When you’ve kept a bike in circulation for 16 years unchanged, you’re either lazy or got a good thing going. In the case of the 2008 Honda XR650L, it’s the latter.
2008 Honda XR650L
Weight: 325 lbs (Tank empty)
Average MPG: 38
The XR650L was originally introduced in 1992 when Honda bumped the displacement from the long-standing XR600L, but since then has received no substantial changes besides graphic and color scheme updates. We’ve been scratching our heads in astonishment how any motorcycle can have that kind of longevity, especially nowadays with bike revamp cycles becoming increasingly frequent. It’s a true testament to the original engineering and quality components that went into the big red thumper.
At a glance, there’s no mistaking the XR. Its tall, aggressive dirt bike stance just begs for some dirt, dust and gravel to tread on. Sure it has a headlight, taillight, turn signals and mirrors, but that’s all added just to appease DOT requirements.
Hopping on the big Honda can be somewhat intimidating-especially for someone who doesn’t have experience riding dirt bikes. With a seat height of 37 inches (highest among the trio) the bike is tall. This isn’t a problem if you’re over six-feet yourself, but those without at least a 32-inch inseam may have some stability problems at a standstill. Once aboard the XR your butt confirms what your eyes have been telling your brain all along – dirt bike. The seat is long, flat and narrow, and of the three it felt the most similar to that of a first generation 4-stroke motocrosser.
Reaching down, the low slung steel handlebars will instantly induce a syntax error as they are positioned awkwardly and more along the lines of a non-knobby-equipped street machine. Instrumentation is all standard issue with an analog speedometer, odometer, `80s-style dial trip meter and assorted warning lights that look like they were pulled off of a Gremlin.
The Honda XR650L sports the tallest seat out of our test bikes at 37 inches, yet the low-slung steel handlebars feel more appropriate for a streetbike.
After turning on the three-way (on, off, reserve) tank-mounted fuel switch, choking the 42.5mm, diaphragm-type, constant-velocity carburetor via the small plastic lever on the handlebar and thumbing that magical black starter button, the 644cc Single fires to life with authoritative thump-thump that bellows out of the spark arrestor-equipped muffler. The XR engine is a bit coldblooded upon first start, so a quick warm-up is necessary if you want to ensure a hassle-free launch.
Deep Inside the steel, semi-double-cradle frame, the aluminum finned engine houses a single piston, gobbling up 100mm x 82mm bore/stroke. That combustion space gets pressed to a relatively low 8.3:1 compression ratio. Honda’s legendary SOHC, radial four-valve chamber (RFVC) valve train makes sure the engine goes through its four strokes. The five-speed transmission handles the engine’s torquey power and feels very positive. However, the gears aren’t spaced as well as they should be, with a large gap between second and third gear.
If there were ever a motorcycle engine that made power like a diesel truck, it would have to be this one. Like your neighbor’s sulfur-spitting lifted pickup, the air-cooled powerplant stomps off the line. A quick look at the dyno chart courtesy of Mickey Cohen Motorsports reveals that the Honda is already making 90% of its max torque from 3000 rpm. The big thumper peaks out at 28.5 lb-ft at 4000 rpm and holds it up until 6000 rpm, just shy of redline. The torque-filled powerband will keep the inside of your helmet filled with a grin as you ride on one wheel from stoplight-to-stoplight.
Like a diesel though, the 644cc engine runs out of steam quickly. The motor has decent mid-range, but keep revving and acceleration tapers off in a hurry. Not helping anything are the restricted air intake, exhaust and carburetor – components designed to meet strict emissions requirements. Fortunately, these performance-dampers can all be cured with some mild aftermarket tuning techniques.
The torquey Honda XR650L produces 90% of its max torque at 3000 rpm up to its 4000 rpm 28.5 lb-ft peek.
Since the XR flirts more with the dirt, one might presume that it would handle uneasily on the street, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. Around town the XR negotiates city streets well enough, but when we hit the curvy section of Ortega Highway the 650L really let down its curly red hair.
