They say you meet the nicest people on a Honda, but I’ve been riding the CB650R in the middle of a global pandemic, and the last thing I want to do is interact with strangers. In this case, I used this Honda to avoid civilization altogether.
This high-revving escape pod was actually a pretty perfect way to isolate from the world and do a little exploring. And while everything has continued to go to hell around me, these voyages into the unknown have helped keep the cliffs of my mind from crumbling into the sea of despair.
(Full Disclosure: Honda asked if I might like to ride something from its current motorcycle lineup. We settled on this CB650R and a little Grom for a couple of months of Honda-filled fun. Both bikes were delivered to my door full of gasoline. I have since emptied and refilled both tanks numerous times. I returned both bikes in the same condition they were in when I took delivery.)
The Honda CB650R is smack in the middle of the Japanese manufacturer’s Neo Sports Cafe lineup of upright naked sport bikes, splitting the difference between the CB300R and the CB1000R. Stylistically, this lineup is exactly what it says on the box: Cafe-style upright bikes with low handlebars and mid-controls wrapped in wicked futuristic design. It’s an acquired taste that seems to have embedded itself deep into my psyche.
With a 94-horsepower 649cc water-cooled DOHC inline-four and a six-speed manual gearbox on centerpiece display in this 447-pound motorcycle, the CBR has all of the ingredients to be an unruly screaming monster.
And sure, it’ll wail bloody murder when you rev it out to its 13,000ish RPM redline. And yes, max HP is found at 10,000 of those revs. But this isn’t an all-or-nothing bike. It’s got a decent bit of grunt that makes for a usable around town demeanor. It used to be that high-strung bikes sacrificed low-rev tractability for high-rpm fun, but now you can get you a bike that does both.
I actually found the CB easiest to ride around 7,000 RPM, which is below both its peak horsepower and peak torque. Beyond that, the bike tends to get a little buzzy, particularly in the seat. The first time you hit that particular resonance frequency that sees your bits vibrate in time with the fuel tank it’s a surprise.
Honda will sell you this bike in only one color, so it’s a damn good thing it looks good in Chromosphere Red with copper accents everywhere. God, those accents. Everything from the wheels to the cam cover to the transmission case is painted in that glorious shade. The red tank looks great on its own with metal flake for days and seemingly 1,644 feet of depth to match Lake Tahoe itself.
And don’t even get me started on the piece of art that Honda calls a four-into-one header.
Having spent some time with it—maybe it’s love, maybe it’s Stockholm syndrome—this bike has visual character that hasn’t been seen since the original 1981 GSX 1100SX Suzuki Katana. Write all the hate comments you want, you can’t change my mind.
I’ve been putting a lot of miles on motorcycles with big displacement lately, so it was an absolute delight to swing a leg over a high-strung 650 again. I see the CB650R as the motorcycle analog to Mazda’s delightful MX-5 Miata. Everyone says Miata Is Always The Answer, and it’s possible that if you were to transfer that to the two-wheel world, the CB650R becomes the result. It’s such a jack-of-all-trades motorcycle that you really can use it for any occasion. It is as much at home popping down to the grocery store as it is ripping off laps on a track day. It’s not the fastest thing in the world, but it’s so light and nimble that anyone can have fun on it if they keep an open mind.
There’s so much fun to be had in a weekend of riding on the CB, you just have to know where to look. I took a particularly lazy Sunday as an opportunity to head for new territory. I threw a sack lunch in a backpack, pumped RTJ4 into my Bluetooth helmet headset, and plugged a tiny California mountain town into Waze with the “avoid freeways” setting selected. Riders like to say that the mountains of California’s Coast Ranges or the Appalachians have the best roads in the world, but I’d put the incredible forest-lined two-lanes of the northern Sierras up against any of them.
