Almost no motorcycle release in 2019 made me as excited, or gave me as much anticipation to ride, as the Honda CBR650R.
From the moment I sat on it I knew I wanted it, and it only took a brief test ride (in Europe) to confirm that this was everything I had read it would be.
Here’s a quick look at the Honda CBR650R and what makes it special, comparing it to predecessors and alternatives.
Are you obsessed with motorcycles?
Well, I am. That’s why I created this site — as an outlet. I love learning and sharing what others might find useful. If you like what you read here, and you’re a fraction as obsessed as I am, you might like to know when I’ve published more. (Check the latest for an idea of what you’ll see.)
Background: What made the CBR600F line special — performance and comfort
Recently I wrote a guide to buying a CBR600F, including the CBR650R. In that, I concluded that the CBR600F4i (2001-2006) was the best of the bunch. It was comfortable, with handlebar positions similar to the “sport-touring” VFR800.
The Honda CBR600F4i is powerful enough, with 110 horsepower (81 kW) on tap. And it still feels great to ride. In its day, it had the lowest weight of the 600 class, and still doesn’t feel heavy.
Best of all, two decades on, a used Honda CBR600F4i is now eminently affordable. You can buy a used F4i from a dealer for around US$2-4K, or A$3-5K, depending on the miles (maybe slightly more when supply and demand go out of whack).
The problem is that Honda CBR600F4is are becoming rare, especially in good condition, and especially from a good dealer or attentive owner (which is what I’d recommend, just because many of these have been modded to oblivion, not treated well, or stunted).
The CBR600F4i was the latest and only fuel-injected variant of the series before Honda split its 600 series in two.
Even while the CBR600F4i was being produced (from 2001-2006), Honda started to create race-replica CBR600RR models in 2003 (see the CBR600RR buyers guide).
The Honda CBR600RR bikes were much more track-focused, with a lower clip-on position, higher-power (but peakier) engine, and lighter weight. They’re great motorcycles, but not as well-rounded for the road (but they’re still great!)
After the CBR600F4i finished production in 2006, Honda had a couple of marketing misfires (from my perspective).
They waited a few years before releasing anything, letting their CBR600RR do the talking in the meantime. Admittedly, it was a weird time for global financial markets and thus the motorcycle industry.
In 2011, Honda started making the CBR600F again, but in name only. It was basically a Honda Hornet with a fairing on top — and people knew. In fact, that was what most reviewers mentioned.
In 2014 Honda revised this situation, and made the CBR650F.
The Honda CBR650F was more comfortable than the CBR600RR and even more comfortable than the previous CBR600F4i. Look how much higher than the seat the clip-ons are, and how short the tank is. But it wasn’t a market success.
There are various reasons cited why the CBR650F didn’t do well, and they’re typically in the veins of:
- It was functionally fine but “boring”
- It looked boring
- It wasn’t a CBR600RR and so was boring
Basically, the CBR650F drew the criticism — if you can call it that — that I often see levelled at Honda and BMW, for producing technically perfect, very reliable, but “unexciting” motorcycles. (Yes, I’ve even heard reviewers describe as “boring” the BMW S 1000 RR, which produces more horsepower than I can count without getting distracted by a shiny object. It’s a subjective call, I guess.)
But this rings true, relatively speaking. What distinguishes the earlier F series is that the former was the only 600cc-class bike that Honda produced. They tried to satisfy every market at once. Those who wanted a commuter knew they were riding a racer, and those who wanted a racer knew that they were riding something comfortable.
There’s a beauty in generalist motorcycles like the CBR600F4i that sacrifice little while still being able to to excel at a lot. The immediate successors to the F4i couldn’t achieve this. The 600RR was always very specialised. The 2019 Honda CBR650R is the first motorcycle since the CBR600F4i that continues this magic.
What changed between the CBR650F and the CBR650R?
You might think that it’s a branding exercise, that all Honda changed between the CBR650F and the CBR650R is a single letter in the name. But you’d be mistaken!
The CBR650F, produced between 2014-2018 had
- 64 kW of power (86 hp) at 11,000 rpm
- 63Nm (46 lb-ft) of torque at 8,000 rpm
- Standard ABS brakes/digital everything
- A comfortable riding position (look how high the handlebars — I mean clip-ons — are)
- Slightly boring design (front-on)
The Honda CBR650F wasn’t bad. But it just didn’t do much for the target market. The handlebars were a bit too high, and the styling too muted.
