Two Wheels for Adventure review52a

by Thomas Day

Take a look at a Kawasaki KLR 650 the next time you’re standing under one. It’s a pair of stilts on wheels. The KLR 650 is a motorcycle SUV. It seats you tall enough to see over anything shorter than a refrigerator semi. Following me on a trip to Red Wing, my son-in-law said that he never once lost sight of me, even when he was jammed up in freeway traffic a full freeway exit back.

If one of your goals in riding a motorcycle is to be noticed, this is the bike for you. It’s got a cool-factor that can’t be measured in normal bike terms. Ride one of these things in to downtown Minneapolis and everyone stares as you look down on all of them. The military-green paint job is a lot more attention grabbing than you might suspect. The bike looks as if the only thing that’s missing is a machine gun mounted between the forks. Its post-apocalypse, Mad Max styling just begs for armament of some kind, at least a giant pump-powered water cannon.

There are some significant limitations to a bike this tall. My first attempt at getting on to the KLR ended with me and the bike lying down together in Victor’s driveway. Our test bike’s kickstand had been trimmed away for some unknowable purpose and the combination of the bike’s unnatural over-center perch, a 35″ seat height, and my 28″ inseam was a formula for a little driveway comedy. I managed to protect the bike with my body parts and, after hitching my Aerostitch into full-wedgie mode, I got on the KLR and waddled out of Victor’s neighborhood. Either the wind was blowing not so gently through the trees or there was an alley full of folks laughing at me as I drove away. On the other hand, it’s something of a comfort advantage to be able to hang your legs freely while long distance touring. Win some, lose some.

When I got the bike home, I let some of the air out of the forks and stared at the rear suspension until I gave up on the hope that there would be a way to drop the seat height a foot or two. Once again, Randy Newman’s “short people got nobody to love” has returned to haunt me. If I was going to test ride this thing, I’d have to take it “as is”. I considered a pair of mount-and-dismounting options from my ancient past: the Wild Bill Hickock hayloft-drop and the Hopalong Cassidy running mount. The barn-drop tactic seemed impractical, so I went for the other routine. As long as I had an unobstructed ten-foot starting gate, I was in business for the rest of the test ride. I started the bike (while standing beside it), punched it into first, and swung on board as I let out the clutch; Pony Express-style. I’ve been getting on to bicycles that way for 50-some years, so why not motorcycles?

After getting used to the handling and height, the KLR sets you free from normal street riding restrictions. You start looking for roads that will offer a challenge. I don’t mean just off-the-beaten-path two lanes, or even dirt roads. I mean any spot you can squeeze the KLR’s wide bars through. On boring stretches of highway, I found myself examining the ditches for off-road diversions. Even I35E’s exit ramp hillsides attracted my attention. Railroad tracks are fun to skate over, if you have the suspension for it. My own backyard got a little trials action workout, which caused a small domestic conflict. She’ll get over it, when the flowers grow back.

Off road, the KLR is pretty darn close to being a pig. Kawasaki claims a dry weight of 337 pounds, add another 30 pounds or so for 6.1 gallons of fuel, and the odd 20-50 pounds it usually takes to complete the wet weight figure, and you’re pushing a lot of tonnage for off road work. The seat height and weight combination would make me very nervous about a rocky stream crossing, for instance. However, the bike skates over mud, sand, gravel, and asphalt. For adventure touring, the KLR is more than up to poor road surface travel. The KLR rolls over curbs like they’re grains of gravel. Speed bumps are a waste of cement, unless they were intended to be KLR boredom-busters. You can catch a little air on a properly designed speed bump and that’s entertaining.

review52eFifteen years ago, I was a very dissatisfied owner of a 1986 KLR 600. The 600cc KLR was overweight, under-powered, and handled poorly on the street or dirt. It was a bit fragile, too.

The KLR has grown in many dimensions since then. From 1987 on, the KLR picked up 50cc, a few inches of seat height and suspension travel, and became considerably more sophisticated and a lot more fun.

