Photo: Surj Gish

2017 Honda “Bobber Without A Cause” Rebel 500

By Surj Gish, with Max Klein & Fish
Photography: Max Klein & Surj Gish
Riders: Sam Devine & Fish

Honda’s Rebel 500 is a seriously good bike. I’m not going to get all breathless and spout adjectives like stellar or fantastic the way people seem to feel they need to these days, characterizing everything with ever-increasing levels of over-inflated awesomeness, and anyway, the Rebel ain’t about such nonsense. It’s just a very good bike.

Full stop.

It’s also a better bobber than Indian’s Scout, a better Sportster than Harley-Davidson’s Forty-Eight, in fact better than any Sportster with the exception of the Roadster, which we all love because it kicks ass.

I know, I’ve clearly lost a good number of my marbles. But while the Rebel deviates from the “steeped in tradition” styling and details of the American low-riders, the defining outline is there. Check out our first-ride notes from the new Rebels’ press launch earlier this year (“Rebuilt, Rebooted, Reborn… Sam Rides The New Rebel At Honda’s Release Party” – May 2017) for more on how that silhouette came to be. In the here and right now, check out that low-slung, muscular look. Yes, it’s a slightly smaller bike, and yes it lacks the big balls out that accompanies its American brethren’s bigger small-blocks.

The attitude is there, though, wrapped up in post-modern shapes that bend the rules of cruiser styling without making us turn away in disgust, like the perfectly-sculpted peanut tank perched on a perimeter-esque frame, but also employing classical elements like that fat front tire and a Harley-Davidson-esque rear fender with no passenger seat.

But even better, even with all that get to the choppah styling, the Rebel is more than just another ‘round town, short-hauler with punishing, painful ergos. It’s a proper, rideable motorcycle, and that’s why I can say without irony or sarcasm that it’s a better motorcycle than similar, more expensive bikes like the Scout and the Forty-Eight.

There are only two cases in which this isn’t true. First, if you’re wedded to the Harley-Davidson or Indian brands, or similarly to the notion of buying American, the Rebel won’t be your bag. Second, if you have displacement hang-ups and just can’t fathom the idea that a real motorcycle can have a “little” 500cc engine, or if you just can’t wrap your head around pistons less than 4” across, the Rebel can’t help you.

I get it. Both the Scout and Sportster engines are engaging, fun motors. Bigger motors are better.

But consider the actual use of most Sportsters (minus the Roadster) and Scouts: they’re bar-hoppers. The gist of that use case, beyond riding intoxicated with either alcohol or douchey-ness, is short “hops” around town, unencumbered by mundanities like picking up groceries and dry cleaning.

Never mind that “bar-hopper” is the stupidest fucking description ever applied to a motorcycle, and that such limited-use machines are representative of what’s wrong with motorcycling in America. We don’t have to talk about that now, because the Rebel doesn’t suffer those limitations.

While other middleweight cruisers, emphasis on “middleweight” for the laughs that descriptor brings, suffer from handling roughly comparable to that of a skateboard, say an Eighties-era Christian Hosoi Hammerhead, with a V8 bungee-corded on, and forward controls that curse the rider to suffering an inability to move around on the bike and insta-numb genitals, the Rebel offers a reasonably neutral riding position and surprisingly good handling for a $5,999 cruiser (add $300 for ABS). Actually, scratch that: surprisingly good handling for a $5,999 motorcycle.

It may surprise you that I’m talking about the Rebel as if it’s a real motorcycle, not just a beginner bike, not just a “girl’s bike,” not just an entry-level cruiser.

What makes it so good? It’s hard to pin down exactly—and we’re not gonna fall back on talking about soul the way the Italophiles do, although the Rebel does have a lot of character. Sure, the ergos are neutral and work well for a broad array of differently-sized folks, but it’s not just that it’s comfortable. Yes, the grunty, eager engine is surprisingly good—we unanimously agreed that it feels much better than in the other Honda 500s, thanks to some “retuned for torque” wizardry—and the six-speed tranny is practically the definition of slick. Despite the utilitarian, necessarily low-cost nature of the suspenders, the wide-set non-adjustable 41mm fork (4.77” of travel) and preload-adjustable dual shocks (3.77” of travel) work together well to deliver a reasonable ride. The single discs (290mm front, 246mm rear) are perfectly decent too.

