Almost no motorcycle release in 2019 made me as excited, or gave me as much anticipation to ride, as the Honda CBR650R. From the moment I sat on it I knew I wanted it, and it only took a brief test ride (in Europe) to confirm that this was everything I had read it would be.
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Background: What made the CBR600F line special — performance and comfort
Recently I wrote a guide to buying a CBR600F, including the CBR650R. In that, I concluded that the CBR600F4i (2001-2006) was the best of the bunch. It was comfortable, with handlebar positions similar to the "sport-touring" VFR800. It was powerful enough, with 100 horsepower (75 kW) on tap. And it looked and felt great to ride, with the lightest weight in the 600 class.
Best of all, the CBR600F4i now eminently affordable. You can buy a used F4i from a dealer for around US$2-4K, or A$3-5K, depending on the miles. The problem is they're becoming rare, especially in good condition, and especially from a good dealer (which is what I'd recommend, just because these have been thrashed!)
The CBR600F4i was the latest, and only fuel-injected variant of the series before Honda split its 600 series in two.
Even while the CBR600F4i was being produced (from 2001-2006), Honda started to create race-replica CBR600RR models in 2003. These were much more track-focused, with a lower clip-on position, higher-power (but peakier) engine, and lighter weight. They're great motorcycles, but not as well-rounded for the road (but they're still great!)
Small note: People ride 250cc motorcycles as their daily riders. If those are fine, then any 600cc motorcycle is fine too!
After the CBR600F4i finished production in 2006, Honda had a couple of marketing misfires.
They waited a few years before releasing anything, letting their CBR600RR do the talking in the meantime. (This isn't a criticism — it was a weird time for global financial markets and thus the motorcycle industry.)
In 2011, Honda started making the CBR600F again, but in name only. It was basically a Honda Hornet with a fairing on top... and people knew. In fact, that was what most reviewers mentioned.
In 2014 Honda revised this situation, and made the CBR650F.
The Honda CBR650F was more comfortable than the CBR600RR and even more comfortable than the previous CBR600F4i. Look how much higher than the seat the clip-ons are, and how the tank is short). But it wasn't a market success.
There are various reasons cited why the CBR650F didn't doo well, and they're typically in the veins of:
- It was functionally fine, but boring
- It looked boring
- It wasn't a CBR600RR and so was boring
Basically, the CBR650F drew the criticism — if you can call it that — that I often see levelled at Honda and BMW, for producing technically perfect, very reliable, but "unexciting" motorcycles. (Yes, I've even heard reviewers describe as "boring" the BMW S1000RR, which produces more horsepower than I can count without getting distracted by a shiny object. It's a subjective call, I guess.)
But this rings true. What distinguishes the earlier F series is that it was the only 600 that Honda produced. They tried to satisfy every market at once. Those who wanted a commuter knew they were riding a racer, and those who wanted a racer knew that they were riding something comfortable.
There's a beauty in generalist motorcycles like the CBR600F4i that sacrifice little while still being to excel at a lot. The immediate successors to the F4i couldn't achieve this. The 600RR was always too specialised. The 2019 CBR650R is the first motorcycle since the CBR600F4i that continues this magic.
What changed between the CBR650F and the CBR650R?
You might think that it's a branding exercise, that all Honda changed between the CBR650F and the CBR650R is a single letter in the name. But you'd be mistaken!
The CBR650F, produced between 2014-2018 had
- 64 kW of power (86 hp) at 11,000 rpm
- 63Nm (46 lb-ft) of torque at 8,000 rpm
- Standard ABS brakes/digital everything
- A comfortable riding position Look how high the handlebars — I mean clip-ons — are)
- Slightly boring design (front-on)
The Honda CBR650F wasn't bad. But it just didn't do much for the target market. The handlebars were a bit too high, and the styling too muted.
Here's what changed for the 2019+ CBR650R:
- 70 kW (94 hp) of power @ 12,000 rpm: 5kW more, and higher up (thanks to a higher redline)
- 64 Nm (47 lb-ft) of torque ('bout the same), weighs 208 kg (458 lbs), 5kg lighter
(Astute mathematicians will note this is a 10% higher power-to-weight ratio from the increase in power plus decrease in weight)
- Upside-down forks forks
- Four-pot radial calipers (vs standard)
- Slipper clutch with lighter action
- Lower clip-ons
- Traction control (with the ABS package)
- Style much more reminiscent of the CBR1000RR.
Side by side, the CBR650R looks a lot like the CBR650F.
But front on, you can see what changed. It looks a lot more like the CBR1000RR.
The change in riding position between the CBR650F and CBR650R is subtle but noticeable when riding it. The clip-ons are lower and further forward (both by 30mm, or over an inch), and the foot-pegs are slightly higher and further back. All in all, just sportier.
What's the CBR650R like to ride?
It's amazing what 10% more power, higher rev limiter, lower clip-ons and a cooler front-end will do. Honda has struck an amazing balance that recaptures the glory of the CBR600F4i, without the laser-like track focus of the CBR600RR, or the wound-up beast nature of the CBR1000RR.
