This road test was done by JC Hilderbrand for Motorcycle USA. He was riding a 2006 Model XR650R. The original article can be found here:

When I signed on as a motojournalist for MCUSA, they warned me that it wasn’t all going to be bike tests and hob-knobbing with the pros. Sure, those are the best parts of the job, but I was assured that there would be instances where I had to put in time as the new-guy and do the dirty work. As it turns out, the “dirty work” includes driving 1500 miles round-trip to SoCal, in a company van, to pick up a trailer full of brand-new bikes. Damn. Life’s tough sometimes.

Maybe the three-day road trips are going to get old sooner or later, but compared to my former profession as a carpenter, a bad day at MCUSA sure beats the hell out of packing lumber and hoisting drywall for eight hours. As luck would have it, the office guys pulled rank on me and sent the newbie on his first little road trip only a week after acing my piss test. My charge? A fleet of four spankin’ new, 2006 XR650Rs straight from American Honda.

I made the trek from southern Oregon and arrived at the Honda complex bright and early Monday morning (yes, they make me work weekends). I must say, I was a little unprepared for the enormity of the race shop. Obviously American Honda is a major player in the motorcycling industry, and it was pretty cool to see the base of operations for the entire U.S. program. What was even cooler is how I managed to avoid getting lost in L.A., picked the right loading dock at Honda on the first try and walked out of the place with the MCUSA Sprinter loaded to the max with new machinery. The last time I picked up a Honda it took hours of financial negotiations and a dozen signatures before I could finagle a single bike. This time the process was simplified requiring only one John Hancock and I was off and rolling. The hardest thing was trying to muscle 300-pound machines up the ramp solo and not making an ass of myself in front of all the Honda guys.

Loaded up, I then dropped one of the XRs off at Precision Concepts to be transformed from a stock trail bike into a race-ready, cactus-dodging desert steed. With the other three in tow, I set the cruise control and blasted north, homeward bound. With the wind in my hair and music blaring, it’s possible that I was the most enthusiastic road-tripper/delivery-bitch in MCUSA history.

Back in the Beaver State, the big thumpers were unloaded next to an additional XR650R that was already waiting in the warehouse. Of the four bikes, three were California models featuring a choked-up exhaust, blocked-off airbox and intake manifold and an exhaust emissions control system. We knew that the Cali bikes were going to suffer a serious power deficit, but we felt it was only fair to give them a day on the trails to prove themselves. What we actually proved was that we shouldn’t have wasted our time. We went straight back to the shop and uncorked everything we could in an effort to make the bikes more comparable to the punchier 49-state model.

We drilled the restrictive end cap out of the muffler, removed the airbox plugs, installed a new freer-flowing intake manifold and yanked off the smog hardware. The difference was immediately noticeable, putting the bikes into the same realm of performance as our 49-state model.

Since their arrival, the entire MCUSA staff has been keeping their eyes on the big, red monsters. We like to run a tight ship around here, though, so we limited the number test riders to six. Over the course of the next two months, we all put in time on the stock units as well as some modified bikes. What we found out about the 2006 XR650R is really no surprise. Honda provides a powerful and relatively comfortable bike right out of the box. Like any bike, the XR can be ridden in a number of different terrains, but the bike shines when in its element: fast, smooth fire roads and mellow trails.

The 649cc SOHC motor of the XR pumps out plenty of usable power, as we found out with a quick trip to the local dyno. Our stock unit turned 20.6 hp right off idle and maxed at 45.2 hp once the motor reached 6600 rpm. The power is spread evenly across the powerband without any major glitches or hiccups, although power does tail off well before it hits the 8400-rpm rev limiter. All of our riders agreed on the user-friendliness of the big 4-stroke and were all pleasantly surprised at the performance of the engine.

“The motor provided plenty of power and did so in a very docile manner,” said graphics-guy Brian Chamberlain. “The XR motor lacked the hard hit of today’s modern 4- strokes, which to some might be a disappointment, but I actually found it easier to get the power to the ground in the tighter, steeper terrain.”

