2021 Honda CB500X : 1000km in-depth review

I like calling this bike a ‘Labrador’. It’s friendly, endearing, and loves an adventure. And just like a Labrador retriever, this Honda CB500X will gladly head wherever you point it. On-road adventure? Off it scoots. Off-road adventure? It obligingly gets dirty too. Needless to say, I’m happy with how my first 1000km went with my Labrador.

But I’ll be honest. The first time I sat on this bike, I didn’t endearingly think ‘Labrador’.  Instead, I dismissively thought “fat pig”. It felt unnecessarily large and wouldn’t really comply whenever I tried nudging it around with my knees. “Not very good for off-road, then.” I thought. 

But knowing first impressions can be deceiving when dealing with an unknown quantity e.g. judging a person from a different race, or judging a motorcycle different from what one was used to riding, I kept researching about this bike and its competitors.

All throughout, I tried to answer the question: “Will the bike I buy be powerful and large enough to let me travel comfortably, yet be light and nimble enough to do soft off-roading?” I had other bikes in mind, most notably the Kawasaki Versys 300 and the 650, Yamaha Ténéré 700, and the Suzuki V-Strom 650. But time and time again, this ‘fat pig’ of a Honda CB500X would top the list.  

Surely, I was missing something? I mean, how could my gut feeling be wrong? Well… it turns out following your gut leaves you stranded in a familiar old rut. If you want to start afresh or do something new, you cannot ‘follow your heart’, ‘trust the process’ or whatever bullshit people say when dressing the phrase. You need to actively go against your heart. So I said, “Fuck it, I’m not 100% feeling it, but I’m buying this bike.”

And boy I’m glad I did! The second I sat on it, the bike felt as heavy as *that* first time. But following a year and a half of research, I had fully accepted that due to various design compromises, an adventure bike will always be somewhat heavy. So I was OK with it feeling like a ‘fat pig’.  And besides, this CB500X, bar the power-deficient Versys 300X or the twice-as-costly and half-as-reliable (if…)  KTM 890 Adventure, ranked as the lightest and most nimble bike in its class. So no complaints there.

Then things got even better the second I feathered out the clutch and rolled away from the dealership. At anything above 2-3k/hr., this Honda becomes incredibly well-balanced. It’s almost as if the bike loses half of its weight. Here I was also reminded of my old Honda CRF250 Rally, a bike that was also extremely well-balanced. That said, this Honda CB500X, despite weighing a good 40kg more, doesn’t feel top-heavy like the Rally. Instead, the 500X carries its weight centrally, with the crankcase sitting unusually high up. This is very clever from Honda because it places the heaviest parts of the bike, as well as most of its internally rotating components, right in the middle, giving the bike great stability for its short wheelbase.

I was also pleasantly surprised at how well this bike pulls. I was worried that 48bhp on a 196kg bike would result in sluggish acceleration and a shitty top speed. But this thing reaches 100k/hr. in just over 5 seconds and an estimated top speed of around 170k/hr. in 30seconds. Don’t ask me how I know. Anyway, that’s more than enough and most importantly, the bike can comfortably cruise at around 100k/hr. with plenty in reserve.  Throttle response can be snatchy in 1st gear, but this is easily remedied by riding in second and using the clutch where necessary. 

Due to emission regulations, the bike runs very lean. Upon starting the bike, you get some throttle hang that is synonymous with lean jetting on carburetted bikes. However, this symptom disappears once the engine is up to temperature and the lean running condition doesn’t seem to affect engine performance much. Yes, you do hear some backfiring but at no point does the bike bog or ping. And despite riding the bike in over 40°C in city traffic, I’ve rarely heard the radiator fan come on. In addition, the bike returns ridiculously good fuel economy. I regularly average 3l/100km, meaning in theory, I can expect up to 590Km from its 17.7l tank. In practice, I would expect up to 500Km from a tank, but either or, that’s insane.

Being an adventure bike, you do notice some compromises when it comes to handling. It’s neither stellar on-road, nor off-road. That said, unless you are pushing it hard, it does more than an adequate job straight out of the box. The 19” front wheel really helps it track over rocks and while it does make the bike less nimble on twisties, the bike still leans into corners without much effort. Despite sporting cast wheels, Honda redesigned them to have more ‘spokes’ and according to Eric Lange from rideadv.com, they have flogged these bikes on Patagonian tours for over two years and never encountered any failures. While I prefer the look of spoked rims, I prefer tubeless cast rims because, in the event of most punctures, it takes less effort to fix. For my intended adventures, stock rims should do just fine, so I’m keeping them.

Stock suspension is perhaps the bike’s weakest point.  For someone my weight (around 73kg), it works well in most situations. I currently have the preload set on 2/5 (factory setting) and it does a good job soaking up bumps on-road. That said, the rear wheel has a tendency to chatter when riding slowly over loose rocks, and the soft shock bottoms out when going aggressively over bumps, even on-road. You also get some fork dive, though it never really gets wallowy unless you’re diving into corners at the speeds Quartarao or Marquez do. Both of these symptoms suggest the bike’s compression is under-dampened. Unfortunately, you cannot adjust the compression or the rebound, but then again, this is a bike that costs €7000 brand new. To be fair, at this price point, the stock shock is as good as you can expect as an adjustable one would have easily made the bike cost a grand more. 

