2020 Honda Rebel 500

Editor Score: 83.5%
Engine 18.0/20
Suspension/Handling 12.0/15
Transmission/Clutch 8.0/10
Brakes 8.0/10
Instruments/Controls4.0/5
Ergonomics/Comfort 8.0/10
Appearance/Quality 8.5/10
Desirability 8.0/10
Value 9.0/10
Overall Score83.5/100

Our pal Chrissy Rogers was excited and jumped at the chance to get her riding permit last year at Honda’s rider training center, but slightly bummed to learn that she’d been assigned a PCX150 scooter when the fateful training weekend came. It only made sense, as that’s what we were “testing” at the time. She was jealous of all the other students, mostly all on Rebel 300s. A large dog could learn to ride the full-auto PCX in about a minute, if it had thumbs, and Chrissy had really wanted to learn to use a clutch and shift gears.

More pointedly, the whole first day of the MSF course consists mostly of paddling your motorcycle around at walking speed, and for 5-foot-zero Christine, that would’ve been far easier from the 27.2-inch seat of the Rebel than from sliding on and off the 30.1-in one of the PCX. There was a chafing issue, best not mentioned again. In any case, she’s been jonesing for a Rebel ever since. How convenient that Honda just souped up the Rebels for 2020, then, and fixed us up with a new Rebel 500 test unit.

A 27.2-inch seat is a good thing when you’re learning to shift for yourself.

It sat in the garage for a week while I procrastinated, putting off a potential bout that could escalate rapidly when it came time to mansplain her how to use a clutch. When the day came, in a big empty parking lot behind a Sears that may or may not be closed, all I had to do was show her where neutral was, between first and second gear, and the little green “N” on the dial. She took right off on the first release of the clutch and was instantly circling the parking lot like a middle-aged madwoman (who drove a stick-shift VW Beetle for years). One thing the revised 2020 Rebel has is a new slip/assist clutch, and the lever is super light and smooth-engaging – though it wouldn’t be a bad thing if it were also adjustable.

Pretty smug.

In addition to the sweet clutch, the other new stuff the Rebel got for 2020, in Honda-speak, is:

  • A revised fork features new buffing on inner pipe for smoother action plus stiffer spring rate and revised oil levels for improved handling and added comfort.
  • Shock damper tube now uses nitrogen gas to stabilize damping force, while stiffer spring rate improves handling and a revised bump rubber maximizes reaction force.
  • Repositioned and reshaped LED headlight is paired to new LED turn signals and a redesigned LED taillight to reinforce iconic look.
  • Updated LCD meter with gear-position indicator and fuel consumption provides pertinent information to the rider.
  • Seat has new thickness and density for increased comfort.

I can’t think of a better motorcycle to teach a person to ride. It’s also a great bike for not teaching a person to ride: Just hand them the key and most will figure it out. The Rebel 250 has been the choice of MSF schools since Honda launched it in 1985. And since the big redesign of the 300 and 500 in 2017, Rebels own the small-displacement cruiser market. Yamaha and Suzuki, meanwhile, continue to flog V-Star (née Virago) 250s and Boulevard S40s (née Savage) designed 40 years ago. I don’t know if it’s my kid Ryan’s on-camera presence or if it’s the bike, but his Youtube vid about the Rebel redo in 2017 remains MO’s Gone With the Wind, with over 1.3 million views. I think he got a pair of gloves out of the deal.

In no time, we were hitting the streets with confidence.

I wasn’t paying much attention in 2017, but now that I’m on the case, I find that we’re straddling the same high-tech 471 cc Twin that powers the excellent Honda CB500F and CB500X – bikes we’ve heaped praise upon in the last few years. Just as it does in them, that little engine runs supersmooth and efficiently on its way to producing 40.2 horsepower, in a perfectly injected, surprisingly midrange-intensive manner. 

Look at that flat torque curve. This thing is superbly tractable.

