Before I got my hands on the Rebel 1100, I asked Honda for some time with the 500 so I could get a baseline. I wasn’t planning on reviewing it as I’m not a big cruiser guy, but then my buddy Jesse Kiser came to town…and he is! I figured it’d be better for you to hear from him, so here’s what Jesse had to say:
What I don’t like:
Big Man; Little Bike – 2020 Honda Rebel 500 Review
Story and Photos by Jesse Kiser.
Honda reviews often read like history lessons, as their models have identifiable impacts on the motorcycling industry. The Honda Rebel is to beginner bike as Kleenex is to facial tissue. Introduced in 1985, it’s a miniature Harley with an uncooked hotdog for a clutch lever, low center of gravity, and comfy seat. Rebels can be found at every MSF training lot across the country. However, this new model feels like it’s broken the mold.
My own cheesy clichés aside, the modern Rebel was introduced in 2017 with 300cc and 500cc options. The all-new design has a form-meets-function style with an exposed frame and fat front tire. It retains the ultra-low seat (27.2 in, 2020 model) and light curb weight (414 pounds, 500cc ABS model).
Honda added some new features for 2020 and 2021, as a direct response from customers. The bike we’re riding is the ABS SE, new for this year. Essentially built by kitting out Honda’s accessory catalog, it features a little fairing above the headlight, rubber boots on the shocks, black diamond-stitch seat, and matte black paint.
New for all models in 2020 is LED lighting, slip/assist clutch, and a new LCD display. Owners have voiced concern for better suspension, so Honda revised the front shocks settings and added nitrogen to the rear shocks, resulting in stiffer, more responsive suspension.
My ride on the Rebel 500 came a selfish request I made to Editor Abhi. I needed a solo form of transportation while in LA. “What about an experienced rider’s take on a starter bike?” I wrote in a short email. “Perfect, I have a Rebel 500 here… and I’m not a cruiser guy,” replied Abhi.
Luckily, I am a cruiser guy. My first bike was a Harley-Davidson Softtail built with cobbled together parts, mostly from a wrecked bike. I even trained MSF courses for a short time. But I arrived to pick up the Rebel with little expectations — except that the Rebel was likely to be essentially a scooter in motorcycle clothes.
First ImpressionsI’m happy to see the new blacked-out Rebel isn’t accompanied by melodramatic marketing terminology, like Midnight Black paint or Explore your Dark Side sales slogans. Honda wants to break the negative connotations surrounding a beginner bike though. Rebels were cheap, it’s partly why the MSF loves them so much. The quality is above its predecessor and the black on black with tiny fairing gives a refined appearance. First glance, I can’t tell if it’s beautiful or hideous. It’s cool, but I don’t foresee any movies with a character’s last name Rebel, first name Honda.
Seating position is very low, like ‘kindergarten parent-teacher conference and the teacher has the only adult chair,’ low. However, one thing that still baffles me is despite my 6’3” frame, my knees don’t touch the handlebars at full turn. The mid controls don’t bother me at a stop light, and I sit flat on the seat. I’ve ridden bikes like certain Triumphs or Harleys with panic moments after my knee interferes with the handlebars or my ankle bangs a foot peg. Poor ergonomics can be dangerous. For such a narrow and small motorcycle Honda found that near-perfect rider triangle. It’s not overly comfortable, but certainly the best it can be for a small package.
The Rebel 500 feels like a miniature FXR — a motorcycle I’ve longed for since childhood. The Sportster is Harley’s beginner bike option, but it sits the rider well on top of the motorcycle, giving a much taller center of gravity. You truly sit in the Rebel, not on it.
It’s nimble and light weight feeling at 408 pounds (414 pounds for ABS models), but weight doesn’t matter here, the low seating position makes all the difference when inspiring confidence (27.2 inches). While comfortable, I would prefer a slightly more leaned-forward position for aggressive riding.
After picking up the Rebel from Abhi, I jammed onto the 110 East. With a twist of the throttle, I was smacked with elation. It’s damn fun to wring the neck on a small cc engine. The twin cylinder 500cc screams while feeling balanced through the rev range. To steal a Jay Leno line, “it’s more fun to drive a slow car fast, then a fast car fast.” The Rebel is just fun.
In the manufacturers’ constant race for attention-grabbing technology, it’s refreshing to experience a well proven machine like Honda’s 500cc twin. First introduced in 2013, it’s had several years to work out the kinks. For the Rebel, there are minor tuning adjustments, mostly due to exhaust and intake, but otherwise it’s the same as the CB500F/CB500X. Honda won’t provide hard data but around 90 percent of the engine’s torque comes in starting at 2,300 rpm. Simply put, it’s peppy.
