First Ride Review
For reasons that remain a mystery, Honda waited until the 2016 model year and the introduction of its very capable CRF1000L Africa Twin to get serious about joining the adventure bike party. Sure, there were short-lived tryouts late in the last century (e.g., the original Africa Twin, Transalps and NX650 models), but these were well ahead of the explosion in ADV-bike understanding and popularity, and the 1998-2013 semi-ADV Varadero was never brought to the U.S.
But just prior to the new Africa Twin, Honda dipped a toe in the ADV pond by calling its ruggedly styled new-for-2013 CB500X an “adventure sport” motorcycle, and despite its 17-inch wheels at both ends and 4.7/5.5-inch suspension travel, quite a few riders took that description at Honda’s word.
Subsequently our March 2014 issue tour test to Tombstone, Arizona, included some dirt roads, where the CB500X’s light weight and decent ground clearance helped it do OK (absent deep sand or ruts). The bike’s lower price and seat height has since endeared it to beginning and smaller riders, some of whom want to sample the ADV experience without spending a lot of money—call them the “Adventure Curious.”
The CB500X’s ADV role got a boost when a UK-based outfit called Rally Raid Products created an “adventure kit” for it that includes spoked tubeless wheels with a 19-inch front, longer travel suspension, an ABS cutout switch, taller handlebars and more, and sold lots of them.
Honda has been paying attention to all of this, of course, the result of which is a new 2019 CB500X that incorporates several updates to make it more adventure capable as well as some solid upgrades to its performance and user friendliness. Chief among them is a new 19-inch front wheel that improves bump absorption, front-end feel off-road and high-speed handling, and longer suspension travel (up 0.4-inch front and rear, with an upgraded shock from its larger sportbikes) that reduces bottoming and increases ground clearance.
Unfortunately, seat height is up 0.8-inch as a result, so Honda has narrowed the seat front to make the ground an easier reach–with my 29-inch inseam I can still plant the balls of my feet on the ground. Steering rake and wheelbase are slightly longer for more stability, yet the bike’s turning radius is 8 inches smaller, and new 7-spoke cast wheels are shod with Dunlop Trailmax Mixtour tires that have an aggressive tread pattern and deep grooves.
At 471cc the CB500X twin is in that size and price sweet spot that makes it both a great ride for beginners and a nice first or second bike for commuting and short trips. There’s power aplenty for most riding, with a screaming 8,200-rpm redline and a flat torque curve that makes it very responsive throughout most of the powerband. Grabbing a handful of throttle in top gear on the interstate doesn’t inspire much urge without a downshift, but the bike cruises along nicely at 75 mph with little vibration and (based on our 2013 model test) should get great fuel economy.
Changes to the parallel-twin engine for 2019 (which also apply to the CB500R and CB500F) like a new intake tract design, fuel injectors, valve timing and muffler give it a claimed 3-4 percent more midrange power and a racier exhaust note, and help it meet looming Euro 5 emissions regs. More dogs on the transmission gears improve shifting, and a new assist-and-slipper clutch reduces lever effort by 45 percent, adapts to the load for better hookup under heavy acceleration and reduces engine braking when downshifting.
Although the Grand Prix Red CB500X can be had with ABS, that’s it for electronic rider aids, and the optional ABS is not switchable (but the fuse box and ABS fuses are readily accessible under the locking seat). For 2019 the bike gets an adjustable brake lever, a revised hydraulic ratio for the rear brake and upgraded ABS modulators that improve braking in low-traction situations (on the ABS version).
In the cockpit there’s a new tapered handlebar for ADV looks that is slightly (0.3 inch) higher and rubber-mounted to minimize vibes; a 0.8-inch taller, two-position windscreen and a new full-featured LCD display with a larger screen and thinner bezel that includes gear and adjustable upshift indicators. The CB500X also looks more adventure-y thanks to a restyled fuel tank, all-LED lighting and a new shroud design that directs radiator heat away from the rider’s legs.
Besides weight, displacement and cost, the chief difference between the CB500X and its 300- and 650-class ADV bike competitors is probably ergonomic. Those bikes have genuinely sit-up riding positions with tall handlebars and lowish footpegs, and though it’s closer to them now the X still retains some street bike feel, particularly for larger riders.
The bar is taller for 2019 but it’s still low by ADV standards, and the footpegs are a bit high, so it takes more effort to stand up, and standing up off-road creates a long reach to the grips. On the other hand, that wide handlebar and more tucked-in seating position works even better on the pavement now, and the upgrades to steering, suspension and brakes as well as the additional power make the bike serious fun on a twisty road. Wind protection from the taller screen is quite good, and vibration can only be felt in the grips and footpegs at higher rpm.
Honda set up a brilliant ride for the press in the mountains around Julian, California, with a mix of dirt and pavement that showed off the bike’s capabilities very well. Rather than the stock Dunlops, Honda hedged its bets by equipping the bikes with Bridgestone Battlax Adventurecross AX41 tires, an aggressive ADV knobby that works surprisingly well on the street and provided reassuring traction on the dirt bits.
Clutch pull and shifting are indeed butter now, and with the slipper clutch, more linear power delivery and new ABS and brake settings the bike is quite easy to control on loose surfaces and stops hard when needed. Although damping settings are fixed, spring preload is adjustable at both ends, and other than some rear tire chatter when accelerating over washboard the suspension performs quite well for a bike in this price range. It was a warm day yet I didn’t notice any engine heat, and though the new display suffers from glare when the sun is directly behind it is otherwise highly functional.
The accessories list for the CB500X includes heated grips, a centerstand, locking panniers, hand guards, a rear carrier and more, and outfits like Rally Raid will continue to carry ADV upgrades for the new bike as well as for previous model years. At 433 pounds gassed and ready to ride, weight-wise the ABS version is right in between the 300- and 650-class ADV bikes, and the CB500X’s seat is still lower than the 650-and-larger machines, so it’s a good choice for someone who wants interstate touring capability in a smaller, more affordable machine that is also ready for the adventure curious.