2008 Kawasaki KLR 650

Text: Ken Freund • Photography: Scott Hirko

Old soldiers may never die, but sometimes they do get a makeover! Kawasaki's new KLR 650, with a host of changes, should now appeal to a wider range of buyers, from dyed-in-the-wool dirt riders to sport-touring aficionados.

Kawasaki's first-generation KLR 650 had one of the longest runs of any motorcycle model, spanning the period of 1986 through 2007. Although minor updates were made during this time, after 21 years it was certainly due for a change. With its KLR now old enough to graduate from college, Kawi finally stepped up with more than 50 modifications to the 2008 version. Sporting a new frame-mounted fairing with dual headlights, the KLR goes from looking like a conventional dirt bike to an adventure-oriented machine. Underneath, some of the changes are less obvious, but even more significant.

Drivetrain

The KLR's basic liquid-cooled 651cc, single-cylinder thumper engine - proven over millions of miles - soldiers on. However, Kawi's engineers redesigned the four-valve cylinder head with a new combustion chamber design, improved intake porting, and juiced it with a tad more compression for more zip. Revised cam timing and ignition mapping further boost performance.

Engine changes were designed to provide both more low-end torque and improved top-end power - two things that are usually mutually exclusive unless you increase displacement - but somehow the engineers seem to have pulled it off on this model. Warm or cold, starting is immediate, drivability is fine, throttle response feels smooth and linear, and the bike feels more powerful.

The sweet part of the powerband lies between about 2,000 and 6,000 revs, and redline hits at 7,500 rpm. Kawasaki doesn't offer horsepower figures, but rated torque is 36.9 ft-lbs at 5,500 rpm, and we've heard the figure of 45 crankshaft hp bandied about. Power is sufficient to zoom ahead of auto traffic and maintain speed on steep grades, but it's nowhere near the output of a twin such as the V-Strom 650. On the road, the counterbalanced motor is surprisingly smooth for a single, allowing it to cruise comfortably up to about 80 mph indicated (72 mph according to our GPS). Above that the vibrations increase noticeably, felt mostly through the tank and pegs, but cruising that fast is asking a lot of a single-cylinder bike.

Tightening smog rules led to the introduction of a catalyst in the exhaust, but a single 40mm Keihin carburetor with manual choke still controls the fuel mix. It may seem dated, but if you're riding in the hinterlands of Baja or Tierra del Fuego, would you rather have a simple carb, or fancy fuel injection?

Fuel mileage varied from a low of 41 mpg to a high of 52, with an average of 48.1. The big thumper runs fine on regular 87-octane gas, which saves money and makes it easier to find usable fuel in remote areas. Fuel capacity is a hefty 6.1 gallons, and with an average 48.1 mpg, it could last 293 miles before you're walking.

Maximum charging output was raised from 14.5 to 17 amps, which leaves more juice for accessories such as heated grips or riding apparel. Thinner piston rings were added to reduce friction and cut oil consumption, and although owners of some early production models complained of high oil use, our test bike was tighter than a Scotsman's wallet.

A cable-actuated multi-plate wet clutch connects the engine to the five-speed gearbox. Clutch lever effort is low and engagement smooth, yet solid. Neutral is easy to find and shifting is a breeze. However, during the update, adding a six-cog tranny would have been a nice change, with a slightly lower first ratio for rough going and a taller sixth gear for the highway.

The new, lighter radiator has greater surface area and significantly increased cooling efficiency, working in conjunction with a thermostatically controlled electric fan. This came into its own during testing when, despite some high temperatures and riding the bike like a maniac, the temp gauge never passed beyond the midway point.

Chassis

At 432 pounds wet, the new KLR is 22 pounds plumper than the previous version, but it's still 100 pounds less than some of the current crop of adventure-touring machines. The KLR's double-cradle steel-tube frame and steering geometry are essentially unchanged, but the antiquated, box-section steel swingarm is replaced by an extruded-aluminum unit.

Heavier spokes, up from 3.5mm to 4mm, make the wheels less flexy and improve steering feedback. Fork tubes are upgraded from 38mm to 41mm, which further adds rigidity to the front end, while fork travel is reduced from 9.1 to 7.9 inches.

Stiffer springs and damping, front and rear, improve on-road performance, and there's less fork dive when braking, at the cost of ground clearance and off-road prowess. The single rear shock is adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping, while a redesigned rear UNI-TRAK linkage reduces static sag and rear-wheel travel from 8.1 to 7.3 inches.

Despite the changes, the KLR has about twice as much suspension travel as most street bikes, delivering a plush, compliant and well-damped ride. It still tackles potholes and rough pavement like they weren't there, but thanks to its slightly lower center of gravity and firmer suspension, you can hustle down a canyon road like never before. Steering is light and quick, and visions of a KLR super-motard version come to mind.