Handling front suspension duties is a 43mm Showa cartridge-style fork featuring air-adjustable preload and 16-way compression damping. Its 11.6 inches of travel absorb pot holes, speed bumps and big-rig braking hits with out any hesitation. And its 26 degrees of rake and 4 inches of trail allow the XR to devour swervey-curvy stretches of road like Kirstie Alley works the pudding at an all-you-can-eat-buffet.
“Man, this thing is a blast! Especially when you’re going through sweepers,” comments our guest tester, Alec Dare. “The ride is really smooth too. The bike seems to just float over the road around town, but in the corners it has enough firmness to allow the rider to bump it up a notch.”
Out back the Pro-Link-equipped Showa rear shock is equally matched and delivers a pleasing ride at any speed. The mono-shock has 11 inches of bump-soaking travel and features spring preload and 20-way compression as well as rebound damping adjustment.
The only area on the street where the XR is somewhat of a letdown is out on the freeway. Its blatant disregard for any street-oriented creature comforts makes extended interstate jaunts uncomfortable. Just like on the BMW, wind blast at 70-mph gets old quickly and the engine’s internal counter-balancer can’t keep pace with the big tremors delivered from the big-bore thumper, thus the riders feet and hands become sinks for the bad vibes; acceptable if you’re on the freeway for a few miles but anything beyond that makes riding a bit tortuous. The saddle is also a source of concern. While it is comfortable for one tank of fuel, anything more is a pain in the ass, literally.
The final buzz kill is the miniscule 2.8-gallon fuel tank, which is mistakenly paired with the fuel-guzzling engine. The combination yields a range of 90-100 miles which is not exactly conducive to long voyages. Fortunately, there are aftermarket oversize fuel tanks available for reasonable prices which help curb range issues.
Although it looks the part of a dirt bike, the 2008 Honda XR650L Showa suspension components handle street riding duties without trouble.
Being the XR650L is closely related to its Baja 1000-campaigning brother, the XR650R, one would assume that it would absolutely kill it on the dirt, and although it is true that it is the most capable off-road, we found it quite cumbersome especially at slow speeds.
“The Honda mobs down fire roads. Smooth, torque-filled power delivery and good suspension are definitely assets here. It has a lot of ground clearance too (13 inches) which makes getting over small obstacles easy,” says Dare.
But when it comes time to take that dark, narrow first-gear opening in the trail ahead, the Honda can be somewhat tricky to maneuver.
“Surprisingly, in the really slow, tight stuff, the XR feels the biggest,” comments our second guest tester and now dual-sport enthusiast Justin Frye. “The XR’s weight seems to be carried really high. The bike feels really top-heavy.”
Another dirt complaint was the unusually low-slung handlebars. Although, they are pretty comfortable while seated, when the trail gets rough and the rider needs to stand up, the low bars become a limiting factor.
“The handlebars are great on the street but off-road they suck,” seethes Frye. “Good thing aftermarket handlebars are cheap, because if you plan on playing in the dirt and your tall enough to ride Magic Mountain’s Deja vu then you’re going to need em’.”
Competence on the dirt should come as no surprise for the Honda XR650L. After all, its non-street-legal sibling owned the Baja 1000 for over a decade.
The Honda 650 comes with a 21-inch front and 18-inch rear Dunlop K850A DOT-approved rubber which is kept in check by the dual-piston front and single-piston rear disc brake setup. After getting used to the incredible brake capabilities of modern sportbikes the brakes on the Honda leave a little to be desired, but they are more than capable of hauling the 325 lbs to a stop in an reasonable amount of time and they have a modest amount of feel at both levers which enables the rider to use the Honda’s brakes more effectively.
The tires are a fantastic compromise between asphalt adhesion and off-road traction. We even got a chance to test them on slightly damp roadway after an unusual evening shower crept through the area and the tires stuck just as if the pavement was dry. However, a more aggressive tire geared for either the road or the dirt would be a wise investment if one wishes to customize the bike for either surface.
“The tires hook up good in the dirt… yet still will break loose if you give it enough gas and lean. If you’re going to be riding 60/40 street versus dirt, then these tires are well suited to this bike,” promises Frye.