But in typical Honda fashion, the package is more than the sum of its parts. Maybe it’s just that we had low expectations for the Rebel given its roots, but every time we’d hand the bike back and forth amongst the Wreckers of the Crew, we’d exclaim, “You know, that’s just a good motorcycle!”

To make sure we’re speaking the same language, “great bike” doesn’t mean it can pace a well-ridden supermoto on your favorite string of curves and tar snakes, nor does it mean it’s ready for a trip to Alaska without significant modifications. What it does mean is that the Rebel is just a damn good motorcycle, akin to the UJM’s of yore.

The whole thing looks rather sassy and fine, too, in its blacked-out, stripped-down way—though I’ll admit I had to warm to its unique styling. My first response to the photos Max messaged to me from the Rebel launch party last year was a groan and some swearing—admittedly my response to many things, good and bad.

Before the resurgence in beginner bike options in recent years, Honda had built quite a legacy with the original Rebel, but it was mostly about the 250, the ubiquitous “other option” if you didn’t want a little Ninja. The Rebel 450 was only produced from ’86 to ’87. The Rebel 300—essentially the same bike as the 500, but with Honda’s 300 single in place of its bigger brother’s twin—will almost certainly continue that legacy.

But the Rebel 500 creates something of a class of its own: a cost-conscious / beginner bike that isn’t budget-spec’ed into lameness, a lightweight cruiser that rides its own ride with enough style and swagger to transcend the usual “this’ll do till I get a real bike” misgivings, a motorcycle that does most things well enough to keep us saying, “You know, that’s just a good motorcycle!” over and over.

Max: Needs More Ride Red, Bro 

Many moons ago I was an MSF instructor. The two range Rebel 250s we had were arguably the most problematic machines since the original Terminator. (Or the liquid metal T1000, whichever one was actually the greater threat to mankind, which is of course the start of a long conversation.) If the petcock was not moved to the off position immediately after hitting the kill switch, fuel would start pouring out—stuck float! There were always little puddles of “strike match here for big fun” under them when we pulled ‘em out for weekend classes, and they leaked other fluids out of every possible orifice.

Still, after continual attempts by seemingly everyone that threw a leg over one to kill them, the 205s soldiered on. Hours of beginners hammering on the clutches, countless zero-MPH drops—hell, even the kid that managed to slide one under a chain link fence couldn’t extinguish the Rebel’s life force. As much as I hated those range Rebels, I had a lot of respect for their ability to carry on in the face of adversity and constant abuse.

I guess that’s why I was so excited to see what the new and improved descendants of those unstoppable 250s could do.

Going into my first ride with entry-level expectations probably worked in favor of the 500. I’ve ridden other Hondas with the same powerplant, so I thought I knew what to expect: not quite enough torque, adequate horsepower.

I was positively disappointed. As oxymoronic (that’s me!) as that sounds, the 500’s motor behaved exactly how I wished it would have in the X and F models we’ve ridden previously. While the CB series bikes have enough power to get out of their own way, they lack the excitement that the Rebel rewarded me with when I ripped the go-stick. That more than made up for the lack of substantial top end power and encouraged some stoplight drag racing… not that I engaged in any such malarkey.

The suspension was also the opposite of what I expected it to be. Sure, it’s budget-y, but not the bottom-out-early spine-compressing shocks that many base-model cruisers come with, and the fork offered a bit more like real suspension than I’d anticipated.

My biggest complaint? It felt like the rebound was much quicker than the compression, causing me to wonder if I was riding on a trampoline on some of the bumpier twisties that I visited. But sling that thing down a clean bit of pavement—if you can find any ‘round here—and for a minute you might forget you are on a budget cruiser.

The minimalist pseudo-chopper styling that kids these days love is present. There’s only one Rebel marking on the bike: a sticker on the rear fender. It isn’t die cut and it’s not color-matched to the bike. While I applaud Honda for not slapping Rebel logos everywhere all Harley-nilly, they could have at least made that sticker match the rest of the fairly clean, well thought-out motorcycle.

