The Honda XR650L is a benchmark for the dual-sport class as it eats Baja races for breakfast and yet chooses to take its act on the streets, dirt roads, remote trails and forgotten byways. For 2009, Honda continues production relying on a powerful, electrically started motor and on a rigid, but versatile chassis, ending into the most notorious do-it-all motorcycle out there.
It may not look like the most attractive motorbike you’ve seen and it actually isn’t. Instead, what’s interesting about the XR is the always successful combination of power, torque and handling on virtually all riding surfaces possible. The engine is a potent air-cooled, 644cc, dry-sump, four-stroke single with SOHC, Radial Four-Valve Combustion Chamber. This unit provides excellent grunt at all rpm levels without the implicit vibrations and bringing the comfort of an electric start system on work horses such as this one.
Meeting the engine’s demands in what concerns stability, practicability and ease of handling is the semi-double-cradle steel frame working closely together with the long travel (11.6 inches front and 11.0 inches rear) Showa suspension. Also, with a 27 degree rake and 13 inches of ground clearance, you know that this is serious business underneath you and must be treated as such.
Having created the XR650L as a winning combination from the very beginning, Honda rarely reconsiders the approach towards its dual-sport banger.
The Honda XR650L would have first made an entry on the incredibly demanding market in 1993 and it was derived from the XR600R model which made serious impression all through the 1990s when it was produced and successfully raced in Baja 1000. The engine on the XR650L was an air-cooled, 644cc, dry sump, single-cylinder, SOHC, RFVC which transmitted the best of power and torque through a five-speed gearbox. Although the engine on the XR650R would have been liquid-cooled, the “L” model’s 40 horsepower and 105 mph top speed seemed more than enough for the streets and dirt roads despite the fact it reached a 350 lbs wet weight because of the addition of an electric starter, headlight, taillight, turn signals and mirrors.
With those pieces mounted on the bike, Honda pretty much figured out how their new race-derived model will look like and it did so all through the 1990s with only color scheme changes. For 1993, they had it Shasta White with Rainbow Blue colored. 1994 brought the Shasta White with Capri Blue scheme. This was to be changed in Shasta White with Uranus Violet for 1995 and 1996. Finally, they went for the simple Shasta White color scheme starting with 1997.
The new millennium lined up the XR with the rest of Honda’s off-road bikes. This meant adding the Red and White color scheme which is kept until this day.
Suzuki seems to be keen on getting a slice of the pie and the 2009 DR650SE is the model helping them achieve that. Like the Honda, this Suzi combines off- with on-road performance with the help of an air-cooled 644cc, four-stroke single, SOHC engine that had proven its efficiency in both environments. In this category, the five-speed tranny is a must and the Suzuki DR650SE sure has it, as it has the electronic ignition and the Mikuni carburetor. With rigid steel frame and suspensions, 1.6-inch adjustable seat height and only 10.7 inches of ground clearance, the 2009 Suzuki DR650SE is a decent alternative to the XR. MSRP is $5,299.
Probably the best looking 650cc dual-purpose motorcycle in 2009 is the Kawasaki KLR650. This bike is so into wind protection and comfort that it features a massive half fairing with implemented headlight as well as a plush seat for those day-long rides. It sure looks like the adequate bike to make an impression against the Honda so let’s see what backs it up. Ouch! The engine is a liquid-cooled 651cc, four-stroke, DOHC, four-stroke single fed through a Keihin carburetor so it seems that Kawi went all the way when creating this KLR model. It is strongly recommended that you don’t confuse it with a sport-touring motorcycle as it is far from being that and the $5,599 MSRP confirms.
Honda may not be that much into styling as Kawasaki is and that is all because of the race features. They try to keep the body as light as possible without going for an aluminum frame which is so uncharacteristic for the given category. As a result, all pieces are individualized and not unified into a half fairing like on the KLR650.
The headlight features a white housing, which is also the dominating color of the bike’s rear end, and hand guards, like most dual-sport motorcycles do. The front fender is nicely contoured around a 21-inch wheel and that’s pretty much it for the front end.
Red painted and covered in graphics, the 2.8 gallons gas tank is compact and aggressive, exactly what you would find on a Baja 1000 competitor. The seat molds perfectly on it, indicating the perfect place for the rider to be positioned in a comfier riding position. There is also room for a passenger and on the right rider side you’ll find a machine gun for an exhaust.
At the rear end, the taillight is high-mounted for greater visibility.
Overall, the XR650L looks like the definition of adventure motorcycles and quite frankly, I’ll have it over the KLR650 anytime.