Standard fitment Dunlop K750 dual-purpose tires, which have been around a long time, are a limiting factor. They're a compromise on either dirt or pavement and while they grip tarmac well enough to scrape footpegs in a tight corner, during hard braking they do give up sooner than street tires, whereas on dirt they feel squirrelly. But keep the speed down and they should get you through most reasonable conditions.

Another gripe is the battery. It's an old-fashioned style that needs water regularly. However, checking it requires three different tools, seat unbolting and a lot of hassle to get to it. What were they thinking?

Brakes

For 2008, the KLR 650 also gained stopping power, with a new dual-piston front caliper and 280mm petal-style front brake rotor similar to those used on the Ninja sportbikes. You can now stop with two fingers, instead of having to frantically downshift to help get the previous model stopped. The rear brake lost the folding pedal and gained a new caliper with more bite, but we found it grabby and difficult to modulate.

Ergonomics

While the wide dirt-bike style handlebar and tall seat put the rider in a comfortable, upright stance, many riders complained about the mushy old saddle. As a result, the new one has firmer urethane padding which helps extend riding time.

Kawi's specs show the same 35-inch seat height as the prior model, but the suspension has been dropped about an inch, and our seat-height measurement is a tick over 34 inches. Still, inseam-challenged riders will find this a tall bike and may opt for a custom saddle - or even another machine altogether.

There is a windscreen, albeit a short one, but combined with the front fairing it manages to block a good portion of the windblast, and a taller windscreen is offered as an accessory. Another welcome complement, the handguards, which protect your knuckles in the brush, keep wind off hands, and allow use of thinner gloves when it's cold.

Conventional switchgear, making it easy to transition from other bikes, and wider levers, are easier on the hands. Big round lollipop mirrors reach out to the sides, allowing a wide view aft that seldom blurs from vibration.

The new analog triple instrument pod with a large tach, speedo and temperature gauge is easy to read day or night, but a fuel gauge and digital clock should have been included. A larger luggage rack and narrower tail section simplify mounting luggage, and passengers have a good handhold. Pillion riders should find this bike quite spacious and comfortable, with good footpeg placement.

Final Thoughts

Friends and acquaintances who know I test motorcycles often ask me which motorcycle is the best. There certainly isn't one perfect bike for every purpose, but if you can only have one bike, and you like to ride both dirt roads and highways, the big KLR is about as close as you can get to the best compromise for all-around riding and adventure touring - especially for its price.

You can blaze down the highway all day long at any posted speed, it's one of the few bikes that can actually take you to work and gobble up the miles on the Interstate, and yet it is still at home on fire roads or logging trails. Thumpers like this are cheaper to register and insure, and their limited power tends to keep your license free of points. And with a 2009 price of $ 5,599, the new KLR 650 may be the motorcycle bargain of the year.

2009 KLR 650
Text: Dr. Gregory W. Frazier

Though still called a KLR 650, the 2008 model, a major makeover of the 2007 version, was a very different and far superior KLR 650 than the one Kawasaki had been knocking out for over 20 years. Consumer feedback generated some of the modifications, and others reflected Kawasaki's response to after-market trends in customer upgrades (stock KLRs changed to fit personal preferences), resulting in the company coming up with other items, including a more comfortable seat, better wind protection, higher electrical output and improved suspension.

To address concerns about excessive oil consumption at sustained higher speeds on some 2008 models, Kawasaki incorporated one major engine change in the 2009 model, a different oil ring. New colors and graphics were introduced too, and the gray frame became black.

The price increased slightly to $ 5,599. But for all the upgrades made from 2007 to 2008, followed by the minor changes made in 2009, this new price still reflects a big bang for the buck in this market segment. Considering the steadily rising costs of components and the huge R & D investment required to bring the new KLR to the American market, one is hard-pressed to find a better value in the adventure touring or dual-sport sector.

The KLR 650 was initially envisioned as a tri-sport motorcycle: on road, off-road and touring. The optional Kawasaki "Adventure Touring Package" reflects that conception with the small tank and handlebar bags, expandable tail bag and zippered side bags. I logged over 10,000 miles with a set on my 2008 KLR, waiting to complain about something. When it came time to outfit the 2009 KLR, with no complaints forthcoming, I swapped everything over to the 2009 KLR. The entire package comes off in minutes, easily converting the motorcycle from a tourer to an off-roader. In between single tracks or superslabs the lightweight soft accessories work fine on gravel roads and fire trails.

The 2009 KLR easily holds 75 mph on the interstates and, without downshifting, has a few more mph in reserve for passing. Off road, first gear does the job in dirt or gravel. And there is no sign of oil consumption after 1,200 miles at highway speeds, including 100 miles of grunt work in deep sand and bush.

The one criticism I can offer is that the new 2009 KLR 650 is too distracting, making it too easy to think about spending a day doing jeep trails or loading it up for a longer ride rather than working. If someone were to suggest a ride around the world, it wouldn't take much more than the money I'd need for life on the road to find me circling the globe on the 2009 KLR.