What’s in a letter? If it’s the letter R, a Honda fan would say, “a whole lot.” So as Big Red convert the 2018 CB650F and the CBR650F into the 2019 CB650R and the CBR650R, it’s worth paying attention.
Photos by Kevin Wing
If you think about Honda’s bikes over the years, you can see a correlation between the number of Rs and how aggressive the bike is. That trend continues with these middleweights, as both new bikes are lighter, faster, and more fun to ride. They’re also absolutely gorgeous.
Jon Seidel, American Honda’s Assistant Manager of Powersports Communications, notes that these 650s are well-suited for new or experienced riders and that they provide practical performance for less than 10 grand. The median age of a CB650/CBR650 buyer is 38. 20% of them are women, and 25% are first-time riders. However you slice the demographics, the average buyer should appreciate what’s new for 2019. Honda invited me to Palm Springs, California to learn exactly what those changes are over a 135 mile ride that included some highway, some mountain roads, and a lunch at MotoDoffo – did you see the photos from my visit?
Common UpbringingObviously, these bikes share a lot of parts. It starts with the 649cc liquid-cooled, inline-4 motor, which now produces a claimed 94 horsepower @ 12,000 rpm and 47 pound-feet of torque at 8,500 rpm. It should be noted that American Honda didn’t officially disclose these engine output figures – that’s what Honda has told European media outlets.
The increase in oomph comes from several updates that include a new piston shape, revised valve timing/cam profile, new air cleaner with a downdraft intake, and a redline that’s 1,000 rpm higher (now at 12,500 rpm). In addition, the compression ratio is up from 11.4:1 to 11.6:1. I thought that the power delivery was good for a 650 inline-4 as the bike did not feel dead from a stop and it feels linear throughout the rev range. It’s usable above 4k and there’s a moderate vibration between 6.5-8k. An assist/slipper clutch makes the pull very light and easy to use to modulate the power. I would prefer an earlier engagement point but I suspect that’s part of the design that Honda would suggest is beginner-friendly. For the price, I would also have liked to seen an adjustable clutch lever. But the bigger problem is that my butt dyno did not feel as if I was being propelled by 6-horses-shy-of-100. I would never call either of these bikes slow, but the power doesn’t feel as exciting as it does with the 74-horsepower Yamaha MT-07, my favorite ~650cc naked going into this ride.
On the flip side, I’d say Honda has the advantage with everything surrounding the powerplant. The Showa suspension in the middleweight Hondas is a significant improvement, thanks to a new 41mm USD Separate Function Fork (SFF). Showa’s claim is that riding comfort is improved because they’re able to reduce one-sided friction by only having a spring in one fork tube. The weight of the forks is also reduced. I have no idea if the former claim is true, but I was really impressed with how the suspension was set up considering the front is non-adjustable and the only setting to play with in the shock is seven levels of preload. Sharp impacts at freeway speeds send more force up through the forks than I would like, but otherwise I think the stock settings were great on a variety of roads and velocities. The new forks also allow for the use of radially-mounted calipers up front, which Honda has taken advantage of.
The radially-mounted calipers slow the front end by clamping down on 310mm drilled floating front discs. The rear wheel gets a single 240mm disc. Just like with the suspension, there’s nothing particularly fancy but the components get the job done well. A slight bit of sophistication comes from the optional $300 ABS, which Honda automatically bundles with their HSTC (Honda Selectable Torque Control, or what regular people just call Traction Control). You cannot get one without the other. ABS cannot be turned off, but HSTC can be disabled with surprising ease. As of late, I feel like manufacturers make turning off traction control much more difficult than it needs to be – the Husqvarna Svartpilen 701 requires you to hold a small, unlabeled button that’s difficult to press for what feels like 5 seconds. Honda’s got an easy-to-use trigger switch that you have to hold for less than a second, and it can be changed while riding as long as the throttle is closed. That’s how it should be.
The biggest improvement might just be with the frame. The redesigned steel twin-spar frame is 4.2 pounds lighter than last year’s unit, and a new engine hanger with a cross pipe dramatically reduces vibrations from the motor. The “F” bikes were quite vibey, but these “R” models are, dare I say, smooth. It’s an impressive improvement. Weight reductions are also found in the fuel tank (sadly, .5 gallons smaller than last year) footpegs, and wheels. In total, the ABS-equipped models are 11.6 pounds lighter than their predecessors, while the non-ABS models are 9.2 pounds lighter. The CB weighs 445 pounds (add 2 for ABS) and the CBR weighs 456 pounds (add 2 for ABS).
