MCN Fleet: time to wash and go
It’s time to wave goodbye to the Honda CBR650R and I’ll be really sad to see it go.
One of my concerns at the start of this long-term test was that the CBR would be too soulless for me – and it’s not the sort of bike that makes your tingly bits tingle – but that doesn’t mean it has no personality.
- First impressions
- Can you tour on a CBR650R?
- CBR650R trackday
- Fitting crash protection and a tail tidy
- CBR650R vs CBR600RR
- CBR650R tyre comparison
- Riding the Honda CBR650R through winter
The charisma of this bike is wrapped up in its ability to do everything. Honda have nailed the sweet spot between performance and practicality, meaning there’s never a feeling of disappointing compromise.
I’ve covered just shy of 20,000 trouble-free miles on the Honda and in that time I’ve done my first trackday on two wheels, experienced the thrill of introducing my knee sliders to tarmac for the first time and toured Europe in comfort.
The 650 doesn’t hold a candle to a full-fat, screaming supersport like the old CBR600RR in terms of performance but I know which I’d rather have loaded with luggage in the rain-soaked Pyrenees.
And a BMW R1250RS would swallow autobahns more efficiently than the Honda, but I know which I’d rather take on a trackday. And with its 94bhp power output, the Honda can even be restricted and ridden on an A2 licence.
Having said all of that, I don’t covet the CBR like I do other bikes and there’s a part of me that wonders if it’s a little too good. Flaws and imperfections are the interesting parts of people and that’s true of bikes, too. And if all I wanted was ease, comfort and reliability I’d do the unthinkable and buy a car.
I love the more theatrical elements of motorcycling and there’s very little theatre about the Honda. The exhaust is angled up at the rider to try to make up for the engine’s catalysed vocal chords and it sounds OK, but not special. The chassis is sure-footed and flattering, great for those stepping up to a first big bike but a little coddling for the more experienced.
I would absolutely recommend the CBR650R to anyone considering buying one - and I have - but if push came to shove I wouldn’t buy one with my own money at this point in my life.
The bike’s biggest strength –that it can do it all–is also its biggest weakness. But if you need one bike to commute, tour and use as a weekend track toy the Honda should be at the top of your list.
Update 7: Honda CBR650R is climate chameleon
On paper, a 650cc sportsbike should be no fun at all to ride through the winter but actually the Honda CBR650R has really come into its own as the temperature has dropped and the nights have drawn in.
The trusty Honda is my daily commuter and weekend toy rolled into one, so has experienced everything a UK winter can throw at it (apart from snow... yet) and handled it admirably.
When it’s cold on the motorway you wish for a little more wind protection and, although I can tuck behind the screen for short spells, it’s not a comfortable riding position for longer stints. I’ve also been using heated gloves that plug into the bike’s electrical system but still reckon heated grips would be a welcome addition in winter. But apart from these minor grumbles, the Honda’s been a great winter motorcycle.
Impotence is bliss
A lot of the reason for the CBR650R’s usability in poor conditions is that its peak power is pretty modest at 94bhp and fairly high up in the rev range, at 12,000rpm. I’m sure that suggesting a lack of shove is a good thing will make me unpopular in some circles but as the roads get slimy, frozen or even just wet, this modest output is a real strength.
That, combined with suspension that’s built for comfort rather than lap times, means you can ride the CBR surprisingly hard in the wet and enjoy yourself rather than treading on eggshells as you would be on a more focused machine. I’ve only managed to get the traction control to kick in by being unrealistically ham-fisted in low-grip conditions.
I really believe Honda have struck the perfect balance between fun and practicality with this bike. When I think back to the hot, sticky Tarmac and track riding of summer I don’t remember a single time I wished it was any sportier and have not had a single ride this winter that’s made me wish it was any less aggressive.
The old adage that motorcycle headlights can either look good or work well – but not both – is definitely not true of the CBR, either. The mean-looking, Fireblade-esque front-end looks the business in daylight but is also plenty bright enough for the dark nights and mornings of a typical British winter.
