It’s been over 15 years since Triumph introduced its original Bonneville based Scrambler to an unsuspecting world. Evoking images of Steve McQueen and 1960s off-road racing, it started a trend which today sees nearly every manufacturer have a variation on the theme in their range. They remain big business and now Honda is bringing a budget contender to the class, one which is aimed at the new rider. It’s called the CL500. But what’s it like to ride?
While it’s a new category for Honda the new model is based on the venerable CB500 platform, which has been around for donkey’s years. And Honda do kinda have some form in the category, albeit from decades ago. The CL designation was last seen on Hondas in the Sixties and Seventies, on modified lightweight bikes with some off-road dynamics from way before they were trendy. The CL500 takes its inspiration from those machines and brings back the high-barred, high-pipe style to the Honda range following an absence of nearly half a century. At £5,999, it’s also the cheapest member of the A2 friendly Honda 500 range.
I have a lot of respect for Honda’s CB500 series. While not exactly glamorous, they are great value and easy to ride steeds that are ideal for new riders or as daily workhorses. They were designed specifically with A2 licence regulations in mind. The 471cc parallel-twin unit delivers just under the 35kw (47bhp) limit allowed for A2 licence holders, and they’ve always been light, easy to ride and affordable for the masses. The latest CL500, along with the CMX500 Rebel cruiser, share the same powerplant as the CB500 models, but have their own frame and a slightly different vibe.
First impressions of the CL500 can be mixed. I gave it a lukewarm reception when it arrived at our office, and its looks certainly polarised opinion. Honda had thrown half of their accessories brochure at our Candy Caribbean Blue Sea test bike, with the optional handguards, high front mudguard and a satchel style saddle bag but, in a way, I kinda wished they hadn’t. Honda will probably hate me for saying this, but I much prefer the stripped down look of the standard bike, with the low front guard (which is also retained alongside the high accessory unit) and naked handgrips. Personally I think the attraction of ‘scrambler’ bikes is the pared back look, which I think is lost with all the customisation on our test bike. Anyway, that’s just me. If I was in the market for a CL500, I’d probably choose another colour as well. There are four colour options, with the bright candy orange and utilitarian military green hues floating my boat more than the blue.
Anyway, enough of all that. It’s ultimately about the riding experience. Sit astride the CL500 and it instantly feels light and manoeuvrable. It’s a Honda 500, and that’s their raison d’etre, but the CL’s wide bars, narrow tank and low seat all contribute to a motorcycle which is exceptionally easy to get on with.
The side mounted ignition is a bit gimmicky, but something of a tribute to the 1970s CL350. The easy going nature continues as soon as you press the starter button. The motor whirrs into life without any fuss, while the light clutch and gearbox are as friendly as they come.
Those wide, upswept, bars make the CL500 a doddle to ride at low speed, and there’s enough punch from the 46bhp engine to keep ahead of the traffic. Fitting with the stripped back scrambler vibe, the instrumentation consists of a smart single binnacle but rather than filling it with an analogue speedo it features an LCD panel, which displays speed, gear, clock and fuel – as well as a large speed readout. It’s not very sophisticated by 2023’s standards, but it’s good enough and in fitting with the simple nature of the bike.
There is no rev counter, but you don’t really need it. And while there is an icon on the dash telling you when to upshift, the bike tells you when to change up with its mechanical sounds and vibrations anyway. The motor is quite buzzy, with vibes manifesting themselves through the footpegs, and then the saddle, as it revs out. It’s not pleasant, but ride with a little less urgency and you barely notice it. The bike itself will happily sit at motorway speeds but I did find the vibes slightly grating at 70mph. Among the many accessories on our test bike were the serrated metal ‘Rally’ footpegs, and I suspect these would be a contributing factor.
Handling is competent enough. The 19” front wheel contributes to the scrambler stance and, although the Dunlop tyres have a mild off-road pattern, they are a full road tyre in truth, and very good to boot. And while the brakes and suspension are budget items they worked surprisingly decently, exceeding what I would expect from a £6k motorcycle.
My first experience of the CL500 was around town, where it excelled thanks to its light controls and excellent manoeuvrability. The saddle is narrow, with a 790mm height, making it accessible for many riders, and even with the accessory (higher) seat fitted to our bike, my stumpy little legs still had no trouble touching terra firma during our time together.
A trip down the motorway reminded me that small capacity machines are generally less laid back than bigger engined bikes, but it was scratching down some pretty bumpy B roads where I had the most enjoyment with the entry level Honda. There’s always something very invigorating about giving a small capacity engine a good thrashing, and the CL500 gives a perfect reminder of this. The motor makes its peak power at over 8,000rpm and just loves to be revved out, putting a smile on your face without ever being intimidating. Despite the budget nature of the chassis componentry, and a relatively low 192kg weight, it was brilliant fun scratching around rural roads and felt very secure and stable, with enough ground clearance for when you want to get cranked over in the corners.
Honda are renowned for their quality and while the CL500 looks well enough built, the finishes are a bit basic compared to scramblers from Ducati and Triumph. Of course, those are much more expensive machines, and while they have beautifully engineered solutions to hide cabling and all the modern gubbins that go into today’s motorcycles, the Honda definitely feels its budget price. It’s not ugly, and it’s not a problem, but the devil is in the detail. The handlebars look spindly, like they’ve been commandeered from a 125, and with no bodywork to hide the CB500 derived motor, there are plenty of cooling hoses, breather tubes, wires and reservoirs exposed and on display. It’s important to remember that this is a £6,000 motorcycle and, at that, it feels pretty much on the money – even if it lacks the X factor of some other scrambler style motorcycles on the market.
Indeed, if you’re looking for an A2 compatible scrambler there’s very little out there to rival the Honda. Sure, some of the more expensive models can be restricted for new licence holders, but out of the box there’s not much to compare it too. Its biggest competitor could well be Triumph’s single cylinder Scrambler 400 X, which is expected to land next year.
Overall the Honda CL500 is another worthy addition to Honda’s A2 licence line-up. I went through a bit of a love-hate-love-hate-love-love-love journey with the bike, loving it when seeing the unmolested stock bikes in my local dealership, to hating the accessory festooned bike provided for our review. But, when I started riding it, I started to love the little CL again, albeit with a minor bit of distain for the (not so good) vibrations on a longer motorway run.
The Honda CL500 will probably remain something of a niche model in the Big H’s massive range, but that’s ok. It brings the accessibility of the excellent 500 range to an audience looking for a slightly more distinctive style, with loads of accessories available to let owners modify and further customise their steed and make it stand out from the crowd.
It’s a worthy model upon which to revive the CL name.
Honda CL500 specification
Price: £5,999 (standard model, without accessories)
Engine: 471cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, eight-valves, parallel twin
Power: 34.3kW (46bhp) @ 8,500rpm
Torque: 43.4.Nm @ 6,250rpm
Frame: Steel diamond frame
Wheels: 19” front / 17” rear
Tyres: Tubeless, front 110/80-19M/C (59H), rear 150/70 R17 M/C (69H)
Weight: 192kg wet
Seat height: 790mm
Fuel tank: 12 litres