Four Cylinders to Freedom: 2018 Honda CB650F ABS

By Max Klein, with Surj Gish
Photography: Max Klein
Rider: Fish

Not long ago, motorcycles were pretty easy to figure out. 250 and 650 twins were the popular beginner sizes, with a couple of 500 offerings and a single thrown in here and there to keep things interesting. Unless you had your heart set on living the poker run lifestyle or going the long way ‘round, the next step for many riders was either a 600 or 1000 supersport, although a handful of squids piloted 750s. Some of these next-steppers were not quite ready for the jump to a bigger bike, especially one with the otherworldly capabilities of a liter sportbike, and when their skill meter dipped into the red the surviving machines were often stripped of their rashed plastics and broken clip-ons. The streetfighter was born.

It was a simple time.

Not so much today. The 250s have evolved into 300s and 400s. The 650 twins were joined by 700s, and don’t get me started on the 800 and 900 inline fours or the 900 triples—and that’s just the Japanese brands. But you no longer have to wait until you crash your supersport to build a streetfighter, as just about every manufacturer has at least one option for you, even if they’re not using the word “streetfighter.” Naked, standard, hyper-naked… whatever.

It was only a matter of time before Honda brought out an oddball displacement middleweight streetfighter, although the 649cc DOHC four-cylinder powerplant in Honda’s CB650F is not exactly new. Actually, the whole bike is not new—it’s been carving Euro canyons since 2014, and apparently selling quite well over there.

Usable power starts around 2,500 rpm, which makes tittering around town a docile endeavor. On the open road or out in the canyons, wicking it up above 6,500 rpm transforms your urban tittering into a titillating rush. When pushed through the sexy, CB400F-inspired 4-into-1 exhaust headers, the motor sings as much as it screams, the motorcycle equivalent of Otep Shamaya

Helping the CB650F change direction is a 41mm Showa fork featuring “Dual Bending Valve” technology. If you believe the propaganda, this tech is supposed to offer similar performance as a cartridge fork, but without all the weight. The dual-bender is matched to a preload-adjustable Showa shock in the rear. Performance is at least on par with the expectations set by these budget-y bits. I never had a situation where the suspension let me down, but there was also never a time where I raved about how great it was. The suspension is the motorcycle equivalent of Matt Damon.

Stopping power is provided by a similarly low dough-spec pair of Nissin two-piston calipers gripping 320 mm discs up front and a single-piston Nissin squeezing a 240 mm disc in the rear. Our bike was an ABS model, and the anti-lock was very unobtrusive when called upon to avoid the family of jaywalking deer I encountered on one of my rides. As far as budget binders go, I was impressed with their consistent performance, even after being called upon in high pressure situations. The brakes are the motorcycle equivalent of Dennis Eckersley.

The 650F’s riding position is very aging-man friendly: upright without taking away the slight roll forward needed to get aggressive in the hills. Pegs are high enough that they don’t spend half their life grinding through corners, but not so high that I had to pry my knees out of my armpits after a day’s ride. The rubber-mounted bars are equally ergonomically pleasant: high enough for the adult in me to be comfortable, low enough for the kid in me to get a little sporty when warranted. There’s just enough deflection off of the teeny tiny hint of a windscreen to keep me in clean air no matter which version of me is in control.

You may be wondering just where this machine fits in. It’s a four-banger, so obviously you need to compare it to the likes of the GSX-S750 or the Z900—not totally fair given the Gixxis’s larger displacement engine, and the Z900’s engine dwarfs the CB-F, so going head to head there is kinda silly.

If you look solely at displacement, you have to put it up against the SV650, MT-07, Ninja 650 and Z650, also a futile undertaking since those bikes are all short two cylinders, providing power delivery that’s a bit angrier down low, where the CB is just waking up, while in the higher ranges the CB is still ripping long after the rest have had to switch gears.

The only fair comparison is when they’re all stopped, and the Honda wins the beauty contest. Seriously. Did I mention how sexy the exhaust is?

Monetarily speaking, the debate is not much easier. The non-ABS CB will set you back $8,249 (add $500 for anti-lock brakes), which is more than all the twins listed above by as much as a coincidental $650, fifty bucks less than the non-ABS Gixxis 750, and just $150 less than the bargain-priced non-ABS Z900.

Well, that solved nothing.

Whatever. Here’s the deal: the CB650F is accommodating enough for newer riders, offering predictable throttle response and comfortable ergonomics, but still exciting enough for more veteran riders to flog.

Max is the SF chapter Director of the AFM. You should go to an AFM weekend some time, to see him and all the other AFM-ers doing their high-speed thing.

Surj: Second Opinion

The CB650F is a case study in how Honda’s bikes always seem to magically outperform their spec sheets. The marketing materials are typically breathless, calling the bike the “purest form of motorcycling,” extolling the “handsome” four-banger’s “satisfying rush of power and torque” and “throaty growl” emitted from the “beautiful side-swept exhaust headers” that Max and Fish won’t shut up about.

It’s true, the pipes are hot stuff, exhibiting a classical look that can be traced back to early-Seventies Honda fours—Honda specifically mentions the CB400F. But overall, while attractive, the bike seems to initially strike most as unassuming, and it’s easy to dismiss the spec sheet and marketing materials with a vaguely indifferent, “Oh, another tuned for midrange naked.”

But there’s more to it, as there always is with Honda. This “more than the sum of the specs” concept has been a hot topic around World Headquarters lately, since we’ve been riding several new Hondas; and even hotter on the internet—where all the critical thinking happens—thanks to the recent news of Honda’s coming-soon CRF450L.

Many of the anonymous talkers are eager to dismiss the 450L as too heavy, not serious enough, or some other point in a near-endless shit list, but it seems that most of the Honda haters think Honda not doing exactly what they want equates to Honda not being innovative, or not building good bikes.

These people are dumbasses, of course. Although I do wish the 450L’s maintenance intervals were longer, after briefly running my hands over one in a back room at Honda HQ in Torrance, I’m confident the bike will be like every other underestimated Honda: in a word, kickass.

Back to the 650F. This bike’s release didn’t start any 2,000 post+ internet thread-wars, but the same applies: it’d be a mistake to dismiss the 650F as half-ass attempt by Honda to cash in on this apparently-ongoing naked thing.

The moment I climbed aboard, I knew I’d underestimated the bike at least a little. First, it feels a lot more taut, purposeful, and real-deal than other middleweight naked bikes, like Suzuki’s GSX-S750 and Kawasaki’s Z650 ABS, and that feel translates to high levels of backroad competence. Showa’s Dual Bending Valve fork certainly contributes here, but there’s more than that, a sum of parts thing.

Power delivery is very linear and might fool you into thinking the bike isn’t really that interesting… until you get closer to the engine’s 11,000 rpm redline and that little bastard starts howling. Maybe there is something magical about those pipes. Yeah, it’s tuned for midrange, and not geared quite as high as a “real” sportbike, but if you want to break laws, the CB650F is game.

Our bike developed a prematurely slippy clutch shortly into our time with it—could have been a totally random component failure, or actual abuse by some previous moto-journo. We were all bummed by its early transition to gimp mode, because it was a fine dance partner.

Editor Surj nearly recused himself from this review because of his status as unabashed Honda fan. After a special trial convened to determine his ability to be fair and balanced, it was decided that he could proceed. Ultimately, you, the reader, must decide.

This story originally appeared in our August 2018 issue, which you can read in all its original high-res glory here.

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