'Old school' Honda XR650L no dinosaurComment on this story
You can call it the last of the big-single beetle-crushers, or you can call it a dinosaur, as many do. The Honda XR650L has its roots in the 1980s, before BMW and KTM made quarter-tonne adventure-bikes fashionable, and in many ways it's ridiculously old-fashioned - but it works, and it goes on working, and that counts for a lot.
We are talking about a 644cc, air-cooled, carburettor-fed, steel-framed, barely street-legal enduro bike - the kind that used to win the Baja and the Dakar, could be serviced with a shifting-spanner at the side of the road and seemed to go on forever.
It's loud and rattly, power-thuds intimidatingly at low revs and by today's standards it's a little crudely put together - but all the things that made bikes like this great back then are still valid today.
It's light (157kg), quick-steering and very nimble, which is as much of an advantage in Friday afternoon's rat run as it is on Sunday morning's trail run, it's very robust (all the bodywork except the steel fuel tank is colour-impregnated plastic and practically scratchproof) and it has the mid-range acceleration of an Exocet missile - for about 15 milliseconds.
Then the 100 x 82mm single runs out of steam, the front wheel comes back down, you hoof it up a gear and hit it again, until you're doing 130km/h in top, in about as much time as it takes to read this paragraph - and about the length of one city block.
CLUTCH REDUNDANT ON UPSHIFTS AND OPTIONAL GOING DOWN
If you crouch down behind the little flyscreen, hold on to the wide, wide 'bars with your fingertips and wait, it will build up to a true 155km/h, with about 165 on the little speedometer under your nose, and without sounding particularly stressed.
The clutch is light, with a (very) firm final take-up, the five-speed gearbox crisp and positive, albeit a little noisy at low revs. So positive, in fact, that the clutch is redundant on upshifts and optional going down, never missing a shift throughout the test, even at full tilt boogie.
But that's not what this bike is about. On the road, it'll cruise nicely 10 clicks on either side of the national speed limit, it laughs off our bumpy test section thanks to supple, long-travel enduro suspension, and its only limitation around the long fast sweeps of our ride and handling course is the squirming of the dual-purpose tyres.
That said, even the old-fashioned twin-piston, floating-calliper 240mm front disc is enough to induce extravagant amounts of nose dive, and make the front end a little twitchy, with the application of just two fingers.
The big Honda is remarkably surefooted on decent gravel roads, a little less so on sandy jeep-tracks and foot-paths. The huge ground clearance Honda claims as one of the XR650L's key features actually works against it, in that its equally vertiginous 939mm saddle height makes it impossible for an average-sized rider to reach the ground for a quick dab when the bike threatens to get out of shape.
EASY TO RIDE
Nevertheless, it is so much easier to ride off the tar than any of the current crop of 'adventure tourers' that one begins to wonder what we have given up in search of globe-spanning range and comfort.
Ah yes, comfort. Not this bike's strong suit. The long, narrow saddle is flat, firm and smoothly squared off, to make it easier for enduro riders to slide forwards for berms and rearwards for jumps. It's OK for round town or a couple of hours' green-laning but, on the open road, you'll be glad when the 13-litre fuel tank goes on to reserve after about 180km and calls a temporary halt to proceedings.
Neither engine, 'bars, nor 'pegs are rubber-mounted so, whatever the engine has to say, you'll feel via your extremities - including the one you sit on.
So, it's not a tourer, and it's not a year-round commuter because those knobblies are going to be (at best) unpredictable in the wet. Even on tar it's like a living thing, moving around under you and reacting to every rider input like an excited puppy.
But it's easier to ride than it looks (although its saddle height can be an issue for those of us with less-than-extreme inseams) and it's surprisingly economical, averaging 5.6 litres per 100km across a week of mixed commuting, gentle off-roading and performance testing. It's also as tough as nails and likely to go forever. Is it old-fashioned? Yes. Is it outdated? Absolutely not.
Price: R55 000.
Bike from: Honda SA
Engine: 644cc Air-cooled single-cylinder four-stroke.
Bore x stroke: 100 x 82mm.
Compression ratio: 8.3:1.
Valvegear: SOHC with four radially spaced overhead valves per cylinder.
Power: 29.1kW at 6000rpm.
Torque: 50.2Nm at 5000rpm.
Induction: 42.5mm CV carburettor.
Ignition: Solid-state capacitor discharge with electronic advance.
Clutch: Cable-operated multiplate wet clutch.
Transmission: Five-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by 520 chain.
Front Suspension: 43mm air-adjustable leading-axle Showa cartridge forks adjustable for compression damping.
Rear Suspension: Gas-charged Showa monoshock with piggyback reservoir, adjustable for preload, compression and rebound damping.
Front brakes: 240mm disc with twin-piston Nissin floating calliper.
Rear brake: 220mm disc with single-piston floating calliper.
Front tyre: 3.00-21 tube type.
Rear tyre: 4.60-18 tube type.
Seat height: 939mm.
Kerb weight: 157kg.
Fuel tank: 13 litres.
Top speed (measured): 155km/h.
Fuel consumption (measured): 5.6 litres per 100km.
Warranty: Two years unlimited distance.
Service intervals: 6000km.
Price: R55 000.
Bike from: Honda SA.