I used to own a Husqvarna TE610 and consider it, and its successor, the TE630, to be the best dual sport bikes ever made. (Note the past tense: I used to own a TE610 – in a fit of insanity I sold it and have regretted doing so since.) The 610/630 are the Italian Supermodels of the dual sport world, with almost everything the dual sport world claims to want in a modern dual sport – lightweight (320lbs), great engine (45 horsepower or so), wide ratio 6 speed transmission (it’s a thing of functional beauty), long interval oil changes, reasonable maintenance schedule, decent subframe, and enough juice from the stator (240 watts) to power a few accessories. What’s not to love?
Today I own a modified Honda XR650L. And I love it. But God only knows why. In real life the TE610 will smoke a stock XR-L, in any gear and on any terrain. On paper, the XR-L doesn’t hold a candle to the awesomeness that is the TE610. The XR-L is heavy (350 lbs), slow (32 horsepower), old technology (air cooled), has a too-narrow 5 speed transmission with a perplexingly wide gap between 1st and 2nd gear, a weak subframe, low stator output (180 watts), styling features from the early 1990s, and ergonomics best suited to sub-humans. Sure, it was a great bike in 1997 but we are a long way from 1997. Technology has improved and bikes have changed; nevertheless the XR-L remains locked in a 90s time warp.
Hold on a minute, though. The XR-L has been around a long time. How long? Enough for the aftermarket to come up with fixes and mods for nearly every weakness listed above. Making most (or all) of the available modifications to the XR-L is a game changer; they significantly improve the XR-L, which, at this point, is probably making the little wheels in your brain spin frantically. “Can I upgrade a XR-L to the point that it could rival the mighty TE610?”, you ask with an evil gleam in your eye.
I wondered the same thing…
…and in 2014 when I finally got the XR650L that my heart had been telling me for years to get, I immediately began Project XR650L Adventure to see just how good the XR-L could become. Here are the results.
The TE610 has a modern, water cooled 570cc engine claimed to make 50 horsepower. In truth the TE610 delivers somewhere about 40 – 45 horsepower to the rear wheel, which is very good for a 300 lb dual sport bike and a whopping 140% more than the stock XR-L’s anemic 32 horsepower. The horsepower advantage is the most noticeable performance difference between the two bikes. The TE is fast and easily out-runs a stock XR-L. The Husky’s engine, though only 570cc fully benefits from the advances in both engine design and manufacturing. New technology allows manufacturers to build engines that are simultaneously smaller and more powerful than old engine technology from the 1990s. The 30 lb difference in weight between the TE and XR-L is mostly due to the Husky’s smaller and lighter engine and transmission.
However, as mentioned previously, the aftermarket comes to the rescue of the XR-L. If you have the money, you can easily have an XR-L engine built that will not only keep up with the TE, but will actually beat it. Do you want a XR-L that delivers 40 horsepower to the rear wheel? No problem. 50 horsepower? Sure, if you have the money to pay for it. 60 horsepower? You bet. It just takes money.
How much money? I spent about $1000 on some basic engine mods and estimate my XR-L is now sending about 40 horsepower to the rear tire. With no loss in reliability. I bought a big bore 675cc kit (piston, rings, and gaskets) from an aftermarket vendor and had Erik Marquez of Marquez Racing handle the upgrade. The big bore kit not only adds 25cc to the XR-L it also bumps the compression from 8.3:1 to 9.1:1. The 4.3% increase in displacement and the 9.6% bump in compression noticeably improve both the torque and horsepower over the stock XR-L motor.
To be fair, the previous owner of my XR-L removed the smog equipment, installed a Uniflow foam air filter, replaced the stock exhaust with a SuperTrapp, and re-jetted the carb. If all of these changes had not been done I would have had to do them in order to get the most out of the new motor.
