WHEN you least want to be on a bike is when you learn to appreciate it the most. Twisting down mountain roads in southern Catalonia sounds great on paper, but add rain, fog, cold and random patches of gravel and animal dung into the mix, and a bit more speed than the Spanish authorities and my mum would approve of, and it gets a bit hairy. However, even as the weather worsened, I was confident the 2013 Honda CB500F wouldn't let me down.
The CB500F is the no-frills naked version of the trio that make up Honda's new 500 family, the other being the sporty-looking CBR500R and the adventure-styled CB500X. I say 'looking' and 'styled' because the three bikes are essentially the same – identical chassis, engine, running gear and so on – with only minor differences in the ergonomics and, of course, appearance: behold Honda's cost-saving modular approach, engorged on the success of the NC700 family. The other penny-pinching measure is the decision to build all three models entirely in Thailand for global sales, targeting everyone from A2 licence holders in Europe to people moving up from utilitarian 125s in developing Asian markets.
Honda has released the F and the R first, with bikes expected in UK dealerships in March, and the X to follow two months later. These new 500s re-populate a class left vacant after the disappearance of the Kawasaki ER-5, Suzuki GS500 and Honda's own CB500 twins, much loved by training schools and despatch riders, and plug the yawning gap (in capacity, power and price) between the 250/300 and 600 classes.
The CB500F is modern-looking but not flashy, with a sharp rear end balanced by just a hint of aggression from the headlight's shape and a bit of muscle from the cowls on either side of the tank. The all-new, DOHC parallel-twin engine, a stressed member within the steel frame chassis, occupies centrestage. The quality of materials and the finish look good, certainly better than the CBR250R's. Overall, the F projects an air of smart simplicity and an easy-to-get-on-with philosophy.
And getting on I was, wet leathers and steamed-up spectacles notwithstanding, for the CB500F is a reassuringly stable and friendly ride. You sit upright with a relaxed reach to the flat bars, which are 600mm wide and 1019mm off the ground, and while it definitely feels like a full-size motorcycle, it has a slimness to it that will give a sense of familarity to someone upgrading from a small bike.
Weighing 192 kg and making 47 bhp at 8500 rpm, the F's acceleration is never going to tear the forearms off anyone, but the smooth, linear power delivery means it can be hustled. That and the unassuming engine note meant I often found myself doing 15-20 mph more than I thought I was, and on open stretches it was easy enough to hit 100 mph without feeling especially fussed (though the wind buffeting makes it less than ideal to sit at those speeds). The approximately five-second 0-60 and a 115 mph top should be more than enough for the company's primary target markets of A2 licence holders, people moving up from a 125 and cost-conscious commuters switching from cars.
Importantly, there's a lovely blob of torque right when you need it, between about 3000 and 5000 rpm, peaking at 31.7 lb-ft at 7000 rpm. Twist the throttle in any gear and the CB500F surges forward with a 'yes, sir!' For a good while I enjoyed a lazy spell of torquey twisties by riding the torque bulges with minimal gear changing.
This refined torquiness also makes short work of urban riding, with just a bit of crisp throttle enough to take you past the usual obstacle course of cars and buses, or through orange lights. When you do want to shift gears, the light and precise clutch and gearbox make no mistake.
The CB500F also lets you brake as hard as you like, thanks to standard ABS and decent Metzeler Z8 rubber. I barely used the rear brake during the day's ride, relying on the well-modulated power and progressive feel from the front 320 mm disc.
Though the CB family doesn't sport any fancy gizmos – the rear shock is only adjustable for preload, and there's an all-digital instrument panel, but that's about it – the optional heated grips are pretty handy. They were certainly a boon in conditions like those we experienced on our test ride and should especially please motorcycling newbies and converts from the four-wheeled world.
Sure, a couple more extras – a gear indicator display and perhaps a slipper clutch to soak up overenthusiastic downshifts, a la Kawasaki Ninja 300 – could be useful for newbies. And a more involving engine note would make anyone happier.
But when you see the sticker price of £4,650, you realise what good value the CB500F is – cheaper than the Ninja 300 and only a few hundred quid more than the CBR250R ABS, it's a terrific bargain for what it offers. The yet-to-be-released and non-A2-compliant £4,500 KTM Duke 390 may well entice a few thrill-seekers away, but the 2013 Honda CB500F is an accomplished midsize bike and would make an all-round sound buy.
Model: Honda CB500F
Colours: Pearl Himalayas White, Graphite Black, Candy Ruby Red