Kawasaki's Trusty KLR Gets a Total Revamp

What do you do when your eyes are telling you one thing but the rest of your senses indicate something entirely different? Gentlemen, you might have heard this phenomenon commonly, and accurately, described as Beer Goggles. When I first directed my bloodshot eyeballs toward early-release photos of the 2008 Kawasaki KLR650, I certainly could have used an IPA to soften the blow. Having been a staple of the dual-sport community for over two decades, the KLRs of past have always looked like a dirt bike for the street. Now, with over 50 changes to enhance the “tour-ready dual-purpose” features, the ’08 650 comes across visually as a pavement pounder – and tough sell for the dirt biker crowd.

Kawasaki brought MotoUSA to Monterey, California, for the launch of its totally revamped KLR. Our first evening was spent soaking up the technical briefing and a few glasses of the red and white within the ornate bowels of the Sardine Factory’s Wine Cellar. Ah-ha! So Kawi really was trying to pull down our Cider Visor, but knowing that 273 miles of riding were waiting for us the following day ensured we awoke clear-headed the following morning.

A lot has changed on this early release ’08 machine, but some of the most important changes are those that weren’t made. After all, as the industry’s most popular dual-purpose machine and Kawi’s fourth best-selling bike, there’s obviously something to like about the previous model. Kawasaki did extensive consumer research to find out what KLR owners enjoyed about their machines and what needed to be addressed. Basically what they found was that the 21-year-old model is primarily serving middle-aged males as a shrunken adventure-touring bike. Not the type of adventure that takes someone across all of Europe, but one that takes you for overnight camping trips, afternoon joyrides and urban explorations.

The majority of riders are using their bikes for pavement duty with limited time off-road, but having the capability is an important feature, and perhaps the most endearing of the KLR. The bike has never been a beautiful machine, and the new version doesn’t quite breach that category, though many of the important changes have given the bike a complete makeover in the looks department. It now has a fairing and windscreen. These were a direct response to an outcry for better protection from wind buffeting and the elements, exactly the kind of thing you’d expect from a riders group with the highest percentage nearing AARP eligibility. Surveys show that the bike’s versatility, power, rider comfort, fuel and cargo capacity and affordability are all key features that have drawn in customers.

The head honchos at Kawasaki didn’t get there by being daft, so they expounded the good things and took steps to minimize the bad. They kept the ergonomic package the same while adding a firmer seat and wind protection. The 6.1-gallon fuel tank is exactly the same, and the rear luggage rack is 3.5 inches longer and 5.1 inches wider. The windscreen and larger fairing is really a love/hate feature for the KLR. We hate the way they look, but they work so well that we’d rather not ride at all than ride without them. Kawasaki says the matching angle of the front fender helps direct wind onto the upper screen and away from the rider. We couldn’t see it in action, but it may be true. All we know is that from the rider’s position, the windscreen is unobtrusive and extremely effective. Kawasaki offers a larger windshield for those who plan to spend most of their time at cruising speeds. Our second day of riding was cut down to just over 100 miles after we embarked in a coastal downpour along Highway 1. It was a great opportunity to test the available protection and it’s much better than the older bikes.

Sitting cozily behind the element deflectors is a comfortable, pleasant experience, but when the pavement turns to dirt and a rider needs to stand up, the ergos aren’t nearly as agreeable. Rising on the pegs proves the bars are too low and the tank swells uncomfortably fat between the knees. Also, the rubber footpeg covers are slippery as hell when wet, so keep that in mind.

This next bit of information might get confusing for some of you spec-sheet dwellers, so pay attention. Kawasaki made the KLR a better off-road bike by lessening the amount of suspension travel. A little counterintuitive, but basically Kawi realized that it didn’t need a whole lot to begin with, but it did need to get more out of what was being offered. The previous 38mm fork offered just over 9 inches of travel, but they were wimpy, flexed and blew through the stroke needlessly fast. In an attempt to stiffen the entire front end, Kawasaki shortened the fork to only 7.9 inches of travel but increased the diameter to 41mm. A more rigid fork not only works better at controlling the heavy bike and giving rider feedback on pavement, but it also bolsters off-road capabilities. The changes prevent dramatic diving while on the brakes and hold up the bulky front end over rough terrain.

I ran the new rear shock in the softest of five preload settings and never felt the need to stiffen things up. It might have benefited from additional preload on one particularly fast and windy section of pavement – a section described by our guide as a paved motocross track without the jumps. But, I was having so much fun trying to keep up the pace that I never bothered. Where the older bike wallowed through corners, the 2008 version turns with precision and stability that belie its bulky appearance. Dropping from 8.1 inches of travel to 7.3 might seem ass-backwards, but in this instance the usable travel is unaffected. Stiffer settings and a lower seat height keep the bike from exhibiting as much static sag so the shock actually moves the same amount in its stroke.