My heart slows from an exciting merge onto the highway and I fear I’m speeding. But despite how it feels, I’m only doing 70 mph. The 500cc twin does everything you need, just maybe not everything you want. For all 200 pounds of me, the bike maxes out around 85-90 mph depending on the headwind.
Honda has possibly the largest offering of sub-500cc bikes of the major manufacturers, but after riding the Rebel 500, why have anything smaller? The Rebel 300 and 500 utilize the same chassis. Other than the $1,700 price jump (Rebel 300 $4,599 MSRP) and 44-pound weight difference, the specs are essentially the same. You give up very little for the ability to do 70+ mph.
The slipper clutch, new for 2020, aids in shifting and comfort. Honda says the new clutch pull is reduced by 30 percent. It’s an incredibly light pull, but occasionally the transmission felt clunky. It lacks that “positive feel” found in bikes like the Kawasaki Vulcan S. It’s ultimately a minor issue, and only once did a shift not fully engage.
The display is a simple, negative LCD display with backlit white letters that only displays the necessities: speed, fuel bar, gear-position, time, and mileage. The indicator lights are directly below the display. It looks good, easy to read, and I enjoy the lack of distractions.
The Rebel tries to be like its big cruiser brothers, including their downfalls. The front tire (130/90-16 front, 150/80-16 rear) and new stiffer front suspension give tons of stability and feedback from the road. However, the rear suspension travel, despite the new nitrogen filled shocks, is lackluster. My firmly-planted butt occasionally exited the seat on rough LA freeways. It’s my 200-pound frame blowing through the rear springs. The sensation matches that of a rear suspension with limited travel, like some of my favorite Harleys which had zero to 2.5 inches of travel. The Rebel 500 has a heathy 3.8 inches of rear travel, but it’s intended for smaller riders. Other reviewers, lighter then I, had positive remarks about the suspension. If I were to own one, I’d invest in taller shocks designed for a heavier rider.
The brakes are not overly firm, but aggressive brakes are counterintuitive for a beginner bike. Much of the Rebel 500 is forgiving to riders’ mistakes: if I misjudged a turn, slipped my foot at a stop light, or grabbed too much front brake, there was little consequence.
Pricing and CompetitionMy only major disappointment, besides the rear suspension, is the price. The non-ABS base model retails at $6,299, Rebel 500 ABS $6,599, and Rebel ABS SE $6,799 model shown. The pricing is just shy of other 600cc models like the Vulcan S 650 ($7,249). I also think paying $10,000 for a Sportster is ridiculous, so maybe my gauge is off in general.
The pricing makes sense as the fit and finish is above what I expected from a Thailand-built Rebel. Honda is shooting higher with this Rebel.
The Vulcan S is the obvious comparison here. Just like the Rebel 500, the Vulcan S has a low seat height, cruiser-styling, peppy engine, and features a low intimidation factor with a surprisingly high-performance threshold. Kawasaki’s Ergo-Fit is a genius idea where a new purchaser can be outfitted with three different setback handlebars, two different size seats, and three foot-control positions options for free. Ergo-Fit is intended to fit every purchaser to their bike. So, I’ve ridden a Vulcan S that feels cramped and I’ve ridden a Vulcan S that feels roomy.
The Vulcan S engine is 150cc larger than the Honda 500 twin. Like the Honda, the Vulcan S 650 was a tried and long tested, peppy engine Kawasaki had laying around (formerly in the Ninja 650, it’s the same platform that holds multiple national flat track championships). It’s a close race as you can grow into the Vulcan S, but the Honda is likely more welcoming to first-time riders.
Would I Own One?Probably not, but just because it’s too small. Every mile on the Rebel 500 makes me more anxious for the Rebel 1100, though. Look for Abhi’s test on the new Rebel 1100 very soon.
My biggest takeaway from my time with the Rebel 500 is its stability. The fat front tire provides ample feedback from the road and surprisingly tracks straight with no twitchy or scooter-like handling. The Rebel 500 feels amazingly planted everywhere. It’s nimble, peppy, light weight, easy to maneuver in a parking lot or highway, and somehow roomy. It makes me hopeful for the future as more manufacturers produce unique options for riders. History repeating itself, Honda built a well-balanced machine.
Check out the 2020 Honda Rebel 500!