– Motorcycle News, Editorials, Product Reviews and Bike Reviews

Motorcycle News, Editorials, Product Reviews and Bike Reviews

Kawasaki KLR650: MD Ride Review

Many of our readers tell us they like single-cylinder street bikes, including dual purpose machines and super motards. Lamenting the lack of choice in these categories here in the United States, we opted to test Kawasaki’s KLR650 — a bike that has a virtual cult following. It is definitely a bike that is versatile — and an example of the Sport Utility Motorcycle concept discussed recently in MD (look at our November 21, 2002 article).

If it works, don’t fix it. That cliché could appropriately be applied to the KLR650’s existence after its engine was enlarged from 600cc in the mid-eighties. Essentially, only the paint (and stickers) has changed in the last fifteen years, and although there are more modern motorcycles in this category, few combine all of the features found on the KLR.

The heart of the big KLR (a claimed 337 pounds dry) is a 651cc, water-cooled single cylinder engine. Horsepower output is modest, but the meaty torque is effectively applied with the well chosen ratios of the slick shifting 5-speed transmission. Feeding the engine a steady mix of air and fuel is a 40mm constant velocity carburetor. After a minute or so of warm up, throttle response is very good, with no lean-jetting behavior to be had anywhere in the rpm range.

Engine performance is such that you can short-shift, or rev to redline, depending on the type of acceleration you’re after. Either way, the engine willingly provides. Acceleration will not have the GSX-R1000 owner casting nervous glances in your direction, but you won’t be breathing Ford F250 exhaust, either. Hold the throttle open in fifth gear long enough and the needle will be in the ‘go to jail’ portion of the dial if you’re not watchful. Shifting can be done with or without the clutch, depending on whether or not you want to reach for the clutch lever. Lugging the engine down to 2000 or so rpms has the engine protesting the use of anything other than first gear. Despite a counter-balancer, some vibration makes it to the handgrips and footpegs, but it never is a comfort issue, it’s just there. Modest hill climbs can be achieved with the engine’s never-say-die torque spread, or you can bimble along at a snail’s pace. The engine is amazingly flexible and well behaved in any situation. A little more power and willingness to rev would be nice, but it isn’t necessary.

For 2003 (we tested a 2002 model), only
paint and graphics change on the KLR.

Suspension is pretty soft, with 9.1 inches of travel front and rear. Although I wouldn’t go looking to clear double jumps at the local motocross track, it performs well enough for fire road riding and low-to-medium speed trail riding. On the street, expansion joints and pavement seams disappear in the soft, ample suspension travel. Surprising speed over a twisty, paved route will keep your sportbike riding buds from waiting too long at the next junction. And while you’re waiting for them to rest up and get the feeling back in their hands, stretch the back muscles, and twiddle with their suspension, you can check out a fire road or two.

I didn’t mess with the suspension very much, as there are minimal adjustment possibilities. Air pressure for the forks is on the short list of adjustability up front, while adjustable preload resides out back. The lack of adjustability is not really a hindrance, as you don’t – or shouldn’t – ride it hard enough in any one discipline to need it. Just get on and ride. While heavier than some of its competition, the KLR carries it well; although it will be a workout in sandy conditions, if you up the pace in the dirt a bit, or have to pick it up after a fall.

As a commuter, it does well, with fuel mileage consistently at or near the 50 mpg mark. With 6.1 gallons worth of dinosaurs stored fairly low on the bike, you can fill up and go at least 250 miles before needing to think about looking for a gas station. The seat is very comfy, as well, with enough width and seat foam to make an extended street ride not only possible, but a reasonable consideration. The more adventurous of you wouldn’t think twice about crossing state lines with it. The very sturdy luggage rack (pictured – with integrated tool kit pouch) gives the KLR pilot a place to put cargo of various shapes, sizes and weights, with plenty of tie down points available to secure it.

High, wide handlebars give lots of leverage for low effort steering and a comfortable place to put your paws while twisting the throttle. The smallish fairing deflects a surprising amount of wind. With the handguards deflecting wind past the hands, it could be argued that the KLR has better wind protection than most sport bikes, and as much as some sport tourers. Instrumentation looks 15 years old, style-wise, but it gets you the information you need. There is no clock, so wear a watch . . .

Brake performance on the street is adequate, with the front lever requiring a healthy squeeze for quick stops. In the dirt, the lack of initial bite translates to better controllability, hence, fewer locked front wheels and the subsequent tip-overs.

Do I have any issues with the bike? Only a couple. Kawasaki needs to put better switch gear on the left side of the handlebar. I know the bike is inexpensive, but push-to-cancel turn signals can’t cost very much. Frequently, when I would try to cancel a turn signal, I would find myself pushing the switch past the center/off position, and going to the opposite signal. A deft touch is required to hit the center position to cancel. The other is the seat height. It is ‘up there’. If you regularly practice martial arts or yoga, you won’t have a problem. All the rest of us shorter in stature stand a chance of pulling a muscle just getting the leg up and over the seat. Stoplights will see the shorter rider shifting to one side of the seat to get a foot flat on the ground. That is the end of my short list of annoyances with this bike. At an MSRP of $4,999, this is seriously good fun at a low price. It is also a genuine do-it-all, go-anyplace machine that the U.S. military buys in large quantities (can’t think of a better reliability endorsement than that).

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