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I’m a newbie to the world of motorcycles, and a few months back American Honda was kind enough to set me up with a 2018 Honda Rebel 300 ABS, the latest generation of its legendary beginner-friendly model. Although my initial story pitch involved an article on the company’s incredible bandwidth—Honda makes everything from lawnmowers to jets, so it’s basically a successful Mitsubishi—my motorcycle green-ness got the better of me. Frankly, I was blown away by how different the typical commute experience was on two wheels versus four. For automotive enthusiasts who’re curious about how the other half lives, here’s what I learned on that little Rebel.
But first, what’s a Honda Rebel?
If you’re anything like me and have only half paid attention to motorcycles the past 10 years, the Honda Rebel may very well be unfamiliar to you. In short, the Honda Rebel is to motorcycles what the Honda Civic is to cars: an affordable, well-engineered entry-level model that feels anything but. In 2018, after a 32-year production run, Honda’s first-gen ersatz Harley-Davidson was replaced by the second-gen model I tested. The new Rebel is stylish, small, and approachable for riders of all sizes. Two powerplants are available: a 300cc (0.3-liter) single-cylinder model in the Rebel 300, or a 500cc (0.5-liter) I-2 model in the Rebel 500 (motorcycle manufacturers don’t typically publish horsepower or torque figures but according to the internet, the Rebel 300 makes about 27 hp and the Rebel 500 about 40 hp). Both are paired to a six-speed gearbox and available with antilock brakes, which is a newer technology for motorcycles. Price as tested for my Rebel 300 ABS model was $4,749 (2017 and 2018 Rebel 300s are shown in this review).
One of the first things I learned when I started at MotorTrend almost a decade ago was how much fun underpowered cars are. The “ah-ha!” moment came behind the wheel of the MT Garage’s old 2011 Mazda2 hatchback. Naïve to the fact that I didn’t get first dibs on cars in my first couple months (go figure), I made plans to explore some of L.A.’s canyon roads in our 2011 Cadillac CTS-V wagon long-termer. Suffice it to say, I wound up in the Mazda2 but decided to go exploring anyway. I’m glad I did. With all of 100 hp and 98 lb-ft of torque on tap, running that featherweight Mazda up and down the canyons, snicking through its five-speed gearbox was more fun than you could possibly imagine. Driving a slow car at its limit at sane speeds is both incredibly liberating and educational, teaching me how to keep my momentum up and become better in tune with the quirks of that particular car.
The Rebel 300 is a lot like that. It may not be powerful by motorcycle standards, but the little engine between your legs is a happy revver and hard worker. Even as a new rider, it didn’t me take long to get comfortable working the engine to its rev-limiter (though, frustratingly, there’s no tach, so you have to shift by ear), working through gears and wringing the thumper for all its worth.
Perhaps the least surprising thing I noticed was how little attention cars paid to me when I was on the Rebel. At least once daily a car got too close for comfort or merged into my lane. As a matter of habit, I put my head on a swivel, and looked far ahead at cars ahead of me. But I still appreciated the Honda’s upright seating position and responsive handling.
In California, lane splitting and lane filtering—basically either riding between lanes of traffic while moving (splitting), or between stopped traffic at a red light to jump the line (filtering)—is legal. Although it’s nerve-wracking at first, it is the best. I’ve watched enviously for years as motorcyclists zipped past me while I was stuck in traffic in test cars, trucks, and SUVs. Now I was doing the zipping. The Rebel’s small size, narrow handlebars, and light weight really helped lower the learning curve of splitting and filtering. While lane splitting made me pretty nervous most of the time, filtering was a revelation. Anecdotally, it shortened my 30-45-minute commute, depending on the day, by about 10 minutes on average. That bonus 100 minutes a week is significant when it means more time at home with loved ones.
It’s really hot. Even in the midst of a cool California January, I frequently found myself sweating up a storm. The temperature wasn’t so bad when I was on the move, since my jacket and helmet are vented, but when stopped at a light, with the hot engine beneath me and the hot sun beating down on me, things got sweaty fast. Layers, it turns out, are super important.