Yes, I do get flashed a bit by oncoming traffic, especially if accelerating but I reckon this is a reasonable price to pay for good visibility.
I’ve mentioned before that the dash isn’t bright enough on sunny days, but this also means that it’s not a distraction when you’re riding in the dark. Maybe a day/night mode like you get on other bikes would be a solution.
Built to last
I’m not the most fastidious of motorcycle cleaners and will let a layer of road salt and grime build up between washes. At this time of year, it’s pretty much unavoidable when you cover 300 miles or more per week as I do. But the only part of the bike that seems to suffer is the sidestand, which gums up and becomes too stiff for the return spring to work.
This is easily rectified by cleaning and lubricating but I’ve been needing to do this every few weeks.
But the Honda comes up shiny every time and the only areas that have started to tarnish despite my best efforts with the FS365 have been the pillion footrest hangers, which have started to go a bit furry. Honda have a reputation for top-notch build quality and the CBR definitely lives up to that tradition.
Update 6: Honda CBR650R tyre comparison
One of the drawbacks of the Honda CBR650R was the factory’s choice of OE tyres. The Dunlop D214 Sportmax that came with the bike were adequate in the dry but vague and unpredictable in the wet and cold.
One plus is that they handled the miles really well and I got well over 5000 miles before swapping them because the rear had squared off and I was going on a trackday.
Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa 2 £270 (pair)
The difference in plushness between the Dunlops and the new Pirellis was obvious before I even left the carpark at MCN towers. I floated over the bumps and potholes as if riding on carpet. Despite being a sportier tyre, I was impressed by how well the Rosso Corsas handled the wet when I ventured out onto a sopping Snetterton.
You retain an impressive amount of feel in low-grip conditions, but they really came into their own when the sun came out. The triple compound rear profile and dual compound front means that the softest and stickiest rubber is reserved for edge grip and it inspires so much confidence that you can push beyond your own limits easily.
Bridgestone S22 £249 (pair)
I was sorry to see the Pirellis go, and even more sorry that the weather was going to be getting bad again. Unwilling to cave-in to the will of the seasons entirely and fit a touring tyre, I opted for the new Bridgestone S22 sport.
The most striking difference between the outgoing Pirellis and these S22s is at corner entry. I felt like I was having to push on the bars really hard to get the bike to tip in initially, but once I had it was really easy to hold a line, and easier to make small adjustments mid-corner, too, with the Pirellis feeling a bit flighty by comparison.
The Bridgestones feel more stable in the wet and I can brake and steer harder in rainy conditions than I ever could with the Rosso Corsas, but they also take longer to warm up and you can get caught out on a cold day if you’re impatient.
Overall, for real-world riding, the Bridgestones get my vote. The Pirellis feel great in the warm and dry and I would choose them again for heading to a trackday. But the stability and predictability of the S22s, especially in bad weather makes them a winner for me.
Update 5: It's a CBR6 showdown
The CBR650R is practical, forgiving, comfortable and generates a modest 94bhp. It is a brilliant road bike and ideal for commuting or even touring but anyone serious about riding on track would be better off looking elsewhere.
And because of this and the absence now of a true supersport in Honda’s range, one bike keeps cropping up wherever I go: the late, lamented CBR600RR, as killed off at the end of 2016.
So, to find out what everyone was on about, I borrowed one for a weekend blast around the Yorkshire Dales.
A very different animal
Going straight from 650 to the 600 makes the differences between the two immediately clear – especially the sportier riding position. The 600 is still quite roomy but the reach down to the bars and up to the pegs is much further. And despite there only being four years between them, the 600 feels much older with its no-frills LCD dash and heavy clutch.
But all was forgiven as soon as I pushed the starter and the engine barked into life. My CBR650R isn’t slow by any means, but to me the 118bhp 600 is like a rocket ship – but only when you get the engine spinning.
