2006 KLR 650 - Makeover Madness

Text: James T. Parks • Photography: James T. Parks

I've never owned a car or motorcycle that didn't prompt me to "make it better" by modifying the original machine with a few - OK, many - aftermarket parts. Annoying as it sometimes is to others, it cannot be helped. This "I can't leave things well enough alone" compulsion probably took up residence in my psyche long before I could speak, when my well-meaning father leaned over the crib and placed that first wrench in my grasping hands.

A couple of years ago, when off-pavement riding beckoned, I bought a brand new 2006 Kawasaki KLR 650 dual-sport motorcycle. Its relatively low initial purchase price, proven reliability, ready availability of replacement parts, and the huge aftermarket of accessories and modification parts made this bike irresistible to me and my creative impulses.

Issues and Enhancements

Although the KLR has many strong points, I was elated to discover that the bike's little-changed, 20-year old design also has a number of flaws that can be rectified with aftermarket parts. These include a weak balancer idle lever and spring (also known as the famous "doohickey") susceptible to breaking and destroying other engine parts, a too-soft suspension, inadequate brakes on the street, a weak headlight beam for street riding, slippery rubber foot pegs for stream crossings, blurred imagery in the rear view mirror caused by vibration, a plastic skid plate, several weak points in the frame, a gear shift lever and rear brake lever bracket that can break too easily in crashes, plastic hand guards that won't tolerate much abuse, wind-buffeting issues, and an electrical system that generates insufficient juice for powering desirable accessories.

Many dual-sport riders, probably most, will ride their bikes almost exclusively on pavement. Consequently, most manufacturers engineer them accordingly to keep the price down and sales up. In my case, though, I'm wondering why I should stop after upgrades of the known weaknesses. "Why not go all the way and make my KLR better and better and better?" I asked my mechanistic id. I just know I'm capable of creating the best adventure-touring KLR that the aftermarket will allow! And so, in "that way madness lies." I should have stopped right then and sought professional help, but I didn't.

Stop Me Before I Cyber Shop Again

Soon after I had logged 500 miles on my new KLR, I took the bike in for its first and last dealer service. After that, the serious Internet shopping began in earnest. Late into the evening I would scan the KLR blogs and aftermarket sites in search of every possible modification available. So as not to alarm my better half, I would intercept the FedEx deliveries and store them in a seldom-entered bedroom in the basement. You know, just keeping everything organized and in one place.

Of course, this type of clandestine activity can only go on for so long before being found out. "Didn't you just buy a brand new bike?" my wife said. "What are you going to do to with all of this stuff?"

Hesitantly, as innocently as possible, I replied, "I… I'm just going to make it better - and safer too," which provoked that very familiar "you're nuts" look from her.

To give you an idea of my over-the-top upgrade strategy, consider how the brakes were upgraded. To achieve better stopping power on the street, riders on the KLR forums suggested installing a steel-braided brake line to the front brake caliper or buying the larger rotor and caliper adapter kit available in the aftermarket. Well, I did both of those upgrades, while also adding a steel-braided cable to the rear brake, exchanging all of the new OEM brake pads for better ones in the aftermarket, and installing an aftermarket billet rear-brake foot lever bracket.

But where I went off the deep end, and the "ka-ching" really started adding up, was with the panniers and top box. I reasoned that no self-respecting adventure bike could be complete without aluminum panniers, and I located the perfect ones on the Internet. The German-made Hepco & Becker panniers, matching top box, and custom liners are of first-rate quality - and, naturally, I also went for the extra cost option of ordering them in black.

In one of my saner moments, though, I decided not to do any substantial engine modifications to increase its horsepower. Everything I read on the Internet suggested that those who had tried to do so wound up compromising the engine's reliability. I probably gained a little horsepower, however, by installing an aftermarket exhaust system and re-jetting the carburetor. The main goals of this modification, though, were to reduce weight and improve the KLR exhaust note, which in stock form sounds like a riding lawn mower, instead of the monstrous adventure bike pictured in my mind.

The Winter of My 'Content'

Unlike the characters in John Steinbeck's novel The Winter of Our Discontent, I was exceptionally content the following winter, spending hours on end each day in my heated garage making the KLR better with my extensive collection of tools and aftermarket upgrades.