The motor is a kick. The KLR is a little cold blooded, needing a lot of choke to get it going, even on relatively warm mornings. Once it’s firing cleanly, the motor pulls like a truck. It starts pulling from idle and builds torque and horsepower (about 41hp) all the way to redline. The tach provides fairly convenient speed markers with 55mph at 4,000rpm, 70mph at 5,000, and you can do the math for the rest of the critical numbers. I, of course, would never exceed the posted legal speed limits. The bike comfortably cruises at any legal or marginally legal speed you select. I’m pretty sure that top speed is somewhere very near 100mph, but how would I know? The engine note is strange at idle. The exhaust makes a quirky whistling noise that almost sounds obscene. Once you twist the throttle, a badass single-cylinder, low-pitched, splat-blub-pop takes over. It’s not loud, but it’s not tame either. During my test ride, the KLR burned a gallon of fuel every 58 miles. That works out to a full tank range of almost 350 miles! The 5-gear transmission is overkill. The bike really only needs 1st, third, and fifth. Hooligan-wise, it’s possible to pull a 1st gear wheelie, but 2nd gear and beyond are solidly anchored to Mother Earth.

Stopping, on the other hand, is something the KLR does with solid power. Both brakes are progressive and powerful. One of the more interesting street compromises made on the bike is the rubber footpegs. With a little mud on the pegs, they’re pretty much useless. However, unlike real dirtbike pegs, they don’t grind up the soles of your boots. Something that might be important to a commuter or someone riding from Texas to Alaska with a single pair of boots and a couple of changes of clothes.

This motorcycle is likely to spend 90% of its life on pavement. Considering that purpose, the KLR’s seat is a perfect screwup. The seat wastes at least an inch and a half of unnecessary seat height. It’s too soft to be comfortable for more than 20 minutes on the road, and that’s just getting this bike warmed up. The Kawasaki engineers ought to invest in a seat from Corbin, Sargent, or any of the half-dozen companies that have provided aftermarket solutions to this component.

I put almost 300 miles on the KLR, looking for terrain to challenge the suspension. I really wanted to try a stream crossing, some whoops, and get a little air time to see how the bike worked away from pavement. The only opportunity I got to test any of these characteristics was on the way back from Redwing, Sunday night. Unfortunately, it was dark, I was wearing a tinted shield, and I’d lost my support team so nobody was there to take pictures. As Victor found out, in an early trial of the KLR, it will fly and it lands so softly that you could get into a lot of trouble before you really tax the suspension.

In too many ways, the KLR reminds me of the first days of SUVs. Pickups with passenger seats, tall suspensions, and minimal comforts. The real market appears to be in imitation SUVs, like those overstuffed, 4-cupholder-per-passenger station wagons sold by Acura, Mercedes, and, even, Cadillac. The KLR may be over and under-kill for just about every rider except for a really tough few. It’s too heavy for serious dirt riding. It’s too tall for all but a tiny minority of the riding population. It’s too macho for just about everyone. What it does is something unavailable from any other bike imported into the US. Since the KLR650 has been in production and imported here since 1987, I’m guessing that there are a reasonable number of riders here who want to go where the KLR can take them.

Kawasaki’s $5,000 MSRP seems like an incredible deal compared to the limited competition in this area. While Honda and Suzuki’s 650 bikes appear to be much better dirt bikes than the KLR, the KLR and the BMW F650s stand alone as a fully equipped adventure tour bikes available in the US. The BMW’s MSRP of $8,200 is more expensive and far less distributed across the country. Something you consider when you’re aiming a bike cross-country.

If you do your own maintenance, the KLR might be your dream bike. Pop off the side covers, the seat, and the tank and you’ve exposed almost everything you’re ever likely to need to get to repair. The engine, carb, and electrical parts are completely exposed after removing four screws and two bolts. The air cleaner is one more screw and a wingnut away from being out of the airbox and in your hands. Kawasaki has done a wonderful job of protecting the intake from dirt and water and I’d be surprised if the KLR wouldn’t power through seat-deep water without a hitch.

A Google search on Kawasaki KLR650 will get you more than 5,500 hits. This motorcycle is a serious topic of conversation. One of the many highly detailed links is found at You can go just about any “KLR-where” from there.

You can buy highway pegs, comfortable aftermarket seats, larger than stock brake disks, tall windscreens (Kawasaki even sells one), any gearing configuration you can dream up, steel lined brake cables, hard and soft luggage from a dozen different manufacturers, suspension kits, electrical modification kits, and even larger accessory fuel tanks. If you have a craving for a motorcycle you can completely customize, the KLR has to fit somewhere on your list.

