The Killer Reborn review101d

Kawasaki’s 2008 KLR 650

by Thomas Day

MMM last reviewed the KLR650 in September of 2002. Between then and September of 2007, nothing happened to the KLR to make it worth reviewing again. In fact, nothing major had happened to KLR650’s design since the motor was upsized from 600cc to 650cc in 1987. Odd, considering the fact that the KLR650 is the company’s 4th best selling bike.

For years, Kawasaki owned this niche. Yamaha, Honda, and Suzuki’s big dual purpose bikes were more dirt oriented. The European entries were more street than dirt slanted. In 1993, BMW’s F650 bikes brought the KLR some competition in its own market. In 2004, Suzuki introduced the street-oriented V-Strom, and in 2006, Kawasaki nibbled on KLR’s market share with its own Versys adventure twin. Even though the KLR wasn’t broke, apparently Kawasaki thought it needed some fixing.

In a perfect world, we’d have reviewed this test bike in June, or at least late-April. The world is not prefect, because Sev dropped the KLR off the day after a mid-March snow storm when I was recovering from a bout with flu and bronchitis. However, the next day was sunny and the weather was predicted to slither above freezing by noon. There was snow on the ground, ice on the roads, and flem in my sinuses as I set off to test ride the shiny new “Blue 21” KLR650.

From two years of V-Strom fuel injection ownership, I had forgotten about the routine for getting a carbureted bike going on a cold morning. That morning, it was 29?F outside and 26?F in my garage. So, after a minute or so of cranking the starter and working the throttle, the KLR burped a few times and struggled into dependable ignition. I suspect the new leaner, meaner EPA emissions rules have something to do with this as KLRs aren’t known for cold weather starting problems.

review101cWhile the seat height is slightly lower than the older KLRs, the suspension sag is considerably less (about an inch with my 220 suited-up pounds), resulting in about the same loaded seat height. I was on my toes on the 2002 KLR and I was in the same situation on the 2008 KLR. This could be “fixed”, but you’d be changing the bike’s geometry, modifying the kickstand, giving up suspension travel, and lowering your ground clearance. Personally, I think it’s a bike for folks with 32-inch-and-up inseams and the rest of us should just be jealous. I am unconvinced that garage monkey engineering skills are up to the challenge of redesigning a modern motorcycle.

Speaking of the kickstand, it’s been beefed up in the 2008 bike, including a much larger foot. I think it stands the bike up a little too straight. If you try to park the bike anywhere but on a flat spot, you’ll discover the kickstand wants to push the bike over as you dismount. On the other hand, that stable prop tempts you to mount up from the advantage of the left foot peg. I’m not a big fan of abusing the frame in that manner, but lots of short KLR owners have been doing it for 20 years. Paul Streeter demonstrated a 180? kickstand pivot, a valuable maneuver when you get the big bike trapped in a tight situation.

Sev delivered the KLR with all 6.1 gallons of fuel in the tank and that means 37.5 pounds of fuel are balanced on top of the bike’s 386 pound dry weight. When the KLR starts to tip over, you better be ready to leverage about 200 pounds upright and be solidly planted while you do it. At least once, luck and financial incentive were all that kept me from dropping the bike. Once, I managed to coat the kickstand with a layer of ice and spent fifteen minutes whacking at the stand, trying to break it free while balancing the bike on my right foot’s big toe. That pointed out the two major defects in the 2008 KLR (and its ancestors): 1) I’m too short for this bike and 2) I need more upper body strength if I want to ride a KLR.

My first morning on the KLR, I worked my way away from home on residential roads, farm 2-lanes, and 60 miles of frozen dirt roads. The stiffer suspension has changed the highway feel of the KLR. Gone is the infamous rocking horse lope, but my first impression was that the ride appeared to be a little stiff for rough roads. Early in that first morning, a farm road textured with truck ripples beat me up pretty badly. On the really rough, hard-frozen dirt roads, the suspension came into its own. The quicker I passed over the rough stuff, the less I noticed it. New seat foam is an improvement over the older seat, but Japan still appears unable to design a comfortable motorcycle bench. Overall, I think the new suspension is a major improvement. The more I rode the bike, the more I trusted it.

Our test bike was not yet broken in, with 80 miles on the odometer delivered to my garage, so I tried to take it easy and vary the speed and engine load. Keeping the bike slightly loaded, at least a gear above max power transfer, provided an additional layer of stability and security on sketchy road surfaces. The temperature gauge barely budged away from dead cold for 120 miles. The bike pulls strongly from 2,000 rpm up and is dependable, if not muscular, between 1,000 rpm and 2k. When the terrain and traction is less than ideal, this quiet motor is really something to appreciate. On a slippery road, shift up a gear and let all that torque smoothly pull you out of trouble (or through an ice covered corner). In deep sand you can stick with the mid-range rpm and power your way around corners, steering with the back wheel. I took on a couple of steep snow, ice, and slime coated hills and the KLR climbed them without a moment of lost traction. I would have turned around and backtracked to an easier path on my V-Strom. When it comes to off-road capability, think of the the KLR as a Jeep Wrangler and everybody else as a Cadillac Escalade. That’s why the KLR has so many long-term fans.

