An In-Depth Review of the 2023 Honda XR150L!
After 10,000 miles of owning the North American Honda XR150L, I’m finally giving my in-depth review of the Chinese Honda that cuts costs at literally every opportunity.
The XR150L captured a ton of attention when it was released in the US, because it represented a bold new strategy in the dual-sport space from Honda. Instead of competing to have the most attractive bike at a price point, Honda simply decided they wanted to have the cheapest brand-name dual-sport, period. They’d let features, specs, capability, and even marketing be damned to achieve that sub-$3,000 MSRP.
Our first look at the North American XR150L was through the Honda press release where they let the unpaid interns run wild. The specs and features released upon announcement were quite inaccurate, in ways that would have easily been caught if there was any review process at all. Clear evidence that Honda’s home stretch when trying to reach that low, low MSRP, was to fire everyone in the marketing department and replace them with AI. Not a very flattering introduction for the XR150L in such a picky market, but a fitting one, since the whole theme of the XR150L is to be as cheap as possible, in every way possible...
The XR150L cuts costs by borrowing from the CRF150F that came before it, using a slightly-altered version of the 2nd-gen CRF150F engine. This engine is an air-cooled, 149cc, 2 valve, single-overhead-cam, nearly-square-ratio engine, fed by an electrically heated 22mm Keihin round-slide carburetor, and mated to a 5-speed transmission.
Having prior experience with the very mellow 2nd gen CRF150F engine, and knowing that this XR street model would likely be even more detuned than the CRF model, I already wasn’t expecting the XR150L to have much guts at all. My expectations turned out to be quite accurate. The power on the XR150L is just not anything exciting, and in fact, when taking off in first gear, it almost feels like the little thumper barely has enough power to move the bike. Taking off at a rate that will keep up with traffic requires quite an aggressive combination of revs and clutch slipping. This is due to a severe lack of low-end power, exacerbated by the bike being rather portly at over 280 pounds, and multiplied by having extremely tall final-drive gearing on transmission ratios that have not been changed at all from the dirt model, which was made to be used with far less final drive reduction on a small kids bike. So, off-idle and low RPM performance on the XR150L is lacking, to the point where you’ll pretty much just not use the bike anywhere near low RPM unless you’re cruising around very gently.
Although this engine did have quite a decent flywheel effect with good resistance to stalling on the CRF model, that same level of rotating mass does not equate to anywhere near the same level of stall resistance on this supremely over-geared XR150L. Riding around in anything slightly technical, especially on uphills, requires constant slipping of the clutch and aggressive revs to keep the bike alive and moving. Once the bike is moving at a speed where it’s no longer begging for clutch abuse, the mid-RPM performance is enough to make you feel a slightly energetic pull.
Although I have found that I generally just use wide-open throttle a good 90% of the time, changes in the opening of the throttle do produce a nice, crisp, immediate response, thanks to the directly-actuated round slide carburetor, which is jetted nearly spot-on from the factory. The carburetor setup on the XR150L provides a breath of fresh air since it provides nearly flawless, responsive, clean, crisp running without any modification, which is in contrast to many sub-optimally sized, poorly-optimized CV carbs and fuel injection systems I’ve ran across on other street-legal singles.
Moving up into the high-RPM range, the XR150L maintains a fairly flat pull that doesn’t feel like it ramps up much beyond what you get in the mid-range, and then the power does fall off substantially right before the hard-cut rev limit at 9500 RPM, enough that you’ll be incentivized to grab the next gear instead of revving it all the way out.
Of course, there are some simple ways to get a bit more out of the XR150L engine. In my case, removing the sound baffle from the airbox, slightly modifying the internals of the muffler, and changing the jetting to be just a hint more rich, resulted in a substantial improvement in the power characteristics of the bike. After these slight uncorking mods, the bottom end power picked up what feels like a good 10% more power, and the power no longer drops off at all before the rev limit. It now just revs out unhindered until the ignition controller cuts it off.
I also found that the air filter replacement interval specified in the manual is not nearly often enough to maintain anywhere near optimal performance. Replacing the air filter more often goes a long way towards allowing the little bike to produce its best power.
There’s also quite a lot of smog equipment that can be removed very easily to remove a few pounds of weight, which can of course improve the performance by a slight amount, and I did remove that equipment on my bike. The most notable change when de-smogging the bike comes from the change in engine heat when blocking off the air inlet on the exhaust port. Doing this mod substantially reduces the amount of heat coming off the head and exhaust, which eliminates the hot smell that the bike otherwise gives off. Modifying the bike in this way is likely a good idea from a longevity standpoint since this head was not originally designed to have what is basically an intentional air leak in the exhaust port.