Additional upgrades include full LED lighting and a new dash which features a fuel gauge, gear indicator, and a programmable shift light. It’s well-laid out and the important stuff is easy to read at a glance – at night. During the day, the screen gets washed out by only a moderate amount of sunshine. The brightness display is adjustable but the options seem to start with “pointless” and max out at “barely adequate”.
Rounding out the changes is an attitude adjustment. In their technical presentation to editors, Honda representatives noted that the existence of the insanely rational NC750X allowed them to push the CB650R and CBR650R into sportier territory (I thought that was a little weird seeing as the NC is a parallel twin, but let’s just go with it). Mr. Seidel noted shared goals of reducing weight, centralizing mass, improving the suspension, and enhancing engine response. Hopefully I’ve already shown you above that Honda achieved those goals on paper. Specific to the individual models, there was an emphasis on adding mechanical style to the CB and a sporty feel through design and riding position to the CBR. How does it all translate in the real world?
What’s Different?Seeing as the CB is a naked standard and the CBR is a quasi-sportbike, there’s going to be some differences and unique features that we have to discuss. Let’s start with the CBR:
2019 Honda CBR650R – $9,399 (add $300 for ABS)Honda’s desire for sportier feel comes through strong in the styling cribbed from the CBR1000RR supersport. I think the redesign looks great – it makes the CBR650R look faster than it really is.
The racebike looks are backed up by changes to the riding position. While the seat height remains the same (31.9″), the pegs have been moved up .2″ and back .1″, plus the clipons have been lowered underneath the top triple clamp and been pushed forward by 1.2″ so you’re getting some of the sportbike lean. It’s not extreme, but I wouldn’t call it comfortable, either. Compare the riding position of the CBR and the CB with the slider below (the pictures aren’t aligned exactly, but it should give you the idea):
Overall, the CBR is fun and easy to ride. When we were riding in mountain twisties or at higher speeds on the freeway, this is the bike I wanted to be on. The lean gets more of your weight over the front wheel and yields improved handling, while the bodywork and windshield lessen wind fatigue. Honda specifies Dunlop Sportmax D214 tires as they align just fine with the intended usage (they’re kind of crap in the wet, though). Accessories include a quickshifter, heated grips, tank bag, and taller windshield.
What’s interesting to me about the CBR650R is that there isn’t really much competition when it comes to 650cc sporty-but-not-too-sporty motorcycles with fairings. The closest challenger would be the Kawasaki Ninja 650, but the non-ABS Ninja is $7,399 ($2,000 cheaper). It makes you wonder if the Honda is too expensive, especially when Kawasaki will sell you a proper 600 class sportbike (the Ninja ZX-6R) that’ll run circles around the CBR for $9,999.
That might not seem like a fair comparison, but Honda wanted to make the CBR650R more aggressive and I think the end result is that they’ve ended up in a bit of no man’s land – not comfortable enough to truly be considered a good day-to-day ride and not fast enough to be considered a good sportbike. If I was one of Honda’s marketers, I’d sell it as the “best of both worlds”. As a rider, I just think it’s a weird compromise. Don’t get me wrong – I like the idea of a comfortable sportbike, I just liked it more when Honda released it almost 25 years ago as the CBR600F3, which combined AMA championship-winning dynamics with a riding position that you could comfortably enjoy on the street. If you have a moment, look how similar the specs are between the F3 and the new CBR are.
I think the CBR650R is executed very well, I’m just not sold on the concept itself. The CBR reminds me of another Honda – the NM4 – in that it looks a lot faster than it is. Is that a bad thing? I’ve come back to this paragraph 40 different times because my opinion changes by the hour. It’s been two weeks since I’ve ridden the CBR650R and I still can’t decide if it’s a poser or a thinking rider’s sportbike. As this moment, I’m leaning towards the latter. The CBR truly looks the part and the forward lean gives the rider a taste of sportbike pleasure. A non-rider won’t be able to tell the difference. Plus, your passenger will be happier on this than any other bike that has a similar aesthetic.
