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Honda XL 350R
Bumbling down the road near our office recently was a barely mobile example of how oddly illogical the human animal can be. It was an old, English sedan from the era of little pointing hands that popped from the roof to signal turns. Even allowing for changing times, these cars were not good cars. In exchange for looking funny, they were cramped. To make up for lack of speed, they were also unreliable. They were priced high so they depreciated quickly.
And they sold by the hundreds of thousands. The manufacturer did better than a brisk business, was in fact a major power worldwide.
English cars are much better now. Better built, better designed, better looking, more reliable.
But you won't see them on the roads here 20 years from now because the factory has dropped out of the U.S. market.
Moral: When you're in style, you don't have to be good. When you're out of fashion, being good may not help.
All of which is a roundabout introduction to the Honda XL350R, which is new, incredibly good ... and thoroughly out of fashion.
Only Honda could make the XL350R. There's tradition. This is Honda's third distinct 350cc dual-purpose machine, following the 1969 SL350 (the CB350 Twin engine with mildly revised frame, high pipes and not much speed in the dirt) and the original XL350 of 1973, a four-valve Single of great strength and weight.
More in the present are the resources offered by Honda's extended family. The XL-series Singles evolved in various displacements, gaining two-port exhausts and later compound carburetors, then single rear shocks, disc front brakes from the XR and CR lines, and radially disposed valves to take full advantage of the four ports.
This has been a true evolution. When things work, for example the disc front brake, they are parcelled out to the various model lines. When they don't, as in the 23-in. front wheel and the open loop frame with stressed engine, they are never heard from again.
This gives Honda an unmatched flexibility. Having developed the four-valve radial head with compound carbs, the frame, suspensions brakes, etc., Honda can then deal them out as the market demands.
This is all in proportion. The radial-valve 600, 500, 350, 250 and 200 engines are the same basic design. They aren't the same engine bored out or destroked. The heads, barrels and so forth don't interchange.
The 350 version fits neatly in the middle of the line: bore and stroke of 84 x 61.3mm, compared with 75 x 56.5 for the 250, and 100 x 75 for the 600. The 350 engine weighs about 10 lb. less than the 600, and 10 lb. more than the 250.
The XL350 and XR350 do have different versions of the same engine. The XR needn't meet EPA rules, nor will it be run wide open for hours. What the pure dirt bike needs is more power for accelerating, climbing and slogging through mud, so the XR has more camshaft duration, larger carburetors and different gearing at the primary and the final drive.
There's also cost, or what the accountants would call cost effectiveness. All bikes must compete in the open market, against rivals of similar specifications from different makes, and against other models from the same brand. That means every machine is priced as low as possible, in turn requiring a series of trades.
The XL350's sticker price is more than an XL250,.less than an XL600, and exactly equal to the XR350.
So, we get those lights and signals for free? The dealer makes out better on the XR? No in both cases. Instead, the XL has a frame of equal strength, but it's made of less expensive steel and there's more of it. Both XR and XL have Pro-Link rear suspension, but the XR's has more adjustment and travel, and so forth. The buyer gets more of this, less of that.
Speaking of more, there's weight, the villain of the four-stroke, dual-purpose world.
Sorry, but not even Honda can change nature's rules. Four-stroke dual-purpose bikes weigh more than four-stroke off-road bikes, which weigh more than two-stroke off-road bikes of equal displacement.
It comes with mirrors, turn signals, passenger pegs, even the little canister to store gas fumes, as required in California. Instead of a tachometer, there are shift-now marks on the speedometer. The tool box, which used to have a flap that lived to fall open when you weren't looking, now is held closed by a hook integrated into the helmet lock. (There's no good place for a conventional luggage rack but Yoshimura's Buddy Bag hooks up just fine.)
Okay, we'd rather the XL350 weighed less. But it's an acceptable weight for its type and displacement, and the jump from 250 to 350cc brings less poundage penalty than does the jump from 350 to 600.
The other thing only Honda can do is make a model for its own class. Suzuki tried this a few years ago. The DR/ SP370 was a good machine, intended to bridge the gap between 250 and 500. The buying public didn't care, so Suzuki went to 400, then reverted to the 250 and the 500, just like everybody else.
But the Honda salesman gets to offer the traditional sizes and if the customer wants more of this, less of that, why. right there in the corner is exactly what he had in mind.
Which proves the XL350R looks mighty good in the brochure.
Starting in the real world . . . brings us to starting, the best-known hassle of the four-stroke Single.
Read this carefully. Take notes. Even before we picked up our XL, we were getting calls from new owners frustrated by the quirks of getting the fire to stay lit.
Honda has solved the problem. And we know how they did it, and How To Do It.
The solution is something of a fudge. The XL600 has a bore of 100mm, the practical maximum across which a flame front will travel. The 600 has an automatic compression limiter, a fifth valve linked to the kick start and opening a chamber, in effect doubling the space into which the mixture is compressed and thus reducing compression by half. And the 600 has a manually controlled compression release.