A 40mm piston-valve Keihin carb feeds the Nikasil-lined cylinder through 37mm intake valves, extracted by 32mm exhaust valves. These valve sizes are just 1mm larger than that fitted to the CRF450R, a bike 200cc smaller, demonstrating the XR’s motor to be designed for tractable power, not high-rpm screaming. Also, the 450’s carburetor is the same size as the 30% larger XR650’s. A portion of the linear power characteristics stem from a gear-driven counterbalancer designed to smooth vibration.

Power is delivered to the 18-inch wheel from a five-speed transmission and through the 520 O-ring chain. Both the stock chain and rear tire are decent, but Dunlop’s K695 meat lost its edge quickly. Shifting was simple on the XR and missed gears were fairly rare. One rider did mention that first- and second-gear ratios felt a little awkward for tight trails, but what bike are we talking about here? The XR definitely isn’t designed as a hardcore woods weapon, though nine-time national off-road champion Scott Summers has proved that big Hondas are capable of being more than competitive in the trees.

Once on the open road, clicking into the upper gears can be an adrenaline rush on the 650. Of course, when you do and things start to go wrong at speeds above half-throttle, it can give the old sphincter muscles a serious workout. Saving a massive loop-out or flying-W can be a challenge on this hefty machine. With a full 2.6 gallon fuel tank and fresh oil, our scales showed an operating weight of 305 pounds (289 lbs tank empty), which is a fair share more than what most of our test riders were used to dealing with on the trail.

“With this kind of weight, once it starts to get away you need to be on your game to get it back under control,” said MCUSA’s Joe Wallace. “Don’t get me wrong, you can push this thing a lot harder than you would think, but once you do be ready for it to bite you back.”

We did have a bit of a problem with the bikes overheating during some slow-going trails, but the problem never persisted once the speeds picked up. This is a 650 remember, so going slow really isn’t what the Honda engineers had in mind. Nor did we, for that matter, but whacking open the throttle opens up a whole new can of worms on the red beast. All of our riders complained of soft suspension action, especially on the front end. The 46mm Kayaba cartridge fork and 44mm rear shock were undersprung for even our lightest rider. Keep in mind, every one of us enjoyed the suspension when drifting the rear knobby around fast fire roads, but the rougher the terrain gets, the more those extra pounds start to show themselves by blowing the suspension through its stroke.

I have never bottomed a front end like I did on the XR. We were practicing for desert racing, so much of our time was spent on whooped-out powerline trails that simply punished the front end. I tested the bottoming resistance plenty of times on that road and it convinced me that modifications to the fork would be money well spent. Not only was the fork way too soft, but once the speed picked up, headshake was basically the name of the game. Steering stabilizers are a must for any XR rider. On slower, more technical trails, hitting a root or bump didn’t cause the front end to deflect too badly.

Up front, braking duties are held by a twin-piston caliper while the back sports a single-piston design. Both utilize a 240mm rotor, but every one of our test riders found that the brakes were simply too weak for the Honda’s considerable bulk.

“For such a heavy bike, this thing could use better brakes up front,” Joe commented. “The rear actually works fine. Basically once you get this beast up to speed it’s really hard to get it slowed down.”

Honda tried to address the issue by bolting on a CR250R master cylinder on the front, another machine that carries a pair of 240mm rotors. The problem is that the CR250 weighs a scant 213 pounds. Hell, even Honda’s 125 has the 240s on front and back, and that machine has the XR beat by full 100 pounds!

Soft suspension, smooth motor and 300 pounds of mass combine to create a riding position that drew mixed responses from our riders. For the most part we all agreed its bar position was too far back and the footpegs weren’t quite as comfortable as they could have been given the bar placement. Like I mentioned before, all of us are used to the flickable and aggressive characteristics of motocross machines. We felt the bike was heavy and cumbersome, especially through tight trails, with the exception of one rider.

At 5’5” Adam Sabedra is the shortest of our testers, but he differs from the rest of us in more than stature. You see, long before joining MCUSA’s e-commerce team, Sabedra lived a life few of us have, that of a professional racer. He obtained his pro AMA Flat Track card in 1983 and carries it to this day, though he gave up full-time racing in ’97. What this adds up to is a short dude who loves pitching big, heavy 4-strokes completely sideways at stupidly fast speeds. Given the XR’s reputation as king of the fire roads and Adam’s insatiable appetite for ridiculous powerslides, he rejoiced testing the Honda like the coming of the flat track Messiah.