Pulling out to overtake a slow vehicle can mean dropping all the way to second gear. Out on the open road though, the sound of that screaming engine and top-end delivery is intoxicating, and anywhere near the redline is a life-affirming place to be.
Not a tourer, but not bad
After an hour or so on the 600, I thought I might live to regret riding far. The seat is less comfortable than the 650’s and my knees and wrists were already starting to feel the racier riding position. But any concerns went out the window as soon as I pulled off the motorway on to twistier A and B-roads.
Being further over the front wheel means the bike tips in faster than the 650 but still retains a feeling of stability. At low speeds you also feel every single ripple of Tarmac through its firmer suspension, but start making progress and the 600 scythes through even the bumpiest of corners with poise and finesse.
So how does it compare?
It doesn’t, really. The CBR650R may look as sporty as a Fireblade these days but comparing it to the CBR600RR is like comparing apples and oranges.
The screaming motor in the 600 makes for a truly intoxicating riding experience and just encourages you to ride harder, but if you value your driving licence you can’t ever really let it off the leash.
I covered just over 700 miles across the weekend and, for 99% of the time, I’d have had just as much fun on the 650 and in more comfort. For me, that 1% when the 600 truly dazzles isn’t worth the sacrifice in comfort and risk to my liberty.
But if I were to choose one to take on track I’d take the RR without giving it even a split-second of thought.
It would probably have made more sense to fit crash protection to the CBR before I took it to knee down school and my first trackday, but I kept it shiny side up on both days so there’s no harm done.
Aftermaket parts and accessories for the bike, which is essentially new for 2019, are starting to become available and these engine bars (£175), fork bobbins (£40.99) and radiator guard (£69.98) from EvoTech Performance looked too good to pass up.
What’s more, the firm make a tail tidy (£109.99) to get rid of the extended stock number plate hanger and improve the look of the rear end considerably.
I had already fitted GB Racing engine covers, which I was able to squeeze on without having to remove the fairing (loosening the fasteners gave me just enough room to work in) but there was no chance of managing this with the EvoTech kit.
It’s so unfair(ed)
Fitting instructions are downloaded from the firm’s website and are a mostly pictographic affair. I sometimes found the images a little difficult to decipher, but with a bit of head scratching I was able to work them out.
The easiest job was the front spindle bobbin, so, I tackled that first to bank an easy win. But to fit the radiator guard and engine bars the fairings would need to come off. After a seemingly endless process of unscrewing, unclipping and unhooking, the bellypan was freed off and the fairings relinquished their grip on the frame.
The radiator guard was attached using its own supplied brackets and was simple to fit. The engine bars took a little longer to work out, but once I’d sussed them out they went on smoothly. By far the longest part of the job was the removal and refitting of the bike’s plastics.
Chasten your tail
Fitting the tail tidy means removing the bike’s indicators and fitting them to the new unit, as well as fitting a new number plate light. Once again, everything you need is included in the kit and there’s no need for any wire snipping.
Fitting the tail tidy was a quick and easy job and has improved the look of the bike’s rear end immeasurably. It makes you wonder why Honda went for the extended hanger in the first place.
Update 3: Can you take a Honda CBR650R on track?
As a recent sportsbike convert I had never ventured onto track, so the knowledge that everyone else at the MSVTrackdays novice only day would be in the same boat was reassuring.
And a boat would have been a more appropriate vessel for the morning sessions as a downpour the rider briefing meant the track was soaking wet by the time we headed down pitlane for the first time.
The sighting lap was to be led by an instructor with strict instructions not to overtake. It was red flagged when a rider managed to crash and that pretty much set the tone for the first three twenty-minute sessions.
The final crash of the morning left fluid on the track and so an early lunch was called. So far, I’d learned a little about riding in the wet and exaggerating my body position, but not a lot about the bike.
By the time the afternoon sessions started, the track was essentially dry, with just a few damp patches off the racing line here and there. The Honda really came into its own, in these new grippy conditions, and with far more heat in my Pirelli Diablo Rosso Corsa II tyres than I’d had so far, I went about trying to piece some laps together.
