By Bart Madson, Editor

A solid, intriguing entry-level mount

Honda aims to reestablish the 500cc motorcycle market with its all-new CB500 platform. The three-bike lineup comprises a fully faired CBR500R sportbike, CB500F naked standard and CB500X adventure model. Billed as fun, easy-to-ride and affordable, these CB500 models are some of the most anticipated rides of the year. MotoUSA paid a recent call to American Honda headquarters in Torrance, California, for a quick ride on the CBR500R and CB500F; the CB500X will be available later this summer.

All three CB500 models share the same engine and chassis platform, a 471cc Parallel Twin wrapped in a tubular steel frame. The bikes are world models, meaning they roll off the assembly line in Thailand without any major revisions for the various global markets. Honda reps confirmed that the U.S. and European models are identical.

The Honda CBR500R is expected to be the top-seller in the U.S., catering to the America’s proclivity for fully faired sportbikes over stripped down standards. The R also courts a slightly older 20- to 40-year-old demographic (the 500F aimed at 20- to 30-year-olds). Honda envisions its fully faired 500 to be a step-up model for CBR250R riders, as well as a more affordable supersport-styled playbike for experienced riders.

The R certainly looks the part of a proper sportbike, and makes its little CBR250 sibling seem, well, little. The relatively large tires – 120/70 front and 160/60 rear – help convey the big bike feel characterizing all the CB500 models. Get behind the controls and taller riders will appreciate the relaxed riding triangle, with reach to the pegs far less cramped than we recall aboard the CBR250 and Ninja 300 (as tested in our Ninja 300 versus Honda CBR250R comparison). The 500R doesn’t feel like a little bike trying to be something it isn’t – it’s a comfortable middleweight akin to the 650 Twins from Kawasaki and Suzuki.

Most American riders are blissfully ignorant of tiered licensing but indirectly experience its effects with this new 471cc Twin, which was purpose-built to meet 35 kW (47 horsepower) power restrictions for the EU market. Honda’s European websites confirm power claims of 47 horsepower and 37 lb-ft torque.

Fire up the R and Honda’s new engine thumps out a mellow beat. It features a torque-rich linear powerband, building up to the mandated hp peak right at the end of its 8,500 rpm redline. To say it’s forgiving doesn’t do the engine justice, as it can be mindlessly ridden in any rpm – with a steady pulse of torque everywhere. Honda is critiqued for sometimes over-engineering the soul out of an engine platform (like, say, it’s NC700X), and this 500 won’t change that; however, it is a masterful piece of work, producing an easy-to-ride engine platform for the masses.

The 500 mill does transmit some buzz up through the frame, which ebbs away depending on gear and rpm. Otherwise the power delivery is flawless, with superb fueling and a smooth, smooth throttle – ideal for entry-level riders.

Displacement for the 500R slates it right between two Kawasaki rivals: the 296cc Ninja 300 and 649cc Ninja 650 (also Parallel Twins). I reckon it falls in closer to the 300 in terms of performance, but with a completely different character – as its steady, street-friendly powerband contrasts the 300’s frantic top-end bias. MotoUSA aims to make this the subject of a future comparison review.

The 500’s six-speed transmission is pure Honda, with sure shifts and easy clutch engagement. No real fault can be found, though the addition of a slipper clutch to the Ninja 300 becomes that much more impressive in contrast. Still, the 500R does not suffer from its absence, which would be an unnecessary addition that drives up costs.

Our brief test ride incorporated uneven city streets, a handful of sweeping corners and a half-dozen miles on the freeway. That’s not a lot of time to make definitive statements about the CBR500R's handling. That said, the suspension package – a non-adjustable 41mm fork and pre-load adjustable shock – prove comfortable for the city and freeway. The few corners we tried to push found the chassis setup soft, but not flimsy by any means – and more stable than the CBR250R.

The biggest surprise may be the aforementioned tires – with the regular-sized Dunlops a far cry from the skinny tires we’ve come to expect on an entry-level mount. They may contribute to a more ponderous turn-in and transition than we recall from the slender profiles on the quick-turning 250/300, but the CBR500R feels planted and stable.

A single 320mm rotor and twin-piston Nissin caliper handle braking duties up front, with a single-piston caliper rear pinching a 240mm rotor. Performance is effective enough, bringing the claimed 429-pound machine to a halt with predictable force. Our test units came equipped with optional ABS, as Honda diverges from its C-ABS linked system for a less expensive non-linked system. The ABS adds only four pounds and, most impressive, $500 to MSRP.

Honda has a well-earned reputation for fit and finish, and the 500s are no exception. One caveat is the ginormous horn button, placed on the left switchgear right above the turn signal. It didn’t take many miles to figure out that the numerous beeps from our test ride group were inadvertent. But that’s the one blight, and forgivable as the sturdy switchgear and instrumentation, which include an easy-to-read digital tach and speedo, feel more akin to Honda’s 600RR supersport than its 250R budget bike.

Affordability is a critical factor of the CB500 line, and the CBR500R base model sports a $5,999 MSRP. The uniform engine/chassis platforms and Thai manufacturing location (which also produce the budget-friendly CBR250R and the CRF250L models) help keep pricing competitive. Honda made a conscious effort to factor affordability into cost of ownership too. The dual overhead cam, four-valve head incorporates roller rocker arms to allow easier access for shim-valve adjustment, thus reducing servicing costs. The valve adjustment intervals are widely spaced too: 16,000 miles after the initial 800-mile service adjustment. Honda is also keen to point out the 500’s 71 mpg fuel efficiency. Cash-strapped riders would net a claimed 290-mile range by filling the 4.1-gallon tank – good luck getting that from a 600 supersport!

All this talk about cost and affordability, of course, speaks to the target demographic. The cost of most motorcycles have pressed well into five figures, including the 600 supersports, with the base model CBR600RR now $11,490. The CBR500R cuts that MSRP by nearly half. As manufacturers clamor for sales from Gen X and Gen Y to replace the aging Boomers, pricing will play a pivotal role. In this regard, the CB500 models make a compelling case.

The CBR500R is perhaps the most intriguing bike to watch this riding season. It delivers an affordable and easy-to-ride sportbike platform for every rider.