Shifting is a lot like the old KLR. You can find neutral, occasionally, between any gear. You have to be firm about gear changes, but the clutch and transmission are solid feeling and dependable. The 5-speed transmission is fairly wide ratio, but I think a lower 1st gear would be a big off-road improvement. In first, you are moving at about 20mph when the motor begins to really pull. Experienced KLR riders warn that the front wheel won’t lift without a lot of clutch and throttle work. In fifth gear, 5,000 rpm equals a speedo-indicated 75mph and the bike still has useful power available at that speed. Since redline is around 7,500 rpm, you aren’t going to put a sportbike pass on high speed freeway traffic.

The new 280mm single-petal front discs and 240mm twin-piston rear caliper brakes are excellent. The front brake hauls the bike to a controlled and quick stop with a couple of fingers. The rear brake will break the back tire loose with moderate pressure, on asphalt or dirt. With a combination of throttle and rear brake, you can easily steer the KLR on loose terrain with minimal handlebar input.

The rubber footpegs do not belong on a dirt bike, although they might provide vibration protection. A little ice on the soles of your boots and standing up becomes a risky adventure. Several vendors sell serrated pegs and I think they’d be a necessary modification.

In the new frame-mounted cockpit, the instrument panel gauges have a late 1980’s appearance, but KLR owners say they are an improvement. The fairing is sportbike-style plastic (about $300 replacement cost, including windshield) and the fenders ($80 for the front, $90 for the back) are still dirtbike plastic. The fairing is large and it keeps wind and rain from most of your upper body and provides some shielding for your legs. The hand guards provided terrific wind protection and my hands were well shielded from the cold. The new, dual headlights work. They light up the road efficiently and with a rectangular pattern that wastes very little candlepower. The KLR finally gets a push-to-cancel turn signal switch.

Accessories for the KLR abound.You could probably double your investment in the bike in add-ons. The stock warranty is 12 months and you can add 12-month increments of Good Times Protection up to 4 years.

by Sev Pearman 

I am leery when a manufacturer claims their widget to be “new and improved.” While the packaging will certainly be new, sometimes all that is improved is their profit margin. Have you looked at a box of cereal lately? This brings us to this month’s test machine, the Kawasaki’s KLR 650. Kawasaki claims their venerable 4-valve single is “totally revamped for 2008” Is this marketing BS, or has the old dog learned new tricks?

We picked up the tall Dual-Sport in mid-March with temps hovering in the low 30s. The carbed KLR balked at the cold, but soon settled into a happy idle. A couple of minutes later, I turned off the bar mounted enrichener, snicked the 5-speed gearbox into first and headed out into the gloppy freezing rain and snow.

I was happy to be on a KLR, as marginal roads are her element. You sit above the foot pegs, which allows you to quickly stand when the going gets tough. The handlebars are wide, braced, 7/8-inch tubular items that provide ample leverage. Combine these with the ample steering lock and you get one nimble machine. Despite the 428-pound (measured) wet weight, it is ridiculously easy to pick your line and negotiate technical trails.

The Kawasaki KLR always reminds me of another 80s icon, Cher. Ignored by the masses; both have legions of rabid fans. Both have baffled critics with steady sales and both appear, more or less, exactly as they did in 1987.

One upside of the crappy weather was that I was able to test the weather protection of the KLR. The new, frame-mounted fairing, windshield and hand guards effectively divert most of the wind off your chest, arms and hands. Despite the freezing rain and snow, my torso and arms stayed dry. All that got wet were the leading edges of my sleeves and gloves.

Our test unit came with an accessory windshield. The taller and wider screen is a $99.95 option from Kawasaki. It directed the airflow just over my shoulders, keeping my chest dry. Coffee shop posers will appreciate that the larger screen doesn’t detract from the butch, purposeful look of the KLR. I’m not too big on accessories, but I would spring for this screen.

review101aLess effective were the Kawasaki saddlebags. These coated nylon throw-overs mount quickly and easily to the rear of the bike. While well-made, they run small and are suited for light-duty at best. On the plus column, while Kawasaki claims them to be only “water resistant,” they remained 100% water tight during my tenure. Should you so desire, there are scores of aftermarket KLR suppliers and you may be able to find a set of bags more to your liking.