So, you can probably figure out how this one ends. If you want the sportbike look but don’t care for the ergonomics and don’t need the performance, the CBR is definitely in your wheelhouse. But you really have to want the sportbike looks. Otherwise, there’s a few options that call out to me more – including the CB650R just below…Check out the 2019 Honda CBR650R!
2019 Honda CB650R – $8,899 (add $300 for ABS)I know I was wishy-washy about the CBR. Let me be a bit more direct here: the CB650R is fantastic. It’s beautiful, it’s easy to ride, it’s comfortable, and it makes sense.
Going back to Honda’s technical presentation, Mr. Seidel noted that when the CB line was created in the 60s, many journalists preferred the CB500 over the CB750 (which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, no big deal) because it was lighter and nimbler. I suspect there might be some déjà vu with the CB650R. I had a CB1000R loaner earlier this year, and while the power was fun, I never fell in love with the handling or the way the power was delivered. It did make for good wheelies, though:
The CB650R gives up a bunch of power in the top end but it just feels better everywhere else – I like this bike a lot. The Neo-Sports Cafe styling in Chromosphere Red is a winner, and I may never shut up about the headers. When I first got to the launch event, I put up a quick poll via an Instagram story. 24 hours and 576 votes later, the results were clear:
Like the CBR, the CB got some ergonomic changes in the name of sportiness, though they’re much less dramatic. The handlebar is .5″ forward and .3″ lower, while the footpegs are .3″ back and .2″ up. It suited my 6’2″ frame well, and the only time I was uncomfortable was on my ride back home to Los Angeles from the event. I was riding with Ryan Adams from Motorcycle.com (check out his CBR and CB reviews) on the freeway. He was on a BMW R1250RT because he’s smarter than I am, and I was on the CB while wearing a fully-loaded backpack. Above 80 mph, the windblast got exhausting real quick. Below 70, I could enjoy it all day.
Honda ditched the Dunlops for the CB and instead equipped Metzeler Roadtec 01s, which are better overall tires. It doesn’t feel like you give up anything in terms of fast dry cornering but the rain performance is much improved. It’s definitely a better choice for this bike. Accessories still include the quickshifter, heated grips, and tank bag, but there’s a couple of CB-specific ones such as a cowl fairing and a flyscreen above the headlight.
My personal preference is for twins over fours and I wish Honda would offer some optional soft bags like Yamaha does with the MT, but I would be happy with the CB650R as a daily ride. Unfortunately, I can’t ignore the pricing discussion here, either. As I mentioned above, the CB650R compares quite favorably to the MT-07 in all aspects except the motor. But the Yamaha is $7,599 (ABS is standard, traction control is not available), which makes it $1,600 cheaper. While there are very few direct competitors to the CBR, there are plenty mid-displacement naked bikes (SV650, Z650, XSR700) out there for much cheaper. Or if you’re willing to spend an extra 8 Franklins, Suzuki will sell you a naked 1000 based off the legendary K5 Gixxer for $9,999, which is only $800 more than the CB with ABS. Sure, the GSX-S is hideous, but it will also get you 137 horsepower to the rear wheel. Or, $9,950 will get you on a Triumph Street Triple S. There are lots of options, and most sure seem like they give you more for your money.
I don’t think any of them look as good as the Honda does, and that’s worth something. When I asked you guys and gals what you wanted to know about these Hondas, my assumption was that I would be comparing the CB directly with the MT-07. Between the two, I’d get over my love for twins and get the CB. There’s an argument to be made for buying the MT and using the savings towards a better suspension, but the CB also has better brakes, traction control, better gauges, and it’s more comfortable for rider and passenger. And…have I mentioned how much better looking the Honda is? Oh, multiple times? Fine, you get my point.
At the end of the day, the CB650R is a wonderful middleweight with not-so-middleweight pricing. If I was in the market, I’d want the $300 ABS/HSTC package. But if I was ready to spend $9,199 on the CB650R, I’d probably save up a little more and get a Triumph Street Triple S instead.Check out the 2019 Honda CB650R!
My GearHelmet: Shoei X-Fourteen in Matte Black – $742.99
Jacket: REAX Ludlow – $299
Gloves: Velomacchi Speedway – $149
Boots: Sidi Fast Rain – $175