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Honda XL 500S
The perfect dual purpose bike, according to a Cycle World comparison of dual purpose bikes last year, remained to be built. It still remains to be built, even now that Honda has produced the XL500, the closest- yet to the perfect on-off road machine.
No doubt about it. the XL.500 is the best there is. It has all the power that a technically sophisticated 500cc four-stroke Single deliver - plenty. It's as smooth as many Twins, all the normal big Single vibrations having been cancelled out with the twin counterrotating balancer shafts. It has enough suspension to make dirt riding fun, not just bearable. And it's perfectly serviceable as a mid-size street bike. But it's not perfect.
A large measure of the XL's charm comes from the motor. Big Singles were considered museum pieces until the Yamaha XT-TT500. The Yamaha motor was an improvement over the traditional British Single because it didn't leak oil, was reliable and at least a little easier to start with its compression release and piston indicator window. Honda has improved on the theme with a four valve head for better breathing the counterbalancers for smoothness, and an automatic compression limiting device that is supposed to make starting easier.
A lot of off-road enthusiasts have been excited by the XR500 Honda, but the XL benefits even more from the refined Honda Single.
To meet emission laws in this country the XL has leaner carburetion than the XR, but makes up for the leanness with an accelerator pump. What look like larger head pipes on the XL are really double wall pipes with die same inside diameter, but helping to keep the XL quieter than the XR. There are still twin head pipes bending back sharply to make room for a 23 inch front tire. The flywheel on the XL is a couple of pounds heavier than the flywheel on the XR so the XL will idle easier and will be easier to lug on the street. Additional windings on the AC generator enable the generator to put out 112 watts of six-volt current on the XL compared to the 47 watt generator on the XR. The only other change of significance between the two is in the clutch. Outside the seven fiber discs and six metal clutch plates is a judder spring designed to ease clutch engagement. The wave-like spring adds to the engagement travel at the clutch lever giving smoother engagement and a little cushion to the driveline.
Frame differences amount to some additional brackets hung on the XL for its required street equipment. Both frames are made from mild steel and both weigh about 23.5 lb. Brakes are the same size, although there's a full-width hub in the back of the XL. Suspension is different on the two machines. There's an additional 0.8 inch of suspension travel at both ends of the XR compared to the XL's 8 inch of front wheel travel and 7 inch of rear wheel travel.
If the XR is a great big dirt bike, the XL is a great big dual purpose bike. Dual purpose machines have traditionally been small-sized. The 250s have been popular for a dozen years and the smallest street legal bikes available today are all dual purpose mounts. Here, now, is a 304 lb. dual purpose bike.
Only 16 lb. isn't a bad penalty to pay for all the lights and requirements of street legality. A 304 lb. street bike, after all, is light and nimble. And when it has the power of 500cc, a claimed 32.4 bhp, it isn't just nimble, but quick.
In turning the XR into a street-legal machine the rear fender has changed from plastic to steel, the tool kit has moved from the pouch behind the seat to a tiny canister, hung below the left side of the seat, that's too small to carry all the tools included in it. Instruments have curiously been changed. Instead of the large round speedometer with odometer and tripmeter, there's a rectangular pod attached to the speedometer, the pod housing the odometer and tripmeter, while indicator lights for high beam, turn signals and neutral are tucked away at the bottom of the speedometer where a rider can't see them anyway.
If it sounds as though Honda created a fine big dirt play bike and then designed a street legal version of it, you guessed right. The XL is different from previous dual purpose bikes because it works fine as a dirt play bike and it's also a capable roadster, instead of being a road bike with off-road accessories.
On the street the big XL isn't appreciably better than Brand Y's big dual purpose thumper. The power is about the same, meaning it can easily pull away from traffic and cruise at any reasonable highway speed up to about 80 mph all day long. Starting is different from other big Singles, but it isn't effortless. The compression limiter will help the Single spin over, but it won't eliminate the need for a strong kick. A man with a strong and fast right leg can hop on the XL and just kick it to life with one or two prods. Most people will be better off following normal big Single procedure of easing the piston past top dead center and then jumping on the lever.
When the test XL was delivered, starting it was a five minute proposition. Gradually every test rider came up with his own technique, each one different, and each one able to start the Honda in one or two kicks.
With lots of low-end power and the cushioning spring in the XL's clutch, getting under way is as easy as letting out the clutch. Throttle response is excellent and the smooth Single lugs well from low speeds. Even cold the 500 will run well provided the choke (mounted on the handlebars) is kept out one notch.