“I was amazed at how nimble the bike felt,” he said. “It was like a XR100 on steroids, and being a small guy, that says a lot. The XR was very comfy and encouraged me to move around. Sliding on the seat a few inches would translate into a nice rear-wheel spin or one hell of a wheelie depending on what you wanted to do. After a six-hour day of hard riding, I was left wanting more. Even with the suspension problems I felt great about the big XR and wish that I had one in my garage.”

Though he and another of our vertically challenged testers struggled a bit with the 36.8 inch seat height, Adam’s small frame fit well enough between the low, swept-back bars and ill-placed pegs. As for the rest of us, we couldn’t seem to find a comfortable, yet aggressive riding position.

“The bars feel really narrow and squatty, so when you stand up you are hunched over the front end of the bike,” Joe said. “You have to constantly fight to get comfortable while riding standing up.”

BC, our tallest rider at 6’0″, mirrored the statement saying, “Peg placement seemed slightly too far forward, making it a little uncomfortable when standing up for long periods of time at high speed.”

Turning to one of our more “seasoned” riders, MCUSA editorial director Ken Hutchison, chipped in with his two cents by complaining of recurring back pain while aboard the big thumper. “The forward placement of the pegs combined with the pulled-back location of the handlebars make me feel like I am riding a stand-up jet ski,” he whined. “This puts a bit of strain on my back unless I make an effort to stand tall and lean forward putting my thighs on the tank. During hill climbs or descents this is not so much a problem, but on level terrain it just feels awkward.”

I too was uncomfortable when standing. I found that the riding position and soft suspension practically forced me to ride either in the saddle or standing with my butt well over the rear tire. Since I preferred the shock action to that of the front end, riding with my weight back was the most effective way to bomb rough straights and whoop sections. However, it does pose a problem when trying to get aggressive in the tight stuff. Many of southern Oregon’s best riding areas are composed of single track or MC/ATV trails, both of which require good mobility in the saddle and the ability to sit forward on the tank. Moving around the stock tank was much easier than I first imagined and the seat/tank transition is relatively smooth.

The stock tank only allowed us to go 50 miles at a time before needing a refill, no matter how hard we tried to conserve fuel. BC, ever wary of increasing gas prices and fuel economy thanks to his V-8-powered truck, crunched the numbers for us noting that the 650 averaged around 19 mpg in our rough hands. In an effort to gain more range, we installed an IMS 3.2-gallon tank on one bike. The additional 0.6-gallon capacity allows for around 61 miles of riding, but we found that it significantly limits rider mobility. Whether or not your riding style requires additional gas is up to you to decide. But a word of caution, don’t overestimate the range on the XR because you do not want to be pushing this hog back to the truck.

Our XRs have a tall and heavy feel, but much to our collective delight, the weight is well balanced. Honda started an aluminum revolution in 1997 with the introduction of the painfully harsh twin-spar chassis on its CR250R. In the nine years since, that aluminum technology has been refined and spread throughout the Honda off-road lineup, including the big XR. The backbone style frame doubles as the engine oil reservoir for the dry-sump oiling system. A dipstick pokes out from the steering head where it is easy to reach, making oil level inspection a breeze.

Sticking with the aluminum motif, the subframe is also made of the lightweight material. Being the over-zealous journos and computer geeks that we are, we managed to test the rigidity of the subframe on many occasions. The removable piece held up surprisingly well considering the bulk of the machine, but we did relegate one to the scrap heap during our high-speed desert adventure in the BITD Las Vegas-to-Reno race. The tapered aluminum swingarm pivots at the rear engine mount, eliminating extra frame components and shortening wheelbase to 58.3 inches while lowering overall weight.

I’m sure that when it comes time to give all these bikes back to Honda, it’ll be my name that is magically chosen as delivery bitch once again. I’m not sure how enthusiastic I’ll be for the Hondas’ return trip to SoCal, but it won’t be the drive that’s deterring me. After having my first experience with the big, red open-class thumper, I’m not sure that I’m entirely ready for it all to end. Those Honda guys were pretty cool, and besides, what are they going to do with four slightly-used XRs? Maybe if I’m really nice…