In the February, 2000 print issue of Dirt bike, we test what would go down in history as the greatest Baja bike ever built: the liquid-cooled XR650R. Today, we know that such a bike could never survive in the marketplace. Baja is too specialized for mainstream USA. On top of that, the bike’s timing was terrible. It was sandwiched between the Yamaha YZ426F and the Honda CRF450R. Those bikes were game changers in every way. Nonetheless, we were blown away by the XR650R. Here’s what we had to say when in our first test.

Larry Roeseler was one of the DB test riders on the original XR650R.

Here’s how this story ends: The Honda XR650R is a truly great XR600R. That’s what it was meant to be all along. But never before have so many people wanted a bike to be something else. There are the moto-crazies who want it to be a Yamaha YZ400. There are the cross-country guys who want it to be a Japanese Husaberg. There are even the head cases who want it to be a Scott Summers replica (in other words, a worn-out XR600 with funny bars).
When the bike was finally announced last September, the reaction was strange. It was perfectly predictable that the bike would fit right into the XR600’s market, but some people were still shocked. It wasn’t what they wanted, so they wanted it to be a failure.

Forget all that “Honda’s answer to the YZ426” stuff. The XR650R was designed from the start to be the answer to the XR600R. Never mind that the 600 is still around in Honda’s line-up; that was just a measure to fill the time gap before the 650’s late arrival. You probably remember the hoopla last year. Honda announced that the 600 was discontinued, then changed its mind. The new 650 wasn’t yet ready. From that clue, people should have figured out that the new bike was going to be a large western trail bike, not a motocrosser and not a race bike.
Heaven knows there was a lot of room for improvement on the 600. We’re not really sure how long the 600 had gone unchanged, none of us have memories that go back that far. We think it was probably dropped into the Garden of Eden in its present form. By modern standards, it had long been considered slow, heavy and unreliable if hopped up. Long ago, Honda’s Baja team had discovered all its faults and amassed a list of recommended changes if the bike were ever to be updated. But the factory didn’t see any reason for that. Honda sold every XR600 it built (and it built a lot). The bike had a following. Then, in 1996, the XR400R was released and it immediately surpassed the 600 in sales. That convinced Honda to go ahead with a new version of the 600.
Here it is. Nothing is the same except the purpose. The liquid-cooled engine still uses a single overhead cam, but it no longer has the radial four-valve design. There are two more-or-less conventional rocker arms operating the four valves. The steel cylinder liner is gone in favor of Nikasil-coated aluminum. If you were expecting some new technology from the engine, forget it. Remember, this is a replacement for the XR600, which means conservative, reliable designs. Just putting radiators on the bike was a big internal controversy at Honda. So there are no throttle position sensors, no computer chip gadgets and no big surprises. Double over-head cams were even rejected as being too gimmicky for the conservative XR market. One feature that we haven’t seen before on a Honda is a Husaberg-like reed valve in the crankcase, which allows engine pressure to push oil into the gearbox, although the engine still uses a conventional pump to move oil up to the top end. Honda also had to deal with the American feds. The company did it in the normal ways, with restrictions in the intake manifold, airbox and exhaust. Honda offers what it calls “full power” parts to replace the standard intake manifold and exhaust baffle, and you can remove the airbox restrictor in seconds. We did all that before testing the bike. That’s pretty much standard procedure with Japanese off-road bikes these days.

We got in trouble with this project bike. We attempted to shave weight and failed. Honda test riders were offended by the inverted fork, which they had argued against in testing.