After returning the KLR, I quickly noticed that there are bumps on the road. Lots of them. I discovered cracks, potholes, heaved asphalt, and other irregularities that went unnoticed on the trip to Delano. Now I’m really missing the KLR.

by Todd Gall

If you’re an off road enthusiast like I am and were given an opportunity to test a dual sport motorcycle, what would you say? Well, I was given that very opportunity by MMM. The assignment was to take the Kawasaki KLR 650 and put it to the test for a few days. I had raced motocross back in the seventies, for most of the decade, and then I took about a twenty-some year break, until a few years ago when I bought an old Kawasaki dirt bike. I enjoyed riding again so much that I practiced hard, bought a newer dirt bike and I’ve been racing seriously for the past year. With the motorcycling definitely back in my blood I took the next step and bought a street bike. I’m not an expert, I’m just your average on and off road motorcycle riding enthusiast.

review52bI read a lot about the KLR 650 and actually wanted to ride one before I would consider buying one, but after the past few days all the questions I had about the KLR were definitely answered. The KLR has a long list of standard features which are impressive. Some of the ones that caught my eye were air adjustable front forks, a detachable rear sub frame for easy access to the carburetor, rear shock, and airbox. Add to that hand guards and a small front faring windshield setup for weather protection for you and crash protection for the gauges and levers (for those of you who might need it). The very large 6.1-gallon tank means long distances between fill-ups. After three days of commuting and trail riding I still had plenty of gas left for more adventure. The large tank does add to the high center of gravity and top-heavy feel of the KLR. This is actually a benefit off-road, helping keep the front end down even under full throttle.

review52cOne important feature was the standard USFS approved spark arrestor and all off road riders know how important this is. This is wise of Kawasaki due to increased enforcement of equipment requirements for off highway vehicles by the DNR.

When I took the KLR for a ride on some of my favorite country roads that have a lot of hills and sharp curves the KLR handled exceptionally well and the ride was fairly smooth. The engine on the KLR starts up easy, runs smooth and is quiet. So quiet sometimes I could hardly tell it was running when I pulled up to a stop sign. The simple design of the KLR’s motor is part of it’s charm. The large single cylinder displaces 651cc, the head is a four-valve unit and fuel is fed through a Keihin 40mm carb. The over-square bore and moderate compression ratio keep the power mostly in the low to mid-range, but the four valves helps the motor breath at higher revs. A balance shaft keeps vibration mostly in check

I enjoyed riding the KLR on highways and back roads. The only thing that felt out of place was that the foot pegs were positioned a little too far back and the seat made me feel like I was leaning forward. A long ride on the road might make you uncomfortable so after awhile you’ll feel the need to pull over for a rest. The machine I was on had mis-matched tires. The front was more street oriented while the rear was definitely a knobby intended more for trails. This led to slightly higher vibration and a rougher ride on the highway, but on any surface other than asphalt they handled like a dream.review52d

Now my favorite part, taking the KLR off road. This is where the KLR showed its true colors. I took it through every kind of terrain possible. down trails, through the woods, swamps, up steep hills, over rocks, you name it, the KLR handled it. This bike was pure fun off road. The engine had a lot of torque and definitely no lack of power climbing hills and going through thick mud. The engine showed no hesitation and shifted smoothly all around. The only major problem I had with this bike was the positioning of the rear brake pedal. It was positioned up under the frame and when I needed to brake hard, I would miss the pedal the majority of the time. The other part of the bike I didn’t like was that the radiator lines were positioned up front on the motor and exposed where maybe a rock might hit them and possibility puncture one of the hoses. Shorter riders will find the KLR’s 35″ seat height rather cumbersome, especially when mounting the bike and at take-off.

All the gauges and controls were positioned very well making them easy to read in all conditions, and easy to get to with your fingers while you’re riding. A speedo, tach and trip-meter are standard along with a temperature gauge. The bend and height of the bar was low which was fine on the highway, but off-road you could find your hands in contact with the tank on sharp turns. The seat was too soft for longer rides and a little wide for my taste. The style and color of the bike was sharp, olive green combined with a tasteful Kawi color scheme of black, yellow and white.

Thanks to the folks from Delano Sport Center for giving me the pleasure of test riding the KLR. This bike is nothing but fun. Kawasaki has a real winner in this machine. Other than racing motocross, I’ve never had this much fun with a bike. Perhaps that’s why if you look for a used one you can’t find too many of them for sale. I’m sure all KLR owners can attest to that. They all know what fun this bike really is.


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