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2009 Honda XR650L Project Bike Part 1

Friday, November 19, 2010
Adventure on a Budget
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2009 Honda XR650L Project Bike - Part 1
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Check out our initial evaluation of the Honda XR650L in the 2009 Honda XR650L First Ride Video.

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.
Honda XR650L Project Bike
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. 
Honda XR650L Project Bike
After a few days of riding the 650L our contributor found the XR to have little vibration and a solid chassis design.
Honda XR650L Project Bike
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.
Honda XR650L Project Bike
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.
Honda XR650L Project Bike
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).
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Mauiboy -Most reliable dual sport on the market  January 11, 2011 10:58 PM
I bought my xr650l in 2005. I just use it for a commute bike and it has never let me down. It has 57,000 miles on it and other then a chain and tires and regular oil change that is all it has needed. It still has the original clutch. Needless to say, Honda`s are the best in my book.
Al Reesor -XR 650 L  December 9, 2010 12:32 PM
I'm glad you are doing a project on this bike. I just bought an 08 last year and think it is an underrated bike. It's impressive off-road with knobbies, better handlebars, and a bigger rear sprocket. This year I put on a Clarke 4.7 gal. tank and twin air air filter. Haven't done anything else yet. Yes, I want more power yet keeping it reliable is important. The seat is comfortable for me. The only complaint I have is putting on the side cover after cleaning the air filter or taking off the battery, seems difficult. It's a better road bike than my DRZ 400 s and just as good off road. Look forward to seeing the improvements.
Jeff -Great stuff..  November 29, 2010 08:10 AM
I just bought a 650L myself and I'm loving it for the same reasons mentioned in this article. I had a 950 Adventure and while it was an incredible machine, I was always worried about how much it would cost to repair. No such worries on the 650L. Just ride it hard and put it up wet!
andy -lol...  November 27, 2010 11:13 AM
...you can´t polish a turd...not even when you throw lots of money on it!!
Mr. Mike -Short people  November 24, 2010 07:33 AM
I hear and sympathize with people with shorter inseams, but speaking as a tall person I feel that we are often ignored by the MC industry. From my perspective many otherwise great bikes are emasculated to accommodate the height challenged at stop lights, leaving people like me crunched up and uncomfortable for the rest of the ride. Perhaps those that are smaller in stature should be looking at some of the outstanding 250 dual sport bikes available on the market that are sized appropriately for them instead of complaining about the height of the larger displacement bikes.
Brad -yamadog  November 22, 2010 03:38 PM
The real answer is to convince Yamaha to import the Tenere 660..

Wich by the way shares its core motor with the 700R Raptor atv Engine..

Wich means lots of mods available and fuel injection to..
G. Dziuba -Zooba  November 22, 2010 01:58 PM
OK, but this bike's seat height is 37 inches. If you've been looking for as Dual Sport lately, you've encountered the oprions. Suzuki DRZ 37 inches--KTM 450 EXC --39 inches. Plus the seats are vinyl covered 2-4 planks - So where is just ONE mid sized Dual Sport that a normal human being with a 32 in ch inseam and hip bones 13 inches apart can actually ride for 4-5 hours. Hello! Is anyone out there listening??
Mike -Big Red Elephant  November 22, 2010 01:34 PM
Too old, too slow, too heavy. Now that that's been said,...I have to confess I own one and would never sell it!
buzmar -ADV? XR650L?  November 21, 2010 04:47 AM
I guess because there seems to be such a "grey" area using the loosely termed Adventurer/ tourer, you squeak a honda xr650l under that heading. But seriously why do these stories always start out using adventure as the starting point and then switch to needing better performance in the dirt? The author says he already has a Ktm 450 and that has turn signals for the street. When anyone talks about adventure on a budget I imediately go for the Klr650 simply because that is what it is 6gal. tank, tried and true technology and is comfortable. So it is not as great as an XRL in the dirt, but the key words are Avdenture/tourer. I mean seriously folks, If you live in Maine and someone says to you "hey lets ride out to Moab Utah" are you going to grab the XRL650 or the KLR650? I'm just saying... Oh and for what it's worth, you can pick up some reasonably cheap used KLRs as well.
Dan B. -Ex racer, now DS rider from Georgia  November 20, 2010 11:16 AM
I just finished(are they ever?) pretty much the same project, but based on the DR650, since it was a bit more evolved than the XRL, had oil cooling, and what many report is a smoother motor. I found a really superbly kept 2006 for $2700, and put roughly $2500 in mods to get the bike that I was looking for, while knocking roughly 25-30 lbs off of the production version. Very happy with the outcome, which does single track to highway cruising at 80mph, and everything in between. The 17" wheel is no problem, since I run a D606 or T63. Picture in the DR650 thread on advrider, page 1049, post #41955.
Wayne -Cost effective - many mods vs. going upscale?  November 20, 2010 10:42 AM
Good choice on a project bike. Another starting point could be the Husky TE 630 which is a state of the art version of the dirt-minded 650 DS class that lists for $9,000, (only) $2,500 more than the XRL. Out the door prices for both the XRL and TE vary so MSRP may not even be a fair comparison of up front cost but it's as good as any.

It’s real easy to spend $2,500 trying to get the suspension, ergonomics, tank range, and other bits of an old design like the XRL to perform at a higher level when a bike like the TE 630 with only a cheap power up install works so well as sold. It will be interesting to see what you can achieve by being budget minded on the purchase side.