I wasn’t surprised to be out-dragged on Snetterton’s long straights by more focussed machinery (Triumph 675, Honda CBR600RR, Yamaha R6) but I was surprised by how little. And the Honda seemed to be able to get turned faster than a lot of the other bikes, meaning I was able to get the throttle open earlier and blast past at corner exit.
The CBR650R is intended to be a softer offering than the RR was, but it’s plenty stiff enough and powerful enough to take on track. A dedicated trackday goer would doubtless want something more aggressive but as a road bike to use on the occasional trackday the CBR is just about perfect.
The first couple of thousand miles on the Honda had zipped by quite quickly, with most of them being racked up on my commute and a day here and there exploring A and B-roads around Lincolnshire.
As much fun as this was, it never took the bike anywhere near the edge of its comfort zone. A middleweight sportsbike should perform well on twisty back roads, but is it a viable option for touring?
With a slightly less focused approach than the now discontinued Honda CBR600RR, it should be possible to complete long days in the saddle on the 650 and 94bhp should be enough power to cope with the extra weight of the luggage, too.
The route I chose would take me from Calais, down the western coast of France, then along the northern coast of Spain, finishing up in Porto, Portugal. While in Portugal I explored some back roads for a couple of days before setting off home.
I loaded the bike up with a Kriega US-Combo 50, which carried all my camping gear and clothes and an Oxford M30R tank bag for my valuables, tools and maps. Looking fairly well-laden, I set off for Folkestone in the cold and fog, regretting my choice to ride in leathers almost immediately.
By the time I got to France, the weather had brightened up and I rode off the train ready to explore some twisty, rural roads. The CBR was less than its usual, spritely self with the addition of luggage, but I couldn’t believe how agile it remained. The first day’s ride was fairly short and I ended up stopping just south of Rouen.
Day two saw the first bout of what would turn out to be quite persistent rain. This was the first time I felt that the OE Dunlop tyres were coming up a little short. In the sunshine, they coped absolutely fine with the extra weight on racetrack-smooth French tarmac, but once the road got wet it felt like riding on a diesel spill, on an ice rink.
The bad weather broke after lunch and I made it just past Bordeaux. The French countryside is a beautiful place to ride, with smooth, twisty roads broken up by villages that look designed by romance novelists.
Day three started out with packing away a wet tent and setting off in thick fog, so I decided to cut inland and find a twisty route through the Pyrenees. I wasn’t disappointed. You know you have ridden a truly epic road when you find yourself craving a straight and that was beginning to be the case by the time I reached Pamplona.
When I stopped for the night, a storm had moved into northern Spain and this meant setting up camp in the pouring rain. I discovered that since I packed the tent away wet, too, the inside was completely soaked.
I must have look pretty disconsolate, because the first beer I ordered that night was on the house. I slept in my leathers for warmth (which was surprisingly comfortable) before setting off very soggy and cold the following day.
The weather was enough to convince me that I should get on and blast to Porto a day early, so I picked out a straight-ish route through Spain and got on with it. This was, by far, the worst part of the trip; incredibly long, straight roads broken up by abandoned towns.
I saw about 10 or 15 other vehicles on the way through, all of them traffic police, and I couldn’t help but wonder who on earth they were expecting to catch. It was almost like riding through the original Mad Max film, except for the rain, of course.
The day was saved as the sun came out around the Portuguese border, and I made my way along the most beautiful motorway I’ve ever seen. Enormous viaducts span valleys filled with fir trees and the road snakes its way all the way across the country to Porto.
This is where I tested the range of the CBR further than ever before. Due to a lack of fuel stations (I guess because the road was up in the air for so long) and then missing the exit when I eventually found one I pushed the tank to just over 205 miles, by which time the dash was producing a seizure-inducing array of flashes, including the word 'RES' twice, flashing at different speeds, which seemed a bit over the top.
