By: Paul Carruthers
Which one? That’s likely to be the biggest question buyers of Honda’s new line of middleweight streetbikes will face. After all, there are three of them all built around the same engine platform with all three having the same objective and screaming the same company line: Get more people on motorcycles. More specifically, Honda motorcycles.
With the all-new full-fairing CBR500R and the naked-version CB500F rolling into dealerships as this is being written, and with the adventure-driven CB500X roughly 45 days from making its way to the showroom floor, Honda let us loose for a short, half-day ride on the CBR500R and CB500F (we’re hopeful of getting a go on the X model in the not-too-distant future) in Southern California to see what we thought.
What we came away with is pretty simple, much like the CBs themselves: Honda is giving us a lot of motorcycle for not a lot of money. It’s rare that when you write about new motorcycles that you mention the price of the bike anywhere near the top of the story, but with these new Honda you have to so here goes: The CB500F will retail for $5499 with the sportier CBR500R going for $5999. Want ABS? Just add $500. So in the case of the F model, you can get a full-sized, quality built, fuel-injected, ABS-equipped motorcycle for a cup of coffee under $6000. So who says there’s not an upside to a crap economy?
All three of the CBs are new from the ground up – middleweights using a brand-new liquid-cooled 471cc parallel twin and built from the ground up in Honda’s factory in Thailand. And if negativity starts to creep in when you think of the bikes being built there, it shouldn’t. And it will go away once you look closely at the new bikes. They have the same fit and finish Hondas have always been known for – and packaged in a light, comfortable and easy-to-ride package that’s priced to sell.
And who will they sell to? According to Honda, the F model has been targeted at the 20-30 year old new rider who likes social riding, but doesn’t plan on piling on the miles. The R model is for the 20-40 year old who wants Supersport styling – perhaps a more experienced rider looking for value and still wanting to work the winding roads.
The bikes are built around the new 180-degree parallel twin, an eight-valve powerplant that features a gear-driven counterbalance that helps make the CBs almost electric like in smoothness. The twin also uses roller-bearing rocker arms and grooved pistons and a new air-box that gets a guide plate that separates the airflow evenly to each cylinder. Part of the lure of any entry-level motorcycle should be its serviceability and Honda says the CBs will only require valve adjustments every 16,000 miles – after the initial 800-mile service.
The new Hondas will also get an estimated 71 miles per gallon from the 4.1-gallon fuel tank, according to Honda.
The engine is rigidly mounted as a fully stressed component of the chassis, which is constructed of 35mm diameter steel tubing.
When you throw your leg over the either of the new bikes, you first notice that the seat height is low at 30.9 inches and I could touch flat-footed – despite being just 5’ 8”. I started my ride on the CBR500R and even though it’s racier than the F, it’s still plenty comfortable. I’ll admit to liking the riding position on the naked F better, however, with its bars 40mm wider and 49mm higher.
Put both bikes in gear and feed out the light-action clutch and you first notice how truly smooth the motor is. As is the case with all Hondas, the shifting of the six-speed transmission is flawless as you cruise along through city streets – stop sign to stop sign out of Torrance, California, the home of American Honda’s headquarters. Although the twin is smooth and forgiving, it’s got enough punch to still make it enjoyable for experienced riders as well as newbies.
Suspension the new Hondas is surprisingly plush for what is a basic nine-way spring pre-load adjustable Showa monoshock at the rear, the 4.7 inches of travel doing its job of soaking up the potholes of Torrance. The fork is a 41mm Showa (4.3 inches of travel) that also performed well in the conditions in which we rode the bikes. The bike is plenty stable with a wheelbase of 55.5 inches, but still flicked side to side with ease through some of the twisty roads we took through Palos Verdes on our short ride.
The brakes are also fairly basic but work well – a twin-piston caliper with single 320mm wave disc up front and a single-piston caliper 240mm wave disc on the rear doing a good job of stopping the 425-pound bikes (429 pounds with ABS). While ABS comes standard on both the new Hondas in Europe, it’s an option in the U.S. and one that probably should be looked at by purchasers – especially beginner riders as there’s little argument that ABS works well as a safety measure. As mentioned earlier, ABS will cost you an extra $500.
Switching back and forth between the two models on our ride showed the real difference between the R-model and the F-version and that’s the riding position. The one-piece handlebar on the F sits up 44mm higher than the clip-ons mounted on the R and that translates to a more upright riding position on the naked version. I found the F to not only be more comfortable to ride, but it also felt lighter through the twisties because of the better leverage you get from the higher and wider handlebar setup. You pay for that, however, with less wind protection than on the fully faired CBR500R. Given my druthers, I’d still opt for the F, though Honda believes I’m in the minority and is gearing up to sell more of the R version.
The instrumentation on the bikes is top notch with the package even getting an average fuel consumption indicator that will tell you what sort of fuel mileage you’re getting based on the way you’re riding. Really the only thing that bugged us about any of the controls on the two new Hondas was the oversized horn button on the left handlebar – right above the turn signal switch. At first I thought it was just me hitting the button on accident, but judging by the numerous beeps in front and behind me, I quickly realized I wasn’t. In fact, our group sort of sounded like a Shriner parade early on.
The CBR500R is available in three color choices: Red, Black and Pearl White/Blue/Red. The CB500F gets two color choices: Black and Pearl White. Both bikes also have a plethora of accessories to choose from – from seat cowls and rear trunks on the F model to sport screens and carbon fiber headlight covers on the R version.
So with two choices today and another one on the way, Honda has given the budget-minded consumer plenty to ponder. But no matter which one you pick (and judging by a reader poll we conducted on cyclenews.com when the bikes were first introduced, the X model should also prove popular), you can’t really lose. Honda has hit the nail on the head with its three 500s, providing a bike that while beginner friendly will still be readily accepted by non-beginners and those returning to motorcycling as well.
We can’t wait to spend a bit more time on the bikes.
Originally published in the May 2013 issue of Cycle News.