Here’s what changed for the 2019+ CBR650R:
- 70 kW (94 hp) of power @ 12,000 rpm: 5kW more, and higher up (thanks to a higher redline)
- 64 Nm (47 lb-ft) of torque (about the same), weighs 208 kg (458 lbs), 5kg lighter
(Astute mathematicians will note this is a 10% higher power-to-weight ratio from the increase in power plus the decrease in weight)
- Upside-down forks rather than a conventional design — initially still non-adjustable
- Four-pot radial calipers (vs standard)
- Slipper clutch with lighter action
- Lower clip-ons — a more aggressive, yet still comfortable position (they’re slightly splayed out)
- Traction control (with the ABS package)
- Style much more reminiscent of the CBR1000RR.
Side by side, the CBR650R looks a lot like the CBR650F.
But front on, you can see what changed. The new Honda CBR650R looks a lot more like the modern day CBR1000RR Fireblade.
The change in riding position between the CBR650F and CBR650R is subtle but noticeable when riding it. The clip-ons are lower and further forward (both by 30mm, or over an inch), and the foot-pegs are slightly higher and further back. All in all, just sportier.
Compared to the CBR600F4i, the CBR650R is slightly more comfortable. The clip-on handlebars are splayed out more and slightly higher up. Depending on your intended use case, this may be a pro or a con… but for everyday riding that may extend into jaunts of a few hours, I vastly prefer the more recent model.
What’s the CBR650R like to ride?
It’s amazing what 10% more power-to-weight, a higher rev limiter, lower clip-on handlebars and a cooler front-end will do. Honda has struck an amazing balance that recaptures the glory of the CBR600F4i, without the laser-like track focus of the CBR600RR, or the wound-up beast nature of the CBR1000RR.
Note: I love the ‘Blade. A CBR954RR is a bike I dearly love, and Tadao Baba is one of my folk heroes. But riding it is like riding a wild horse, which is fun sometimes, but not a feeling I want every day.
The position itself is perfect for me, with a 6-foot (183cm) frame. The position is exactly like on my Ducati Monster 900, one of my favourite motorcycles of all time — comfortable, but slightly forward. Just leaning forward enough so that the wind didn’t crush me at 100 km/h (60 mph). Plus, now I get a fairing!
A lot has been said about engine styles, v-twins vs triples vs inline fours. But I don’t think you can just say “I prefer one over the other”.
For example, I love a Ducati’s high-revving V-twin, but don’t love a big cruiser’s lumpier v-twin. Similarly, I love the parallel-twin in the Triumph Scrambler and go berserk for the inline-four of a Yamaha R1.
Others will say differently. And that’s fine. But what I think is important is to judge each motor on its own merits: power, feeling, and sound, without writing off a whole category of motors.
Honda’s inline-four engines sound different from the moment you turn them on. The four-cylinder purr isn’t there; it’s more of a subdued chortle. It is lightly teasing you, waiting for you to grab the throttle and wring it. And because this isn’t a 1000 cc motorcycle, wring it is exactly what you’re going to do.
There is a unique mechanical scream that Honda motorcycles produce when you grab the throttle and wind it up high. All four-cylinder motorcycles do, but Honda’s character is controlled and yet outraged. This is especially so on the superbikes, and especially so with a tuned aftermarket exhaust.
Being able to take the CBR650R up to 12,000 rpm, and to do so at road-legal speeds thanks to the gearing, is an extra blessing. On a gentle curve, holding the throttle wide open, sitting slightly askance with my head and back in the breeze as I peer through the long turn and listening to the roar I often wonder: will electric motorcycles deliver on this feeling? I haven’t found one yet. But Honda, with four cylinders and internal combustion, can still deliver a feeling that’s 100% electric.
Note that right at the rev limiter, the CBR650R delivers a LOT of power. I can’t hold there at redline for long — it’s nearly always in illegal territory.
Back in the city, riding the Honda is a joy. Ever since the days of the early Hornets (my personal favourite steed being the CB900 Hornet, a.k.a. the Honda 919), Honda has made motorcycles that are basically impossible to stall. You can be in the wrong gear, at the wrong angle and going the wrong speed, and Honda motorcycles just do what you tell them. They’re very, very easy motorcycles to ride. Even the early FireBlades were easy to ride… fast.
Now, lots of reviewers like to say how much fun motorcycles are in the “twisties”. They might post photos of getting their knees down at the track, or talk about the “canyons”. Look, I’m a fairly modest-paced rider on most days. I like to wind out the throttle. I do like to bank into curves and hang a bit off a motorcycle.
