Owner review — a 2016 Honda CB500X as a freeway commuter

So I’m a motorcyclist again.

I’d love nothing better than be able to commute on a bicycle. But Monash University’s Clayton campus is 30 kilometres of “shared path” — twisty, indirect paths designed for leisurely Sunday walks rather than commuting from my inner-northern suburbs home. While three hours on a bike every day is actually not nearly as fatiguing as it sounds, I don’t have the time! Public transport is similarly impractical — it takes the best part of an hour and a half for the trip, and Monash’s bus station is located at the other end of the campus from my office.

Commuting by car was the least worst option, but a drop of rain, or an accident anywhere on Melbourne’s freeways, can push the commute out to closer to two hours than one.

The ever-worsening parking situation at Monash was the last straw. It was time to rejoin the ranks of “temporary Australians” on a motorcycle.

Path to the Honda

Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I’d ridden a succession of trail bikes around a farm, and done a shorter commute on a motor scooter for a few years. I gave the scooter away for two unpowered wheels after a self-inflicted minor crash (jamming on the front brake too hard on a wet road ) and the realization that a bicycle was just as practical in the inner suburbs.

Based on the scooter experience, I had a few thoughts about what kind of motorcycle I wanted:

  • Anti-lock front brakes to reduce the risk of repeating my off.
  • A big enough engine to cruise comfortably at 100 km/h and quickly get to around 120 km/h if required. The scooter was nearing its limits at freeway speeds and couldn’t accelerate into gaps.
  • A bit of weather protection.
  • Reasonably wide service intervals. Some motorcycles seem to spend more time at the dealership than being ridden.
  • Related to the above — bulletproof engineering.

Given my possession of a full motorcycle licence, I could have walked into a dealership and come out with a widowmaker like the YZF-R1. But motorcycling is dangerous enough; I’m not that stupid (and nor is my partner).

So, as a first stab, I hired a Honda CBR250 for a day to see whether it would be adequate for the job.

My conclusions:

  • Despite several years off motorcycles, the Honda was dead easy to ride in a straight line.
  • A 250cc four stroke is only just adequate for freeway speeds — as the profusion of 300cc learner bikes with a bit more performance indicates.
  • Even though the CBR isn’t really a full-blown sportsbike, the riding position is pretty uncomfortable for commuting.

So I looked at a variety of “naked bikes” and adventure tourers before deciding to test ride the Honda. I put a deposit down very soon afterwards.

Gear

Part of the agreement with my partner — and one I needed no prompting to go along with — was a full set of protective gear.

  • A helmet (duh) — A Shoei TZ-X
  • Two pairs of gloves — one pair of summer gloves and one pair of “waterproof” all-weather gloves.
  • A set of Dainese touring boots.
  • An RST Ventilator 4 jacket and matching pants (NB: it seems that these have been replaced by the Ventilator 5 in RST’s lineup).

So far, the gear is fine, and has coped adequately with everything between 14 degrees and pouring with rain, to 38 degree broilings.

On the day of pouring rain, a little bit of water got in the gap between jacket and pants, but I was still warm enough even without the thermal lining, which I still haven’t used.

The gear isn’t cheap, but neither is time in hospital having gravel picked out of your backside. Having fallen off a bicycle at ~40km/h, I have no desire to repeat that at more than double that speed.

Riding the CB500X

There is surprisingly little to report here, because the bike simply does what it’s supposed to do.

The riding position is pretty comfortable. In this respect it’s very much like an offroad bike — you sit up high, with wide bars. If you’re significantly shorter than my 170cm, you might have issues with getting on and off, but it’s OK for me.

By learner-legal bike standards, it’s a big and heavy thing, though. I believe it weighs nearly 200kg wet, close to twice as much as a little scooter. Once in motion, it’s fine, but you have to be a bit more careful at walking speeds or below than you do with a lighter bike which you can just muscle around. I haven’t found it too problematic, but it’s something to be aware of if you’re on the small and weedy side.

