In my article on Down-sizing I wrote about people deciding to change from a big bike to something smaller. The big bike is perhaps getting too heavy, or even too powerful, to be comfortably managed. Running costs can be another factor that prompts the decision to down-size. That decision inevitably brings up the question of what bike would be small enough to be easily ridden, and wheeled around the garage, but still provide acceptable levels of enjoyment out on the road? Well, the Honda CB500 might just be the perfect answer to that question! At the other end of the scale, we have learner riders who got their licence on an old banger 250, and who are looking to buy something bigger and better – a learner-approved machine that will keep up with their fully-licensed mates. What should they buy? Well, this bike might just be the perfect answer! Apparently it has been the answer for a lot of people because the bikes have been selling very well. When I did the test it was mid August and Tim, from Trevor Jordan Motorcycles, said that all stocks had sold out; when their floor stock sold they wouldn’t be able to get any more until the end of the year. One thing that would’ve helped its sales is the price; at just under $8,000 on the road this is an absolute bargain! There is a reason for this though: unlike most other models from Honda, this is not made in Japan, but in Honda’s factory in Thailand. Cheaper labour means cheaper bikes I guess! There are actually three models in the range. There is the CB500R, which is the faired sporty of the range, the CB500F naked, and the CB500X which is a dual-purpose version. All bikes use exactly the same mechanicals. The faired and naked versions differ only in bodywork and handlebars, but the X gets longer-travel suspension and a bigger fuel-tank, to go with its Adventure-bike styling. The model I rode was the CB500R. The CB500R was the only demo model they had, but after sitting on the others that is undoubtedly the one I would pick if I was going to buy one. The naked (pictured on the left) and the X model have higher bars and are more upright in riding-position, but I felt they were just a bit too up-right for my preference. I also felt just a bit cramped, compared to the R model. (Bear in mind I’m a lanky old bloke, so for those less stretched-out vertically it would be a good fit). The bars on the naked had that almost-sloping-upwards feel that I often find affecting nakeds and adventure-bikes. And for me, there is no question which bike looks the best; the R has it hands down! (Although that’s just me, no doubt some will prefer the naked. The F is modern and clean looking: the bodywork extending down from the tank and seat makes it less “naked” but does give it a smooth, clean look).
IN THE DRIVEWAY
The first thing to say is that I reckon this bike looks great! From side-on it looks suitably sporty, with the silver-coloured belly-pan giving it a purposeful look. From the front, with its twin lights narrowing at the centre, it looks sporty and aggressive. The only angle I don’t like is from behind, where I reckon the rear-end treatment looks a bit fussy. The bike feels small – as you’d expect – but sitting on it the riding-position felt immediately right. Being the sporty model I had expected it to have a fairly lean-forward riding-position, but it didn’t, it felt totally natural. As I mentioned, perhaps a less-lanky rider might find it more lean-forward, but it was perfect to me. Surprisingly perhaps, the foot-pegs seemed very natural in position and not at all cramped. Honda claim that the bike is, “designed to be ridden, and thoroughly enjoyed, by people of all shapes and sizes”; and for me, they’ve achieved that. Continuing the good news, the mirrors are great. They are set wide to give a good view of the road behind and not just a close-up of your elbows. And they don’t blur on the road. The instruments are all digital. The tacho is a bar rising from the left side of the display and running along the top. Numbers are small, but it's fairly easy to read. The bar indicator will probably spend most of its time hovering in the area above the number for speed, which makes it convenient to look at both at the same time. Clever! There are buttons to select other information, but I didn’t check to see what they did. The positioning of the buttons on the left switch-block has apparently caused some problems, with the horn button being mounted above, rather than below, the blinker switch. This has, apparently, resulted in a lot of horn-blowing around corners, but I didn’t have a problem with it. The blinker switch is in the usual position, so it was where my thumb expected it to be. I didn’t use the horn on my fairly brief ride, but had I gone for the beeper button I would probably have been stabbing my thumb at nothing. You’d get used to it pretty easily, I reckon. You would also get used to the positioning of the gear-lever, but I found it a bit hard to find initially. The side-stand too, seemed tucked in and back a bit from where you’d expect it to be. The seat felt firm, but not too bad. It’s quite wide and well-shaped, and also gives you a bit of room to move. Mechanically there are no surprises really; it’s a parallel twin with fuel-injection, running a modest 10.7:1 compression ratio. It’s almost square in cylinder dimensions. Honda doesn’t give out-put figures, but I’ve seen figures quoted on-line; which I’ve put in the specifications below. They aren’t big numbers, but reasonable for the engine size. The frame is the expected steel tube, and suspension is typical 41mm front fork and mono-shock rear. The only adjustment is for pre-load on the rear unit. I mentioned that these bikes are made in Thailand, not Japan. From what I observed though, that doesn’t mean it lacks quality. The salesman reckoned it didn’t matter where it was built, it’s the same bike. Well, maybe, but sometimes the quality of components – and their assembly – can drop when the machine has obviously been made to a price. Not with this though. Everything seemed bolted together well, and the plastics seemed quite solid and good quality. If you really went over it closely there’d probably be signs of cost-cutting somewhere, but nothing jumped out at me.
