First Ride Review: 2017 Honda Rebel 300 and Rebel 500

Honda revamps and restyles the Rebel cruiser.

Press introdution and road test of the 2017 Honda Rebel cruiser
Following a run of more than 30 years with the original Rebel, Honda introduces two new versions, a 300 and 500 built on virtually identical chassis.Photo: Kevin Wing

Honda says: “Cruisers are an extension of your own personal style.” Motorcyclist says: “Better yet, these cruisers don’t sacrifice function over form.”

The debut of the Honda Rebel way back in 1985 created a very big splash, especially considering its very small size. I was a staff editor at Cycle magazine back then, and we were all amused that Honda used this little guy to stick a thumb right in the eye of Harley-Davidson by "borrowing" so many styling cues from the H-D Sportster. More importantly, during its first year in showrooms the original 234cc twin-cylinder bike singlehandedly racked up sales of more than 20,000 units—a figure topping annual sales of all models combined achieved by some other manufacturers. No joke.

2017 Honda Rebel 300 action
The new Rebel 300 specs out a bit larger than the old 250 in all dimensions, but it also brings welcomed upgrades in every department.Photo: Kevin Wing

Clearly, a lot of people found a lot to like about the little Rebel. Over the next three decades, total sales of the Rebel 250 surpassed 150,000 units, a figure that clearly identifies an important and enduring market segment. But come on—30 years without even a major facelift? Obviously, it was time for Honda to step things up.

2017 Honda Rebel 500 action
Honda pulled off a slick trick by also shoehorning a 500-class engine into the same Rebel chassis.Photo: Kevin Wing

At long last, 2017 brings a new Rebel, built along the lines of classic "bobber" bikes. Actually, make that two new Rebels, a 300 and 500 built on virtually identical chassis. This is new-think for Honda—never before have two completely different engines been shoehorned into the same package. It's commonplace in the auto industry—the Ford Mustang, for example, can be had with four-, six- or eight-cylinder engines. Such feats can be very tricky for motorcycles, yet Honda has done a masterful job of pulling it off.

2017 Honda Rebel 500 in Venice, CA
With so many shared parts, the dual head pipes and twin chromed “eyeballs” on the DOHC cylinder head identify the Rebel 500.Photo: Kevin Wing
2017 Honda Rebel 300 with rider
The rider triangle is very comfortable and both Rebels feel like full-sized bikes from the saddle.Photo: Kevin Wing

Focus on chassis specs, and all key numbers run identical between the 300 and 500. Wheelbase is 58.7 inches (up from 57.1 inches with the 250 Rebel); a seat height of 27.2 inches plus an especially slim seat/tank junction make for an easy reach to the ground. Both Rebels share identical suspension components: the beefy looking 41mm fork with 4.7 inches of travel, and rear twin shocks dishing up 3.7 inches feature identical spring and damping rates. Only the engine-mounting lugs differ in the trellis-style frame, and both use three solid-type mounting points. Both also share front and rear disc brakes, and fat 16-inch tires front and rear. As expected, curb weight increases with the 500, which Honda says scales in at a modest 408 pounds, compared to the svelte 300 at only 364 pounds (again, claimed)—add six pounds to either bike if you select ABS.

WHAT'S IT LIKE TO RIDE?
Fine, fine, you say; but how do they actually work in the real world? Short answer: really well. They both feel like full-sized bikes with rider triangles closer to standard bikes rather than exaggerated cruiser layouts. The pegs sit only a pinch forward, the 1-inch tubular handlebar positions the rider's arms in a very neutral, natural position. The seat is nicely shaped, although padding is kinda thin (to reduce seat height).

2017 Honda Rebel seat
The thinly padded seat looks stylish and reduces the rider’s reach to the ground, albeit at a cost in comfort.Photo: Kevin Wing

Steering traits are nicely responsive and linear in progression, light in action, with none of the front-end floppiness that plague cruisers saddled with a huge long fork and loads of steering rake. So riding at a brisk pace on winding mountain roads becomes lots of fun; both bikes offer very intuitive handling, and it’s easy to pick the bike up mid-corner to change lines as needed. These bikes feel flickable in the canyons, yet reassuringly stable in faster sweepers and at higher speeds. With only a single 296mm disc up front you don’t get sportbike-level stopping power, but the brake is plenty strong for the intended use, and nicely progressive with good feel. Also, ground clearance is quite good on both sides.

2017 Rebel 500 action
Agile handling and generous ground clearance give both Rebels a fun and responsive feel.Photo: Kevin Wing
2017 Honda Rebel rear suspension
Yeah, I’m a big load, but even lighter riders felt that the shocks could benefit from additional rebound damping.Photo: Kevin Wing

With so many good things going for the Rebel, suspension action is a bit of a letdown. Granted, these bikes are built to hit a given price point, but I’d like to see more rebound damping in the rear shocks. I’m no featherweight, at nearly 240 pounds, but lighter riders in our group also judged the rear suspension lacking a bit of control in the damping department.

