The Kawasaki KLR650 has been exploring roads since Ronald Regan was President. The Berlin Wall hadn’t yet come down when the first KLR650 debuted in 1987. The Apple Macintosh personal computer was still cutting edge, at least in my house. A lot has changed in the world since then, but the KLR650 has remained resolute.
The 2016 version really isn’t all that different than the first model. It’s still a liquid-cooled 651cc, carbureted Single with five speed transmission. Bore and stroke are still 100mm x 83mm. It still rolls on a 21-inch front and 17-inch rear wheel. It’s the motorcycling poster child of the maxim, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
This was my first time ever riding a KLR650. Prior to that, I only knew the bike vicariously through stories from the road. The ones where a rider tackles some audacious, transcontinental journey through all manner of treacherous conditions. Venturing into places where there’s no shops to repair a busted bike, no modern parts available. These adventurers have to be ready to get the bike back on its feet with what they’re able to carry in their pack, climb mountains and tick-off thousands of pavement miles. Overwhelmingly, the KLR seems to be the go-to bike for people looking to scratch this type of itch.
And even though it’s not the only bike capable of this type of journey, the KLR does carry a mystique as the adventurer’s adventure bike.
So approaching the motorcycle for the first time, I was dreaming of the places it could take me. Like a teenager fresh from the DMV, newly minted license in-hand and a mom’s Subaru sitting in the driveway, I was going places.
But first I had to get it started, and it’d been a while since I rode a carbureted motorcycle. The KLR immediately put me in my place. Failing to effortlessly start at the push of the button like modern fuel-injected bikes left me racking my brain for a panicked moment. Then I remembered the little lever on the handlebar that needed to be open. Sure enough, the engine turned over and the idle wound up as it warmed. It quickly sunk in that the words humbled and humiliated likely derive from the same place.
Once I got past that first order of business, I couldn’t help but notice the size of the bike. The width of 6.1 gallon tank and the broad shrouds that surround it give the KLR650 a hefty aspect. The 35-inch seat height is another element that makes the bike feel large. At 6-feet tall, I wasn’t always graceful when swinging a leg over, particularly with the factory accessory top case strapped on. In the saddle my legs felt a little spread apart when reaching for the ground at a stop. I have a 32-inch inseam so imagine that this bike could be a little cumbersome for shorter riders.
But once you’re rolling that sense of being on a large bike vanishes. The upright position and seat are comfortable; the fixed windscreen does a fine job keeping wind from blasting your chest or wrenching your helmet around. The bar and peg positions create a natural riding position that’s agreeable on long rides and allows you to comfortably stand when tooling around off road. The bike’s 432-pound curb weight carries well, and the motorcycle doesn’t feel top-heavy but rather nicely balanced on the asphalt. I didn’t tackle any tight single track, where I imagine the bike’s size would be a more noticeable factor, but it’s more than manageable on less technical dirt roads. Instrumentation is clear and simple; an analog tachometer, speedometer and coolant temperature gauge.
I wouldn’t mind if the company squeezed a fuel gauge in there somewhere. I was ranging 45 miles to the gallon with around-town rides, commutes to and from work and a little light gravel and dirt road duty. That’d get you in the neighborhood of 274 miles per tank, which is a nice stretch, but a gauge to be really sure of where you’re at fuel-wise would be a welcome addition. However, there is a fuel switch that will give you access to reserves should you find yourself sputtering to a stop.
Kawasaki isn’t chomping at the bit to change the bike’s formula, though. The last major revamp, one of the only significant changes to the model since its debut in fact, was in 2008. The updates included some engine and chassis work, with the aim of improving the power spread and suspension performance. Additionally, the KLR got a revised fairing and windscreen and better braking components. A New Edition showed up in 2014 that got a few more tweaks such as stiffer suspension springs front and rear and an upgraded seat.
I found the engine on the 2016 version to be solid, built more for utilitarian purposes than thrill. It reminded me of a tractor. It’s not going to jump off the line, but it will pull steadily and get you where you need to go. The mill has no problem reaching highway speeds and beyond, but starts to lose steam when you approach triple digits. There is definitely vibration through the seat and pegs but it’s minor in the bars, which meant my hands never buzzed after longer rides.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that being carbureted in the winter in southern Oregon, where I’d see below freezing temps at times in the morning, didn’t matter all that much. Warm-up times were a minute or two at most, even when my teeth were chattering. I also appreciated the fact that you can drop rpms to almost nothing and the KLR doesn’t stall, but just keeps puttering forward. The clutch is light enough to easily feather the power though, if you’re looking to really creep along.
The 41mm fork provides 7.9 inches travel and is stout enough to soak up bumps nicely on dirt and gravel roads. A Uni-Trak rear shock is similarly acceptable with 7.3 inches travel and five-way preload and rebound damping adjustability. The suspension set-up strikes a nice balance between off-road capability and on-road performance. Squaring up potholes at 40 to 50 mph on a dirt road is not an issue, and the chassis is stable enough on asphalt corners to have a little fun.
The 21-inch front wheel and Dunlop K750 tires do more to slow the roll in the canyons than the suspension. Handling, when compared to a 17-inch front and rear wheel equipped road bike, is definitely more sluggish. The tires are a decent compromise between street and dirt, but handle neither exceptionally well. Luckily, there is a vast selection of tires available for the machine that will suit whatever type of riding you expect to do. Something like the Kenda K760 Trakmaster II would improve off-road capabilities while the Continental Trail Attack 2 would up your on-road performance.
The single 254mm disc front and 240mm disc rear brakes get the job done. A dual-piston front caliper is a little soft without strong initial bite, but it transmits feel well as you pull the non-adjustable lever in. The rear is responsive and has nice feel also, making it easy to mete out back-end braking power, great for when you find yourself in the dirt. The absence of ABS also allows you to easily lock up the rear too, if so desired.
Other elements that stood out include the handguards, which were absolutely essential kit in the wintry weather, and the strong beam from the headlight during night rides. I was also pleased with the Kawasaki accessory saddlebags and top case. They don’t have locks, which is the only real knock I have against them, but the zippered carriers did well to keep our goods dry in light rains and were very useful while running around town. This small touch, which adds $314.90 to the Camo version’s $6899 MSRP, makes the KLR even more useful. It was a do-it-all bike, unless you’re looking to set the new record at your local track, that is.
With such an affordable price tag (the 2017 model raises MSRP to $6999 for the Camo colorway, the standard prices at $6699) the KLR650 is a bike I truly am considering owning. It’s comfortable and capable, two traits that made living with the bike for the short time I had it quite pleasant. Of course, it’s not a screamer by any means, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that it will get you from point A to point B regardless of what stands between the start and finish. Unlike mullets, cassette tapes and pet rocks, the KLR650 is an artifact from the ‘80s that is as relevant and enjoyable today as it was when it first hit the scene.
Plus, you could tack on another three to four thousand dollars in accessories and have a thoroughly decked machine, still under the cost of other bikes in the adventure segment. The KLR650’s longevity means there’s a huge selection of aftermarket parts and plenty of tips on how to cure any ailments, should they arise (the doohickey repair, for instance).
The 2017 model is essentially unchanged from 2016, with some BNG updates the biggest difference between the two years. If you haven’t yet, I’d suggest you take a KLR650 for a ride as soon as you can and just imagine the possibilities.