My goal was to see how good of a dual sport adventure bike the Honda XR650L could be made into.  The stock XRL is a fine dual sport motorcycle but needs a little help as an adventure bike.  Of the three Japanese 650 class dual sport bikes – the Kawasaki KLR650, Suzuki DR650, and Honda XR650L – the consensus opinion is that the XRL is, by far, the best in the dirt but is lacking on pavement  I wanted to improve the XRL’s highway capabilities without losing its fine dirt characteristics.

Did I succeed?  I think so.

The big bore kit and the different 2nd and 5th gears improve the Honda’s dirt abilities.  Narrowing the gap between 1st and 2nd gears alone makes the Honda a better dirt bike.  No longer do I find myself in the position of either screaming the engine in 1st gear or lugging it in 2nd. The addition of the big bore kit, while not absolutely necessary, does provide additional grunt for those times when you find yourself in challenging terrain and saying things like “Mother of Blessed Torque, please don’t fail me now”.  The higher 5th gear allows me to run a larger rear sprocket, which further improves the bike’s dirt characteristics, without giving up the ability to ride at highway speeds.

The big bore kit and higher 5th gear also make the Honda a better touring bike.  The increased power enables the bike to haul heavy loads uphill without losing speed plus it provides some much needed passing power.  While I found the stock 5th gear to be acceptably high for highway riding, going to a 3 tooth larger rear sprocket meant I would give up the ability to cruise at 70 mph.  Changing to the higher 5th allow me to enjoy the benefits of a larger rear sprocket without negating the bikes highway proficiency.

The addition of the oil cooler means the engine runs cooler and decreases the risk of experiencing an overheating issue.

The windscreen makes the bike all day comfortable at highway speeds.

The Seat Concepts seat isn’t perfect but it’s pretty darn good.  I wouldn’t select it if all I did was highway riding on the XRL but for mixed dirt and pavement it is good enough.

With all the changes is the Honda as good on the highway as a KLR?  No, but the difference has narrowed considerably.  The KLR is wider, a little more comfortable, and more stable at highway speeds.  But the modified Honda isn’t bad in any of those categories.  It’s reasonably comfortable and stable at highway speeds and noticeably more capable, and fun, in the dirt than the KLR.  And easier to pick up when you drop it.  As it is today I wouldn’t hesitate to take the Honda on any long distance adventure ride.

This is what Big Red looked like when I first brought her home.

Here is how she looks now.

 If you are wondering if the Honda XR650L can be converted into a good dual sport adventure bike, my answer is a resounding “Yes”.

A better countershaft sprocket – One of the things that has come to my attention since completing the build of my XR650L Adventure is a weakness in the countershaft / front sprocket area. Luckily, the aftermarket has come to the rescue again. Read more about this important topic here.


The Verdict — 19 Comments

  1. Richard, I love how you have your XR set up. I also live in Austin and we have some friends in common. I was already familiar with some of the great rides you’ve hosted, but I forgot you had an XR. Its quite lovely.
    GOOGLE helped me remember after I landed one last week and I started searching for what was required to keep them well maintained. I had a clear image of what I wanted to do with mine — basically just long distance minimalist off road touring in remote places

    • (I accidentally hit POST before I was done typing. Silly laptop)
      …then I saw your site, and I respect how you’ve set up your bikes in the past. I was previously unfamiliar with folks changing the 2nd and 5th gears, and I will have to look in to that. (It looks like its easy to find 2nd gear and hard to find 5th?)

      Thank you for taking the time to share how you prepped your bike. I appreciate your approach to all this, and hope to meet you on the trail.

      • Hi, Steve.

        Congrats on the XRL. I really like mine, especially now that it is completely set up to fit my riding style. The 5th gear has gotten a little easier to get since I did my mod. A fellow on ebay apparently imported a bunch and has been selling them on ebay for $140. You might search ebay and see if it is still available.

        Swapping 2nd and 5th gear and then going to a 3 tooth larger rear sprocket made a very noticeable improvement in the XR. I’m really glad I made those changes as overall it makes the XR a more versatile bike, especially for off-pavement riding.

        I’d love to know how your build goes.



  2. Curious what your thoughts were on a XR600R that isn’t liquid cooled? Since I’ve read your posts I’ve been looking high and low and I haven’t been able to find one. I was curious if you knew the differences between the two and if I should hold off on the XR650L.


    • Ty,
      I’ve never owned or ridden the XR600 but I have heard many good things about them. Scott Summers sure won a lot of races on the XR600. Honda quit making the XR600 in 2000 so I’m not surprised that they are getting hard to find.

