Kawasaki KLR650

Text: Chris Myers • Photography: Kevin Wing

Finding interesting, new roads on the map is one of life's great treasure hunts. Poring over the topos, looking for previously unnoticed grey lines rife with squiggles is a quest that pays touring dividends time and again. But even the best research can run afoul of the facts. How many times have you ended up miles into your great new twisty discovery and, bang, the dreaded "Pavement Ends" sign appears?

Dual sport enthusiasts will be the first to tell you that Pavement Ends is another way of saying Adventure Begins. And for the last 20 years, Kawasaki's KLR650 has been the embodiment of the traits that make the street-or-trail option so appealing. When first released in 1987, the KLR became an immediate hit among those who champion getting way way off the beaten path. Despite the fact that the initial design has changed little since then, sales still remain brisk. According to Kawasaki, the KLR actually outsells its number two and three rivals (Suzuki's DR-Z400S and DR650SE) combined. Another appealing attribute is the economical entry fee. As of 2007, a brand-new model would only set you back $ 5,199. And while it could be strongly argued that the KLR ain't broke, there are undoubtedly a few things that, after two decades, could use some fixing. With the adventure touring market exploding in growth and predicted to continue its upward trend for the next decade, Kawasaki figured the time was right to go ahead and spruce things up. But for those KLR purists cringing at the thought of even slightly altering their iconic ride, worry not. The body has received some necessary tweaks, but the soul of the original has remained remarkably intact.

Single Living

Perhaps the most endearing quality of the KLR over the years has been its near bulletproof 651cc, DOHC, four-valve single. The engine itself remains the same, even maintaining the trusty Keihin CV carburetor, but there have been a few changes to clean up the power delivery. A new digital ignition system and throttle position sensor replaces the analog CDI, greatly improving throttle response. Also, revised cam-timing smoothes out high rpm performance. A redesigned cylinder head featuring new intake porting serves to add a crisper low-end response. Engine cooling has also been improved thanks to a lightweight, automatic fan that blows across new, thinner radiators that are a claimed 20 percent more efficient. Another nice addition is a more powerful 17-amp alternator (up from 14.5 amps). This extra juice powers a brighter headlight and leaves extra current for additional electronic accessories.

No matter the road, this big thumper dishes out solid, usable power that comes on so smoothly I often found myself doing a double take at some rather hooligan-like speedo readouts. Unless, the roads are really long and straight, the KLR is capable of running with nearly anything.

Down in the gearbox, things are equally impressive. The five, well-spaced cogs are perfectly suited for urban commando work and dicing the dirt roads. Even out on the slab, the posted speed limit is achieved with plenty left in the bag. And because things can get dropped in the off-road world, the folding tip on the shifter is another nice touch.

It's Not All Dirt, All the Time

Like the engine, the KLR's frame remains unchanged. The round section, high tensile steel, semi-double cradle frame showed no major shortcomings on either pavement or loose surfaces. Give it the proper respect and you'll be rewarded with rock-solid handling and a surprisingly nimble disposition.

Where things have changed is in the suspension department. A larger 41mm front fork, up from 38mm last year, has been recalibrated for less static sag, reducing the stroke from 9.1 to 7.9 inches. Because of this forward change, the redesigned rear UNI-TRAK®, featuring a shock that's both preload and rebound adjustable, gets a similar treatment. Its travel is reduced from 8.1 to 7.3 inches. The suspension's usable range is unaffected due to this reduction in static sag; and with less play in the legs, on-road handling and stability has been greatly increased, especially when going hard in the corners. The new D-section swingarm contributes to this feeling of being planted more securely as well. Once off-road though, it's still important to remember what you're riding. Over seven inches of travel is impressive, but at 386 pounds dry, the KLR is still a little too heavy for serious dirt slinging. When the going gets gnarly, go ahead and slow down - enjoy the scenery. In the twists, the KLR has the capacity to more than hold its own, but if you try to keep pace with the serious off-road jocks, things could go awry quickly.

One of the major complaints about previous KLRs concerns the brakes, or lack thereof. That grievance has been addressed with single-petal discs, front and rear, with twin-piston calipers squeezing both. Up front, the disc diameter measures 280mm compared to the 260mm unit of previous years. The feel is progressive and quite strong considering the smaller contact patch you get from a 21-inch front wheel shod with universal tread tires. For comparison, Kawasaki brought several 2007 models along for the ride. The difference in braking between the two is night and day. Without a doubt, the new binders are another great improvement.

Country Roads Take Me Home

Previous iterations of the KLR650 have been fine dual-purpose machines that double nicely as adventure touring mounts. For 2008, the pendulum has swung toward the adventure-touring end of the spectrum. The more dirty-minded riders may not look too kindly on the redesigned front fairing, but those who log a lot of on-road miles will embrace it wholeheartedly. The wind protection provided is impressive for a dual-sport bike, or for a street-only model for that matter. My only reservation about it concerns breakage potential. Things do get dropped quite often in the dirt world.

The old KLR seat was frequently criticized too. Too soft for long distances owners said. The engineers paid heed and constructed a new saddle from firmer urethane foam that's much less susceptible to breaking down during long rides. After two days and several hundred miles, I was ready to keep on riding.

Other great touches that should have adventure riders taking a long hard look include a larger rear rack that measures three and a half inches longer and five inches wider while still maintaining the slick, integrated well for the toolkit. Repositioned grab bars also facilitate easier mounting of saddlebags, and Kawasaki still offers a full complement of optional soft luggage, along with a taller windshield, gel seat, and soon, rumor has it, heated hand-grips and a center stand.

The newly redesigned KLR650 could be the best do-it-all machine out there. Sure, it doesn't have the power and high speed of its larger displacement adventure-touring competition, but it also doesn't carry all the extra weight either. That's something to keep in mind for any off-road situations. And unless you plan on spending lots of time at or near triple digits, the big single with its double engine balancer, will get you down the long road in comfort and with minimal fatigue. In all, this is one fine motorcycle that may spend another 20 years keeping its owners racking up the miles and showing their sometimes mud-spattered pearly-whites. But perhaps the most impressive aspect of all the improvements made to the KLR650 is the fact that a brand-new 2008 model will only set you back $ 5,349. Yep, that's just $ 150 more than last year.

Bravo, Kawasaki.