Note: I love the 'blade. A CBR954RR is a bike I dearly love, and Tadao Baba is one of my folk heroes. But riding it is like riding a wild horse, which is fun sometimes, but not a feeling I want every day.
The position itself is perfect for me, with a 6-foot (183cm) frame. The position is exactly like on my Ducati Monster 900, one of my favourite motorcycles of all time - comfortable, but slightly forward. Just leaning forward enough so that the wind didn't crush me at 100 km/h (60mph). Plus, now I get a fairing!
A lot has been said about engine styles, v-twins vs triples vs inline fours. But I don't think you can just say "I prefer one over the other".
For example, I love a Ducati's high-revving V-twin, but don't love a big cruiser's lumpier v-twin. Similarly, I love the parallel twin in the Triumph Scrambler, and go berserk for the inline four of a Yamaha R1.
Others will say differently. And that's fine. But what I think is important is to judge each motor on its own merits: power, feeling, and sound, without writing off a whole category of motors.
I often wonder: will electric motorcycles deliver on this feeling? I haven't found one yet. But Honda, with four cylinders and internal combustion, can still deliver a feeling that's 100% electric.
Honda's inline four engines sound different from the moment you turn them on. The four cylinder purr isn't there; it's more of a subdued chortle. It is lightly teasing you, waiting for you to grab the throttle and wring it. And because this isn't a literbike, wring it is exactly what you're going to do.
There is a unique mechanical scream that Honda motorcycles produce when you grab the throttle and wind it up high. All four-cylinder motorcycles do, but Honda's character is controlled and yet outraged. This is especially so on the superbikes, and especially especially so with a tuned aftermarket exhaust, which is unfortunately the next $1,000 I'm going to put into this.
Being able to take the CBR650R up to 12,000 rpm, and to do so at road legal speeds thanks to the gearing, is an extra blessing. On a gentle curve, holding the throttle wide open, sitting slightly askance with my head and back in the breeze as I peer through the long turn and listening to the roar I often wonder: will electric motorcycles deliver on this feeling? I haven't found one yet. But Honda, with four cylinders and internal combustion, can still deliver a feeling that's 100% electric.
Note that right at the rev limiter, the CBR650R delivers a LOT of power. I can't hold there at redline for long — it's nearly always in illegal territory.
Back in the city, riding the Honda is a joy. Ever since the days of the early Hornets (my personal favourite steed being the CB900 919), Honda has made motorcycles that are basically un-stallable. You can being the wrong gear, at the wrong angle and going the wrong speed, and Honda motorcycles just do what you tell them. They're very, very easy motorcycles to ride. Even the early FireBlades were easy to ride... fast.
Now, lots of reviewers like to say how much fun motorcycles are in the "twisties". They might post photos of getting their knees down at the track, or talk about the "canyons". Look, I'm a fairly average rider. I like to wind out the throttle. I do like to bank into curves and hang a bit off a motorcycle. But I don't "get my knee down" on public roads, nor do I bank so hard into turns that I worry I might run off the road. I'm a gentle rider, always knowledgable that my nine lives are coming up.
So for that reason, any modern sporty motorcycle is sporty enough for me. Notable exceptions are the Triumph Scrambler, for example; a motorcycle I love, but which felt nervous above 100km/h. The old Honda Hawk was fun, but it too got nervous up there (it was small, after all).
But the CBR650R gave me the perfect balance of fun with a tinge of invincibility.
See, when I wind a smaller motorcycle out, like CBR500R, it is "fun" because I'm regularly at its limits (for normal riders). I hold the throttle open and let it rip. That is fun, in a go-kart like way.
Or a big liter-bike is fun because it makes me feel like a god. I only have to think about moving the throttle and I'm at light speed, threatening people, animals, eardrums, and insurance statistics nation-wide. (Man, that's awesome.)
The CBR650R is fun in all the right ways. For me — 100 hp is my practical limit.
On the highway, I can pass without worrying what gear I'm in. I can twist the throttle and the near-100 hp of power will take me there, letting the four-cylinder engine sing.
In traffic, with the CBR650R I'm confident and poised, and feel proud of every part of the package when I'm up at the lights.
In the country, I can twist the throttle of the CBR650R and lean into every curve, knowing the tyres and suspension are more than adequate, and that the traction control and ABS will keep me in check. Yes, with 100hp, you can really use traction control!
In all, the CBR650R is the first mid-sized motorcycle that has captured my heart with its perfect balance without compromise. It has been a long time. And I can't wait to get back on it.
Epilogue: Did I buy it?
It turns out that in Australia, only the LAMS (learn legal scheme)-approved version of the CBR650R and CB650R is available.
Converting these to full power a) is expensive and b) doesn't get it to Europe or US spec anyway.
So unfortunately the rip I had on a CB650R in France won't translate to ownership in Australia. It'll have to be for another year.
However, news of the 2021 Honda CBR600RR with a full race-ready electronics package is having me lean more that way.