      In essence, the XR600 was designed as a race bike. It’s lighter and has a more powerful motor than the 650L, is kick start only, and is not street legal. Honda based the 650L on the XR600 design. Honda basically took the XR 600 and increased the engine to 650, added an electric start, and then added street legal components to make the XR650L. (the electric start and the street legal stuff – battery, lights, blinkers, etc – account for the weight difference between the two)

      What do you want to do with a XR600 that you can’t do with a XR650L? If you want to race it or ride serious off road, then the XR600 is the better choice between the two. If you plan to add a dual sport kit to the XR600 to make it street legal, then why not get the XR650L since once you add the dual sport kit to the 600 you will only be an electric start away from the weight of the 650L.


      • Rich,

        The reason I ask about the XR600 is I am struggling to find an XR650L. I currently ride a 1978 Suzuki GS750 cafe that I’ve grown bored with because I can only stay on the road. So I am looking to sell/trade it for an XR650L. I love your writeup on your XR650L, I plan to do almost everything you’ve done with yours.

        • Ty,

          I really like my XR – much more than I ever thought I would. They do seem to be popular and it took me a while before I found one locally and within my price range. I think they are worth the wait. For me, I would not buy a kickstart only dual sport bike so the XR600 would not be a bike I would be interested in. A buddy has a XR650R (kickstart only) and I’ve been on 3 trips with him where he has had starting difficulties. But your preferences may be different.

          • What are your thoughts on a 1986 Honda XL600R? Someone offered to trade one for my 1978 Suzuki GS750. The 1986 Honda XL600R has,3937 new tires, newer brakes, carbs just gone through.

          • Ty,

            I haven’t owned or ridden the XR600 but I’ve consistently heard good things about them. As I understand it, the XR650L was based on the 600. Honda put the engine from the NX650 in the XR600R frame and then added all the stuff required to make it street legal. The 600 is likely the better bike off-road while the 650 is probably the better dual sport adventure bike. If you want to ride the 600 on highway you will have to get it plated – they did not come street legal from the factory.



      • The XR650L and Xr600R are not the same bike. This is a common misconception. If Honda were to have punched the 600R to 650 cc’s (which would be scary awesome) the 650L would need no modifications as it would run like a scalded cat and pass everything but a gas station. The XR650L is it’s own breed that uses the old NX650 power train. About the only thing these bikes share is the XR name. If these two bikes were the same it would be possible to just swap in 600R tranny gears, but sadly you can’t.

  3. Rich,

    I see from one of your posts here (problem/no problem) that you have a tool tube mounted to your frame just in front of the motor and above the skid plate. How is that working for you? I’m looking for some way to permanently store tools so they don’t have to go in my luggage.



    • Hi, Bart.

      Just so you know – the picture is of my friend JT on his XR650L. I haven’t asked him how he likes the tool tube mounted in that spot on his XR so I don’t know if it worked for him or not. However, I have mounted a tool tube in the same location on a few of my other bikes (KLR, Husky TE610, DRZ) and it has worked fine for me. It keeps the weight low and is a good method for carrying my tire tools. I never had issues with the front tire hitting the tube or the tube falling off or being clipped by rocks/downed trees.



  4. What are your thoughts on wider countershaft sprocket? I’ve heard I’d be a good idea even with stock bikes but especially adding more power!

    Added link to the sprocket I’m talking about as website in the comment form.

    Very good points otherwise and I would add a section for tools and spare parts to ensure its less likely you require assistance high up in the mountains!

    • Hi, Jim.

      Based on what I’ve read about the issues between the stock sprocket and the countershaft I think a wider countershaft sprocket makes sense. I’m running an XR650R sprocket as the solution for my bike.

  5. Rich – The verdict is in – and based on an abundance of evidence it has been rendered – this is the most informative website available for newbie as well as experienced trail/offroad/dual sport/adventure motorcyclist to peruse. Why? because your writing style is very informative as demonstrated on your XL650R narrative. The information is simultaneously expansive and concise with extreme details revealed. Thank you for taking the time to share your experience and wisdom. I have spent numerous hours reading countless bike reviews and trying to categorize the strengths and holes in numerous similar but different bikes and what they offer the “adventure rider”. You correctly put the horse before the cart – what specifically is your intended purpose for riding and what type of surface does your most often sought out routes contain. It is your experience with these issues and presenting the numerous trade offs encountered which benefits any and all who take the time to read what you have to say. My question for you is twofold, have you ridden your XL650R to a high enough elevation that you experienced carb jetting issues with your commonly used jet? Have you ever wished for an EFI system on this bike?

    • Hi, Michael.

      Thank you for the wonderful compliment. 🙂

      I have ridden the XR650L up to about 8000 feet elevation and did not have to rejet. The bike was down on power, as expected, but ran fine otherwise.

      The bigger challenge was overheating. My bike was jetted lean, like all XRLs, and it got hot when climbing the higher elevations in Mexico. I have since had it professionally jetted on a dynometer but have not had it in the mountains to see what difference the new jetting will make at altitude. I suspect it will make a noticeable difference.



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