OUT ON THE ROAD
On the road the bike is exceptionally smooth and easy to ride. The engine is smooth right from idle up to the red-line. At idle there is the unmistakable throb of a twin, but it’s very subdued. Get underway and the engine completely smoothes out; it feels more like a multi than a twin. The bike performs really well: much better than you’d expect from the power figures I found for it. It pulls well from low revs; although the performance gets better as the revs rise of course. At 3,000rpm it’s fine, and at 4,000rpm it’s happy and will operate well at these revs. Get it up around 7,000rpm and it really sings and surges forward enthusiastically. Whether you’re a learner stepping up from that old banger I mentioned, or an older rider downsizing to a smaller lighter bike, this will give you the feeling of sports-type performance if you get the revs up and twist the throttle around. And, unlike many smaller bikes, you’ll actually be going pretty quick when you do it. The fuelling is excellent too, with no surges or flat spots. The only criticism comes when it’s at low revs in 1st gear; it gets a bit snatchy when doing U-turns. I have often criticised mid-size bikes for their low gearing, but this is geared at about 21kph per 1,000rpm in top: that gives it the ability to cruise effortlessly at highway speeds. At 120kph it’s sitting under 6,000rpm and doing it easily. It’s very happy in the 100kph – 120kph range. The gear-change is delightfully smooth and easy – it’s “knife-through-butter” stuff! Clutchless up-changes sometimes gave a jerk (or maybe it was the jerk riding it!), but otherwise the box was total smoothness. With light weight and reasonable size tyres you might expect it to handle well, and it does. No, I didn’t go scraping pegs through corners or anything like that (I’m a bit old for that kind of caper!) but at the speeds I was cornering at it felt fine and was easy to point where I wanted it to go. Light counter-steering was all it required to steer accurately through the corners. I took it along a winding back road which gives a good feel for how a bike handles, although recent strong winds had left the road littered with leaves and small twigs, so I was very cautious. But the bike felt fine and encouraged confidence in its ability to carve through the turns and remain stable. The ride was firm, but not jarring. Considering its size and weight – and especially its price – that’s more than you might expect. As I mentioned, adjustment is limited to rear pre-load, but it really is quite good as it is. If it was mine I’d soften the pre-load a bit, throw on a good sheepskin and I reckon I’d be reasonably happy. Bigger and sharper bumps might upset it a bit more perhaps, but I’ve ridden far worse over the same test-route! The brakes work well. There’s just a single disk front and rear, but they’re quite powerful and very progressive. ABS is optional. I reckon Honda has been pretty clever with the CB500 range; especially in terms of what it provides for learners. Here they can have a sports-bike, a naked, or an adventure-bike; all learner-legal and all at a bargain price! But it’s also a great bike for experienced riders who are down-sizing. I also reckon it’s a better bike than the models up or down from it. The CB400 is a fun little bike, but its low gearing makes highway work more of a strain than on this, as well as being a bit too low around town. And it costs a lot more than the CB! Above it in the range is the NC700. That’s more expensive too, of course, but I reckon it’s not as good as the CB. With its scooter underpinnings and half-a-car-engine power unit, it doesn’t provide the same “sporty motorcycle” character and feel that this does. And I also found the seat and the ride a bit hard. Yep, this really impressed me! Maybe if I spent more time on it I’d find more to complain about; but even though the ride was fairly short, it still covered a variety of riding conditions, including a bit of suburban running, a bit of highway, some back-roads, and even a reasonably steep mountain pass. SNAPSHOT Honda says, “For riders looking to move up from a smaller capacity motorcycle, the CB500R provides an excellent first big sports-bike experience, which will also appeal to experienced riders looking for a great value alternative to larger sports-bikes.” That’s a sales-pitch, but it’s actually a pretty good summary of the bike; although I see it as more of a sports-tourer than sports-bike. Yes, it’ll do its sporty thing for you, but it’d also tour easily. As such it could indeed be the perfect answer for those stepping up or those stepping down.
Engine: 2-cylinder, 471cc. Power: 35kW at 8,500rpm. Torque: 43Nm at 7,000rpm.
Suspension: Front: Conventional fork, 109mm travel. Rear: Pro-link mono-shock, 119mm travel.
Fuel capacity: 15.7 litres.
Seat height: 790 mm.
Wheels / Tyres: Front: 120 X 17. Rear: 160 X 17.
Brakes: Front: Single 320mm disk. Rear: Single 240mm disk.
Price: $7,990 (+ORC).
Nothing much has changed. There is different paintwork (still red and black, but in sifferent style), and ABS is now standard. Otherwise it is as tested here.
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