RIDING THE REBEL 300
With the 300 engine, Honda followed the natural path by adapting the basic 286cc liquid-cooled single already in use in the CBR300R and CB300F. This is a dual-overhead-cam four-valve powerplant and is well proven (and typically produces about 28hp at the rear wheel), although the Rebel incorporates different mapping for fuel injection and ignition to strengthen torque output. A gear-driven counterbalancer shaft helps moderate engine vibration, and the gearbox offers six well-spaced speeds in contrast to the older Rebel's five-cog box.

2017 Rebel 300 engine
The 286cc single-cylinder engine offers a broad power spread and easy-to-use characteristics well suited to new riders.Photo: Kevin Wing

A light clutch pull and broad spread of power lets the Rebel get off from a standing start with ease, which benefits newbie riders. If you really rev it up there’s pretty good acceleration off the line; lacking a tachometer, just pin it and shift when the engine hits the rev limiter. More experienced riders won’t be overly impressed, but in real-world street conditions this little bike launches significantly quicker off the line than the vast majority of four-wheel vehicles on the road. For highway use the Rebel 300 can maintain cruising speeds around 70 mph if the road is flat; up one long, steady grade my heavy load slowed things down to 65 mph max. On the downhill side I hit 80 mph easily, with no drama.

Test riding the 2017 Honda Rebel 300
Long rides at freeway speeds reveal that the 300 is a little buzzy, as would be expected from a single. Just call it character…Photo: Kevin Wing
2017 Honda Rebel 500 engine
The $1,600 jump in price from the 300 to the Rebel 500 pays off handsomely with a lot more engine performance and overall versatility.Photo: Kevin Wing

As expected, higher speeds with this single-cylinder generates an inescapable buzz through the handlebar and seat from about 45 mph upward in 6th gear. You could say it adds character, or that it lends a distinct mechanical connection between rider and machine as the engine chuffs along. But longer rides especially at higher speeds can become tiring—my butt was sore after a long day in the saddle. When LA traffic slowed freeway flow, the little Rebel split lanes effortlessly, its light weight and nimble handling paying big dividends. However, since there’s not tons of roll-on power available, you need to build extra lead time into passing moves. No surprise there.

RIDING THE REBEL 500
Jumping from the 300 to the Rebel 500 reveals big steps up in both muscle and smoothness. It's easy to launch from a standing start, and power builds nicely as the engine revs freely and willingly. As with the 300, EFI fuel mapping is spot-on, which goes a long way in feeling comfortable on the bike. The 500 pulls well on twisty mountain roads—you don't need to carry as much speed through a corner as the 300 demands to maintain a brisk pace because there's more oomph available. Like the 300, a gear-driven counterbalancer shaft reduces engine vibration, and this 471cc liquid-cooled parallel-twin engine is likewise derived from siblings in the Honda lineup, the CBR500R, CB500F and CB500X. (The last CB500 engine we had on the dyno put out about 44 horsepower, just for reference.) However, Honda used new camshafts and EFI/ignition mapping in the Rebel 500 for a broader, more accessible spread of power. So the 500 works well for entry riders, and can also easily serve for all-around street duty including longer trips.

2017 Honda Rebel dash and gauge
The digital LCD meter can be difficult to read in contrasting daylight conditions.Photo: Kevin Wing

With these new-generation Rebels, Honda offers riders two very viable options. At $4,399, the 300 attracts riders with its eminently affordable price and sufficient performance for around-town rides, commutes and weekend journeys. It’s a fun bike, one that’s easy to live with. A $1,600 jump to the $5,999 Rebel 500 adds a significant boost in performance and versatility; strap on some soft saddlebags and head out for the next state over if you like.

A new day dawns for Honda’s Rebel, and we wouldn’t be surprised one bit of this new duo enjoys year and years of popularity, just like the original.

Yellow Honda Rebel
Don’t get stuck on the urban warrior theme; both Rebels can serve well for all-around use, with the 500 in particular offering the opportunity to go long.Photo: Kevin Wing

TECH SPEC

EVOLUTION
Honda’s 30-year-old Rebel finally gets a revamp that includes two new water-cooled engines and totally updated styling.
TECH
PRICE $4,399 ($5,999)
ENGINE 286cc liquid-cooled single (471cc liquid-cooled single)
TRANSMISSION/FINAL DRIVE 6-speed/chain
CLAIMED HORSEPOWER N/A
CLAIMED TORQUE N/A
FRAME Tubular-steel semi-double cradle
FRONT SUSPENSION Showa 41mm fork; 4.8 in. travel
REAR SUSPENSION Showa shocks adjustable for spring preload; 3.8 in. travel
FRONT BRAKE Nissin two-piston caliper, 296mm disc
REAR BRAKE Nissin one-piston caliper, 239mm disc
RAKE/TRAIL 28.0°/4.3 in.
WHEELBASE 58.7 in.
SEAT HEIGHT 27.3 in.
FUEL CAPACITY 3.0 gal.
CLAIMED WEIGHT 364 (408) lb. wet
AVAILABLE Now
CONTACT powersports.honda.com
VERDICT
New style, more power, and more refinement should keep the Rebel lineup revving for years to come.