One of the least costly and most useful modifications I made was constructing a waterproof tool carrier out of PVC pipe. My expanded KLR tool kit includes selected items from the OEM kit plus other tools that might be needed for repairs on the road. I determined the essential items for the tool kit by actually using them to work on the bike. The custom fabric tool kit rolls up and slides inside the PVC pipe, along with a disc lock, which is then sealed with a screw-on cap. By attaching the PVC pipe horizontally to the upper portion of the aluminum skid plate, out of harm's way, this modification also lowered the KLR's center of gravity.

Although I did most of the modifications myself, anything I felt uncomfortable about was referred to a trusted local mechanic; and the long hours I personally invested helped to abate the skyrocketing cost of the makeover.

What Worked Well and What Didn't

Most of the modifications did indeed make the KLR a better performing, more reliable dual-sport motorcycle. In my opinion, the most important enhancements include the improved "doohickey," upgraded levers, brackets, nuts, bolts, foot pegs, and brakes, the skid plate and various other crash guards, center stand, and the suspension components.

The lockable panniers and top box are very nice to have on tour, but I usually take them off whenever I'm going out for a day of off-pavement riding. Because they also added considerable weight and significant cost to the KLR makeover, I recommend pursuing lighter, less expensive strap-on options for improving the bike's carrying capacity. As mentioned in the accompanying article about my Kansas tour, weight is the enemy in off-pavement travel, particularly when surface conditions involve mud.

Do I Recommend Others Doing This?

  • There are several questions that need to be answered before embarking on an extreme KLR makeover:
  • How many of the known KLR issues does the improved 2008 model solve?
  • How will the bike be used?
  • How much of the work can be done by the owner versus hiring another to do it?
  • What is the cost benefit?
  • Does a different motorcycle fit the rider's needs better?

On the first question, it's claimed that a number of the previous KLR model's issues have been resolved in the new 2008 model, but only time will tell how well they have been addressed. Answering the next three questions depends on each person's individual circumstances and preferences. As to the fourth question, when I finally added up the cost of all of the modifications, I found that they had essentially doubled the purchase price of the KLR. When the cost of the panniers and top box are excluded, however, the modifications totaled around $ 3,500, including labor.
To answer the fifth and final question, one must compare the total cost (purchase price plus the cost of essential improvements) to the price of other adventure bikes already engineered to meet his or her requirements. For me, though, the fun of doing the modifications and the pride I have in the finished product made my KLR extreme makeover eminently worthwhile - but, then again, my wife is happy to offer a distinctly different opinion on the matter.

KLR Aftermarked Suppliers & Parts Installed

Dual Start
(800) 466-7433

  • KLR Custom Tank Bag
  • (No longer available)
  • Billet Brake Bracket
  • Aluminum Skid Plate
  • LED Tail Light
  • Oil Filler Cap & Wrench
  • 16 Tooth Drive Sprocket
  • Sub-frame Upgrade Kit
  • Radiator Shroud Nut Kit
  • Motor Mount Nut Upgrade
  • KLR Clymer Manual
  • Progressive Fork Springs
  • Fork Boots
  • Gel Seat
  • Fork Brace
  • Radiator Guard
  • Upgraded Shift Lever
  • Sidestand "Bigfoot"
  • Magnetic Oil Drain Plug

K&S Engineering
(888) 297-6686

  • Progressive Rear Shock
  • "Doohickey" Upgrade
  • Steel-braided Brake Lines
  • K&N Air Filter
  • 1" Handlebar Risers
  • Rear Master Cylinder Guard
  • Metal Foot Pegs
  • Clock & Gauges for Dashboard
  • 400 Watt Stator
  • Galfer Brake Pads
  • Oversized Front Brake Rotor
  • Choke/Mirror Relocation Kit
  • Maier Handguards

Whitehorse Gear
(800) 531-1133

  • Mirror Vibration Insulators
  • Headlight Guard
  • Aluminum Dashboard
  • Expanded Tool Pouch
  • Center Stand

Twisted Throttle, LTD
(401) 284-4200

  • Hepco & Becker Panniers,
  • Topbox & Liners
  • Touring Windscreen

Sport Tour, LTD
(866) 761-0936

  • Supertrapp Exhaust System
  • Jet Kit

(800) 567-8346

  • Auxiliary Fork Lights