Riding a motorcycle is an adventure, full stop. Even if it’s just to work and back you’re living life more fully, experiencing your surroundings more deeply and having an exponentially more thrilling time than a driver. But adventure motorcycles are a particular breed, built to facilitate travel and exploration, and these days there’s loads of options. The top-dollar, electronically sophisticated bikes typically get the most fanfare but there are plenty of solid, wallet-friendly ADV entry points available too. For Honda, that uncomplicated ADV entry machine is the CB500X.
Life, Identity and Purpose
The 500X has been available for a few years now. It’s part of the 471cc Parallel Twin-powered trio Honda first brought to market in 2013, a platform that has been marketed to folks ranging from new/inexperienced riders, riders on a budget, urban riders, seasoned riders looking for a mellower ride and so on. Honda packaged its then new engine as a relaxed sportbike in the CBR500R, a naked standard in the CB500F and an adventure-styled machine in the CB500X. More recently, the platform has made its way into the cruiser realm, powering the new Rebel 500.
What sets the X apart from its siblings is a longer travel fork, 5.5 inches compared to 4.3 inches, taller 31.8-inch seat height, longer 55.9-inch wheelbase, higher degree of rake and more trail. Styling differences and a larger 4.6-gallon fuel tank round out the elements that differentiate the X model from the others. The 2016 model we tested got a revised LED headlight and taillight, new hinged fuel cap, spring preload adjustable front suspension and an adjustable front brake lever.
And while the CBR500R has since become the best-selling model of the three, the 500X holds an important position in Honda’s line-up. As an ADV entry-point for the brand (there are also more off-road biased options in the CRF250L and CRF250L Rally) it’s the first step on a path to larger bikes like the NC700X, Africa Twin and VFR1200X. The initial purchase that Honda hopes will propel riders down the Red adventure pipeline.
A Broad Segment
The larger world the CB500X lives within has a multitude of options. There are dazzling machines replete with cutting-edge elements drawn from laboratories filled with white-coat-clad mechanical engineering wizards. There’s also rugged and durable bikes prepared to shine in the event of apocalypse when dirty fuel and Twinkies are viable currency. Recently a spate of lower-displacement options have come on the market too, further expanding selection.
The mid-displacement Honda settles among the ranks of bikes like Suzuki’s V-Strom 650 or the Kawasaki Versys 650 in terms of its design and road-going bias. It’s not technologically sophisticated in comparison to marquee ADV bikes, but it’s also not antiquated thanks to the inclusion of ABS, fuel injection and spring preload adjustable suspension.
The CB500X looks the part too, with sharp lines of the fuel tank and side panels curving to terminate in a small beak over the front fender, a styling characteristic common among adventuresome machines. The adjustable windscreen affords much needed protection when logging high miles on the interstate or dealing with a downpour, and for a rider like myself at six-feet, it works quite well.
For 2016 Honda even gave safari hat brown (Matte Brown Metallic, if we’re toeing the company line) prominence alongside the reds, oranges, whites and blacks accenting the tank and bodywork. It might be a little too ‘70’s retro for some, but in the flesh it’s a sharp look and a nice change from the blacks, reds, blues, greens and other standard solid colors that typically dominate motorcycle aesthetics.
The plastic cowl underneath the bike is a step beyond what some of the other adventure bike manufacturers have taken in this segment. It’s primarily aesthetic and doesn’t offer complete coverage, but is a nod to the fact that some riders really will take the CB500X into more precarious situations.
In addition to aesthetics, the bike is light at the bars, surprisingly peppy and comfortable. It’s as-tested $6799 MSRP (the non-ABS 2016 version prices at $6499) makes it positively economical in the adventuring realm, also.
Mechanics in Motion
Even with a partial skid plate and Explorer’s Club color scheme, this bike isn’t going to be at home out in the jungle or desert. It’s happy place is on the asphalt, weaving through traffic, tackling highway miles and winding its way through twisty mountain passes.
The engine is more fun than you might imagine. In the lower revs in first and second gear, there’s enough snap that it almost feels like the bike could lift its front wheel without popping the clutch. Almost. It exists at the perimeter of high-ish performance.
That means there’s a little rush to be had if you’re drag racing stoplight to stoplight, or gathering speed for entry to the highway. You’ll certainly leave that Toyota Corolla in the lane next to you in a cloud of dust, cowering at the immediate response of your machine.
Torque remains remarkably steady through the range and available power wakes up when you get above 5000 rpm. Just be aware that around 8500 rpm you hit the redline and when power cuts out, it’s not gentle.