My chosen route took me south out of Reno, up highway 431 to Lake Tahoe. I skirted the lake for a bit until the cutoff to Truckee and bopped up California 89 to Sierraville before heading west to Downieville on 49. A few stops off the route to visit lakes, rivers, and waterfalls were well worth the extra mileage. All of that added up to a great day of head-clearing riding. It’s hard to do these days, but try to find your Zen.
From the very first mile, it is obvious that this is a very confidence-inspiring motorcycle. Because it is relatively lightweight and doesn’t kick you in the back with torque, it’s easy to inch your way up the rev range as you become more comfortable in its hands. The turn-in is basically as sharp as you want it to be. The tires are grippy enough and provide enough feel for their grip level that you always know where your relationship with the pavement stands.
You shouldn’t expect to set any track records on this little 650, but if you’re new to track days you’ll probably come out the other side unscathed. This is one of those rare bikes that you could probably buy as your first motorcycle and be perfectly content with it as a daily rider for a long time. As your talent increases, this bike will still let you have a ton of fun. You won’t be begging for a liter bike after a year of riding, like some other middleweight bikes might leave you.
The brakes are good. The power is good. The handling is good. The ergos are good. The gas mileage good—fuel economy in the mid-40s is in line with other 600-class bikes but with way more power and speed than much of the competition. The range is good. There are so few things to complain about when riding this bike that it honestly might be the perfect every person bike. Unless you want a bike that can go in the dirt, this is good enough at everything that most riders will be perfectly satisfied astride the CB650R.
Will it break the ton? Yeah. Will it wheelie? Yeah. Why would you need more than that?
As I’ve already said, there’s nothing that stands out as particularly great about this bike, it’s just baseline good at everything, which makes it great as a whole, you know?
You can ride this bike two different ways. Below 6,000 RPM it’s comfortable and calm, just chugging along and treating you right. Above 7,000 RPM you can really grab this moto by its mane and kick it into a full-out sprint. You have to have your wits about you, but high rip ’em riding has its own rewards. The throttle response here is just next-level good.
Shifting this bike is sublime. It just clicks into place with the precision of a high-end timepiece. It’s finely tuned to provide quick and easy shifts. I never once missed a shift or found a false neutral.
Ergonomically, this bike is a dream. The mirrors offer good visibility to what’s behind. The footpegs are a little more aggressive — positioned up and back — than you’d expect on a mid-controls naked bike, but the placement is in tune with the bike’s demeanor and remains comfortable even after hours of riding. My butt begins to hurt at around the three-hour mark, but with a few stops to stretch I can easily keep riding well past the six-hour mark.
And—no small matter—it sounds good.
I don’t love the gauge cluster. With a monochromatic display and a very shiny surface, it’s difficult to read in direct sunlight. After you get to know the bike, you aren’t looking down much anyway, but when you do it looks a little cheap in comparison to the rest of the bike.
The lackluster cluster is especially egregious when taking into account the CB650R ABS model’s $9,199 list price. In 2019 you could get a non-ABS CB for $8,899, but that’s gone for 2020. Compare that to Kawasaki’s Z650 ABS, which has a full-color display at a starting price of just $7,649, and it becomes downright unacceptable. I think I would have preferred an old-school needle gauge on this one, Honda.
Again, for the price, I would have expected cruise control. It’s not a problem around town or on the mountain roads, but those highway transit stages could use a cruise. And oh, a USB charger would be nice.
And of course with the little fairing this issue has been fixed, but the bike whistles a lot in stock form. Adding that little smoked window on the front not only makes it look a little cooler, but it has a lot of functionality, too, moving the air stream further up and around your chest.
The 32-inch seat height was plenty low enough for me at 6-foot-2 with a 30-inch inseam, but short-legged riders might find stoplights difficult.
And I think... that’s pretty much it! Not much bad to say about this one. If you’re looking for a middleweight naked that revs to the moon and back, you could do a whole lot worse than the Honda CB650R. Whether you’re new to riding, or it’s old hat for you, you’ll have fun on this machine. I can’t guarantee much, but I can guarantee that.