The roads in Portugal are incredible, mile after mile of twists and turns on silky-smooth, often recently resurfaced tarmac with cambered switchbacks thrown in here and there. The only thing that can possibly distract you from the roads is the breath-taking scenery.
The route home took me along the northern coast of Spain (the route I originally planned for the way out). A particular highlight was the coastal road between Bilbao and the French border, which winds its way along the sea front with fast, sweeping bends and glorious coastal views.
My final day’s ride took 12.5 hours including the crossing and by the end I was really ready to get off the bike. Astonishingly, though, I felt fresh enough to get up the following day and give my own Suzuki SV650 a run to the coast, which is a real testament to just how comfortable the CBR is.
With just shy of 3500 miles covered in 13 days, I feel confident to say that the CBR is a great tourer. It’s comfortable for more than eight hours a day, agile and fun on twisty roads, even fully-loaded and has a practical tank range, too.
I can’t wait to see what the CBR is like to ride on a track, because if it’s anywhere near as good as it is on the road then the plucky 650 will be a true all-rounder.
Update 1: Why is the Honda CBR650R right for me?
I’ve always been a fan of bikes with fewer than three cylinders. I learned to ride on a knackered Yamaha XT250, toured North and Central America on an XT660R and my daily commuter for the last year has been a Suzuki SV650. My ‘two-cylinders-max’ approach has served me well but I started to worry that I was missing out.
The CBR seemed the ideal candidate for my first inline-four. The riding position is almost identical to my SV and its 94bhp seemed a manageable step up in power, too. It should be more than capable of doing everything I need, from my daily commute, to longer rides and even a way to get on track for the first time.
The Honda made it to its first 600-mile service after two days riding the MCN250 test route, which takes in just about every terrain from bumpy B-roads to fast A-roads, motorway and town centres.
Compared to what I’m used to, the CBR’s unnervingly quiet and smooth. The clutch is feather-light, the engine whispers through its exhaust and almost no vibration can be felt anywhere.
Honda have angled the exhaust to let more noise reach the rider, presumably so they know the bike is still running! It sounds ok at high revs and there’s a lovely induction growl but it lacks the character of my beloved twins and singles.
Stirring the gears
I’ve also been completely underwhelmed by the CBR’s acceleration and actually had to back out of a couple of overtakes. I couldn’t understand why it felt so much slower than my 18-year-old, high-mileage SV before I realised it was my gear selection.
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We've been exploring B-roads on the #MCNFleet19 @hondaukmotorcycles #CBR650R and even found a beach. Is there a better way to spend a sunny Friday afternoon? The little Honda is almost half-way to its #ride5000miles total now, if you want to know anything about the bike just fire away! . . . .#fridayfeeling #lincolnshire #beach
If you’re following a lorry and an opportunity to nip around it comes up, you need to drop at least two gears, get the engine revving and tap into the power. Once you keep the engine singing it becomes a dream machine, easily gobbling up slow-moving cars.
The only problem is it doesn’t get to sing for very long. The gear shift indicator (a nice touch) illuminates in second gear at 81mph, so by the time you’ve let it off the leash you’ve got to reign it back in again for fear of licence bingo. To really explore the CBR’s performance I need to get it on track. Watch this space.
I think the Honda CBR650R is pretty much the perfect new bike for me right now. Its 94bhp is a nice step up from my usual daily ride (my 2001 SV650S) without being too much of a shock to the system, and it should be similarly well-suited to commuting and weekend blasts.
I ride around 300 commuter miles per week, but also have some longer trips planned this year – including dropping down into Portugal, which should answer questions over its abilities as a sporty tourer.
I also think the CBR650R will be the ideal bike to pop my trackday cherry on. It certainly looks the part, and tests of the old one revealed that it wasn’t much slower than the CBR600RR in talented hands.
- Key stats: • £7729 • 94bhp • 47ftlb • 810mm seat • 207kg (kerb)
- Rider: Ben Clarke (33, 5ft 11in, 95kg)