The 0-60 and top speed are very much moving targets that are difficult to accurately state for this bike, because the slightest of inclines or slightest of breezes in the air throw these figures off wildly. For the top speed, you’ll see everything from 55mph to the actual RPM limit in 5th gear at about 73mph in the same day, just depending on where you’re holding it open. On a dirt road with no other vehicles cutting the air in front of you, 55mph is about all the little XR can reach. On a smooth paved road with a truck in front of you, the XR has no problem revving all the way out to 73mph. For this reason, I always try to find a truck to chill behind on the road. In general, though, a max speed of about 60mph on the road is common without drafting anybody.
0-60 speed is tough to say because sometimes the bike just won’t even reach 60, but on a day without wind, alone on a flat paved road, I seem to be averaging about 30 seconds. In a vacuum, that’s a terrible stat, but considering it’s a conservatively built 150, it’s just nice to be able to say that it can even hit 60.
Overall, the power is just not fantastic on the XR150L, which probably surprises nobody. I will say, though. that some people will be surprised by just how sluggish it is from a standstill due to the very sub-optimal first gear ratio which was never meant to be used on such an application. On the other hand, though, many people will also be pleasantly surprised by how refined, responsive, and just how nearly flawless the fueling feels since the bike is equipped with an appropriately-sized, appropriately-tuned, quality carburetor from the factory.
As mentioned, the five-speed transmission on this bike is one of the most-frustrating things about it, for more than one reason. My number one frustration comes from the fact that the transmission struggles to stay locked into a gear. Quite often when I’m riding around on this bike, the transmission will pop into a false neutral or just slip into the next lowest gear without any manipulation of the shifter. I’ll just be blasting along and boom, it’ll slip down from 5th to 4th for example, or into a false neutral between 5th and 4th for example, and it’ll do this in every gear. This is frustrating at best and dangerous at worst.
And this is on top of an already mildly frustrating gear ratio spread that makes the final ratio of first gear on the XR150L actually closest to the final ratio of 2nd gear on the CRF150F that the XR shares a transmission with. Honda really taught us a masterclass on how to make a slow bike even slower with this bike.
The terrible state of gear ratios on this bike basically makes clutch abuse a requirement to get this bike to perform acceptably out in the trails or when accelerating hard from a stop on the street. Fortunately, the clutch on this thing absolutely laughs in the face of all abuse. I’ve done some rides through really long, really steep uphill climbs where I couldn’t believe how the clutch was surviving. The bike would not continue moving without constant slipping at wide open throttle, causing the clutch to bark and chirp loud enough to be heard through my ear plugs from the heavy load I was tasking it with, yet the clutch never became swelled or warped with heat during all of that.
Over the 10,000 miles of my testing, I’ve had to make just two slight adjustments to the clutch freeplay. This means the clutch has just barely worn a tiny bit, but it still feels as good as new and still grabs very well. The clutch being appropriately over-built for the application is another strong point of the XR150L. The clutch pull is also very light, which is absolutely necessary given how much it needs to be used while riding through even just mildly technical off-road terrain.
Overall, while the feel of the XR150L powertrain does feature some strong points like a very nice carburetor setup, extremely good engine balance that doesn’t vibrate much, and a strong clutch that you’ll never have to even think about, I do feel that those niceties are overshadowed by the odd feel of a transmission that is over-geared far beyond what it was ever meant for, not to mention the fact that the transmission struggles to even stay in a gear.
The gear ratio issue can be largely solved by just going down one or two teeth on the front sprocket, which reduces the absolute max speed to about 69 or 65 MPH respectively, but puts the final reduction much closer to the territory that this engine and transmission were originally meant to be able to handle. The issue with the transmission not holding gears is something I haven’t attempted to remedy yet, so I can't say if it is easy or even possible to fix.
...But who really cares how well this bike performs? Because what the XR lacks in performance, it absolutely makes up for with a very low cost of running to complement the low cost of entry. The fuel efficiency is generally very good, but it is quite variable based on conditions.
When shredding this bike as wildly as I can in the desert, fuel consumption I’ve recorded has been an impressive 55 MPG, which gives an excellent desert shredding range of about 154 miles on the stock 2.8-gallon tank. While riding trails in a more casual fashion, I’ve recorded insanely variable numbers, but my planning figure is decided at 60 MPG.