The frame, on the other hand, is anything but standard; we’ve never seen anything like it before. It’s made of massive aluminum box-section tubing with a single backbone that carries the oil supply for the dry-sump motor. The CR-style twin-spar aluminum frame was poo-pooed because it limits fuel capacity too much. As it is, the new XR carries the same amount of fuel as the 600, but between the big backbone and the radiators there is little space left over. We don’t have any idea how the aftermarket guys like IMS and Clarke are going to build those massive Baja tanks, but we’re sure they will. The aluminum frame is painted just to keep corrosion under control in the long run. Remember, this is supposed to be a put- it-away-wet type of bike.
Honda execs decided to use KYB suspension for the XR650. How do they make these decisions? Dart board, as far as we know. The 600’s Showa fork was ridiculously dated, though. There was so much underhang below the axle that it would almost drag on level ground. The new KYB fork is based on the 1989 Kawasaki conventional fork that everyone liked so much. Underhang has been reduced since then, and the area around the axle has been reinforced so the bike goes somewhat straight in ruts. The rear shock is CR-like, with the exception of the missing high-speed compression adjuster. The XR still has a crazy amount of leverage on the rear shock, which means it has to have a super stiff spring.

This exact XR650R was raced in the Baja 2000 by Johnny Campbell.

Can you imagine what would happen if we waited all this time for a new XR and it sucked? It just wouldn’t happen. This is Honda we’re talking about. The bike has an awesome motor. First of all, it starts easier than the old 600. Yes, we would still rather have an electric starter, but this is the next best thing. There is no starting drill to practice, no top-dead-center to find. You just kick and let the automatic decompressor do the work. How about the power? Frankly it couldn’t be better. It’s fast but not nasty. Big, powerful four-strokes are usually brutes; they run badly off the bottom, they stall, they vibrate, they backfire, they have terrible engine braking, they pull your arms out of their sockets and in general have no manners. An uncorked 650 Honda has all the good traits of a big thumper and none of the bad ones. The powerband is so wide that you could ride all day in top gear. It pulls and pulls and pulls. And it has just enough of a hit to be fun. The front end comes up if you yank the throttle cable in almost any gear, but if you roll it on gently, the bike is super easy to control. In outright power, the bike is way stronger than an XR600. We know, that’s not saying much. A slightly hopped-up XR400 is stronger than a 600, too. But the 650’s power output can be compared to a European four-stroke. A Husaberg 501 or a VOR 503 in enduro trim are in the same league as the Honda, although we need to say that a Husaberg 600 would wax all of them. But the XR has easy potential for more roost. Even with the baffle and intake restrictor removed, it’s super quiet, so you could always trade decibels for horsepower if you need more juice. Only thing is, we can’t imagine why. In real-world acceleration on pavement, the bike will outpull a 250cc motocross bike. On top, it will touch 99 mph. Johnny Campbell’s Baja-winning 650 had a different exhaust, higher compression and a 45-tooth rear sprocket. That bike was clocked at 105. Actually, Johnny Campbell reports that the gearing alone would provide that top speed. The exhaust and the compression just help acceleration.

Back in the real world, the list of things that a stock XR650 doesn’t do is pretty impressive. It doesn’t cough and die when you grab a handful of gas. It doesn’t vibrate. It doesn’t require two hands to twist the throttle. It doesn’t have unmanageable amounts of engine braking. It does have manners.

Honda’s Baja team consisted of Johnny Campbell, Tim Staab and Steve Hengeveld.

We expected the bike to have a great motor. We didn’t expect it to weigh so much. The XR650R tips the Dirt Bike super scale at 287 pounds without fuel. That’s a lot. Just imagine if it had a steel frame, or double overhead cams, or worse yet, an electric starter! That kind of weight would have been okay a few years ago, but not now. When you look at the motor, it’s easy to see where the weight is. It’s huge! In all the years of technological advancement since the XR600 was designed it’s amazing that Honda hasn’t figured out any way to shave off bulk. The motor is narrower, at least, than a 600. But when you ride the XR you can’t escape the weight. You feel every pound.

