2008 Honda XR650L

Text: Chris Myers • Photography: Christa Neuhauser

Dual-sport bikes are motorcycling's equivalent of the duckbilled platypus. To the casual observer, they appear to be an oddball amalgam of street and dirt bits cobbled together in packages that are politely described as "utilitarian." Yet to those of us bitten by the D-S bug, utility is beautiful, and style is for everyone else frantically paddling their U-turns back at the "Pavement Ends" sign.

Though most dual-sport machines will never come close to rolling off a moto-pageant runway with the tiara, the genre has exhibited incredible staying power. And just as the roots of the parts-bin platypus can be traced back to fossil records, the Honda XR650L also boasts a long lineage. It's easy to track the genealogy of the 650cc single to the 1979 XL500S. But with a little digging and creative interpretation of the Honda family tree, our big dirt-bike wannabe can tout roots that extend all the way back to the XL250 Motosport of 1972, and even the twin cylinder CL series scramblers of the mid-sixties. Historically, these machines have never been picture-perfect off-road machines. The extra weight of DOT legal equipment such as lights, horn, turn signals, and the battery required to power them combine with lackluster street-knobby tires to nix any serious trail duty. On the other hand, when compared to road-only machines, our dirty doers have always been downright sprightly. So, for those avid off-road riders harboring covert street demon tendencies, these machines have long offered an intoxicating combo.

When it comes to the concept of dual-sport motorcycles, there are basically two trains of thought. Build a street-oriented bike that can be taken on the dirt, or a dirt bike that can be ridden on the street. The former seems to be the most popular, with bikes like Kawasaki's KLR650 and BMW's GS series as both top sellers and popular choices for numerous globetrotters. The latter category, on the other hand, perfectly defines the XR650L. With one glance, it's quite obvious that pavement duty is more an afterthought than a design imperative. With suspension travel figures that flirt with the one-foot mark and a 37-inch seat height, this machine is not for everybody. Even at 5'-10" and sporting a 32-inch inseam, it's all I can do to get both toes on the ground. This physical attribute alone assures that only the heartiest (craziest?) riders will see Red. Maybe that's why most XR650L riders are far more likely to be found flinging rooster-tails in the Mojave, pogoing up power lines, or surveying Forest Service roads than searching out Internet cafes in Katmandu.

One Piston

The heart of the beast is Honda's time-tested, bulletproof 644cc, four-stroke, air-cooled single. Boasting a race-tested heritage that includes numerous cross-country wins on the famed Baja Peninsula, the XR-L naturally possesses a delightfully unrefined personality. The 42.5mm CV carburetor delivers crisp throttle response at any rpm, conveying buckets of torque at the rider's beck and call, and all of this stump-pulling power comes in handy whether powering up a muddy creek bank, or hammering the apexes of the local twisties. Those wheelies so readily pulled to rear clear of logs and roots on the trail prove a wicked temptation once back on the street too. Start-ups are a breeze: just engage the handlebar-mounted choke lever and punch the button. Yes, electric starters are godsends, as anyone old enough to remember labor-intensive episodes of having to kick over big-bore singles will attest.

When the road opens up, the big single handles highway speeds with ease. Granted, vibrations through the bars can become a bit challenging on protracted stints above 65 mph, but that's all the more reason to avoid the slab. On the back roads, the easily modulated power is a sheer joy and, barring any long straights, a properly ridden XR650L can easily frustrate more than a few sportbike guys.

Down in the gearbox, the five-speed tranny has exhibited no problems, holding up admirably to the rigors of the street and trail. The cable-actuated heavy-duty clutch is remarkably compliant and with over 5,000 miles logged, it has yet to require the first adjustment.

Strong As Steel

The XR650L is indeed a dirt bike first and has the stout frame and chassis components to prove it. Though lacking the modernity of the lightweight perimeter frames used in today's competition off-roaders, the steel semi-double-cradle unit does a fine job. Handling in the rough stuff is remarkably stable and precise for a bike this size. And let's pull no punches here, for a trail bike the XR-L is heavy, tipping the scales at 346 pounds ready to ride. On the tighter paths here in the east, it has the potential to be a real handful, especially on the stock street knobs. But thanks to a serious dirt suspension featuring compression-damping, adjustable 43mm Showa forks and a Pro-Link® single-shock in the rear, a deft rider can maneuver the 650 through some pretty nasty stuff with surprising ease. The addition of more aggressive knobbies can surely net an even better feel in the woods.

When the trail ends and it's time to go home, the fun is far from over. Though the dirt is the XR-L's preferred patch, it is a remarkably capable pavement-shredder too. The tall nature of the bike seats the rider well above all but the highest SUVs. And with the lengthy, progressive suspension, even the nastiest pavement imperfections are sucked up with ease. The brakes, one disc on each end with a twin-piston caliper up front and single piston in the rear, are perfectly competent on and off road. Only after the hardest super-moto style floggings do they begin to feel a little vague. In fact, one of the biggest problems with riding the 650 on the street is that deliciously wicked feeling that you're getting away with something. After years spent being hassled by "the man" for riding dirt bikes on the street, being XR-legal feels oh-so fine.

Pick A Road, Any Road

For the right person (long-legged, used to the tall nature of real dirt bikes, or a little of both), the XR650L is an absolute hoot. As for amenities, let's get back to that real dirt-bike thing. The small analog speedo is center mounted, fairly easy to read, and even has a tripmeter that can be reset. Other than that, there isn't much. Four, single idiot lights for neutral, high beam, side stand, and turn signals are the only other signs of civilization. If you're looking for an oil level light - well, on the XR it's called the dipstick and it ought to be checked at every fill up. Our model had a tendency to use a little oil on occasion, especially after harder floggings. That's not terribly unusual for a big, air-cooled single, but it is something to keep in mind.

The bike also comes equipped with passenger pegs that are easily removable. My usually hearty co-pilot swore off pillion after two futile attempts. But that's probably not a bad thing, as trail riding two-up can become an unpleasant chore. For the rider, the seat is not the cushiest on the market, but it's certainly not a torture rack either. On my "end," 300 to 400 mile days have been done, and there are plenty more in the planning stages.

One major complaint, however, is the tiny 2.8-gallon steel gas tank. Clarke Manufacturing (www.clarkemfg.com) can lighten the load and extend range with plastic 4 and 4.7-gallon tanks. Though gas mileage is generally quite good, it will vary considerably depending on how the bike is ridden. Pure street riding at or near posted speed limits will net results close to 50 mpg. Throw in a good dose of dirt, and that figure will drop to 35-40 mpg. Then again, when a bike is this entertaining, even $ 4 per gallon for gas becomes irrelevant.

Some things never change, and the spirit of the dual-sport truly lives on in Honda's XR650L. Yeah, it does take a bit of gymnastic flexibility to throw a leg over the saddle, but the effort is more than worth it. Also, scads of upgrades from mechanical improvements to luggage options are available for the XR-L, one of the advantages of having a model that's been around from time immemorial. So, if a dirt bike for the street sounds like a fine excuse to wile away an afternoon, a week, or an extended vacation, this reasonably priced Honda opens up countless new opportunities.