A quick tip for anyone who wants to ride this bike off-road… STAND UP! Honestly, you should already be doing that. But the difference on this bike is enough to make it feel like jumping off a pogo stick onto a magic carpet the second you stand up. This dramatic transformation points to a lot of untapped off-road potential for this bike. RallyRaid, a British company has realised this and makes great off-road mods for this bike, including suspension upgrades.

The OEM stock tires, the Dunlop Trailmax Mixtours  can be described as an 80-20 tyre, perform well mostly on-road and ‘doing the job’ on gravel tracks and small, loose rocks. That said, expect the bike to wiggle a bit beneath you. As for riding in the mud… forget it. Go down from 160 to 150 in the rear and slap some AX41s, TKC80s or E-07s. You will lose on-road performance but it will make the bike a bit more nimble and most importantly of all, much safer when cutting through mud and snow.

As for the brakes, they are more than enough. A word of caution for anyone riding this bike straight out of the dealership: Go easy! The brakes take a while to bed in and my first kilometres on the bike were quite sketchy. I really had to pull and step on the levers to get the bike to stop. Luckily, the front brake bedded in after about 50km. However, the rear brake took up to 700km until I felt that it had completely bedded in! 

The Honda CB500X comes equipped with ABS which you cannot turn off. On-road, the system works flawlessly. For off-road, the option to turn it off at the rear would have been nice. I was riding downhill over some loose rocks and stepped on the rear brake to anchor and drag the rear tyre,it felt like I was stomping on thin air. The rear brake ‘vanished’ and the bike just kept rolling down and picking up speed. Coming from non-ABS bikes, this was a bit nerve-racking. Luckily, however, the front ABS works very well and if you find yourself in a similar situation and grab a handful of front brakes, you should be ok. Still, for us more off-road-oriented folks, switchable rear abs would have been nice. 

A word on ergonomics. Standing at a gigantic (not) 1.69m with a  76.2cm (30”) inseam, and weighing in at around 73KG, the bike fits me well. From what I’ve read online, if you are anything between 1.60 to 1.85m and weigh between 60KG to 100KG, this bike (32.7”/830mm seat height) will fit you well. I can touch the ground with both balls of my feet, and most importantly, I can get one foot solidly planted while having the other one on the peg/covering the rear brake. 

Wind protection is generally also very good. I do get some buffeting on the top of my helmet whenever I encounter cross-winds, but otherwise, there’s very little to complain about. If anything, when taking the bike for short blasts, I find the weather protection a touch too much. But that’s hardly a criticism. This bike was built to munch miles and leave you feeling fresh after a day of adventure riding. On those cold and rainy days, such weather protection will definitely be appreciated.

Lastly, one thing, which probably made me take the plunge and buy the bike, were its running costs and worldwide availability of parts. I told you, buying this bike was mostly a brain, not a heart decision! Anyway, being A2 license compliant (just), it won’t cost you a kidney to insure and road tax is on the lower side. In addition, its parts are comparatively cheap and, most importantly for us adventure riders, parts should be readily available across the globe. This gives Honda a huge advantage over premium brands like BMW, Triumph, or KTM. 

Servicing this Honda also costs less and unlike a BMW, it requires no special tools to do the simplest of maintenance tasks. Since the only rider aid the bike has is ABS, by modern-day standards it’s easy-ish to work on yourself and there are fewer things to go haywire. Yes, it has a lot of emissions stuff that weigh it down, but given the sad direction our planet is heading in, those are, unfortunately, necessary evils which modern vehicles should have.

To sum up, I’m very happy with my labrador. The Honda CB500X has met most of my expectations and even exceeded some of them. Straight out of the factory, it’s more than capable to take you anywhere you want to go. However, the beauty of this Honda, especially for bike enthusiasts, is that it begs to be modified to ones’ needs and tastes. At the time of writing, the bike is still in bone stock form. However, I have got a Rally Raid engine guard and GPS/RAM mount holder waiting to be installed, a set of BBStorm Handguards on the way, and a 12V DC socket on backorder. That should have me sorted for short trips abroad and some soft offroading for the time being. 

I’m also looking at a suitable luggage system for the bike though I’m still undecided what to get. I’m thinking of adding a small top box just for convenience and going with soft luggage on the side. The goal is to stay as light as possible and keep the weight centralized. Once the Dunlop Mixtours wear out, I’ll also be putting some more off-road capable tires. After that, If need be, I might do a suspension upgrade. The Rally Raid options seem enticing, as do the offerings from Öhlins. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, shall we?

Anyway, hope you enjoyed reading this review and found it useful. If you have any questions, feel free to write me or ask in the comments. 

Cheers, Karl!

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