I also think they could have carried the red theme (present only on the tank) of our bike to the fender, or otherwise added a bit more color elsewhere. Red springs maybe? It’s not that the bike is bland, but it might be a little too low key.

That being said, the fact that I’m complaining about sticker quality and lack of color, instead of the motor, transmission, fueling, ergonomics, or even the suspension (much) means that Honda has produced a damn fine entry level cruiser.

Fish: The Rebel Is The Real Deal

While the Rebel nameplate seems to inspire thoughts of new rider training courses for Max and damn near every other person I talked to, I have a different association.

I’d always seen the Rebel as Honda’s chopper. The distinctly raked forks and forward controls actually had a pleasing visual line, to my eye. Later in life I heard rumors that the styling was done by Arlen Ness, which is believable given the bike’s proportions and stylized battery cover and fuse panel. The new Rebel abandons that classical styling and has taken the bike into what I would call “modern standard” territory. While it’s rather tame compared to some of the bikes Honda has given us (cough… CTX1300…cough), it’s a somewhat radical, thoroughly modern-looking bike, the kind of package that looks good stock, but also offers a starting canvas for customization. Not catalog customization—I mean actual cutting and welding.

Using terms like entry-level, learner, or budget undermines the fact that this is a genuinely great motorcycle. I haven’t ridden the various 500s that this powerplant debuted in and so can’t make the comparison that Editor Surj and Max are, but I can say that it’s the motor is a very good match for this chassis in this state of tune. It’s a Honda, so it’s no surprise that the fueling is butter smooth with no noticeable flaws, but there’s more to it than that—the power curve really highlights the strengths of the rest of the package.

There’s no excess, but the power is adequate for sure. It’s also right where it needs to be. Mid-range punch is spirited, but in my opinion the top end doesn’t disappoint either. When it’s time to show off your DMV lollipop test skills, there’s ample torque to keep you from stalling out in the box turn. I’m probably about to anger the cultier Hondaphiles by saying that it reminds me a lot of the NT650 Hawk engine.

The goodness doesn’t stop with the engine, though. Honda went non-stereotypical cruiser with the seat and ergos, and we are all better for it. My 6-foot tall frame easily found comfort, with my feet almost directly below my hips and my arms falling comfortably onto the slightly-above-my-waist bars. The one friend I have who will still ride with me commented that the bike looked proportionate under me, an impressive feat, considering a 5ft tall person can easily find similar function and comfort on the same bike.

The somehow-universal riding position gives you good command over the bike, and the upright posture provides you a with an easy view of your surroundings.

So you’re perched comfortably atop this sweet powerplant, what now?

Max and Surj touched on the suspension, and they’re correct, it’s much better than you’d think it’d be. What really plays in the Rebel’s favor is the actual geometry. The visual fatness of the front tire is a lie—the Rebel has light steering feel and can attain good lean angles.

Even as CityBike’s resident authority on misusing motorcycles (TKCs for all the bikes!) I’ll admit the Rebel isn’t a race bike. It’s very confident in the twisties, but I’ll echo Max again and say that the rougher California roads don’t treat it well at urgent paces. Other than that, the Rebel is a suitable accomplice for backroad antics.

Things like overly-intrusive ABS or poorly-valved linked systems can really spoil the fun for me. None of these issues are present here. The lack of ABS on our non-ABS equipped Rebel didn’t get in my way (yuk yuk) but the brakes are adequate for the pace that this bike is capable of. I never found the threshold of fade, nor did I want for more bite.

Rear brake power was up to hooligan tasks and DMV test pattern antics, with linear, smooth feel. I’m a rear brake abuser at times, using it to tighten my lines and manage low speed maneuvers, so I’ve boiled more than a few rear brakes, including the systems on my beloved Hawk GTs. Surprisingly, the Rebel is really up to the task here.

So, yeah, this new generation of Rebel is a great beginner bike. It’s also more than that. It’s a bike that I wouldn’t mind having in my stable. It’s not quite ready for a cross-country ride, but it’s a superb combination of fun power and a nimble chassis. You may not always meet the nicest people on a Honda, but I can’t imagine anyone having a bad time while riding this one.

This story originally appeared in our October 2017 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.