Despite that, the 600 has temperament. It's wonderfully powerful, the big brother who can save you from every bully that ever swaggered across the playground. At times the 600 is also the big brother who gives you a whack upside the head, just to remind who's in charge.
Honda's fudge is obvious. The 350 has a smaller bore, so the flame has less cold surface to cover. And it's smaller in displacement, so there's less to compress.
The 350 does not have and does not need the decompression chamber or the manual release. Instead, there's a lifter linked to the kick start that opens one exhaust valve during part of the compression stroke.
The system can feel strange. Clearances are critical at both ends of the cable. When the lifter is adjusted perfectly, the kicker meets no compression in the usual sense. There only resistance from gear and ring drag and valve spring compression. If the clearances aren't perfect the valve will close too soon or open too late or something and the strokes can be felt. The piston will even come to a stop under a half-hearted foot, just like the old days.
No matter. Begin the kick at the top of the lever's travel, push down firmly—it's easy enough to allow the kicker's other foot to be on the ground, no leaping needed and the engine will spin through.
Don't touch the throttle. Never. At all. Don't even think about it.
The XL350 has an enrichment circuit that includes a fast idle that provides just enough throttle. When the engine's cold, pull the enrichment on full. Leave it there. Kick.
The engine will catch or sputter. If it sputters, do nothing. Sit there, hands in lap. If it dies, kick it again. Mostly, what it does is sputter and catch and work up to a fast idle, all with no action on the riders part .
There's another benefit. When the engine has caught, the rider has two options. One, ride away with choke lever on. About the time you think, "Gosh! The choke!" and reach for the lever, vibration will have walked the lever into the off position. Or, sit with the lever full on until the engine's fins are too hot to be touched. Flip the lever off and ride away.
If by mischance the engine dies before it's fully warmed, follow Honda's book. Three kicks full choke no throttle, three kicks no choke full throttle. It works.
Starting drill is emphasized here because when it's done right, it's easy. If it isn't done right, it's virtually the XL350's only flaw.
Flaws aren't shortcomings. Shortcomings, the XL350 has. They are mostly subjective and mostly due to the nature of the class. The XL is based on the XR and CR models, enduro and motocross. Sales appeal requires the XL to have not just the rnotocross look, but the modern, with-it motocross look.
Park the XL350 between, say the Harley FLHTC and the Honda Aspencade and the XL looks like the meat in a boardinghouse sandwich.
However: The big Harley has an unladen seat height of 30.5 in. and the Wing's is 30.6 in. The XL's seat towers, relatively, at 34.3 in. There's no choice here. Good dirt bikes, which the XL is, must have lots of wheel travel. They must have more ground clearance than wheel travel. The footpegs must be higher than the ground clearance. The XL is designed for the median size rider, so there must be a certain distance between pegs and seat . .. seat height is thus dictated and it's high. The XL is narrow so the rider doesn't need the four inches the figures indicate (we'd hate to straddle the FLHTC or Aspencade if they had 34-in. seats) but the height can be discouraging to riders who otherwise would find the XL350's performance very much to their liking.
This is a dirt bike with lights. What padding the seat has, is in the middle. The front and back sections slope toward the middle. Perforce, the rider sits in the middle.
Dirt bikes are short. The XL's seat is short, the bars are close to the seat, the legs are bent. The rider doesn't lounge around. The passenger meanwhile won't last 10 miles. The back portion has the length, breadth, height and consistency of a waffle.
More consumer information than a shortcoming is what's required of the owner. Now that full-dress touring bikes with scads of cylinders and instruments, etc., are being billed as low or no maintenance, it's entertaining to look at the fine print behind this simple Single.
Four valves, to be adjusted by hand. The caps covering the threaded tips of the rockers are accessible, no special tools needed except for a feeler gauge, but the tank must come off for the intakes. Two carbs, with linkage and cables and they're buried in the middle of the machine. So is the shock and its preload collars. The shock linkage has grease fittings, good, but that's another item. Everything is hidden, that is, you can't check the air filter or the battery level unless you remove a side panel, which means out comes the tool roll. Said tool roll is a light press fit in its box. Seriously. The box tapers and if all the tools aren't put in their bag just right, if the pliers and the axle wrench aren't inserted narrow end first, the roll won't fit into the box. We speak from experience.
The spark plug is tucked up under the tank, and the oil filler hole is a tiny little thing, with half its measly opening overshadowed by the cases. Surely the engineer who did this has never tried to add oil from a one-qt. can.
Mind, we aren't comparing servicing the XL350 with setting valve clearances on a CBX, changing the rear tire on an FLH, or whipping out the ol' vernier calipers for a session with the cam box on a Norton Manx. This is a basic motorcycle, but it's also complicated. Hondas have earned a reputation for surviving neglect and abuse but still, they like to be serviced and doing this one right will take more time and attention than its specifications indicate.
