Less is more with the Honda CBR650F

By: |
New York | Updated: Dec 20, 2014 9:29 AM

A new sportbike from Honda demonstrates that you don’t need a load of electronic gadgets to enjoy a long-distance motorcycle ride.

The CBR650F is thoughtfully calibrated, a no-fuss machine that lets the rider enjoy the experience without penalties.The CBR650F is thoughtfully calibrated, a no-fuss machine that lets the rider enjoy the experience without penalties.

A few weeks before I left for a recent vacation, I bought a new cellphone to replace a four-year-old model. The new phone was loaded with an updated version of the same Android operating system, and all of my contacts and photos were copied over.

It was not long before this do-all electronic wonder started to make me crazy. Functions that I have been using for years—email, navigation, weather reports—suddenly confronted me with settings to be chosen, selections to be made and upgrades to approve, all unnecessary gimmicks to my mind. Soon it became a major frustration, as interfaces seemed to change on their own, actions became automated and features I never wanted began showing up.

Why couldn’t it just work like my old phone, only with a better display and more memory?

I hope I never encounter a motorcycle that vexes me to that extent, but with the torrent of electronic controls that now offer endless combinations of riding modes, engine power levels and anti-lock brake levels, it could happen. I really don’t want to master a video game button-pushing sequence just to go for a ride.

The lack of such complication is what makes the 2014 Honda CBR650F such a breath of fresh air.

The design of the CBR650F is similar to other members of the middleweight sport class, but don’t confuse it with hard-core supersports machines like Honda’s CBR600RR, even though both have 4-cylinder engines and slick cowlings. The first hint of the difference is apparent in a glance at the price tag: $9,309 for the 650F compared with $11,800 for the racetrack-ready 600RR.

There are many contributing factors in that price gap, among them the CBR600RR’s sophisticated, multi-adjustable suspension and a 50-pound weight reduction. Those advantages, along with a multitude of other refinements, make the RR a far more suitable mount for the rider with racing aspirations.

The competition-level hardware is far less vital for enjoying a bike on the street, and the 650F’s simpler approach results in a more rational price. Though years past the era when it would have been called the leading edge of technology, the 650F’s gear works very well. The conventional front fork (not an inverted design) offers no adjustment of compression or rebound damping, yet its factory settings proved well suited to my size and riding style. Likewise, the twin-piston front calipers are not the latest radial mounts, but they perform very well in real-world riding on public roads, where you should not be pushing the limits of traction and luck.

My test was not a casual Sunday ride, but more like an end-of-the-earth evaluation. The vacation was in Australia—I picked up the bike in Melbourne, caught the ferry to Tasmania, and with my daughter (who was riding a Yamaha FZ6) chalked up 1,500 miles exploring the sights (which included the Great Ocean Road when we returned to the Australian mainland).

For me, the ergonomics were just about perfect—the handlebars were low enough to keep me out of the wind blast, though a little more fairing protection would have been appreciated on chilly mornings—and the seat was perfectly acceptable for a factory unit. The engine, dyno-tested at 78 horsepower by Cycle World, may not have been awe-inspiring, but it was fully up to the job on Tasmania’s roads, where speed limits topped out at 110 kilometres per hour (about 68 mph).

Gas mileage was consistently better than 50 mpg (I did the conversion; the Australian-spec bike reported kilometres per litre), much appreciated as fuel there typically cost about $4.50 a gallon. The only other apparent difference in the Aussie 650F from a US model was the colour: The Down Under Honda was white, a colour not available here. Americans get a choice of red, candy blue or matte black.

If the suspension damping had been adjustable, I might have fiddled a click or two—there was a trace of wallowing on hard bumps with the bike loaded up for 10 days on the road. And in the US I might have liked slightly different gearing to lower the rpm on Interstate runs. But those are very minor points. In all of the riding, which included some unpaved stretches when first-time visitors were not reading maps closely, the only attention needed was a quick adjustment of the clutch lever.

The uncomplicated operation of the CBR650F proved to be a relief, despite the temptation to view the bike as something of a mechanical throwback. Were it only so easy to come to terms with my new cellphone.

The CBR650F is thoughtfully calibrated, a no-fuss machine that lets the rider enjoy the experience without penalties. Honda has models for buyers who spend days at the racetrack and demand the last measure of performance. For the rest of us, who travel on public roads at a sporting pace, the simpler machine at the very attractive price has a powerful appeal.

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