Aside from that, it’s welcoming to riders like me. The clutch and throttle are smooth, and the engine’s extremely wide and flat torque curve makes it easy to ride smoothly. Putter away from near-standstill in second? It’s happy to do that. It’s very difficult to stall — and, conversely, the throttle and clutch are smooth enough to keep the thing from taking off like a jackrabbit.

The only issue I’ve had is that the gearbox is occasionally a bit slow on the 2–3 upshift. The ride is pretty cushy — not as cushy as a trail bike with 30cm of suspension travel, but cushy enough, and the bike goes where you point it. Both the front and rear suspension preload is adjustable (new in the 2016 model), but I haven’t felt any particular need to change it.

While it’s not as narrow as those 125s and scooters, it’s quite easy to weave through inner-city traffic. The smooth clutch and engine help a lot here.

Acceleration as a commuter? Unless you’re commuting with aspiring Fangios in supercars, more than enough to get you 20 metres ahead of the traffic from the lights if you need to.

Once you get out on to the freeway, it cruises very cheerfully on the speed limit, with heaps of acceleration left to get you to 120 km/h or so (briefly and only if absolutely necessary — I have better things to do than accumulate licence points).

Personally, I find the bike geared a little low — the thing has more than enough torque to cope with higher gearing, and 4800-odd RPM at the legal limit (it’s redlined at 8500) seems unnecessarily high. In the absence of a seventh gear, Honda Australia could easily spec this bike with different sprockets to make freeway cruising a fraction more relaxed. Not that it’s bad, mind you — it’s not particularly noisy and the vibration through the handlebars is muted.

The screen provides some protection from the wind, but at some point I’m going to try raising it to the higher of the two positions available to see if that can reduce the wind buffeting (and noise).

Recreational use?

I would love to be able to tell you what it’s like on tour, or on dirt roads, but I can’t. My non-commuting rides have been limited to one 120km loop around the local hills, which was fun but a long, long, way from the bike’s limits.

If you want information on how it goes through the twisties, or on dirt, there are plenty of other reviews online.

Cost of ownership

According to the trip meter, the fuel consumption on my commute, which is about a 50–50 mix of inner-city crawling and freeway running, is about 3.5 l/100km (or 67 US MPG). That, like the speedometer, is probably about 5% optimistic, but even at 3.7 l/100km it’s half what my very small car used to manage.

I expect to do roughly 10,000 km per year commuting, so that represents 360 litres of petrol I won’t burn, and 800 kg of CO2 emissions avoided. Not bad!

Because I’ve kept my motorcycle licence all these years, comprehensive insurance was pretty cheap at around at a bit over $400 a year from Swann insurance, organized through the dealer. This was considerably cheaper than an online quote from RACV. I also bought “tyre and rim” insurance, but in retrospect I probably wouldn’t have bothered.

Another little piece of gouging, in my view, was the first service at 1000km. While service intervals for the bike are a car-like 12,000km, there is still that first service to get the gunk out of the first batch of oil. Unlike that first service for a car, however, they charge full whack for it. $300 for what appears to be a glorified oil change? Not entirely thrilled.

Conclusion

This bike has done everything I’ve asked of it, with a maximum of ease and a minimum of fuss. Couldn’t have asked for much more, really.

I’ll post an update in a few months, particularly if there have been any developments.

I’ll also do a quick article on commuting on a motorcycle in Melbourne.

UPDATE (2017–2–22)

The bike continues to perform very reliably after nearly 12 months and 8700km.

There have only been two very minor issues that should be resolved at the first service. Firstly, one of the bolts on the screen was overtightened at the factory and it’s too tight to remove for adjustment. Secondly, one of the bar ends appears to be loose and won’t screw tight as it should; there’s a clip holding it in so it’s not an immediate safety issue as far as I know.

I’ve just replaced the topbox with a larger 47L Givi, just to give a bit more room.

With the engine loosening up, I get ever so slightly improved fuel economy — 3.4 l/100km. Either way, it’s still about as cheap as you could reasonably expect.

The tyres are still legal; the front looks like it will need replacement earlier than the rear will, surprisingly. I expect somewhere around 10–12,000 km before the front will need replacement.

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