It’s also completely modern and “Honda-ized”:

  • Rebel 500 cylinder head uses roller rocker arms; shim-type valve adjustment allows them to be light, for lower valve-spring load and reduced friction.
  • Rebel 500 has a silent (SV Chain) cam chain, with the surface of its pins treated with Vanadium to reduce friction through its increased protection against dust. Inlet-valve diameter is 26.0mm with exhaust-valve diameter of 21.5mm.
  • Rebel 500 has reduced friction through the inclusion of striations on the piston skirt (a finish that increases surface area, introducing gaps in which oil can flow for better lubrication). An AB 1 salt bath process, used after isonite nitriding, forms a protective oxidization membrane.
  • Rebel 500 crankshaft pins are phased at 180°, and a primary couple-balancer sits behind the cylinders, close to the bike’s center of gravity. The primary and balancer gears use scissor gears, reducing noise. The crank counterweight is specifically shaped for couple-balance and its light weight allows the engine to spin freely, with low inertia.

It’s not just an easy bike to ride, it’s also a fun bike for scurrying around town, thanks to the lowness of the thing and the ease with which all its controls work, though you could certainly commute on it too if you needed to. We were about to break through 100 mph without too much sweat, but we ran out of empty freeway at 98; hanging with even fast traffic won’t be frightening. At high rpm, above about 70 mph in sixth gear, there’s some buzz in the grips and pegs. Also above 70, you’re fighting cruiser ergonomics and getting an upper body isometric workout against the wind.

Cruiser ergonomics have never been my cup of tea, but the Reb’s footpegs aren’t so far forward that you can’t lift your butt out of the surprisingly comfortable reupholstered seat when you see a big bump coming. When you don’t see them coming, the bike can deliver some harsh kidney shots, but over most reasonable-sized bumps, the new shocks and their progressive springs do a very nice job. In fact, the 3.8 inches of travel the spec chart specs seems like more. Along with the revisions to the fork, the Rebel serves up a great ride for a $6200 cruiser, and even a sporty one when the mood strikes. We never got a chance to get to the edges of the fatty 16-inch bias-ply Dunlops, but they no doubt also add to the bike’s comfy ride and definitely to its style.

Matt Blue Jeans Metallic is kinda cool.

Those big tires, along with slightly cruiserish geometry (4.3 inches of trail), means steering is predictable and stability is never a concern, but the Rebel can still get frisky. Brakes, too: The single front disc has the power to get the front tire howling, but it takes quite a two-finger squeeze to do it. The only place the Rebel comes up short as a beginner bike is its lack of an adjustable front brake lever; it was a stretch for Rog’s short digits. (The adjustable lever is a $27.95 accessory; demand your dealer put it on or the deal is off!) Luckily, the 240mm disc on back also works great on a cruiser, and our ABS bike means you can feel free to stand on it at will. ABS is the best $300 you’ll ever spend. 

You’ll be flying solo unless you order up the passenger seat and pegs.

Speaking of accessories, our bike is also equipped with one removable nylon saddlebag that looks suspiciously like a big purse (it has a shoulder strap), which Rog’s actual purse gravitated into instantly. Honda says women riders are a big key to the Rebel’s success: Reb 500 buyers are 28% ladies, Rebel 300 buyers are 36% women. New riders too: 61% of Rebel 300 buyers are first-time owners, as are 45% of Rebel 500 buyers. While some manufacturers do PR about recruiting new riders, Honda is quietly building the excellent little inexpensive machines for them to ride. And running training centers.

The new LED headlight and blinkers really do add a bit more attitude. To some of us, the Rebel looks like it’s been chasing parked cars, but people who like cruisers seem to dig it a lot. I wasn’t surprised to see guys on Harleys waving at Rogers on the Rebel, but I was surprised to see them waving at me on it. I even got a thumbs-up from a guy on a Dyna stopped at a light. I winked back. He roared off.

All that and 60 mpg. There’s nothing not to like here. The Rebel 500 is the modern Honda you meet the nicest people on, with all the same attributes that launched Honda’s amazing success 60 years ago. Though it has the look Americans crave, it’s completely approachable, affordable, easy to keep, life-expanding – and will no doubt run forever with a minimum of care. But if you’re taller than 5’0 and/or don’t particularly like cruisers, be sure and have a sit on Honda’s CB500F while you’re shopping. Same great little engine in a sportier standard package, for the same $6199. Or, if you’re more beanpole than little person, the CB500X adventure bike is the other Honda with that engine, for a few dollars more. All great choices. Thank you, Soichiro.

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