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2023 Honda SCL500 first ride review

Aug 29, 2023

If past is prologue, then we should have seen the SCL500 coming. Let's flashback to 1961. Honda's CB72 Hawk lands in the United States. It's a soaring success. Yet, Big Red keeps its ear to the ground, fashioning a new CB-based model in response to the rising scrambler trend. A modified frame, 19-inch wheels, and dual-purpose tires lend function. Form follows with a shapely new fuel tank, cross-braced handlebar, and fork boots. Thus, the CL72 — and Honda's scrambler line — is born.

Flash forward to 2023. The scrambler style calls to a new generation. Lo and behold, Honda responds. This time, the trusty Rebel 500 provides the foundation. Much of the old scrambler recipe applies, though (fork boots and all). Elsewhere around the globe, the cruiser-turned-scrambler reclaims the CL badge. A certain German automaker already owns the rights to the CL500 name in the good old U-S-of-A, so American Honda tacks on an "S." Thus, the 2023 SCL500 is born.

The SCL500 is more of a spiritual successor to Honda's historic CL line, including this CL77, than a direct descendant. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

This is the backstory Honda presents at the model’s U.S. press launch. It’s the lineage angle; a favorite among manufacturers these days. Team Red even rolls out the CL72’s bigger sibling, the CL77, to support its case. Decades apart chronologically and ages apart technologically, the only thing the two scramblers truly share is how Honda markets them. Young, hip, and free-spirited. It’s no wonder I find myself at a vintage trailer hotel in Ventura, California, testing whether the new SCL500 can live up to the CL legacy.

Something new under the Rising Sun

It’s easy to draw parallels between Honda’s neo-scrambler and its mid-size cruiser. That's both visually and mechanically. Be that as it may, the SCL isn’t merely a Rebel 500 on stilts. Honda’s proven 471 cc parallel-twin returns to power yet another model, but a new intake, exhaust, and revised fuel mapping set this rendition apart. Honda doesn’t list the model’s peak horsepower or torque in these litigious states of America, but power figures listed in other markets serve as a reference point. 

Honda's versatile 471 cc p-twin is also at the heart of the CB500X, CBR500R, and CB500F. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

In Europe, the CL500 is rated at 46 horsepower and 32 foot-pounds of torque. That’s about even with the Rebel’s performance, but it delivers that power slightly differently. Geared down to a 41-tooth rear sprocket (compared to the Rebel’s 40-tooth rear sprocket), the SCL gains pull off the line. At times, too much so. Snatchy throttle response defines the first two gears. Roll off the gas and engine braking is just as abrupt. It isn’t a problem that short-shifting can’t solve, but it did influence much of my riding experience (I’ll get to that shortly). 

Modest tweaks define the chassis, as well. Much of the tubular steel frame resembles that of the Rebel line but a restructured subframe helps raise the seat height to 31.1 inches. Preload-adjustable dual shocks aid in that effort, too, boosting the SCL500 to 5.7 inches of travel at the rear. A non-adjustable 41 mm front end yields even more travel at 5.9 inches. With the addition of the 19-inch front and 17-inch rear wheels (rolling on Dunlop Trailmax Mixtours), the street scrambler enjoys 6.1 inches of ground clearance.

Ergonomics also benefit from the SCL's chassis refinements, resulting in a relaxed, neutral riding position. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

The resulting dimensions nudge the model in a sportier direction. At least relative to the Rebel. A 27-degree rake and 58.4-inch wheelbase sharpen the SCL’s handling. On the other hand, the scrambler arrives with a 419-pound curb weight (claimed) while the Rebel 500 tipped Honda’s scales at 408 pounds. Seated atop the bike, I was hard-pressed to notice that weight difference. 

At a stop, my heels remained planted on the pavement. Even after switching to the generously padded accessory comfort seat, which bumps stand-over height to 32.1 inches, I still maintained a firm footing. That’s no surprise for someone standing five feet, 10 inches tall with a 32-inch inseam. Those of a similar height can expect the same experience. Things aren't as straightforward for shorter riders.

A fellow journalist measuring five feet, four inches tall with a 27-inch inseam stood on the balls of their feet at each stop. In those cases, the SCL’s extra pounds and higher weight distribution become a factor, especially when contrasted with the Rebel’s squat stance. Nevertheless, no one in our group —  no matter the height —  found the model unruly in any way. Those at the lower end of the height spectrum should anticipate walking on their tip toes or placing one foot flat on the ground. Otherwise, the scrambler is as easy-breezy as they come. The same holds true when it’s in motion. 

