Still an amazing value after all these years

If there’s one thing that we’ve learned from the KLR650, it’s that motorcycles don’t need to be reinvented every year. Kawasaki’s KLR has been a longstanding icon of world travel that was finally revamped in 2008 after decades of stagnant development. Four years later, the KLR is again getting long in the tooth, but Kawasaki has a tremendous on/off-road platform, and once again it laughs in the face of newer, shinier motorcycles.

The dual overhead cam Single is easily the most underpowered engine in this shootout. Bore and stroke is the same as the BMW at 100 x 83mm, but it makes use of a Keihin CVK40 carburetor. The dated fueling technology isn’t necessarily a bad thing. At least it’s something a rider can work on if something goes wrong deep in a South American jungle. Kawasaki claims 55 mpg, but our test bike never came remotely close to that figure. The best we ever got was 46 with an average of 38.8 miles per gallon. Regardless, the massive 6.1-gallon fuel tank gives it a respectable 237-mile range. An easy throttle hand, better carburetor tuning and aftermarket exhaust would likely boost that number considerably.

Power is a muted 31.6 horsepower and 30.13 lb-ft of torque. The torque curve is a downward slope right from the get-go, the peak coming at 3,500 rpm and tapering off from there. Horsepower is a more traditional curve with the maximum churning out at 6,100 rpm before tapering off. The KLR hits the rev limiter just before 8,000 rpm. In comparison, the V-Strom is near 60 HP and still pulling.

“The Singles are really handicapped compared to the Twin,” says Riant. “While the weakling of the bunch, the KLR’s motor is smoother and more user-friendly than the Sertao’s shaking, vibrating hot-rod powerplant.”

While the Kawasaki isn’t yanking our arms out, the focus from our riders is less about the wimpy engine and more about the way the power is applied to the handling character.

“The most underwhelming engine of the bunch,” confirms Madson. “The KLR is cold-blooded too, with atrocious fueling after cold starts and liberal use of the choke required. Having made all those complaints, the Kawi Single is strangely easy to ride. Off-road in particular, I liked the Kawi’s grunty but mellow nature; I could tractor along in low rpm without much effort and climb steadily up and around obstacles without trouble.”

The soft power makes a perfect companion to the chassis and suspension. Kawasaki has managed to build a bulbous-looking motorcycle that handles as if it weighs half of its actual 434 pounds. A fuel capacity of 6.1 gallons is held high on the chassis, but the Kawasaki initiates turns and changes directions by simply thinking about it. The positive handling traits carry over equally well off-road, where the KLR feels like more of a big dual sport than cumbersome adventure-touring mount. The suspension is capable of absorbing a wide variety of off-road terrain. Obviously it’s not a racer, but potholes, embedded rocks, debris and washboard chatter are all handled best by the Kawasaki’s 41mm fork and Uni-Track shock. The chassis stays planted on fast fire roads and doesn’t deflect on surprise impacts, even when bottomed out. We needed to increase the shock preload (only shock that requires tools) to help keep the front end from pushing on the pavement. More emphasis on the 21-inch front wheel helped in the corners, but one tester did notice wobble at higher speeds.

“The KLR has the best package for 50/50 dirt/street riding,” says our eldest rider. “It does everything well and is very good on tight, twisty, rough pavement. It’s also best in first-gear finessing over and through obstacles. It’s a well-balanced, low-effort and carefree ride.”

Gearing is appropriate for toting its size and weight across all but the most severe terrain. However, the drivetrain is far from perfect. Clutch actuation is mediocre, and the cable unit fades quickly under abuse. It has a five-speed transmission like the Beemer, but changing gears is much more secure and the rider knows when they are at the top or bottom of the gearbox. Sixth gear would go a long way for freeway riding. Overall, the drivetrain is nowhere near as slick as the Suzuki’s.

“The KLR gearbox is more sorted than the BMW, but not super-refined, and there’s a lot of slop in the clutch,” sums Madson. “So the KLR drivetrain is better than the BMW’s, but that’s sort of like praising the “smart” Kardashian.”

The seat height is very manageable with all of our testers easily reaching the ground. Also, the stock seat is one of the best we’ve encountered, as the ergonomics suit a range of rider sizes and riding positions, which pleased all of our testers. The comfortable seat is devoid of any bumps that might inhibit movement. The chintzy steel handlebars are an easy reach, and the footpegs are low enough to give our relatively tall test riders a measure of comfort. Ground clearance (8.3 inches) is an issue on the pegs, however, both during off-road navigation and at full lean angles on the street. The ergonomics are easy to appreciate with a high level of rider protection from the windscreen, fairing and hand guards.

“Everything is right where it should be with excellent seat, bar, peg relationship,” assures Dave. “Easy to move fore and aft on the seat and quick transition from sitting to standing. The fairing and screen provide good rider protection with minimal wind noise and buffeting.”

Kawasaki is the only bike in this comparison that does not have antilock brakes. Considering its willingness for off-road exploration, it’s not something we ever wanted for the KLR. The brakes work fine on the pavement with predictable feel and smooth operation from the dual piston, 280mm disc front and single-piston, 240mm disc rear.

One thing we never thought we’d hear our test riders say is that the KLR looks good. The Metallic Imperial Blue/Pearl Stardust White combination with black wheels and fenders finally sparked our interest. The Dunlop tires help give it a more masculine appeal as well.

“The KLRs smooth power, neutral handling and plush, well-balanced suspension make it best for the wide array of terrain encountered in dual sport off-road situations,” says Riant.

What the KLR lacks is amenities. The rock-bottom $6,299 pricetag leaves little room for creature comforts. The information display is rudimentary, and the controls are basic. However, function over form is the KLR’s mantra. Despite its fairly barebones approach, the Kawi has enough in just the right places to make it an effective adventure-touring bike. All of our riders noted the MSRP as an incredible value. By leaving the 650 unchanged year after year, Kawasaki is able to make profit and can keep them riding off dealership floors at an attractive purchasing point. Aside from a few minor issues, it’s easy to see why Kawasaki chooses to leave the KLR just the way it is. Our testers give it a lot of credit, but the major lack in horsepower was too much to overcome once the scores were tallied, landing it in second place.