s suspension proved to be unable to cope with serious off-road riding, but this won’t matter a whit to those who will see fire-road blasting as their gnarliest terrain.

If the outcome of our dirt testing was ever in doubt, let’s be clear here: If you intend to spend more time off the road than on you’d be well served to put your money into an XR650L. On the dirt, there is just no comparison. That’s not to say the BMW can’t go off road, because it can and it did. But home is where the heart is, and the BMW leaves its heart behind when the road turns from black to brown.

MotorcycleUSA Staff