Keep us updated.

OhioPT -Cool Idea  November 20, 2010 06:07 AM
It's nice to see someone in the media paying attention to older, more affordable bikes, as it will appeal to a larger population of the readers (not many people can afford a brand new 690 Enduro or Husky TE630). The XRL is a great, proven platform for a budget bike. Unlike the KLR's, they don't have as many mechanical and build quality issues. It also has better suspension than the KLR or the DR650 (simple cartridge forks vs really old-school damper rods). Some ideas for this series: 1) Of course, carb (and maybe muffler mods), BUT please do these with a gas analyser (i.e., wideband O2 sensor)! Anyone can Google "XR650l carburetor mods" and immediately find recommendations for jetting changes. Simply doing the "status quo" jetting mods will add nothing to our knowledge of this bike. HOWEVER, has anyone actually analysed the A/F ratios to see if these settings are the best possible? A lot of carb mods take a motor that's too lean and make it too rich, resulting in less than optimal performance and economy. My friend has a XRL and this is exactly what happened to his bike after following Dave's carb mods. Same thing happened to me when I rejetted my DRZ400S based on forum recommendations. How about MC USA does us all a favor and actually jets this bike optimally for a change (for whatever altitude you ride most at)? 2) Ergos: the XRL has a rearward weight balance as it is. Combine this with low bars and it's hard to stand and get weight over the front of the bike. Suggested changes here are ROX bar risers (increase height and ALSO allow the bar to be moved more forward) and an oversized aluminum handlebar of your choice, with minimal pullback. The stock seat is fine for most. If you've ever spent any pavement time on an enduro-type dual sport (ie, 450exc), the stock XRL seat is a huge improvement. I doubt Chilly is complaining about seat height, as this isn't an issue for seasoned offroad riders ;) Besides, any mod to improve your reach to the ground has major downsides (less ground clearance and/or less leg room and comfort). 3) Since this is supposed to be an Adventure biased dual sport, maybe add some comfort items like a windscreen, heated grips, and a 12v outlet for GPS. As stated earlier by someone else, perhaps you should also reinforce the subframe for hauling camping gear. If not, something like Wolfman enduro luggage is a nice way to carry just enough gear for a weekend-long camping trip.
snail -seat height  November 19, 2010 09:16 PM
I love this bike but my 30" inseam would not fit the 37" seat height. Help...I will need a platform shoes.
SamXRL -650L  November 19, 2010 08:48 PM
I totally agree with Mark. I too did many of the mods Mark did and have been able to totally transform my ride from a skyhigh short ranged exhaust popping machine to something far-far better. I definitely would recommend carb mods, stronger chain, Clarke gas tank, lowering link of Chilly White is under 5'8" and cosmetic changes in the rear tail-light assembly and fender. I currently have a 60/40 tires on. They are Shinko 705's and work really well for all around riding. It's nice to see the DP's getting some press time!
schickell -good to know bike history  November 19, 2010 07:22 PM
Old is cool again. Hard to kill is a XL trademark (and bad segal movie,lol) that probabally put it ahead of the newer adv bike even before you upgraded the fuel tank ;]. I didn't know about the nx650 before, thx. Recently saw a hawk gt for the first time, surprising to find it didn't sell well?. It's just like having a sv650 12yrs before they were popular. Market timing is important... from what i've learnd from a 30 yr bike mech I know there's a recession that hits the MC industry about every 10 yrs it seems. Some bikes might need to be re-introduced as a good idea before we knew there was a need for it.
mark -XR650L ADV  November 19, 2010 07:04 PM
This will be interesting to watch as I've already done it to an XRL. It's a good basic platform, but has a few big problems that keep it from easily transforming into a good ADV bike. First is the engine -- unless you put a lot of money into a big bore kit, hotter cams, etc, it's always going to be underpowered for those long pavement stretches to get to the interesting riding areas. A related drawback is the lack of a cush drive on the rear hub -- it wears chains and sprockets very quickly. The other big issue is the bike's weak subframe. If you want to carry luggage for a two-week trip, the subframe needs beefing up, which means welding in gussets. On the other hand, there are a lot of things the XRL definitely has going for it. The 18" rear wheel is a big advantage over the DR and KLR, allowing use of the large selection of 140/80-18 DOT dirt tires. The engine may be weak, but it's reliable (assuming it's been rejetted -- stock jetting is dangerously lean), and valve adjustments are super easy. Some basic mods wake up the throttle response, and the tank is easily replaced with a larger one (unfortunately gas mileage is poor compared to, say, a BMW G650 Xchallenge, so range still isn't outstanding). Alternator output is enough to run a GPS, heated grips, and a heated vest, though nothing more than that. And the XRL handles really well both on pavement and off. Definitely have to disagree on the seat though -- mine was a torture device when riding more than an hour. The foam was too soft and would compress completely, leaving me basically sitting on the seat pan. I sent it to Renazco Racing for reupholstering, and the resulting custom seat is a huge improvement -- all-day comfortable and shaped much better for long rides. The only thing I feel is really lacking in my resulting XR650L ADV is the engine. It would be really nice to have the power of one of the European 650-class dual-sports, ie, a little over 50hp. That would make those long pavement stretches a lot more pleasant. But aside from that, the XRL does the trick surprisingly well -- well enough that I had a lot of fun taking it over the Trans-Labrador Highway and through Newfoundland last year.