As you may recall from Part 1 of our initial test, the idea behind this project was to see what we could accomplish on a limited budget. Adventure bikes are wonderful things with lots of cool gadgets and performance. However, such luxuries all come at a price. Sticker shock is common when looking at the premier models from BMW and KTM. So what about a bike for the rest of us? Can we modify the pedestrian Honda XR650L to expand its horizons while still keeping to a budget?
Let me not digress too much on the fact that the largest motorcycle company in the world is still peddling a 20-year-old design. In a way, I guess we should be glad, that is what helps keep the price down and availability good. Part of the reasoning behind choosing the big XR for our project was the ample supply of used models on the market. If you go in search of a pre-owned bike, good condition examples can be bought for $3000 or less. As for the age, it really does not matter, there were not many significant changes over the years, so condition is the only factor in making a used bike purchase.
We should not forget that this model was very big news back when it debuted in 1993. Here are a few quotes from one of the publications back in the day: “…great bike, probably the best open-class dual sport ever built…we would choose the dual-sport bike over the HRC XR628R to race the length of Baja.” Of course, at that time the factory Baja XR’s were still notoriously unreliable, having not reached the R&D zenith of later years. Nevertheless, it was strong praise from the new model introduction.
Photos taken before (above) and after (below) as our contributor transformed the Honda XR650L into the ultimate cheap traveling companion.
For our purposes, the goal was to search out practical modifications that would add the most bang for the buck. Ultimately, that idea played itself out pretty well. As the miles pile up, the simplest mods seem to deliver the most satisfaction.
As I started searching aftermarket companies for specific parts, I often found that the specific application for the “L” model was missing, but could be located under XR600R reference. Many of the parts are interchangeable. Some of the companies were actually unaware that their existing products would fit the XRL.
Here is a detailed look at the modifications:
It was way too soft to begin with. Even for casual street use, the fork had excessive dive under braking. Bob Bell of Precision Concepts revalved both the fork and shock. We retained the stock springs primarily to keep the tarmac handing smooth, but it also helped keep the cost down. Now the 650 has a far better overall balance and feels equally at home on the road or dirt.
The stock bar position is very low and pulled back. Initially I installed a set of Pro Taper bar risers. While that addressed the height issue, the bars will still too far back. The solution came in the Rox Speed bolt-on risers that not only move the bars up, but an inch forward also. Now the cockpit is very comfortable for both sitting and standing.
I also used this as an opportunity to convert to oversized bars to accept the Flexx bars. These bars give an added measure of comfort by reducing vibration and absorbing much of the impact to hands and wrists.
Installing the FMF jetting kit was the first priority, the bike just would not run smoothly without it. This is a fairly easy operation. The included instructions cover the major points of installation. There is a small cast tab on the carburetor that limits the movement of the mixture screw. I filed this tab away to allow the mixture setting to be adjusted properly.
The single most expensive upgrade was FMF exhaust. A No-Toil Super Flow foam air filter (below) was also added for better protection and performance off-road.
Removing the smog equipment cleaned up the octopus collection of hoses and canisters hanging from the side of the motor. Unable to find a source for the smog block-off kit, I resorted to eBay and found one for a few dollars. It came sans instructions, so it took a little trial and error to figure out where each piece went.
At the top of our list of expenses is the FMF full exhaust system. This is a power bomb header and Q4 silencer. It really helps wake up the motor, as well as shaving a number of pounds off the package. The exhaust note is louder than stock, but still acceptable. Even so, for extended road use I would probably still choose the stock system just to keep my ears a little happier.
The No-Toil Super Flow foam filter and cage replace the stock paper filter. This claims to increase airflow. The foam filter is a much better option for serious dirt action. It is easier to clean, filters better and should last longer. The No-Toil bio-degradable oil makes cleaning a snap with no messy solvents to worry about.
An adventure bike should be comfortable enough to pass away the miles on the highway. One nice feature that needed no attention was the XR’s comfy seat. However, we did add a few other items to make the road miles a little easier.
At the top of the list is the need for a little more fuel range. The stock tank typically hits reserve around 90 miles, not nearly enough for any serious exploring. Clarke offers two options for the Honda: 4.0 and 4.7 gallons. We opted for the smaller version and the range is now extended out to150 miles. The new tank is slim and fits the bike well.
The Slipstreamer “Tombstone” screen is designed for a cruiser application, but it fit right onto our bike. This little addition makes a real difference on the highway. The majority of wind is deflected over the rider and there is no
buffeting. Additionally, the simple mounting system allows the screen to come off in seconds when not needed. I put this right at the top of the list of our improvements.
Right behind that comes the Giant Loop Coyote saddlebags. This waterproof unit continues to show its value. The large compartment design is well thought out and will hold a surprising amount of gear. The big rear zipper gives easy access to the storage and a simple mounting system is proving durable. Like the screen, the bags will come off the bike in under a minute. I have used many hard-case luggage systems that could not match the Coyote for all-around function.