The XL motor is not a high speed engine. Maximum power comes on at 6250, maximum torque at 5000 rpm and maximum engine speed works out to 7200 rpm. On the XR with lower gearing due to a larger rear sprocket, the Honda 500 feels slower than it is because the gearing is unnecessarily low. On the XL the gearing is an ideal compromise. There's enough low-end torque to plonk along trails or climb any hill. And there's enough gearing to hit a top speed of 91 mph and cruise at 80. Running 60 to 70 mph on the XL is easy and the motor is just loafing. On the XR the motor is straining at those speeds.
Fork rake, at 28.5°, is the same as on the XR, so it's rewarding that the XL handles as well and runs as straight on the highway as it does. Honda's Claw Action tires, with appropriate on-off road tread pattern on the XL, allow the 500 to corner at speeds that would have normal trials tires sliding. As a penalty, the Trail Claws make a loud howl on some surfaces, particularly asphalt. When the cornering gets heavy or the braking gets hard, the howl turns into a scream, giving a rider plenty of warning about his foolishness.
Gas mileage on the big XL varied quite a bit. The regular CW 100 mi. gas mileage loop includes a lot of city streets and the test rider couldn't keep off the trails running beside the freeway section so the test mileage came out to 65 mpg. That's actually a bit on the high side compared to its all-around mileage. Cruising on the highway, the 500 regularly turned in about 50 mpg and while out cowtrailing it ran between 50 and 60 mpg. With the 2.6 gal. gas tank it has a 125 mi. normal range, but by holding speed down that can be extended considerably.
Ridden on the street, the XL presents a few disconcerting problems. Most serious is the relatively meager braking power. In normal hard braking situations - not emergency situations - the Honda's front brake lever would be pulled all the way to the grip and the rear brake would be chattering the rear tire which strangely has a greater brake swept area. The 5.5 in. front drum and 5.1 in. rear drum look large enough; they just don't provide as much braking power as the motorcycle should have.
Because Honda didn't put folding lever tips on the XL, the levers are routed close to the engine cases, particularly the brake pedal which is hard to reach with a riding boot. However, Honda did feel the XL needed rubber mounted pegs which don't seem to offer any benefit on the street or off road. Vibration still gets through the pegs, only the rubber mounted folding metal pegs droop when a rider stands on them. The sidestand on the XL holds the bike so upright it won't stand up unless the front wheel is cocked to the left, but because the wheel has to be turned to the right in order to use the fork lock, it makes the fork lock useless unless the motorcycle can be parked on a slant.
Minor servicing on the XL is simple enough. The air cleaner is accessible behind the left side cover. Valve adjustment only takes normal tools and the valves are easily reached behind covers on the head. With the CD1 unit there are no points to adjust, and the CDI pickup unit is mounted in an oil bath under the side-covers where it's protected and kept at a stable temperature. Only the oil screen, hidden at the bottom of the engine under the right side cover, is difficult to reach.
What makes the XL500 such a good dual purpose bike is its performance off road. It's not a motocrosser or even a good enduro bike, but it has enough suspension so a rider can take moderate sized jumps without dying upon landing, and the size holes or rocks that would throw a rider from many other dual purpose bikes are only a jolt on the 500.
Steering on the XL is a mixed topic. With the big 23 in. front tire, it doesn't turn quickly. But it does turn quicker than the last Brand Y dual purpose 500 tested at Cycle World, If a rider will make sure tire pressure is dropped to 8 or 10 psi, the front tire will turn provided the rider slides way up forward and muscles the bike a bit. With normal street pressures the front tire will just slide on most surfaces.
The seating position that felt comfortable on the street does hinder the XL off road. The most effective position on the machine is to perch at the front of the seat where the crack between the seat and the gas tank can be mighty unpleasant.
A 304 lb. motorcycle off road isn't at all the same as a 304 lb. motorcycle on the highway, but the XL handles the weight well. It is big and heavy and it does require more muscle to turn than a smaller, lighter motorcycle but the ample power makes the weight manageable and the suspension works better than any other dual purpose bike's suspension. Taken for what it is, a motorcycle designed to satisfy a rider on streets or dirt trails, the XL stands out as the best compromise available. Whatever convenience it gives away on the street because of its dirt-oriented equipment is more than made up for by the willing motor. And whatever limitations it has as a dirt play bike are also made up for by the wonderful motor.
It's not perfect, but it sure is good.
Source Cycle World 1979