What about heat? More horsepower means more heat and the Honda is an air cooled engine. Won’t the extra heat kill the engine in short order? The aftermarket provides two solutions – a big finned head and an oil cooler. I opted for the oil cooler, which now keeps my engine temps within the desired 230 – 250 degree range. If I had built an engine putting out 50 horsepower I would have likely gone with both the big fin head and an oil cooler but for the build I have the oil cooler has met my motor’s needs.
How do the motors match up now? Pretty darn close. I don’t have the TE anymore but my guess is that the TE is still faster than the XR-L but the gap has closed significantly. For my needs the XR-L motor no longer feels slow or underpowered. On my last trip to Mexico the motor performed exactly as I had intended.
But motors are only half of the power equation. The other half is getting the power to the ground through the transmission, which is the next area I had to address on the XR-L.
The TE610 has a beautiful, wide ratio 6 speed transmission. 1st gear is low enough for serious dirt work and 6th gear is high enough for freeway duty (80 mph). In between there is a gear for every occasion. It’s a work of art.
Then there is the XR-L. While it has the widest ratio 5 speed of any of the Japanese 650 class dual sport bikes, the gear ratios aren’t quite right. There is a too-large gap between 1st and 2nd that hampers the XR-L off-road. On the other end, 5th gear is good for speeds up to about 70 mph. You can go faster than 70 but the bike really isn’t happy at those speeds for extended distances.
Luckily there is a fix. Honda used the XR-L engine in a couple of other bikes but with different gear ratios. In particular, one bike had a lower 2nd gear and the other had a higher 5th gear. While he had my engine apart I had Erik install the lower 2nd and higher 5th gears. I also went to a 3 tooth larger rear sprocket, which brought the new 5th gear down to only slightly higher than the stock ratio.
The combined effect of all those gearing changes is fantastic. The transmission is now as good as you can likely get from a 5 speed tranny. The annoying gap between 1st and 2nd is gone, the lower overall 1st – 4th gearing dramatically improves the bikes acceleration ability, and I can run 75 mph all day thanks to the higher 5th gear. The gap between 4th and 5th is a little wide but only really noticeable when trying to accelerate uphill, at altitude, with the bike loaded down with luggage. Aside from that very specific situation, the gap between 4th and 5th is a non-issue.
Did it work? With all the mods complete does my XR-L match the TE610? Truthfully, no, but the difference is now small enough to be inconsequential for the type of riding I do. The TE is still the champion. But the XR-L is no longer a slouch. The engine and tranny mods really transform the performance of the XR-L, bringing it into the 21st century.
The ergos on the TE610 are very good. The only real ergo challenge with the 610 is how tall it is. Aside from that, the layout is very, very good. The pegs to seat distance is excellent. The handlebars are in the right place. And the seat is flat, enabling the rider to shift forward and aft as the terrain dictates.
I installed a seat of bar risers on the TE (which I do to all my dual sport bikes) but that is the only change I felt the TE needed to fit me. With the risers in place I was comfortable riding while sitting or standing. The distance between the pegs and the seat made the transition from sitting to standing very easy.
The Honda needs a lot of help in the ergo department. The XR-L is every bit as tall as the TE but the distance between the seat and the pegs is oddly short, requiring more effort to transition from sitting to standing and creating a too-tight bend of the knees. If you have long legs and bad knees then the XR-L might not be a good choice for you. Additionally, the XR-L handlebars are in the wrong place – they are too low and too close to the rider.
Luckily a set of adjustable bar risers combined with a set of CR high bend fat bars was all that I needed to get the handlebars to a completely acceptable location. It’s not quite as good as the TE but it’s not bad either.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to relocate the footpegs on the XRL. The right side footpeg is welded to the frame and requires a custom weld job to relocate – something I did not even attempt. I settled for a wider set of aftermarket footpegs
The XR-L stock seat is the most comfortable seat of any dual sport bike I’ve ever ridden. The TE’s seat is a torture device. You might be able to live with the XR-L seat but not the TE seat. I had a Renazco seat installed on the TE, which was an improvement over the stock seat, but not much. I eventually added a Air Hawk to the TE and that solved my seating issues. On the XR-L I opted for a Seat Concepts seat that is firmer and wider than stock. It has proven to be completely adequate for me.