But I don’t “get my knee down” on public roads, nor do I bank so hard into turns that I worry I might run off the road. I’m — on balance — a conservative rider, and always know that my nine lives are coming up in the form of a 4×4 who decided to cross the double lines around a blind corner. I save that kind of insanity for the track.
So for that reason, any modern sporty motorcycle is sporty enough for me. Notable exceptions are the Triumph Scrambler, for example; a motorcycle I love, but which felt nervous above 100km/h. The old Honda Hawk was fun, but it too got nervous up there (it was small, after all).
But the CBR650R gave me the perfect balance of fun with a tinge of invincibility.
See, when I wind a smaller motorcycle out, like CBR500R, it is “fun” because I’m regularly at its limits. I hold the throttle open and let it rip. That is fun, in a go-kart-like way.
Or a big liter-bike is fun because it makes me feel like a god. I only have to think about moving the throttle and I’m at light speed, threatening people, animals, eardrums, and insurance statistics nation-wide. (Man, that’s awesome.)
The CBR650R is fun in all the right ways. For me — 100 hp is my practical limit.
On the highway, I can pass without worrying what gear I’m in. I can twist the throttle and the near-100 hp of power will take me there, letting the four-cylinder engine sing.
In traffic, with the CBR650R I’m confident and poised, and feel proud of every part of the package when I’m up at the lights.
In the country, I can twist the throttle of the CBR650R and lean into every curve, knowing the tyres and suspension are more than adequate, and that the traction control and ABS will keep me in check. Yes, with 100hp, you can really use traction control!
In all, the CBR650R is the first mid-sized motorcycle that has captured my heart with its perfect balance without compromise. It has been a long time. And I can’t wait to get back on it.
The CBR650R vs the CBR600RR
People often consider whether they should get the CBR650R or the CBR600RR.
See my whole buying guide to the CBR600RR if you’re interested.
It’s a question I’ve grappled with myself. They’re both fantastic middleweight bikes from Honda — reliable, fast, and great to look at.
The question I asked myself was: where do I like to sit in the powerband?
- Do I like to sit between 8,000 and 14,000 rpm? If so, the CBR600RR would be for me.
- Do I often find myself between 4 and 8,000 rpm and don’t want to feel like my bike is barely more powerful than a Ninja 300? Then the CBR650R is for me. (or you).
Have a look at these dyno charts — they’re from separate dyno runs, but I put them together for comparison purposes.
You can see in that chart that the CBR650R makes a LOT more torque down low than the CBR600RR. When riding it, you can really feel it. The bike still wants to spool up, but it’s nowhere near the boost turbo-like effect of the CBR600RR above 7,000 RPM or so.
Mind you, once you’ve got the CBR600RR above 7,500 RPM, it’s really singing. Riding it there between 8-12K is magic. So I’d pick the RR for track riding or very aggressive street riding. But know yourself, and pick your poison wisely.
Upgrades to the 2021 Honda CBR650R — Suspension, oh my!
In 2021, Honda further upgraded the CBR650R, making it even more tantalising.
The number one upgrade is the front suspension — the 2021 Honda CBR650R now has fully adjustable Showa Separate Function Forks — Big Piston. You might see this in acronym form as SFF-BP. This means you get a reservoir to tweak pre-load as well as rebound and compression damping. This is the level of full adjustability you normally only see on full-on sportbikes.
The 2021 model also gets an improved LCD dash, a USB-C socket under the seat (weird spot; am I supposed to put my phone there?), and updated graphics.
Epilogue: Did I buy it?
It turns out that eventhough I got excited riding the CBR650R in Europe, in Australia, only the LAMS (learner legal scheme)-approved version of the CBR650R and CB650R is available.
The learner-legal version of the CBR650R is de-tuned by 50% to 47 hp!
Converting these to full power a) is expensive and b) doesn’t get it to full-power spec anyway. I got a quote from a dealer and with a full exhaust system and tune, the CBR650R would be north of $14K AUD (about 10K USD) — which makes it no longer the “bargain” it once was. That amount of money gets you a lot of bike.
So, unfortunately, the rip I had in France won’t translate to ownership in Australia. It’ll have to be for another year. Honda, if you’re reading this, please bring the full-power CBR650R to Australia. Aprilia has brought the RS660! And Yamaha is bringing it with the YZF-R7.
News of the 2021 Honda CBR600RR with a full race-ready electronics package was having me lean that way, but it’s not priced as a consumer bike.
In the meantime, I will have to stick with my ageing 2001 CBR600F4i. Luckily, it never got boring.