The fairing incorporates dual, cat-eye headlights that are photon cannons. Previous KLR’s had an anemic single lamp that was about as powerful as a dusty AA flashlight. The ’08 KLR burns a single 55-watt lamp on low beam and adds a second 55-watter on high beam. The lights on our tester were aimed too high when my 250-pounds compressed the rear end of the bike. Headlight adjusters can be accessed between the fairing and the fuel tank, but time constraints and frozen fingers prevented this simple tweak. Even though it is always a delight to test a brand new bike, there is a downside. First is having to ride in weather best suited for sled dogs. I stopped for gas in Phillips, Wisconsin and was ambushed by a snowmobiler who had pulled off the frozen lake for gas. I don’t know what is sillier: a snowmobile driving down plowed city streets, or a motorcycle plodding along in below-freezing temps. Second is the ever-present fear of wadding someone else’s bike on icy roads. Ah, the glamorous life of the road tester.

The dash is spartan, consisting of analog tach, speedo and coolant temp gauge. Neutral, high beam, and a shared blinker light are the sole idiot lights. One manual tripmeter with push-button reset completes the cockpit. There is no oil light.

This is either disappointing or welcome, depending on your perspective. Gadget geeks will sneer at the mid-90s layout. No clock? No fuel gauge? Where is the GPS port? Such riders may be better served at their BMW or KTM boutique. The tinfoil hat crowd will be comforted by the familiar and bulletproof analog clocks. Their low cost and serviceability further the KLR’s deserved globe-trotter reputation.

The heart of this beast is Kawasaki’s rugged 4-valve, liquid-cooled, single. An even 100mm bore and 83mm stroke displace 651ccs. A lower 9.8:1 compression ratio means you can run 87 octane pump swill.

Don’t wrinkle your nose at the measured 36.1 horsepower (@ 6,200 rpm) and 32.7 foot-pounds torque (@ 5,000 rpm.) The KLR easily propelled my ample carcass along at 70 mph, spinning a lazy 5,000 rpms. In fifth gear, you can still accelerate and pass. (We ran a self-imposed 5,000-rpm break-in redline.)

The simple, cable-actuated clutch has a light action; no Kung-Fu Grip® is needed. Shift action is tactile and quick. Gear changes are a quick squeeze of the clutch lever combined with a light snick of the shift lever. One nice detail is Kawasaki’s patented Positive Neutral Finder. To use this feature, downshift to first, come to a stop, and then upshift. The gearbox will only shift into neutral. Nice!

The suspension features all-new fork internals, rear shock and linkage. Front travel is shortened to 7.9 inches; rear travel shrinks to 7.3 inches. Real world bump absorption remains viable, as the re-worked fork and rear linkage prevent the bike from sagging under its own weight. While no sport bike, the KLR feels planted in corners and exhibits minimal wallowing in side-to-side transitions.

Earlier KLRs weren’t noted for their braking power. Hard riders complained of a lack of power and fading. The ’08 runs a single 280mm petal rotor with two-piston caliper up front and a 240mm rotor with two-piston rear. The brakes were light in feel and linear, though ice prevented aggressive testing.

What about practicality? The KLR comes from the KISS school of engineering (Keep it Simple, Stupid) Ruggedness, durability and simplicity are valued over flash and complexity. Fuel flows via gravity through a non-vacuum petcock to a bullet-proof Keihin 40mm carb. There are neither injector nozzles, nor fuel pump to fail and leave you stranded in Left Overshoe, Kansas

A monster sidestand with a huge foot holds her up at rest. An annoying ignition cut-out circuit appeases the DoT. No center stand is offered.

Accordion gaiters cover the fork tubes and an ABS bash plate protects the sump. The stock pipe emits a pleasant bark and includes a USFS-approved spark arrestor.

review101bAs for maintenance? In a world of boutique bikes that require service reservations, the KLR is a dream. Oil changes, air filter and battery service are completed in minutes with simple tools. The seat quickly unbolts to reveal a readily-accessible fuse block.

One quibble is that the larger fairing, while effective at keeping you warm and dry, turns plug changes into an all-day affair. The owner’s manual warns, “spark plug removal should be done only by a competent mechanic.” This waters down the claims of the KLR being an adventure tourer.

The engine, suspension and brake changes truly improve the new KLR. Even though it is now less dirt-worthy than the previous model, it is a better machine in every respect. As an urban commuter, weekend explorer or cross-country tourer, the KLR is a potent weapon. This is a bike that won’t bite a newbie and can challenge a grizzled veteran. In this case, you can believe the hype.

Many thanks to Matt Olund and Delano Sports Center for their help with this month’s test. DSC is at 763.972.2677 or on the web at

World Rider: • Improved brakes, suspension and electrics • Lower seat welcomes more riders • A ridiculous value

Knuckle Dragger: • No center stand • Fairing blocks spark plug access • The KLR still gets no respect

By the numbers: Rider: Editor Pearman 5′-10”/250 lbs/32” (height/weight/inseam) Total miles driven: 150

Selected Competition: BMW F-650 GS, HONDA XR-650, KTM 690 Enduro, SUZUKI DR-650, TRIUMPH Scrambler, Various, cool Europe-only bikes.


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