By Bart Madson, Editor

A classic off-road ride with a fanatical following

The KLR650 is a cult bike, having cultivated a loyal following since its debut in the mid ‘80s. The utilitarian KLR doesn’t exactly demand worship. No sexy styling. No sexy engine performance. No sexy electronic wizardry pushing motorcycles boldly into the 21st century … nope, the KLR cult thrives because it’s not a sexy bike – just a big, practical mule for two-wheeled adventuring.

It doesn’t take much effort online to find rabid KLR devotees expounding on the righteousness of the one true adventure-touring mount. My KLR conversion started on the road to Elk City, Idaho. MotoUSA was in the midst of its 2011 Adventure-Touring Shootout, smack dab in the middle of the Magruder Corridor, a 120-mile unpaved section of road bisecting miles of Idaho wilderness. Our five-rider MotoUSA troop sported the finest AT mounts in the world, showcasing the latest technical developments and blistering road performance. They were also heavy bikes, laden down with special adventure upgrades that jacked MSRP up above $20,000 in some cases.

Muscling these AT beasts down the off-road byway, 70 something miles from civilization, a group of KLR650s passed us going the opposite direction. Where our group was lumbering along, the KLR riders seemed to be loping playfully down the road. It didn’t matter that their bikes had blunt, boring styling, or peak power output not even one-third of my sleek and sexy 132 hp Ducati Multistrada test bike. In smiles per dollar, particularly on those dirty Magruder miles, the KLR had us covered.

The allure of the KLR is simple – practical performance and a modest $6,299 MSRP. Almost unchanged for 21 years, Kawasaki overhauled the KLR650 for the 2008 model year. Much has been written about those pre-2008 KLRs, many of which were kitted out for epic AT rides – not the least of which being round-the-world treks like those undertaken by our esteemed Dr. Frazier. A veteran of several adventures aboard the KLR650, Dr. G. has since kitted out a newer spec 2011 version for one last round-the-world run (read more in Dr. Frazier’s Globe Killer KLR Series).

Sourcing our own 2012 KLR for a project bike, MotoUSA sent out the word – and the aftermarket parts keep rolling through the garage door. Such is the bike’s popularity that a whole fleet of KLR projects could be built without much overlap. So, KLR faithful, our wrenches hath been turning – be kind in your criticism of a fellow brother to the cause!

Shorai LFX Battery

We’ve had rotten luck of late, with dead batteries on some of our test bikes. The main issue is that once they’re dead, they are dead – refusing to take any charge. The stock lead/acid battery on our KLR kicked the bucket, so we contacted the good folks at Shorai for a replacement.

Shorai makes Lithium-Iron batteries for a wide array of powersports applications. With an MSRP of $159.95, our Shorai LFX battery is a definite premium for a standard replacement, but it offers improved performance. The immediately noticeable benefit, however, is weight reduction – one reason why they are sourced by many racing teams. The Shorai’s featherweight status was apparent the moment the box arrived in our office. The Shorai KLR650 replacement battery tipped our scales at 2 pounds 4.6 ounces – almost 8 pounds less than the stock unit (10 pounds 4.4 ounces).

The installation process is fast and intuitive. The trickiest part is getting the Shorai battery, which is slightly smaller than the stock unit, anchored into the battery case. Shorai accomplishes this with foam liner inserts. The foam liners, available in various thicknesses, are cleverly fitted around the battery in the initial packing (think aftermarket packing peanuts!). Trim with a pair of scissors, then apply the self-adhesive side of the foam, and Voila! The Shorai fits snugly into place. Attaching the battery leads is even simpler, as the terminals are threaded for screws – no need to fiddle with an awkward bolt underneath.

Once installed, the KLR fired to life. We’ll see how the Shorai battery fares with our mysterious shop gremlins always seeming to leave keys on…

No-Toil Air Filter

MCUSA’s Oregon office took delivery of the KLR after it had seen action in the Taste of Dakar Adventure Touring Ride. The off-road event featured plenty of dust, so we knew some basic maintenance was in order. Checking the air filter revealed a thick layer of silty muck, so we swapped out the stock filter with a pre-oiled No-Toil Air Filter. Swapping out was as simple as twisting a wingnut. Done. In fact, the most tedious part of the battery/air filter installation process was taking off the KLR seat, which requires removing the rear side panels first and six bolts total.

Dunlop D606 Tires

The first upgrade on our KLR project was spooning on some Dunlop D606 tires for the aforementioned Taste of Dakar ride. The DOT-approved rubber features an aggressive tread pattern for off-road excellence in a wide array of terrain, a claim backed up by our Taste of Dakar riders.

“The Dunlops performed will in the silt and the rocks,” says Captain of the MotoUSA pirate ship, Ken Hutchison. “They seemed particularly good at resisting punctures. We ran through a lot of gnarly rock areas without troubles, while other riders in our group were suffering puncture woes.”

Our northern riders favored the Dunlops too, with Off-Road Editor JC Hilderbrand scampering around in the dirt on some of our favorite OHV routes and summing up the KLR/606 combo: “It’s really just a big dirt bike!”

Street performance from the Dunlop 606 isn’t as stellar, with the tire leaning heavier on the off-road end of the dual-purpose spectrum. Braking performance and pavement grip are sacrificed with the knobbies. But our main street grievance with the Dunlops is noise –the rear tire emitting an irritating drone when riding straight up at 90-degrees. While they are not the tire of choice for the high-mileage street traveler, the Dunlops do get around on the asphalt well enough. And riders won’t mind the sound and performance loss on the street if they know that asphalt trek is headed toward a dirty destination.

The biggest upgrade from the Dunlops may just be aesthetics. It’s surprising how one simple change can makeover the entire bike. In this case the knobby look gives the KLR a more rugged appearance. For some reason the KLR kept giving me an old army jeep vibe. But maybe I’m crazy, getting indoctrinated into the KLR cult…