Middleweight title fight: Honda brings the CB650F to the U.S. market

May 10, 2017

After years of attention on the “bigger and better” end of the displacement range, the most interesting action is now taking place among small and middleweight motorcycles. The latest development is the news that Honda is bringing its CB650F stateside.

Based on the same platform as the CBR650F, the CB650F is the same naked version that has been on sale in Europe for the past three years. The CB gets a slightly taller handlebar than its sportier sibling and loses the fairing. From what I can tell, based on the limited news release, the performance should be the same as that of the CBR650F.

Honda CB650F
The CB650F should share nearly identical stats to that of the CBR650F. Honda photo.

This is not the first time Honda has tried importing a naked middleweight to the U.S. market. Redubbed the 599, Honda brought its Hornet stateside in 2004. It used an earlier version of Honda’s 600 cc supersport engine and had minimal bodywork, a more upright seating position, a handlebar instead of clip-ons and more leg room. By 2007, the bike was removed from the U.S. lineup.

The Hornet remained a solid performer in European markets, however, and in 2014 it got a facelift, as well as updates and a bump in displacement, and was redubbed the CB650F, which is now coming to America as a 2018 model. European outlets like Motorcycle News called the CB650F “A peerless ‘bike for all reasons’ at a value price that’ll disappoint no-one.”

Yet Honda didn’t bring the bike to America in 2014, and now, three years later, it is peerless no more.

More options in the middleweight class

What’s changed between 2014 and now is that the naked middleweight segment has taken off in America. In 2014, the Triumph Street Triple and Ducati Monster line (which included two smaller displacement options, the 696 and 796) were selling well but there was no real competition from the Big Four. Kawasaki had pulled its ER6n from the U.S. market in 2011, Suzuki had replaced the SV650 with the ill-received Gladius, and Yamaha didn’t offer any middleweight nakeds in the United States. But that was all about to change.

Yamaha FZ-07
Yamaha's original three colors for the FZ-07 when it was released in 2015. Photo by Nelson & Riles.

In 2015, Yamaha introduced to the American market the FZ-07, a naked bike powered by an all-new 689 cc parallel twin. It quickly gained a reputation as a fun, lightweight, zippy machine. It had enough power to satiate experienced riders yet was mild enough for newer riders to tame. Its success was a clear indicator that the tide was shifting toward more practical street offerings and it left other OEMs scrambling.

Suzuki SV650 Spurgeon Dunbar
The revamped SV650 from Suzuki was the first bike we saw trying to steal a piece of the FZ-07's pie. Photo by Adam Campbell.

By the middle of 2016, I found myself in Southern California testing Suzuki’s 2017 SV650 and six months later I returned to ride an all-new Z650 from Kawasaki. One of the main takeaways I have noted from the marketing research provided by the manufacturers is that today’s consumer looks at faired bikes and naked bikes very differently. Kawasaki discussed this when I attended the Z650 launch.

Kawasaki Z650 Spurgeon Dunbar
Within six months of riding Suzuki's SV650 I was back on the west coast hanging out with Kawasaki's new Z650. Photo by Kevin Wing.

Even though the Z650 was nearly identical to the Ninja 650 from a mechanical standpoint, they were positive that sales of the Z650 would do little to cannibalize sales of the Ninja 650. While their sport segment showed no signs of a decline (or an incline for that matter), interest in their naked bikes was dramatically spiking.

Honda CB400F Super Sport
The CB650F's exhaust headers bring to mind the popular 1970s CB400F Super Sport. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.
Maybe Honda was looking at the same information when it decided to bring the CB650F to the U.S. market, as a 2018 model, alongside the faired CBR650F. Both are powered by the same 649 cc engine. Honda claims 86 horsepower at 11,000 rpm and 46 foot-pounds of torque at 8,000 rpm. In addition to the more relaxed riding position, the naked CB650F shows off those four sexy exhaust header pipes that harken back the original 1970s CB400F Super Sport.

CB650F Exhaust Headers
Unlike the CBR650F which covers the exhaust, the CB650F lets it all hang out. Honda photo.

Those pipes emphasize what sets the Honda apart from the current crop of naked middleweights. In a world of singles, parallel twins, and L-twins, Honda will have the only middleweight naked with an inline four (assuming that we consider bikes like the Yamaha FZ-09, Triumph Street Triple, and Kawasaki Z900 to be in a larger class). If European specs remain the same, it’ll sacrifice a bit of low-end torque but will have class-leading horsepower.

While price has yet to be announced, based on European pricing and the previous $8,499 MSRP of the CBR650F (for 2018 the MSRP of the CBR is TBD), I am guessing it should debut in America somewhere around $8,000.

Climbing the displacement ladder is easier

These are exciting times for naked bikes in America. More so than in recent years, riders have more choices and can take progressive steps up the displacement chain. There are friendly yet fun bikes around the 300 cc to 500 cc level. Bikes like this new Honda, the SV650, the FZ-07 and the Z650 fill the gap and offer riders a transition to more powerful machines just shy of a liter. Plus, we still have the liter-plus knuckle-dragging brutes, some of which are being outfitted with similar technologies to those found on fully faired race replicas.

Honda CB650F
The new CB650F provides a more upright stance for everyday use. Honda photo.

Honda, in particular has expanded its lineup with lots of smaller displacement options and the CB650F fills in a noticeable gap in the family of naked sport bikes. The real question is how this bike will fare against the existing crop of naked machines already dominating the market.

With a release date set for August of 2017, we shouldn’t have to wait long to find out.