This has been a test.
No, not of the motorcycle. Of the enthusiast's enthusiasm.
Glad you're still with us, because this is the good part.
Refer to the various figures, the objective data. The XL350 does the quarter mile, 0-60 mph, and top-gear roll-ons with admirable briskness. No fear of traffic, no lack of passing power. The timed speed with a half-mile run was done with rider tucked in and secure. The wide bars mean any input gets to the front wheel quick, i.e. make no sudden moves, but the machine itself was stable at its maximum speed. The clutch is sure if sudden. The gear ratios are fairly close while the powerband is wide. There's no way the XL350 can be caught off the
Pipe-Oddly, seeing as how the compound carburetors are supposed to work like a little one at low revs, a big one as speeds increase, the engine isn't at its best at low speeds and loads. Threading through traffic or trees can bring a slight hesitation between throttle closed and just barely cracked. The exhaust pops under deceleration, so we suspect the primary carb needs a larger pilot jet. Federal regulations prohibit professionals from making such changes, but (nudge, hint) theXR350 uses the same basic carb, and pilot jets are available for it. This message will self-destruct in 60 seconds.
The XL's brakes work. Yes, the bike has a high center of gravity and yes, the tires are semi-knob, no matter. Stopping distances are short, control is fine. Better than fine. Our demon crew got their best stops by using the front brake just hard enough to have the rear tire lift off the ground a few inches. Don't try this at home, kids, but it can be done and the XL will stop shorter, with less drama, than many a road bike.
Handling on the road? Our companion publication Road & Track uses a slalom test, rubber cones set so many feet apart. They weave cars between the cones and clock the average speed. Their current best, from a Formula Ford racing car, is just shy of 70 mph.
Our fearless engineering editor ran the XL through the slalom at an indicated 80.
Fair test? Heck no. Motorcycles are so much thinner that they aren't making the same turns. But it indicates the ease and speed with which the XL can be snapped right-left, and the incredible cornering clearance and the grip offered by the tires.
The tires are nearly a chapter on their own. For years it's been routine to explain that of course the tires on dual-purpose bikes are trials universals and thereby not as good as road tires on the road or knobbies in the dirt.
That's still true. But the details have changed. Road machines can now be equipped with treaded gumballs for racing, sports tires that grip hard and wear fast, touring tires that live longer but don't stick as well. There are knobbies for sand, knobbies for mud and knobbies for hard surfaces. There are even trials tires for the street and gumball trials tires that meet the letter of the rules but are too soft for road use.
During this expansion, the tire companies have been evolving dual-purpose tires that aren't trials universals. They have more knob, well, more space between the knobs, and they're shaped for traction.
This makes for a broader, more complex perspective. It's still true generally that road tires are better on pavement, knobbies on dirt, but now that the racer on hardpack knobbies will beat the racer on mud knobbies if it's dry, and lose if it's not, all compromises are less of a compromise, as it were.
Further, we may have been looking in the wrong direction. Modern suspension is so good it leads one to wonder if we blamed the tires when previous dual-purpose bikes weren't all that good.
The XL350 is good. Not merely a dirt bike with lights but a competent dirt bike. The compound carbs pay off with power, exactly as much as you want, when and where you want it. The back tire can be powered loose and drifted on the fast turns, the front can be weighted to hold the line on tight turns. When the ridged, rutted, loamy uphill can be taken with the engine just into the powerband in third gear, both wheels on the ground, the only rider effort required is remembering that this is an XL, not an XR.
All in context, sure. Our motocross kids said they could bottom the forks landing off jumps, which is why Honda fits air valves. The front suspension will benefit from the usual experiments with air pressure, oil level and weight, maybe even sliding the tubes in the clamps while working on ride height with rear preload. We ran zero air pressure in front, one click from full soft in the back after setting ride height to sack one-third of total travel with our rider in the saddle.
The XL350 isn't the motorcycle to use if you want John Martin to shake in his shoes when he sees your name on the en-duro's entry list.
What the XL will do is provide a solid ride for the C enduro rider out for a day of fun sandwiched between days of riding to and from school, work, etc. The lights don't unplug, but the front signals are on the bars, out of the way, and the rear signal lights are on flexible stalks, which at least minimizes the risk. With tire pressures reduced, try 15 psi in front 12 psi in back, the XL will maintain pace at least as fast as the rider needs. And it won't bite back or play tricks.
The XL350 is billed as an underdog. It's an odd. displacement engine working in an undervalued type of machine, which means it may never be truly appreciated.
Hold up a second. Flip back to the pictures on the first pages of this test.
They were taken at a Secret Place. Road users zoom past this lagoon by the thousands every day, but they can't get to it. Dirt bikes can be ridden there but it's a hassle getting in and out because the pavement stops before the fun part begins.
This is XL350 country. Until you've spent your lunch hour doing wheelies on your own, private, deserted beach, you'll never know what the XL350 can offer.
Source Cycle World 1984