The super utility bike that’s better than you think – providing you go back early enough
If you look up this month’s subject matter online you might well come away with the opinion the bike is rather like the one and only mainstream hit by The Monks – Nice Legs, Shame About the Face.
Kawasaki’s second iteration of the KLE500 was something of a lemon – all show and very little go. Emissions legislation had pulled the rug out from underneath what had previously been a rather nice bike. Go back to the early 1990s and things were a little different. Kawasaki was applying lateral thinking to their design and marketing like few others.
Not too long after the launch of the legendary GPZ900R someone at Kawasaki Central had the bright idea of effectively axing the four-pot motor in half to produce a sub 500 twin. Sadly, one of the first progeny of this logical act was the EN450, a machine that inspired one journo of the period to cry “my kingdom for a machete!”
Retrieving the situation, Kawasaki followed this by producing the amazingly successful GPZ500, which swiftly progressed from being one of the best middleweights of the era to a long-term cash cow.
Looking to maximise the potential of the motor, Kawasaki took what was then a bold move and produced the KLE500. Using a retuned engine designed for mid-range usability rather than top end power, Kawasaki delivered a very credible motor.
If the motor was still effectively half a GPZ900R then the bodywork was a mile away. Taking some general styling cues from Yamaha’s frankly loopy TDR250 and chucking them into the blender with things like their own Tengai KLR650 the factory delivered something very close to what we now call an adventure motorcycle. With the small fairing and headlamp cover morphing into the tank, which blended in with the rear panel and seat, the looks were something quite different at the time but now we take them for granted.
What does now stand out is the colour schemes that were used, very shell suit, very 90s. How about purple panels and mauve seat? Perhaps maroon with pale blue or aquamarine saddle? Or how about teal panelwork with pink flashes and a purple perch? Thankfully, other less garish options were available.
The bike offered a decent riding position and a comfortable ride providing you weren’t sitting on the pillion seat that sloped alarmingly. The braced handlebars came with handguards as standard, offering a little weather protection and the easygoing nature of the motor made the bike a cinch to ride in traffic.
Perhaps not too surprisingly the KLE500 swiftly found favour with riders who’d recently passed their tests. Inevitable comparisons were swiftly made between the Kawasaki and Honda’s Transalp. In terms of outright quality the latter won hands down but the KLE generally came out tops on point and squirt riding. Although both machines had some off road pretence, neither was especially adept when it came down to it, although the Kawasaki was generally considered to be the better of the pair.
Why would you want one today? Well, they’re now quite rare and have a look like little else. Insurance is going to be silly cheap, as is their purchase price. Amazingly, £800 gets you a tidy runner, while a grand should deliver something really smart and a top-end low-mileage example is unlikely to go much over £1750. Factor in an abundance of spares, both OEM and aftermarket and the bike becomes even more attractive. If you fancy something just a little bit different but still fun then a KLE500 might be just the bike you’ve been looking for.
Japan’s relationship with parallel middleweight twins has been as long as it has been capricious. Honda’s CB450 Black Bomber beat many British factories at their own game and in various guises the motor, hogged out to 500cc, went on for years. Yamaha’s best attempts at turning out a quarter litre four-stroke twin did their reputation little if any good. The original TX500 was something approaching flawed genius and the subsequent revised version, the XS500 was unfairly compared to the seminal and all conquering RD400. One of the best of the genre has to be Suzuki’s GS400; a machine now overlooked and ignored but it was milestone for common sense and reliability. Kawasaki may have made a damn good fist of it with the GPZ and KLE 500 twins but its early offerings on a similar theme were less successful. Back in the day Bike magazine, when testing the then new Z400 twin, dressed a rider in a full clown outfit. Perhaps not too surprisingly the bike is not one of the world’s most desirable classics!
The VJMC; run by motorcyclists for motorcyclists