Just ride

Sometimes you just want to go for a ride. No need to fiddle with ride modes or submenus — just get on and go. Well, that’s the case with the SCL500, all the time. With a cable throttle, a reverse LCD gauge, and Spartan switchgear, the model’s convenience lies in its simplicity, not its technology. That ease of use should appeal to the Honda model’s main demographic. The only thing lost in the process is switchable ABS. Standard ABS governs both ends of the bike, but without the ability to disengage the feature at the rear, off-road adventures will be few and far between. 

Aside from legibility suffering under direct sunlight, the SCL500's reverse LCD dash is effortless to read with limited data relayed to the rider. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

Honda, therefore, limited our group’s ride route to paved roads. Luckily, the SCL is in its element, nonetheless. Light on its feet and eager to tip in, the model makes for a cheery dance partner in the twisty bits. It sashays more than cha-chas, but it’s never too laid back to cut a rug. The SCL and I often let the corners come to us, floating through in more ways than one.

Thanks to the on/off throttle pickup in first and second gear, I formed the habit of entering turns a gear too high. That approach ultimately sacrificed drive at the corner exit. It was a worthy trade-off for the finesse gained at the throttle. After all, the street scrambler is far from a canyon carver. The comfort-first suspension makes sure of that.

Despite a high-mounted exhaust, Honda's 471 cc didn't produce enough heat to compromise rider comfort. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

With the exception of the fastest, harshest bumps, the SCL absorbed everything California's Central Coast threw its way. That same suspension didn’t fare as well with mid-corner undulations. Hit a bump at lean and the scrambler bounced and bobbed from apex to exit. That would be a much graver charge for a bike with higher performance aspirations. For the vast majority of SCL500 customers, the stock suspension, albeit undersprung, suits much of their needs.

The same holds true for the brakes. Equipped with a larger 310 mm front disc (than the Rebel 500’s 296 mm disc), the SCL offers adequate stopping power. Feel at the lever is, predictably, wooden, but only the most spirited pace called its speed-shedding abilities into question. That all aligns with the model’s even-keeled, easy-going demeanor. A demeanor that both defines and maligns the scrambler.

Starting at $6,799, the 2023 Honda SCL500 caters to youthful beginners as well as returning riders. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

To scramble or not to scramble?

In stock fitment, the SCL500 is a scrambler by name, not by nature. The high-mounted exhaust silencer, throwback bench seat, tank pads, and yes, fork boots all cast the SCL in the scrambler vein. Those cosmetics don’t lend to capability, unfortunately, with cast wheels, road-biased tires, and wallowing suspension relegating the scrambler to the friendliest of fire roads. 

Sure, customers can swap for knobby-tread aftermarket tires. Even Honda’s extensive accessories catalog caters to dirt-curious riders. But, without the ability to lock up the rear wheel, most owners will limit themselves to urban explorations. For that reason, the SCL is little more than a standard motorcycle cosplaying as a scrambler. That isn't such a bad thing, either. 

Accessories such as handguards, a high-mounted front fender, and a headlight visor complete the scrambler look. In contrast, rally-style footpegs, a comfort seat, and luggage add-ons go beyond aesthetics. Photo by Drew Ruiz.

As a mid-sized standard, the model performs admirably, especially at the sub-$7,000 price point. No, the 2023 SCL500 doesn’t live up to the off-road credibility of Honda’s vaunted CL series. Instead, it stands to establish its own legacy by introducing a new generation of riders to two wheels. If the SCL500 shares something with the original C77, it's that.

2023 Honda SCL500
Price (MSRP) $6,799
Engine 471 cc, liquid-cooled, eight-valve, parallel twin
final drive
Six-speed, chain
Claimed horsepower NA
Claimed torque NA
Frame Tubular steel
Front suspension 41 mm fork; 5.9 inches of travel
Rear suspension Dual shocks adjustable for preload; 5.7 inches of travel
Front brake Single two-piston caliper, 310 mm disc with ABS
Rear brake Two-piston caliper, 240 mm disc with ABS
Rake, trail 27 degrees, 4.3 inches
Wheelbase 58.4 inches
Seat height 31.1 inches
Fuel capacity 3.2 gallons
Tires Dunlop Trailmax Mixtour, 119/80-19 front, 150/60-17 rear
Claimed weight (wet) 419 pounds
Available Now
Warranty 12 months
More info