The Honda XR650L is an absolute blast to ride from the very first moment you get on it and no matter where, street or dirt road. The first thing that strikes you is the 37 inches high seat which is more than I would have needed, but the perfect thing for tall riders. In my case, the street was the surface on which I’ve first met the XRL as I was the first to take the bike over. Starting is the easiest thing with the help of a push button and the big four-stroke single starts providing a very strong and potent exhaust note straight from idling engine speeds.
I let the motor worm up a little bit and away I went for the highway. Passing through some tight sections on my way there showed the bike’s ease of handling at low speeds. I was pretty doubtful in what concerned the handling characteristics at higher speeds due to the high center of gravity and all-road rubber, but I must say that at a constant speed of 65 mph, it is very easy to switch lanes and go around other vehicles on the road.
The engine is consequent in delivering the best of torque at low revs so cruising in fifth gear is the recommended solution on your way to the sand dunes. Hit forth gear and go all the way up to 70 mph and you’ll be certain that single-cylinder engines do vibrate when pushed all the way up to their rev limits. In this case it is a boring buzz coming through the handlebars and which becomes insignificant when shifting.
In order to experience as much of XR’s on-road capabilities, I choose to cover as much distance as possible in its seat and after some good 80 miles of highway, I felt like I could really use a refreshing drink break. The seat feels like it could easily have you do 100 miles without stopping, but after the first 40 miles or so you start wondering if that’s really possible. In my case it wasn’t.
Finally spotting a country road, I went on that and waited for the first impression and nothing. How come? Apparently, that was too easy for the king of Baja and the long travel suspension soaked that spotless so I was surely going for the serious stuff. Not being a dirt bike, the mud sure gave it and me a nice challenge, but yet again the tires weren’t the adequate ones and went on cleaning the thing by passing a river. This is where the high ground clearance not only kept my knees dry, but made me realize how easy I was taking it.
A real work horse, the Honda XR650L will easily go over logs and climb steep hills so if you choose to do that on its seat, I recommend special off-road tires in order to get the best results. The long travel suspension allowed me to make it the winner of an impressive jumping session in which the Suzuki DR650SE and Kawasaki KLR650 were the major opponents. None of its competitors manage to perform as good as the XLR in the tough terrains and that’s easy to understand as this bike is built to endure.
The disc brakes are highly effective and reassuring so any courageous incursion can easily be put to a stop. Just make sure you’re not riding on wet rocks or anything like that because you’ll have a surprise.
Also, another highly effective lever, but on that doesn’t stop you is the clutch. I must say that without a heavy duty clutch the riding wouldn’t feel so inviting. On the road, you simply can’t spot its effectiveness, but once you go off-road, the smooth engaging and strong feel in the lever is almost equal to the one you get when accelerating. Simply awesome!
Overall, the Honda XR650L is an unbeatable adventure bike no matter where you choose to ride it. On this thing, fun and entertaining is only matched by reliability and affordability.
The 2009 Honda XR650L is not only competitive in what concerns road behavior, comfort and endurance. Clearly superior to the Suzuki and Kawasaki, the 2009 Honda XR650L comes with a $5,999 MSRP, showing that going with the best isn’t necessarily a very expensive choice, but more of a necessary one.
With the 2009 XR650L, Honda shows that not the long years of refinement make the difference, but getting the combination successful from the beginning. There aren’t many motorcycles like it on the road today and we reckon they won’t be any new ones long time from now.
Engine and Transmission
Type: air-cooled, dry-sump, single-cylinder four-stroke
Bore and Stroke: 100mm x 82mm
Compression Ratio: 8.3:1
Valve Train: SOHC; four-valve RFVC
Induction: Single 34mm constant-velocity carburetor
Ignition: Solid-state CD with electronic advance
Final Drive: #520 O-ring - sealed chain; 15T/45T
Chassis and Dimensions
Suspension Front: 43mm air-adjustable leading-axle Showa cartridge fork with 16-position compression damping adjustability; 11.6 inches travel
Rear: Pro-Link Showa single shock with spring preload, 20-position compression and 20-position rebound damping adjustability; 11.0 inches travel
Brakes Front: Single disc with twin-piston caliper
Rear: Single disc
Tires Front: 3.00-21
Wheelbase: 57.3 inches
Rake (Caster Angle): 27.0o
Trail: 102mm (4.0 inches)
Seat Height: 37.0 inches
Ground Clearance: 13.0 inches
Fuel Capacity: 2.8 gallons, including 0.6-gallon reserve
Curb Weight: 346 pounds