2017 Honda Rebel 500

First Ride Review

If you’ve taken the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse (as well as many other learn-to-ride courses), chances are very good that you did so on a Honda Rebel. Since 1985, the little Rebel 250 has provided a friendly, affordable introduction to the world of motorcycling, and in those 32 years it didn’t really change much, basically looking like a scaled-down version of a full-size cruiser.

But now there is a whole new generation of young riders-to-be, and the last thing they want is a bike that looks like a carbon copy of their dad’s chrome-piped Harley. They’re fickle, craving nostalgia for the past while wanting to put a unique stamp of “mine” on their ride. Sheer power takes a backseat to style and practicality, and since they came of age in the time of $3-plus/gallon gas and the Great Recession, they’re sensibly price-conscious. These are the riders that Honda has targeted with the new 2017 Rebel.

Honda started with a blank canvas, and, notably, that canvas was located in southern California, where the Rebel was conceptualized and designed. Replacing the old air-cooled 234cc parallel twin are two engine options: a 286cc single-cylinder and a 471cc parallel twin, both liquid-cooled, DOHC mills lifted directly from the CBR300R and CBR500R, but retuned for more torque and low-end grunt. In a fairly impressive feat of engineering, the Rebel 300 and Rebel 500 share the same steel trellis chassis, and in fact about 85 percent of their parts are identical across both variations.

Both the 300 and 500 roll on cast 16-inch wheels fitted with fat 130/90 tires on the front and 150/80s on the rear, with a single brake disc both front and rear. ABS is a $300 option for both (although the only bike color it’s available in is black). The 3-gallon gas tank slopes down to a dished solo saddle (neither bike comes with a passenger seat or foot pegs, although they are available as options), and a narrow handlebar and mid-mount pegs put the rider in a comfortable position that is surprisingly un-cramped—as long as said rider is young and/or under 6-feet, 2-inches or so.

At the press launch in Venice, California, a hip beach community west of downtown Los Angeles, I spent most of my time aboard the Rebel 500, knowing I’d be hitting a mix of freeways, twisties, beachfront cruises and city streets. The Rebel is just as easy to ride as ever, with a light clutch lever and solid gearbox that willingly offers up neutral at stoplights. With the retuned engine focused on low-end power, it seems to runs out of juice pretty early, but at reasonable speeds and around town, the Rebel 500 has enough get-up-and-go to squirt through traffic, and it hung with 75 mph L.A. freeway traffic without breathing hard. As expected, the 300 is lighter and buzzier, better suited to around town than long freeway stints, and at a starting price of $4,399 it’s also highly affordable.

Thanks to the mid-mount foot pegs, the Rebel is capable of decent lean angles, but its sporting performance is hampered by extremely soft suspension that is both under sprung and under damped. On sinuous Sunset Boulevard, I sat back and let the exotic cars and luxury SUVs jostle for lane space at well over the speed limit, since the frequent pavement irregularities kept the Rebel feeling somewhat out of sorts in the continuous curves. In doing so, I discovered that my experience was much better that way, anyway. The Rebel 500 is so light and easy to maneuver that I could just relax and enjoy the ride, focusing on keeping an eye out for a potential photo op or coffee stop.

When I did stop, the new Rebel drew appreciative glances and comments in a way I daresay it never has before. At one point on Hollywood Boulevard, I found myself stopped in a line of traffic with a front row view of a crew shooting a scene for the TV show “NCIS: LA.” The perils of living in the L.A. area… With some time to kill, I struck up a conversation with two of the motor officers who were doing traffic control, one of which was on a Honda ST1300. He was intrigued by the new Rebel, repeating over and over again what a good-looking bike it was, and I snapped his picture on it. The attention drew a few curious bystanders, who wandered over to see what the fuss was about. This, despite Chris O’Donnell chasing bad guys on camera not 50 feet away. Who knew a Rebel could be so cool?

It’s clear that Honda designed the new Rebels for style and individuality, and both versions are ripe for customization—even if that just means a new handlebar, seat or paint. For those who are more ambitious, the Rebel’s rear subframe is easy to remove or modify, with the frame, subframe and swingarm all being made of easy-to-weld steel. Honda plans to offer plenty of accessories as well, including saddlebags, a rear rack and a handy 12V outlet (which our test bikes had installed, allowing us to keep our phones charged for the numerous photo stops).

The 2017 Rebel is a welcome departure from the tired, homogenous styling of the previous version, and with the new choice of two engines (and price points), the Rebel has reestablished itself as a solid contender not just for a “beginner bike,” but also a fun, cool choice for a new generation of riders.