Honda, in case you hadn’t noticed, is in the midst of a massive product offensive. Over the last two years, Big Red has introduced 19 new models, many of them non-threatening, easy-to-ride bikes designed to get guys like your friendly neighbor Larry (or his wife Denise) riding while also growing the size of the motorcycle market. It’s a smart plan, and the most recent Hondas spearheading this effort are three midsize parallel-Twins that are mechanically nearly identical to each other but have their own looks and personalities. The faired CBR500R and naked CB500F are already on sale; the ADV-look CB500X hits dealers in June.
Shared hardware on these reasonably compact Thailand-built bikes starts with a rigid steel frame that employs Honda’s counterbalanced, 470cc parallel-Twin as a stressed member. This liquid-cooled engine, with an eight-valve head and a 180-degree crank, is a slightly oversquare design, with a 67.0mm bore and a 66.8mm stroke. Fed by twin 34mm throttle bodies, the motor is smooth and borderline too quiet, tuned to emphasize broad torque and high mpg (71!) over peak power. It’s also designed to be low-maintenance. After the bike’s first service at 600 miles, the lightweight 116-pound motor goes 16,000 miles between valve adjustments, and the camshafts don’t need to be removed to make the shim-type adjustments, simplifying the service.
Not surprisingly, the six-speed gearbox is shared by all the new Honda CB500s, as are the final-drive gearing and 17-inch cast aluminum wheels fitted with Dunlop Sportmax tires, size 120/70 in front and 160/60 in back. Brakes are the same, too, with a wave-style 320mm brake rotor in front and a 240mm rear. The R and the F also have the same suspension, courtesy of a 41mm Showa fork with 4.3 in. of travel and a Pro-Link shock with nine positions of spring-preload adjustability and 4.7 in. of travel. Shared numbers of significance include a seat height of 30.9 in., a 55.5-in. wheelbase, 25.5 degrees of rake and 4.05 in. of trail.
On the mix of streets between Honda’s Torrance, California, headquarters and some fun twisty bits around coastal Palos Verdes, I put approximately 100 miles on a CB500F and a CBR500R, with perhaps 40 of those on the latter bike. While that’s not exactly a full road test, it was enough to generate the following observations:
This new Honda is a well-turned-out bike, a naked standard, if you will. In other words, it’s the bike Honda set out to make—a non-threatening motorcycle that’s remarkably easy to ride. The F feels narrow and maneuverable, and its low seat means that anybody over, say, 5-foot-8, can place both feet flat on the pavement at stoplights. And once under way, this Honda feels far lighter than its 420-lb. wet weight would suggest, and it has snappy throttle response.
With a rider triangle (that formed by the pegs, seat and bars) designed to create a more upright and comfortable riding position than is found on the CBR500R, the CB500F feels like a traditional bike, one that lets the rider see traffic well. And once under way, the broad torque of the parallel-Twin means the rider can live all day below 6000 rpm while still being faster than and able to shoot through most traffic. Above 6000 rpm, however, the engine changes character and rips like a true sportbike all the way to its 8700-rpm redline, by which time the rider is getting slammed by an onrush of air.
That same blast is felt on the freeway, where Honda’s 470cc parallel-Twin spins at 5000 rpm to keep the F at a constant 60 mph. The message gleaned on the giant slab? The 2013 Honda CB500F, though capable and boasting excellent straight-line stability, is far better suited for the occasional short hop on the freeway than any lengthy interstate travel. That stated, the F, with its 4.1-gallon gas tank, has an excellent range of around 290 miles.
Where the F shines is in everyday around-town practicality and in the medium-speed twisties I encountered on the press ride. The disc brakes slow the bike with authority before it bends into turns with a reassuring composure. While the damping is a bit on the soft side for larger riders, the F responds as directed. And although the low pegs help make taller riders more comfortable on the bike, it’s easy to rub your inside boot on the tarmac when cornering with some verve and not all that much lean.
Much of what’s already been written about the CB500F and its powertrain and suspension applies to the CBR500R, which clearly is positioned as a junior CBR600RR of sorts. Besides weighing five pounds more than the CB500F thanks to its full bodywork, there’s one major difference: Its fork tubes have been moved up about an inch in the triple-clamps, and narrower café-style bars have been clamped to those sections of tubes that extend above the top triple-clamp. This has multiple effects. It puts more weight on the rider’s hands, it stiffens the fork, it reduces the rider’s frontal area and it helps the CBR500R turn into corners more sharply and willingly. The specs show the R’s bars to be 1.9 in. lower and 1.6 in. narrower than the F’s traditional handlebar, which mounts to a riser on the upper triple-clamp.
So, in spite of its slightly heavier weight, the new CBR500R feels a bit sportier than the naked CB500F, aided in part by the improved riding position and sleeker bodywork that better protects the rider. And if people have any lingering doubts about the R’s sporting chops, consider that this bike serves as the spec mount for the European Junior Cup, a Honda-sponsored roadracing series for 14- to 19-year-olds that seeks to identify and groom future MotoGP champs.
On the road, the little windscreen above the R’s instrument panel—a compact arrangement highlighted by a bar-type tachometer—deflects a good chunk of the wind coming at the rider. And the upshifts and downshifts, as on the F, are smooth no-think operations. Although the cable clutch is a sign of cost-savings effort on Honda’s part, the lever is easy to modulate and operates with a high-quality, well-oiled feel.
So, which 500 is for you? If you’re looking to move up from a CBR250R, the CBR500R is your bike. It’s a little bit quicker, a little bit faster, a step in the right direction. If you’re a new or experienced rider simply looking for a motorcycle that’s modern, easy to ride and fuel efficient, a bike that’s great choice for around town or short commutes, the F will suit you just fine.
In some ways, the choice actually comes down more to who you are, because Honda, with effectively one new bike, has produced models that suit a variety of needs and tastes. Moreover, with these 500s, Honda is bringing new levels of quality and sophistication to the entry-level market. And when you take a look at the abundant Honda Genuine Accessories that are available for these new 500s (which includes lots of carbon-look bits for both models, plus saddlebags and a top case for the F), it’s apparent just how important these bikes are to the company.
At $5499, the 2013 Honda CB500F is attractively priced, and you’d be foolish to not get the model with ABS, which adds only $500 to the price. For some strange reason, however, the CB500F with ABS is available only in black. Similarly, the 2013 Honda CBR500R starts at $5999, with an ABS model only $500 more. But that bike is only available in red. Let’s hope Honda expands the available color choices next year.