Holding it wide open on the paved highway, I’ve averaged 68MPG, which means a max range of roughly 190 miles, which is quite good. City MPG has been hard to capture, since I don’t really live in a city, but my few attempts to measure only stop and go MPG have resulted in a 72MPG average, and it is funny that this beats the highway MPG, but also makes some sense as hopping on most highways means being completely wide open and revving the bike's guts out the whole time.
However, the truly amazing efficiency of the bike only shines when calming down and cruising easy down between 30 and 40mph. When I tested this, the result was an incredible 113mpg. 10 MPG higher than the best result I’ve ever had on a four stroke bike, and with room to improve since conditions weren’t perfect. Anyway, this just goes to show that when ridden carefully at the bike’s naturally happy pace, it is totally possible to go over 300 miles on the stock tank, which is downright impressive.
Reliability and Maintenance
The engine used in the XR150L has already been in production for 19 years and has a track record of nearly absolute reliability. The design addressed the most common failure points on Honda’s previous two-valve air cooled engines and resulted in something that you’d have to try pretty hard to kill. The maintenance required is absolutely minimal, and it’s overall one of the easiest bikes out there to live with. After the glaring oil consumption issue has been addressed, that is...
Right from the factory, the XR150L uses a terribly short, poorly angled crankcase breather that results in a high level of oil consumption that will have the oil level dropping off the dipstick every 200 miles. With that breather removed and replaced with a better design, the oil consumption is reduced to a very low rate that is so slow it won’t need to be topped up within the 2500 mile oil change interval, even if you’re making the bike absolutely scream all the time. The oil capacity is about 1.2 liters in total, which is plenty of capacity for such a small displacement motor, and the oil condition stays completely fine throughout the specified oil change interval when using an MA2 rated synthetic oil.
Shameless plug: Our "Pourly Designed" easy-fill oil funnel is a must-have for this bike and works on the XR150L the same as it does on the CRF230F and CRF150F!
The valve clearance inspection interval is every 2,500 miles alongside the oil change, and my experience over the 10,000 miles so far has shown that this should definitely not be skipped, as the exhaust valve on this XR150L started wearing-in significantly after 8,000 miles and required an adjustment at 9,200 miles.
One interesting thing to note about the maintenance on this bike is that there is no traditional oil filter. Instead, larger particulates are removed from the oil by a crankshaft-driven centrifuge behind the clutch cover that causes particulates to collect and solidify into a conglomerate crust inside the centrifuge. The maintenance interval for this system is specified at every 7,500 miles in the manual, but my experience with these engines shows that doing it every 7,500 miles isn’t really a requirement since barely anything builds up in there in that amount of time. It can really just be addressed anytime a new clutch pack is installed.
The XR150L is a bit of an odd ball with a 19” front and 17” rear wheel size, which is a configuration that has mostly been seen on larger adventure bikes that aren’t expected to do too much serious off-roading. Still, I didn’t expect there to be too much difference in the basic flat-ground handling of the XR150L compared to the common big-wheel-mini style 19” front, 16” rear configuration that it’s closest to.
...But it turned out that there is a huge difference, with the XR150L feeling somewhat like a supermoto in its handling, both on the road and in the dirt. I found that this makes the XR150L handle quite well on the road. It is very nimble in its road handling, able to dive down and slice turns very aggressively with ease compared to dirt-oriented configurations that aren’t quite as low in the nose, while also having ultra-smooth straight-line cruising thanks to the relative ease of keeping the smaller front wheel balanced and trued.
So, it feels super nice for around-town and highway cruising. However, in the dirt, it definitely gives up a lot of potential because of its wheel size and super short wheelbase. It is quite squirrely off-road, even in easy terrain. Any slight disruption in rear wheel traction results in the rear end squirting out to the side violently, and the relatively small front wheel wants to tuck hard very often. This makes riding off-road in a spirited manner fairly difficult on this bike. It does feel mostly fine when ridden at a relaxed pace, so that keeps it well-suited to simple dual-sporting and adventuring where the limits don’t need to be pushed.
The forks on this bike are 31mm, orifice-damped conventional forks with 7 inches of travel. These are essentially just the most basic of street forks with a little bit more travel than you’d find on the most basic of street motorcycles, and that is exactly how they feel in stock tune. The forks don’t come with any external adjustments, but they can be tuned internally by changing the spring rate, spring preload, oil volume, oil viscosity, and by modifying the orifices on the damper. This gives you quite a lot to play with when attempting to improve the XR150L's suspension.
