Kawasaki KLR650 parties like it’s 1989
The KLR650 proves they really do make ’em like they used to, says
They evidently don’t make motorcycles like they used to, but it appears that no-one told Kawasaki. For the lightly-revised KLR650 has been with us since the mid-1980s, a period long enough to make it the tuatara of the adventure bike sector.
Where bikes have mostly become expensive and sophisticated, sprouting all manner of gizmos and riding aids, the venerable KLR pares everything back to simple and affordable again.
You don’t get traction control, riding modes, ABS, a ride-by-wire throttle or even fuel injection with this throwback. What you do get is a rugged, mildly-competent bigbore single that only costs $8990. You could buy a really nice car and a new KLR650 for the $35,490 that BMWasks for one of its moreiconic R1200GS Adventures.
The simplicity of Kawasaki’s big single also has its place. You can read all about the arduous travels of third-world adventurers on ADVrider.com, and when you do it’s a surprise to find that a quiet majority of these motogypsies are KLR-mounted. It is also the biggest-selling multisurface bike in the US, and is popular with military forces the world over, although bullet-proof is presumably a term that should only be applied to its legendary reliability. Some have even adapted it to run on diesel and/or helicopter fuel.
The worth of the KLR is something the back-packing motohippies and camo-clad special forces agree upon. For just about anyone can fix one with a few tools, zip-ties, and a little mechanical nous. There’s no need for engine diagnostics, so the rudimentary mechanics of nations like Peru and Pakistan can quickly come to grips with the KLR, resulting in little delay to that three-month trans-continental adventure. Delta Force can crash their brains out while in enemy territory and know that the bike will either keep going after they’ve kicked the bent fork legs straight, or be readily fixed with a little spanner work.
Such is the rugged nature of the test bike, I suspect it doesn’t really matter to the mission du noir if the parachutes don’t open after a KLR650 gets thrown out the rear door of a C-130 Hercules.
The KLR650 first drew breath as one of the first liquid-cooled four-stroke trail bikes, competing with air-cooled big-bores like the Honda XL600R and Yamaha XT600. In 1990, Kawasaki tried a little experiment in the light of the popularity of the first GS model fromBMWand the big-tanked Yamaha Tenere. It fitted a more comfortable seat, a huge 24-litre tank, and attached a framemounted fairing to the KLR and created the Tengai variant, the brand’s first adventure-touring model. This really widened the horizons of KLR650 riders, which is fitting because Tengai means "the end of the sky" in Japanese.
The Tengai also provided the blueprint for the single big upgrade given to the KLR in 2008. In came a similarly effective fairing, a more robust set of 41mm front forks, better brakes with new calipers and petal-profiled discs, new instruments, a softer delivery of power, and a suspension retune that reduced wheel travel while fitting firmer springs. Thus equipped, the KLR soldiered on, continuing to conquer third world roads and Middle Eastern desert terrain while on top-secret missions. For 2017, the bike gets an even-better suspension tune, and a more thickly-padded seat that improves rider comfort.
The latest changes might be minor ones, but they clearly change the KLR650 for the better. That’s provided you have legs long enough to reach the ground from the elevated position of the thicker padded seat, which is now located a lofty 890mm from terra firma. That more sumptuous seat means there’s now no need to get off the KLR until all the fuel in the 22-litre tank begins to run out. The ergonomics, generous fairing and soak-it-all-up long travel suspension all pamper the KLR rider with plenty of comfort.
That’s once you get used to the high-frequency vibes of the lowstressed 651cc single. There are twin balance shafts fitted to quell these, but any time the needle of the analogue tacho passes the 4000rpm mark the mirrors of the KLR become full of blurred images. Consider this a selfpolicing motorcycle as that fuzzzone begins right at the 100kmh legal-limit when out on the open road in top gear (5th).
The delivery of this old-school powertrain might not set the world on fire, but it sure is useful. The KLR generates ample torque
At a Glance
Engine: 651cc dohc liquid-cooled carburettor-stoked single; 32kW (43bhp) at 6,500rpm; 50Nmat 5500rpm. Transmission: Five-speed gearbox, chain final drive. Chassis: High-tensile steel twin-cradle frame with twin-sided square-section alloy swingarm; 41mm un-adjustable forks with 200mmof travel; rear monoshock with preload adjustment and 185mm of travel. Price: $8990. Hot: Costs five dollars less than the newVersys-X 300 yet will go further into the wilderness and deliver more long-distance comfort; can be fixed with rocks. Not: Big KLR is a charisma-free zone and attracts no attention from anyone; vibrations above 4000 can irritate; no lowfuelwarning light. throughout the rev range, and always feels tractable and unstoppable. Get it on the gravel roads that the dual-purpose Dunlop K750 tyres seem to be born for, and the 50Nm of riding force that the engine predictably develops will make sliding the KLR feel like child’s play.
On tar, this is still a bike to be enjoyed, the narrow tyres, reduced crank inertia, and wide leveraged bars adding an agile cornering dynamic that’ll result in further chuckles. The single disc front brake is a beaut, imparting plenty of feeling for front tyre traction through the lever, and scrubbing in stopping performance that’s more than a match for the KLR’s modest capabilities.
So why let all those US Marines and hash-smoking hippies have all the fun.
For this is an ADV that’s as capable as any when it comes to comfort and taking on the roads and tracks less travelled. All for a four-figure price-tag.
KLR650 has given US military and adventurers 30 years of service; new seat and revised suspension this year.