Why is it we always want what we can't have? With the '85 riding
season in full swing, our shop is literally overflowing with high-tech two-wheelers, all
of them highly desirable to a moto-maniac like myself.
I just couldn't stifle an envious sigh, however, when I saw photos of the Honda XLV750R. The styling of this corpulent Euro-cruiser instantly brought back fond memories of fast blasts on dual-purpose bikes through the mountains and deserts of the Imperial Valley in California. As luck would have it, American Honda just happened to have two in the U.S. for test purposes. After convincing our editor we should test one ("Ah, c'mon, it's not a real dirt bike") and Honda that we weren't just blowing smoke, I was off on a working vacation, bound for my ol' stomping grounds in the Imperial Valley.
My initial impression was disheartening. Only halfway to San Diego on the freeway, I already had a fault list as long as my arm. The XLVs stiff suspension lets you feel every bump and pavement ripple, and wide handlebars give the steering a twitchy feel. The seat is hard and narrow, inducing numb-butt within half-an-hour. Riding the stretch of interstate through the mountains and beaches of the Camp Pendelton Marine Base, I began to wonder what the attraction is for the thousands of Europeans who buy this ersatz enduro.
The guy in the Toyota truck enlightened me. When he wasn't pacing alongside, staring in open-mouthed disbelief, he was giving me a vigorous thumbs-up. He wasn't the only one. The radical look of the XLV was turning heads in rapid succession. I began to imagine myself touring rural European countryside, looking positively indestructible aboard the big Honda. So what if it's a little uncomfortable? Honda's intention was to imitate the look of the bikes that race from Paris, France, to Dakar, Africa, over a 6,500-mile on-and-off road route that requires barrel-sized gas tanks and the raw courage of a Viking.
Upwardly mobile Europeans idolize the wasteland conquerors who ride these awesome-looking machines, and imitate them on repli-bikes in the same way we ennoble the Lone Ranger image aboard stretched-out street cruisers.
Getting off the freeway and into the mountains provided further enlightenment. Although the five-speed gearbox ratios are a tad on the wide side, the 749cc, 45-degree V-twin engine delivers enough stump-pulling torque to forgive a misplaced shift. Combined with stiff suspension, a narrow seat and wide handlebars, the powerful motor gives the XLV canyon agility that belies its appearance. Suspension compliance on back roads is excellent. An air-assisted telescopic fork in front and Pro-Link monoshock out back perform flawlessly in the twisties, and the Dunlop Universal tires mounted front and rear-though they howl like knobbies - stick like slicks.
I was tempted to stay in the mountains and exploit the joys of the XLV amidst piney woods and gorgeous scenery, but the lure of the nearby desert proved too strong. Descending Banner Grade from Julian into the Ocotillo Wells area was like going home. Before moving to Los Angeles, I spent many weekends riding dirt bikes in the O.W. State Vehicle Recreation Area and the BLM land surrounding it.
Although the XLVs styling practically screams dirt from every pore, my first foray into the loose stuff proved this to be a skillful deception. The bike's considerable weight-due mostly to the big motor and conveniences like shaft drive and an electric starter-and street-biased tires make the XLV only a fair off -road performer. Flat fireroads and smooth hillclimbs are no problem; gobs of usable horsepower and straight-line stability let you cover this type of terrain at white-knuckle speeds
The rear shock absorber has a remote two-position damping adjuster-one
position for street and the other for dirt that helps the rear end cope with the
additional bumpiness of off-road riding.
Get into anything tighter than the open desert, however, and you'll wish you'd stayed home and mowed the lawn. I took the big bike through a narrow, rocky canyon, complete with tight corners and a sandv floor. After a hundred yards I'd dropped the bike twice. By the time I got out of the canyon I was covered in sweat and completely exhausted. Set up for the street, the XLV doesn't stand a chance in this kind of terrain, and even with the suspension pumped full of air and the damping turned up, the bike's weight soon overcomes the rider.
Honda doesn't use the XLV as a base bike for the Paris-Dakar rally-it's simply a styling exercise designed to appeal to the emotions of the non-racing European public. The race bikes are lightweight XR600 singles with custom-made gas tanks holding nine gallons or more. The gas tank on the XLV holds a modest 5.1 gallons, more than enough for a lengthy on/off road tour with the bike's 44 mpg average. Besides, the center of the tank is a great place for the airbox, swelling it to the appropriate styling dimensions and allowing an uncluttered engine bay.
Now in its third year of production, the XLV75OR continues to attract eager buyers in the 10 European countries in which it is offered. Honda swears it will never come to the U.S. What a shame. A bike that looks this good, has commendable street performance and enough off-road ability to suit the occasional trail blazer shouldn't be left standing at the gate. Perhaps a few years from now, when motorcyclists tire of the current crop of ultraspecialized streeters and long for something a little more versatile, we'll see more bikes like the XLV750R.