In stock tune, these forks don’t feel like off-road suspension at all. They bottom hard, often on things that you normally wouldn’t even think about on most bikes. This can really catch you off guard. Not to mention, the overall flimsiness of the front end does the off-road handling no favors when combined with the bike’s eagerness to tuck the front end all the time.
The damping on the compression stroke, although plenty good for smoothing out already-flat roads (lol), does practically nothing for even the mildest of bumps, edges, and troughs found off-road, where the fork simply blows through and bottoms with incredible velocity. Of course, since the forks are controlled by fixed orifice damping, the rebound stroke is subject to roughly the same amount of damping as the compression stroke.
Overall, these forks are not well suited to off-road riding and do cause plenty of frustration when attempting to put them through such things. They can, however, be just fine when doing the simple dual-sporting and relaxed adventuring that the rest of the bike is well-suited for.
The front brake is the same old Nissin system that you’d find on most full-sized Japanese bikes for the past 30 years, and it works impressively well on this application since a full-size 240mm rotor was retained for the little 19” front wheel. The only way Honda cheapened up the setup was by ditching the free-play adjuster on the lever and going with a fixed lever that has no adjustability at all.
The rear suspension on the 150L is by far one of the lowlights of the bike. For the first time in ages, this XR does not have a rising rate linkage on the rear end. It instead uses an extraordinarily wimpy shock attached directly to the swingarm, with an extraordinarily wimpy dual-rate spring holding it up. The rear end has about 6 inches of travel, but you’ll really only effectively have about 3 inches after it sags in.
Unfortunately, the preload is not adjustable on the shock, despite what Honda claims, so there are no adjustments that can be made short of replacing the spring entirely. This is the worst rear suspension I’ve felt on a bike. Combined with the tiny, flimsy steel swingarm, this rear shock causes the rear end to be all over the place even when cruising fairly easily down basic dirt roads.
It’s hard to even get much of a sense of what the damping characteristics are like on this shock, because it doesn’t feel like it moves much. It’s just mushy for a little bit of travel and then bottoms, and kicks on mostly everything. Fortunately, the flimsy swingarm and flimsy frame do take the edge off of all the bottoming, so it’s not ultra-painful to ride despite the bottoming.
The rear brake is a 110mm, rod-actuated drum. Since the little XR never really reaches blazing-fast speeds, the tiny drum brake doesn’t struggle much. I have, however, found it to be slightly annoying because it requires adjustment often and burns through brake shoes quickly. Of course, being rod-actuated, there is a vague mushy feeling to the brake, but it works fine after becoming acquainted with it.
The XR150L uses an altered version of the single-spine, full-cradle, steel frame found on the CRF230F and CRF150F dirt bikes. Those frames were never very strong and had a tendency to bend and snap, but they were so cheap, at times as low as $250 brand new from Honda, that it wasn’t a deal breaker. The XR150L frame is likely just as weak, but unfortunately costs over $1000, so those looking to romp on it for a long time might want to invest in some welding skills as well.
The frame is quite flexible and springy. On the other bikes that share this family of frames, you’ll notice how it detracts from the off-road stability, but on the XR150L there are so many other things already destroying the off-road handling that the springy frame is absolutely not a performance bottleneck. Rather, most people will simply enjoy how it absorbs a lot of the smack when the cheesy suspension bottoms out.
Overall, the handling of the XR150L makes it shine on the road, mostly thanks to the wheel size configuration, but also makes it an unruly, sloppy mess off-road. It can do okay for easy dual-sporting, relaxed adventuring, or purely-road cruising, but I wouldn’t choose it for doing much more than those things.
The XR150L uses a DC-CDI ignition with a hard-cut rev limit at 9500 rpm. The spark plug used is cheap and widely available for just a few bucks, which helps keep the cost of running nice and low.
The stator on the XR150L is rated for a maximum output of 120 watts at 5,000 RPM, which is enough to keep up with the incandescent lighting of the bike while actually riding around. However, while idling at a stop with the brake light on, there is a slow draw on the battery and slight dimming of the lights. I have not had any issues with the battery going flat because I don’t spend much time idling with the brake light on.