With all the changes I’ve made to the XR-L it is now very comfortable to ride in a sitting position for long distances. However, I’m bent over slightly when standing, making it less comfortable than the TE. The distance between the seat and pegs is not too short for me (I’m 5’11”) but it could be too little for those taller than me.
After the ergo changes to the XRL, the TE is still better, except for the seat. The changes I made improve the XRL to an acceptable level for me but if I were in charge of modifying the XRL for Honda the first thing I would get rid of would be the welded footpeg.
The TE610 weighs 320 lbs versus the XRL’s 348 lbs. When riding tight woods or hard dirt you will feel that 30 lbs difference. But if you don’t ride tight woods or serious dirt then the difference is negligible.
Either bike can handle highway duty. The TE it quite capable at speeds above 70 mph. At those speeds the motor isn’t stressed and the relaxed steering geometry make the TE stable on the freeway. The stock XR-L motor/tranny combo is good for about 70 mph – it can go faster but I wouldn’t do it for extended periods of time. With the mods I made the XR-L can now do 75 -80 mph easily. If I wanted to go even faster I would go back to the stock rear sprocket. As it is, I just don’t spend any time riding faster than 75 mph so the XR-L is fine as is.
Neither the TE or the XR-L have a windscreen, so riding at highway speeds means the rider takes the full brunt of the force of the wind. If you are going to spend any time at highway speeds you might consider adding a windscreen. I went through several aftermarket windscreens on the TE but none worked satisfactorily. I eventually spent $500 on a Lynx fairing from Britannia Composites, which proved to be a great choice. The Lynx made the TE all day comfortable.
The Honda is much better with the wind management than any dual sport bike I’ve ever owned. I have a Slipstream Spitfire ($80) that I bought years ago and tried on the TE with little satisfaction. Later I tried it on a DR-Z but, alas, it did not work. On the XR-L it performs perfectly. I assume the difference in performance of the Spitfire across the three bikes has more to do with the design and geometry of the bikes than with the design of the Spitfire. In any case, the Spitfire is fine on the XR-L but I strongly suspect that any windscreen would work on the XR-L.
The XR-L has the edge in the dirt performance because its suspension works much better than the 610. On paper the TE has superior suspension but in reality it seems to have been designed for racing Supercross. It is the stiffest stock suspension of any bike I’ve ever owned, including all the motocross race bikes I’ve owned over the years. The TE is much to stiff for typical dual sport riding and will beat you to death in the rough stuff. I went to a lighter weight fork oil and even had the front suspension revalved, but it failed to fix the issue. The next option was to send it off to a suspension builder specializing in Husky suspension. I suspect that would have done the trick but I sold the Husky before doing so.
The XR-L suspension is very capable, even by modern suspension standards. It’s probably not good enough for a motocross track but for the dual sport riding I do it’s just fine. It is supple enough to handle easy stuff like potholes and square edge bumps while providing enough travel to handle high speed G-outs and big hits.
Now let’s go to the Judges’ Scorecards
Can the XR-L be modified so that it equals the might TE610? I don’t think so. The TE is just too good and there are too many things on the XR-L that you can’t change. However, the XR-L can be modified enough to get it into the same league as the TE. While a stock XR-L is not even close to matching the performance capabilities of the TE you can make some easily available mods to the XR-L and completely transform it.
Pitting a stock XR-L against a stock TE610 will result in a easy knock-out by the TE610. On the other hand, a modified XR-L will go the distance against a stock TE. The TE still wins but not by a knock-out.
My estimate is the my modified XR-L is about 80% as good as a TE610. Not bad for a 20 year old platform.