That dictates the bike’s mission. It is a bike for going fast in wide open spaces, just like the old XR. And it does that extremely well. The 650 is super stable. We don’t know why, but the new XR, just like the old XR, never has head shake. It should. It has soft, cushy suspension and sharp cornering manners. That’s the recipe for a wild ride with crazy wet-dog-like head shake. But the bike is so steady at speed that you really don’t realize how fast you’re going. At the other extreme, the bike is, once again, just like an XR600. The technique for getting around turns is as follows: Point the front wheel where you want to go, then go there gently. You don’t have to slide the back end around the front wheel, you just steer it without the workout. The weight only becomes a factor if you get in a hurry. Then the front end pushes, the brakes lock up and you feel like the bike just grew in every dimension. Scott Summers manages to defy the laws of physics by winning races in tight terrain on his XR, but that doesn’t mean much. Scott is one of a kind, and we have no doubt that he will continue to win races when he trades in his 600 for a 650 next season.
Kayaba did a good job with the suspension. It’s never a factor, no matter where you ride. At high speed, there’s no mushiness, yet the XR is awesome in first-gear rocky sections. It’s hard to do both. The rear end, in particular is super versatile. You can handle killer San Felipe whoops and then pick your way through bomb craters without changing a thing. The front fork handles the rocks just as well as the rear, but you can bottom it hard if you hit something at speed. That’s fine with us. We wouldn’t want to trade away the super cushy ride just to avoid hearing one or two clunks on any given ride.

Scott Summers was not part of the XR650 development teat. He attempted to race the bike, but it wasn’t a good fit.

Honda isn’t infallible in the detail department. Just ask any first-year XR400 owner. In this case, though, Honda paid much better attention to the little stuff. The kickstarter, for instance, doesn’t flop out, the shifter isn’t super flexy and the carburetion is flawless. We are slightly disappointed by the spindly rear brake lever, the narrow footpegs and the cheesy plastic skid plate, but we’ll get over it. So was it worth the wait? Good grief, no; not if you’ve been waiting for over ten years for a better XR600. Nothing could be worth that kind of wait. There is nothing on this bike aside from the aluminum frame that wasn’t common technology back in 1990. But you need to remember that part of the original XR’s appeal was that it had old-world, proven designs. In 1990, that meant an air-cooled, slightly overweight bike with a great personality. In 2000, it means a liquid-cooled, slightly overweight bike with a great personality. If you love the XR formula, you won’t be disappointed by the latest one. We all fall into that category. As we said up front, the Honda XR650R is a truly great XR600R. If you want something else, you’ll have to look someplace else.

Rare photo of Scott Summers on the XR650R.

XR vs XR
How did the XR600R last so long? Maybe it was because it did its job so well. Frankly, even after all these years, there was no bike that was so comfort- able for high speed and long distances. There were certainly better race bikes, but the 600 was the ultimate western playbike. Can the 650 do better?
• POWER: Yes. The 650 has more power everywhere and it’s just as easy to use. Usually horsepower comes with a penalty somewhere. Not in this case. The new 650 is even easier to start.
• SUSPENSION: Yes, the 650 wins again. The new XR’s fork is a massive step forward. It flex- es less and provides better action at high speed and low speed. The rear suspension on the old 600 is surprisingly good by modern standards, but it still gives up a little at race speed to the 650.
• WEIGHT: No. The old 600 is no lightweight, but it feels and is lighter than the new 650, if only by a tiny margin.
• HANDLING: Yes. Both bikes will beat you up at race speed, but the new XR’s suspension advantage makes it a little easier to manage.
• COMFORT: It depends. The 600 has old-world ergonomics. With a lot of rearward sweep in the bars and a big, cushy seat, the 600 is a sit-down bike. If that’s what you like, that’s what you like. It’s easier to stand up on the 650, and the smoother tank/seat junction makes moving around easier.
• RELIABILITY: Only time will tell. The 600 had a reputation for being unbreakable, but only when left stock. If it were hopped up to the level of a stock 650, watch out! Chances are that the same will be true of the new bike: leave it alone and it will never break. And with this much power, leaving it alone is no problem.

So there you have it. The 650 is a worthy successor to the most popular dirt bike of our time. Will the 600 continue to be available? For now, yes. But as soon as the 650 eats into the 600’s sales figures, which is inevitable, Honda will drop the old XR like a hot rock. The business of motorcycle sales leaves little room for sentimentality.

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