Giant Loop also sent along their smaller “MoJavi” bags that have found their way onto my smaller dual-sport bike. They are the perfect choice for shorter overnight Baja trips.
The Pro Moto Billet rack is extremely sturdy and gives a great platform for strapping down a lunch box or groceries. Bungee cords can be hooked anywhere on it so it will accommodate almost any shape package. It makes a good match with the Giant Loop bags. It provides a good base to secure a rear strap of the Giant Loop bags and helps hold them off the bodywork and exhaust.
One of the great things about a project like this are the pleasantly unexpected finds. I stumbled upon two all new ideas that found their way onto the Honda.
The first was the addition of the Pivot Pegs to replace the narrow stock footrests. The spring-loaded platform of the pegs will rotate forward and backwards. They work particularly well for an adventure bike. The forward rotation gives a great natural sitting position. The new Mark 3 model is a 60mm wide peg. For standing, they take a little bit to get used to as they tend to rock back and forth just a little bit.
The other great find was the Double Take mirror system. The stock mirrors are good for road riding, but I prefer flexible mirrors for off-road. The Double Take mirrors mount on standard RAM mount components. Not only does this give them some flexibility, but they can also be folded completely down and out of the way. Additionally, the mounting parts are interchangeable with the RAM GPS mounting systems. So one mirror can be removed and swapped for a GPS in seconds. I found this very handy for navigating unfamiliar back roads.
Dual Sport and Adventure bikes always pose a problem with tires. Finding the right balance of dirt versus street performance is a compromise and many of the tires that perform well do not last very long.
Like most dual-sport bikes, the stock tires aren’t great at much of anything. They were quickly replaced with a set of the venerable Kenda Trackmasters. This DOT tire has a dirt bias, being rated for 80% dirt, 20% street. They did extremely well in the dirt. The drawback for a bike as heavy as the 650 is that they will wear quickly with extended street time.
The Kings tire provided some traction in the dirt, but on the pavement they can be downright scary. The beauty of these tires are their extra-low price.
Next came the Kings Tire KT-966 DOT knobbies. I really don’t have much positive to say about this tire. In the dirt, traction is decent, but on the street it is a very different story. Under braking the rear loses grip very quickly. At every stop sign I can hear the rear tire start to slide against the pavement and that makes me nervous.
Based on my experience I think that perhaps the best all around tire for a bike this size is the Dunlop 606. I have used these on a wide variety of bikes and they offer a good balance of performance and life expectancy. I know riders who can get an entire season of hard riding out of one 606 front.
The first couple of rides, before doing any modifications, were a bit disappointing. Again, the factory jetting required to make an air-cooled, carbureted bike meet emission standards leads to a very lean-running motor. But as the miles add up, the motor seems to run better and better. After the first 500 miles and a valve adjustment, the engine felt smoother and stronger.
As for the rest of the modifications, most seemed to really contribute to our goals. The suspension, gas tank and bar changes were probably the biggest gains for me. Most everything else were nice touches that just made the package better. While I like the FMF exhaust, it represented the biggest expense and so is a little hard to justify the gain in performance against the cost.
Once all was said and done, the revised XR650L proved to be a great utility bike and offered a base on which to build.
The finished product is a bike that is much more usable than the showroom version of the 650. It rides down the road nicely and makes a great choice for weekend trips. It fits nicely into my own vision of motorcycle freedom; not having to turn back just because the pavement ends. I love to follow those dotted lines on the map just to see what is over the next hill. I now have a number of new routes through areas that I have ridden for years, but never explored because I did not have the right bike for the terrain.
This bike will not compete with the kind of outright performance of the KTM 690 or Husqvarna TE630. But it, along with its fellow Japanese dual-sport bikes, provide a value that is hard to beat. The price of entry is significantly less than the European models.
When you factor in the large supply of aftermarket parts and ease of service, the value becomes even better. Many the modifications that we chose for this project would apply equally well to the Suzuki DR650 and Kawasaki KLR650.
For absolute utility, this bike scores very high marks. It will be hard to beat the cost-per-mile of ownership. For weekend jaunts to the mountains, commuting and running errands, it is superb. With some street rubber, it will carve a canyon with ridiculous ease – trust me I have been passed by a few of these at times and it will do so without attracting any attention. Slap on some true knobbies and it will be up to any dual-sport ride. Now that I think of it, I was passed by one at the famous LA, Barstow to Vegas ride a few years ago. Turned out it was Scott Summers under the helmet, riding a bone-stock bike.
So, perhaps this is not the ultimate motorcycle or the great adventure bike I wish Honda would offer, but it does show that there are many ways to have fun on a bike and even be practical in the process. I probably could have shaved a few dollars off the modifications that we made, but they help to demonstrate some of the options for the ever popular Honda XR650L. So treat it as guide for building your perfect budget adventure bike.