Honda XR 650 L: The Good and the Bad

I’ve wanted to own a Honda XR 650 L ever since I read about the Desert Riders project in the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook (Chris Scott, 2005). After a few months of owning a 2012 Honda XR 650 L, here is a list of 11 things I wish I knew before I bought the bike.

11 Things You Should Know Before Buying a Honda XR650L

The Honda XR650L is an awesome bike, but it does have its quirks

#1: No Cush-Drive in the Rear Hub

Most dual sport bikes in the same class as the Honda XR 650 L have cush-drive hubs with rubber inserted between the sprocket carrier and the hub. These rubbers cushion the drivetrain when you pull away or change gears. On loose surfaces, the lack of a cush-drive is not that noticeable since the rear wheel is able to spin to absorb the drive from the chain.

On tarmac, aggressive take-offs and gear shifts may prematurely wear the drivetrain components on a bike with no cush-drive in the rear hub. There are aftermarket solutions like the Warp 9 hub from The Cycle House, but they are expensive. Another options is to fit a modified rear wheel from a Honda Transalp.

#2: Excessive Counter Shaft Wear

This is the Achilles Heel of the Honda XR 650 L. The contact of the stock counter shaft sprocket is only 8.5 mm wide and can wear the counter shaft in no time if the chain is not properly tensioned (usually too tight) and the shaft splined not greased. The lack of a cush-drive is another culprit responsible for counter shaft wear.

There are many solutions. I’ve fitted a 13.5 mm wide front sprocket off an XR 650 R (Big Red Pig), see below:

While not perfect (the chain alignment is slightly out), it is better than the OEM sprocket. Another popular option is the sprockets by FritzCo. These can be inverted for longer life and perfectly align the chain with the rear sprocket.

Apart from upgrading the front sprocket, make sure to check your chain tension (not too tight) and use moly grease when fitting the sprocket.

#3: Lots of Chain Slack

If you are not used to a dual sport with such long travel suspension, the generous slack in the chain may take some getting used to. On my KLR’s and BMW F 650 I never noticed the jerkiness when maintaining a steady, slow speed, but on the XR it almost feels like the carb is dirty.

Once you get going, however, the bike runs beautifully and the only reminder of the slack chain is the slapping noise against the swingarm when you decelerate. Don’t be tempted to tighten the chain to remedy the jerkiness, as this is a sure way to destroy your counter shaft.

#4: Rear Sub-Frame is not Detachable

The Honda XR 650 L has a one-piece frame (i.e. the rear sub-frame is not detachable). The problem with this is that if you crack your frame in a crash of due to overloading it, you need to either replace the whole frame or get it welded. On bikes where you can detach the rear sub-frame (e.g. the Kawasaki KLR 650) you can simply replace the rear-subframe if it brakes. And the most common area for a snapped frame is right behind the seat where the weight of the luggage sits.

#5: Air-Cooled Motor

I won’t say that a liquid-cooled engine is necessarily better than an air-cooled motor, but they are very different. With a radiator and fan, there is less chance of overheating in hot weather when riding at a slow pace, but there is also more that can go wrong and more maintenance is required.

The air-cooled motor of the Honda XR 650 L does not have an oil cooler or a temperate gauge, and it is therefore critical that you maintain the engine properly. Tight exhaust valves and a lean carburetor are the main culprits when it comes to overheating, so make sure you check your valves regularly and re-jet the carb if it has not been done yet (see #6 below).

#6: Factory Carb Tuning is Too Lean

Every Honda XR 650 L that left the factory did so in a too lean condition. The pilot and main jets are too small and the fuel mixture screw cannot be adjusted richer (past about 2 turns out) due to a tab on the screw. The reason why Honda does this is to reduce emissions on an engine that is more than 30 years old. The airflow is also severely restricted with a plastic snorkel below the seat.

Luckily all of this can easily be fixed by yourself by re-jetting to a 55 pilot jet and a 158 main (at sea level) and drilling the slide and shimming the needle, as per the famous Dave’s mod. Removing the snorkel is even simpler: simply drill out the two pop rivets and remove it.

Most XR 650 L riders do the Dave’s mod to increase the power (more fuel and more air), but the main reason I did it was to run the engine slightly cooler. Too rich is way better than too lean, as lean engine will run at a much higher temperate. The price you pay is poor fuel consumption.

#7: Small Gas Tank and Short Range

The Honda XR 650 L probably has the smaller gas tank of all the 650’s. At only 2.8 gallons it is less than half the size of the Kawasaki KLR 650 and due to the pick-up sitting in the left lobe, the last 0.6 gallons of gas cannot be sucked from the right-hand side lobe. An easy (and free) fix is to lean the bike on its side when you run out of fuel to let the fuel slosh over to the left-hand side.

Add the poor fuel consumption to the small tank capacity, you can expect to switch to reserve anywhere between 55 and 70 miles. If you plan on touring with your Honda XR 650 L, and aftermarket gas tank like the Acerbis is a must. You can check out the 5.8 gallon Acerbis tank here.

#8: No Luggage Rack

Most other 650 cc dual sport bikes has at least some form of luggage rack on the rear where you can fit a top-box or strap a duffel bag to. The KLR 650 has quite a substantial rack as standard. On the Honda XR 650 L, all you get is a small plastic pouch that is barely big enough for two spare tubes.

If you plan on touring with the XR 650 L, some modifications will be necessary to add enough luggage for a camping trip. For shorter trips where you rough it outside, a small rug-sack and a tank bag may suffice. A tank bag like this one from Oxford magnetically fixes to the gas tank.

#9: Wiring Loom Vulnerability

This may not be an issue on all Honda XR 650 L’s, but when I move my handlebars from side to side, I can hear (and see) the wiring loom chafe between the front fender and the triple clamp. There is not enough space so the loom is squashed, and there is not enough slack, so it tugs on the wiring. I am worried that this may cause the wires to damage over time, so I plan to add spaces (washers) to the front fender mounting points to increase the clearance.

#10: Premature CDI Failure

Many ridings online have reported CDI failure (either intermittently or permanently). This shows up as intermittent stalling or failure to start immediately. The reason seems to be poor solders on the circuit board inside the module, which some DIY mechanics have fixed by re-soldering the contacts. Another possible cause may be loose battery terminals.

If you plan to ride far from home on extended trips, taking a replacement CDI unit like this one is not a bad idea.

#11: Tall Seat Height

At 37 inches, the XR 650 L is tall! I have to tip-toe to keep it upright, but once moving the 13 inches of ground clearance is awesome for off-roading. No other 650 cc dual sport is this tall and this is why the XR 650 L is on the far end of the spectrum in terms of on- vs off-road abilities. For a comparison of the 11 most popular second-hand single-cylinder dual sport bikes, check out this post.

5 Things I Love About the Honda XR650L

It is not all bad though. For the 5 things I immediately loved about the Honda XR650L, check out the video below: