Honda’s Bulletproof XR650L Turns 30

2021 Honda XR650L
The year is 1993,
and your brand new Honda XR650 is just about the most capable thing on two wheels. Twist the waffle grip and you’ve got nearly 40 hp on tap from the carbureted 644 cc thumper, and the speedometer needle will tickle 100 mph if you’re brave enough. Weaving through the masses of Pontiac Bonnevilles and Chrysler Lebarons, you make your way to the gravel, where the XR will take you further than anything else with a license plate.

Blink for a second, and it’s 2023. The world has changed, and the Bonnevilles and Lebarons are gone. But the XR650 is still here, and isn’t going anywhere. Celebrating 30 years of nearly unchanged production, here’s to Honda’s unkillable XR650.

2023 Honda XR650L
Compared to the rest of Honda’s off-road roster, including the Africa Twin, MX-inspired 450RL and even the 300L Rally, the XR650L looks like it should come with vintage registration. I mean, this thing really shouldn’t be. Except for a few minor tweaks, the XR650 is available today in the same specification as when it was brought to the USA 30 years ago.

The top dog of Honda’s old XR off-road lineup for ’93, the XR650L combined the tried and true mechanicals of the XR600R with a more powerful 644 cc engine from the NX650 Dominator. The air-cooled, SOHC engine features a gear-driven counterbalance shaft to smooth out the thumper’s operation, and its low end torque makes the five-speed transmission more than adequate.

2023 Honda XR650L
The carburetor is one of the only things to change on the XR. It’s still fed by a Kehin CV carburetor, but it’s grown from 40 to 42.5 mm. But even without fuel injection, and burdened with necessary smog equipment and a road-legal exhaust, the Honda XR650 is still good for 40 hp and 47 lb-ft of torque. It will even return 40 to 50 mpg if treated right.

While most have made the switch to aluminum, the XR is still based on a basic and robust steel tube frame, which has an internal oil reservoir. Suspension is virtually unchanged, consisting of 43 mm Showa front forks and a Pro-link rear shock. Both ends feature preload and compression adjustment, and are good for 11 inches of travel (that’s 2 inches more than the Africa Twin and just an inch shy of the 450RL).

2023 Honda XR650L
Ergonomics in the saddle are going to feel like 1993. The seat is tall at 37 inches, and the 2.8-gallon steel fuel tank is high and in your business. One-piece steel bars front the analog speedometer and four status lights keep the vital information in check. The clutch is still cable operated, and the lights are still all rectangular. Full of fuel, the XR weighs in at just under 350 pounds, meaning she’s certainly no lightweight.

Sure, the old XR isn’t going to win many battles on paper, but when you need one bike to do it all, and do it cheap, the XR650 is your bike. MSRP on the 2023 model comes in at $6,999, which is still competitive for what you’re getting, but dealer holdovers and low-mileage used bikes can offer a significant discount.

2021 Honda XR650L
Hop on the classifieds anywhere, and you’re sure to find several XRs for $4,000 or less, ready for a new set of rubber, and a new lease on life. Build a cheap ADV bike, or a stripped-down tracker — this bike is literally a blank slate. All the best mods, or any issues you could possibly have, are all well documented in the forums. But for the most part, all an XR needs for a happy life over 20,000 miles is regular oil changes and valve checks.

Its robust features aren’t for everyone though. Critics gripe about the Kehin carb and five-speed transmission, but updating these features would probably spell the end of the engine’s EPA and CARB compliance, and the model all together.

2023 Honda XR650L
In a way, the XR650L is a well kept secret for those in the know. Owners are a different breed, and are either on their second XR, or are keeping their first 40,000 mile bike running on 15W40 diesel oil. They eat sand for breakfast, and tackle a 50-mile work commute for dinner. And they wouldn’t post it on Instagram, even if they had one.

There’s nothing glamorous or techy about the XR650L, but as long as the world needs a bulletproof, tried-and-true machine, the XR will continue to sell. Considering the number of inexpensive, throwback bikes we’re seeing on the market today, we wouldn’t expect the end of the XR650 anytime soon.

Heck, Honda just unveiled the new XR150L for 2023, also air-cooled with a steel frame. And even if the XR were to drop from Honda’s lineup for the next model year, the 650 will remain relevant (and prevalent) for years to come.

So next time you come across one of these dinosaurs on the trail, give a wave, and salute the backbone of Honda’s dual-sport lineup for the last 30 years.

Honda XR650 customs | Images courtesy of Honda

2021 Honda XR650L

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