I have been very fortunate this season to have the opportunity to put some serious miles on some of the best adventure bikes on the market. Well, for that matter, some of the best ADV bikes ever made. Getting the chance to climb aboard the latest offerings from BMW and KTM and hit the open road – it just doesn’t get much better than that.
Each time I have sat down to put those experiences to pen, I find I have a wide array of great experiences to relate, so much so that I have to pare them down to the most vital points. At the same time I find myself staring at one very big reality: these bikes are really expensive. If I were to personally own one, it would probably have to be my only bike and I would have to discard the assortment of relatively inexpensive rides that currently fill my garage.
So that set me to thinking about what else is out there to fill the demand for an economical ADV bike. It is a tough question because there is no single perfect answer. Yet, it seems like the demand would be so obvious that some manufacturer would have set out to fill this niche.
The Honda XR650L perfectly fit the requirements of a dual purpose bike with a low price tag, and plenty pre-owned models could be had for $2500-3000.
Exactly where the line is drawn between dual sport and adventure bike is pretty gray. I have had a number of people ask me that question, wondering if there was some magic answer that they were not aware of, but there is not. So let us just say that an adventure bike has to be reasonably capable of doing both off road and touring duty.
So let’s start with some ground rules. As the bike has to be both dirt and street worthy, we are going to give it just a little more bias towards the street. For example, my dual sport KTM 450 will not be eligible since it is really just a dirt bike with turn signals, and any trip down the freeway is not very enjoyable.
These criteria will also eliminate big dirt-styled bikes like the Suzuki V-Strom. Sorry, but that is just not a bike that is going to get very far off the tarmac. Although most liter class ADV bikes might never see much off-road use, I just spent three days riding off- road in Utah on the KTM 990R and I can attest that it can be lots of fun on the right bike.
After a few days of riding the 650L our contributor found the XR to have little vibration and a solid chassis design.
Finally, our choice needs to be economical. For such a subjective requirement I am going to say that it needs to be close to the $5000 range. That will eliminate the KTM 690 Enduro R. Otherwise, this bike would be a strong potential candidate.
You don’t need a magic ball to see where this list is headed – straight to the large, Japanese dual sport bikes such as DR, KLR and XRL. Really they are about the only choices left. While the technology and styling of each is pretty dated, they can all be fun to ride in their own way.
I have decided to go with the Honda mostly because of its durability, simplicity and suspension. It is the most dirt worthy of the group and still has street manners on par with the other two makes. The Suzuki DR650 might be a better choice for someone looking for a lower seat height. Either generation Kawasaki KLR650 would suit someone looking for even more street bias.
So our goal now is to build the XR650L into the ultimate budget adventure bike. Okay, I am not really sure if I can put ultimate and budget in the same sentence, but you get the point. With a sticker price of $6499 for our new 2009 model, we will need to keep the project costs to a reasonable amount so as not to kill the premise. Of course with 20 years worth of used L models floating around, good used examples can be had in the $2500-3000 range. So let’s look a little deeper into what our starting point actually is.
This model debuted back in the early ’90s. Even then there was not anything particularly new from a technology standpoint. It was based upon the well-loved XR600R that went on to dominate Baja for so many years. Additionally, in the hands of Scott Summers, the 600R was a major force in the GNCC series. Scott won five championships with the big red bikes. To me this is a far more unique accomplishment, as the XR is seemingly so out of place in the context of Eastern Hare Scrambles racing.
The XR has the sensation of being constantly choked up and as a result throttle response is slow. However, the bike responds well while cruising in a tall gear.
With the addition of electric starting, counterbalancer, displacement and street legal lighting, the XR650L was given the famous handle of being “a dirt bike with lights.” That wasn’t far from the truth given the competition of the day. With 11 inches of suspension travel front and rear, 13 inches of ground clearance and coming in at 346 pounds. curb weight – those were all numbers that were respectable for the time.
After spending a couple of days of true dual sport riding over a good mix of terrain, I am well on my way to liking the big Honda. The L is very smooth riding down the road. There is very little vibration and the chassis tracks very well. It does have the constant sensation of being choked up, so nothing happens very fast. But even with that, the torque characteristics are very good. In fact, it works best if you don’t attempt to rev the motor, just let it chug along in a tall gear.
Off -it quickly demonstrates the character of the long gone XR600R. It is great on fire roads. It will drift and slide through corners with amazing ease and is an absolute hoot. Hitting soft conditions like sand or mud prove a real challenge to the OEM rubber. The stock Dunlop K850A tires look like something out of the JC Whitney catalog. The rear is marked as a 4.60 x 18, how old school is that?
The seating position is good for sitting, but bad for standing. The stock seat is a marvel. It is so comfortable compared to new offerings that it is hard to believe most seats used to be this way. On the other hand, the bars sit quite a ways back and are pretty low. The footpegs don’t offer much of a platform for steering the bike. Both of these are areas that will need attention.
Some of the items placed in the future “to do” list included increasing the fuel range and minor suspension work.
For the first 100 miles or so of riding the throttle response was very rough. After a little break in time and an adjustment to the idle position things are a little better. Along with feeling choked up in general, the response right off the bottom is still abrupt. For example, pulling out into traffic I always feel like I need to rev the motor and slip the clutch a little just to ensure that I don’t stall in the middle of the intersection. This is very much the opposite of what you would expect a big old school Single to be, so some work on the carburetion will be in order.
The “to do” list will also include increasing the fuel range; currently it will just muster a little over 100 miles on the 2.8 gallon tank. Suspension will also get some massaging. The good news here is that the stock components can be made to work very well. We will also need a skid plate to give a little more protection down below.
It is difficult for me not to get caught up in all the things the XR650L is “not.” It is not the great, modern, light-weight rally bike replica. In fact, it really is not much different from the 1988 Honda NX650 Dominator. That bike had such a great look that it would probably still sell well today. But 1988 was also the year Honda brought us the visionary NT650 Hawk, so maybe it was just that Honda was way ahead of its time and the rest of us are just now catching up.
Recently, I was visiting the shop of a friend of mine who has a number of ADV bikes, both large and small. He was relating a story of how he was riding in Baja on his KTM 950 Super Enduro. They were on the beach in the cobbles, the tide was coming in and splashing salt water on his bike. He thought, “How crazy is this to be treating my high dollar bike like this, yet I love this type of riding.” He then took me outside to show me his newest project – a clean used Honda XR650L that is about to undergo a major revitalization. This is a bike he can use and abuse without worrying too much about the costs involved. This is the same hope that I have for our budget adventure bike project, so stay tuned for the progress of our bike build.
2009 Honda XR650L MSRP $6499 (no 2010 or 2011 models produced).