However, the issue that I have had is with the included fuses, which are not sufficiently sized to keep from blowing. For whatever reason, the bike came with 7.5 amp fuses, but the service manual I have specifies 10 amp fuses. The included 7.5 amp fuses eventually blow when trying to start the bike, but with 10 amp fuses everything works just fine. Honda must have found a killer deal on 7.5 amp fuses and decided to “just send it” or something, hoping it wouldn't be a problem.
The bike comes with entirely incandescent lighting, which includes tiny little incandescent bulbs in the little dash display. When they’re working, all of the lights on the bike are plenty bright and perfectly well suited to road use, but all these little incandescent bulbs love to stop working, often, when riding off road because the tiny, delicate filaments get jostled too hard off-road. Expect to be replacing a lot of bulbs with LED replacements.
The headlight, however, does not need to be replaced. The included headlight is absolutely fantastic. It is bright, with miles of throw on high beam. It has an exceptionally clean pattern, and produces neutral light that isn’t too warm or too cold, and it does all of that while only using a 35 watt bulb. The headlight is definitely a keeper.
Ergonomics and Comfort
The XR150L is an exceptionally comfortable bike, which makes it very well suited to long hauls on the road. The seat is a freaking twin mattress. It is so comfortable that I have been able to pull off a 700 mile day without any butt soreness at all. It is squishy and wonderfully supportive, like all road-going seats should be... but none ever are...
The peg to bar relationship on this bike is great for sitting and terrible for standing. The bars are set pretty far rearward, with the mounts protruding off the back of the triple clamp, and the pegs are set pretty far forward, centered about an inch in front of the swingarm pivot bolt. While standing, it feels like there is very little leverage to maneuver the bike. This makes it difficult to loft the front end or resist being thrown over the bars. Riding with any level of aggression requires an extremely squatted-in stance that isn’t sustainable for long. However, when sitting, this all just results in a nice, comfortable, neutral posture that is great for cruising.
So, considering everything about the XR150L, what type of riding is this bike actually well suited for? Well, certainly not anything approaching demanding off-road. But, I would say it does make a fun, unique, mini-class adventure-touring bike. I’ve done several long trips on the little thing and it has proven to be very well suited to doing trips, at a no-rush pace of course.
It also clearly makes an excellent commuter or around-town bike because it has such low associated costs. At 10,000 miles, I tallied up what it cost me to run this bike for that distance, and it came out to 9 cents per mile. That was riding it like an absolute mad idiot all the time, too, so it could be even more economical for those riding more carefully.
It’s very highly likely that this bike will last another 10 or 20 thousand miles without blowing anything out at all, but even if I did have to chuck $400 bucks at the top end every 20,000 miles, it would still only be costing about 11 cents per mile over 20,000 miles. This is still a rate that makes me feel happy, and free to enjoy as much riding and travel as I please, while barely having to think about costs at all.
Is it worth the price?
Right now, you’re pretty much stuck with buying one brand new, which means you’ll be very hard pressed to get your hands on one for less than $3500. At that price, I can’t say this bike is definitively worth it...
On the one hand, the price of this bike is back down into the territory of what we were paying for brand new entry-level street legal bikes in the mid-2000’s, and we all know the power of our dollar is less than half what it was back then. Therefore, this is quite a low price for a new bike with a brand name, warranty, and OEM parts support that should be able to run without issue for tens of thousands of miles while costing nearly nothing in cost of running!
On the other hand, the bike does not present performance or usability that I would say is even competitive at all with the other small Japanese-name bikes, past and present, that are in the same ballpark on price.
So, I would say the bike is only really worth it in a couple different scenarios. It could be worth it for someone who specifically wants the super-small, super-economical, insanely-easy-to-maintain little 150 rather than a larger, somewhat-more-involved 250 class bike.
Or, it could be good for someone who just wants the cheapest street-legal thing that can do some fun things in the dirt, with a Japanese brand name, because the XR150L does currently hold that title. After speaking with dealerships on how these bikes are selling, it sounds like people are generally choosing it because it has the lowest price tag, and they can be on their merry way with it by just laying 6 Benji's down on the table and accepting whatever God-awful finance terms the dealership offers them. That's because even the worst of terms on this bike still result in a payment that anyone can afford.
So, overall, even though the XR150L isn’t that great of a bike and probably won’t appeal at all to a huge amount of people, it is neat to see Honda finally serving this option in the US. In a country filled with people crying about ever-rising costs, the release of this model in the US felt like an honest, tough-love answer to those cries and, hopefully, a swinging-back of the pendulum.