Fueling is a little abrupt in the lower gears when rolling on or off the throttle, pronounced by some jerkiness when power transitions. It’s not significantly jarring though and beside that one imperfection, the package is well-balanced. Fun yet moderate; accessible to less experienced riders but still engaging enough to amuse more seasoned motorcyclists.
Get up to higher speeds and gears and the throttle’s abruptness disappears. In sixth-gear at 65 mph when the CB500X is humming along at 5500 rpm you can yank the throttle and the transition is smooth as a hot knife through butter. It would be nice to have a little more pull in the upper rev range to make passes quicker on the freeway though. As it is the bike has no problem getting ahead of the slow-pokes, it’s just that there’s enough time to think about how nice it would be to have a bit more top-end torque as you roll by.
Another note that’s worth making in regards to the engine is it’s utter lack of vibration. The near square mill with 180-degree crankshaft emits little more than a cell-phone-in-your-pocket buzz at its worst. It gives the bike’s power delivery a degree of sophistication that belies its price point.
The transmission is rock-solid, with a taught-but-not-too-heavy clutch that engages power smoothly as you move through the refined six-speed gearbox. The brakes offer a progressive bite and a connected feel to the front tire especially, making it nice when pushing the pace in the canyons. An anti-lock brake system helps to keep you out of trouble if you take too healthy a stab at the binders, too.
It’s suspension set-up carries you gently over minor bumps in the road, you can feel the compression is a little soft in these situations but rebound works well so you’re not jounced around after rolling over an imperfection in the road. Though it could be stiffened up for more aggressive riders plowing through corners, it’s set-up well for just about any asphalt adventure a novice rider carrying a moderate pace would encounter.
Dunlop Trailmax D609 tires come stock on the 500X and, despite the name, are geared much more for road duty than off-road fun.
At the bars the X feels small. It’s 31.8-inch seat height isn’t as low as the 300’s in Honda’s line, but it’s close enough to the ground for a rider like me, with a 32-inch inseam, to easily flat-foot at a stop. It carries its 427.6-pound weight well and is amenable to quick direction changes, giving it a lightness-of-foot that contributes to its slight aspect.
The cockpit is comfortable though; the bend of the handlebar allows your hands and arms to sit naturally and without strain and the upright seating position keeps your back neutral. The footpegs feel like they sit slightly back from center, which makes for a nice bend at the legs. Ergonomics designed to facilitate long hauls if touring is on the list of things to do but also completely practical for round-town riding.
It sips fuel too. We averaged 55 mpg during our test, which with its 4.6 gallon capacity will net 253 miles between fill ups.
All in all the bike is accessible, energetic and polished, a notable achievement for an entry-level motorcycle.
What’s it All Amount To?
This is a competent road bike dressed for adventure. It’s also one of the more successfully executed gateway motorcycles I’ve ridden. Let’s imagine two different riders, both starting on the 500X but ultimately going in different directions as they progress to illustrate the point.
The first needs a bike that will capably get him across vast stretches of asphalt and not skip a beat when pavement gives way to gravel, then to dirt, then to single-track or dunes or whatever off-road obstacle might rear it’s ugly head. Something truly adventurous. The CB500X falls short of the off-road prowess demanded by this rider, and the dream quickly becomes to own an Africa Twin.
Then there’s the second rider, that has fallen in love with logging miles on the road. Seeing new cities, meeting new people, getting to the point they want to bring a loved one along. This person is enamored with the smooth character of the CB500X on road but now needs more room, more power, more capability. Honda has numerous touring mounts to choose from, headed by the long-lived and long-loved Gold Wing.
For me then, the CB500X is a bit of a sleeper in the line-up. The CBR500R, with it’s sportbike styling, clearly has the sex appeal of the line and sales reflect how moving that appeal is. The CB500F charms the budding hooligan or urban rider with its naked styling. But the X opens a direct line to two of Honda’s most tempting segments, at least for riders that become committed to two-wheels for life. It’s easy to imagine 75-year-old Byron planning another continental crossing on a Gold Wing this coming summer. It’s harder to fathom that same aged fellow with the same motivation on a CBR1000RR.
Then when you stop thinking about the future and return to the present, you still have a solid machine for the price in the CB500X. It will give you a taste of adventure and leave you to decide where your path with motorcycles leads. And after a first impression with such a polished entry-level package, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if that path remained well ensconced in the Honda family.