The goal for Kawasaki engineers was to increase both on and off-road capabilities, and the new suspension does just that. In stock form, we’d call the new KLR’s street/dirt ratio about 80/20, but when we say “dirt” we mean gravel roads or moderate jeep trails at best. The improved suspenders, new swingarm and unchanged steering geometry make the KLR a better turner and super stable in a straight line. Overall the bike handles much better than you would expect from simply looking at it. It turns in with little effort and tons of confidence. The age-old Dunlops are surprisingly good on asphalt and hold well enough in loose dirt. We never had a single incident where the tires failed to hold their grip on the pavement. Riders scraped peg feelers throughout our time with the Candy Lime Green, Sunbeam Red and Blue bikes.

Puny pinchers are never a desirable trait so larger petal-style brake rotors and dual-piston calipers beef up another of the previous weak points. Kawi slapped on a 280mm front disc for the 21-inch front wheel and 240mm rotor for the 17-inch rear. The bite still feels a little weak compared to other dual-sport machines, but hop on an old-version KLR after riding the new one and you’ll probably sail out into the intersection at the first light. After using the stronger binders I couldn’t believe that people actually tolerated the old brake system. No wonder previous buyers were bitching about it. Apparently it took two decades to realize it, but Kawasaki is finally on the right path.

The 2007 model felt lighter and peppier. The peppier bit probably stems from the lighter bit since the ’08 version is almost 50 pounds porkier when comparing claimed dry weights. (337 vs. 386). Just looking at the two bikes is enough to convince us that there is some truth to these figures. That means that the bike is tipping in at roughly four-and-a-quarter with a full tank. The ’07 motor pulls a bit harder from a dead stop, but the tiny amount of zip lost is easily worth the benefits of the new model.

Kawasaki claims that the 651cc motor is more responsive on the top-end thanks to revised cam timing, and new intake porting cleans it up off the bottom. The exhaust is now a one-piece that is supposed to pass burnt fumes more efficiently. The motor uses a double engine balancer which does wonders for smoothing out the effects of a 650 Single. Add in the bar inserts and compared to the BMW G650 Xcountry we rode awhile ago, this baby is like riding on glass. All told we spent almost 380 miles with the new KLR and in that time hit a peak indicated speed of 94.8 mph, and had an average fuel consumption of 37 mpg from the 5-speed machine.

It also happens to be almost half the price of the Beemer with a $5,349 MSRP, only 150 bucks more than the 2007 version. Such paltry payments are part of the reason this bike is so popular as an additional machine to buyers’ established stables, and an awesome figure to offer first-time buyers.

Our two-day trip took us along two of the most famed strips of motorcycling pavement in America, the Kings Highway, Route 101 and Highway 1, among others. We crossed rivers, mountains, valleys and the San Andreas Fault, rode past wineries, and through the techno-center of Silicon Valley. All without sipping anything more potent than a Capri Sun, yet our goggles became thicker, and thicker. The KLR has been winning over a fan base for 21 years, and in that time has mastered the art of peer pressure with the astuteness of a frat boy.

As resolved as I was to find Kawasaki’s major malfunction in the redesign, the KLR managed to coax me into a positive outlook with its smooth motor, comfortable ergos and surprising handling. The beauty of having beer goggles is that you can always blame your tomfoolery on the beer, but Kawasaki’s sober approach to refining the KLR leaves us in a tight spot. She’s porky, has a crooked schnozz and balks at doing it in the dirt, but we have to admit that we like her. After all, there’s no denying she’s cheap, fun to go both ways, trustworthy and committed for the long run. Hey, maybe that’s why the older guys are so into it?

2008 KLR650 Specs

  • Engine: Four-stroke, DOHC, four-valve single
  • Displacement: 651cc
  • Bore x stroke: 100.0 x 83.0mm
  • Compression ratio: 9.8:1
  • Cooling: Liquid
  • Carburetion: Keihin CVK40
  • Ignition: Fully transistorized
  • Transmission: Five-speed
  • Final driv:e Chain
  • Frame: Semi-double cradle, high-tensile steel
  • Rake / trail: 28 degrees / 4.4 in.
  • Front suspension / wheel travel: 41mm telescopic fork / 7.9 in.
  • Rear suspension / wheel travel: UNI-TRAKr single-shock system with 5-way preload and stepless rebound damping / 7.3 in.
  • Front tire :90/90×21
  • Rear tire: 130/80×17
  • Front brake / rear brake: Single 280mm petal-type disc, two-piston caliper / single 240mm disc, single-piston caliper
  • Overall length: 90.3 in.
  • Overall width: 37.8 in.
  • Overall height: 53.1 in.
  • Ground clearance: 8.3 in.
  • Seat height: 35.0 in.
  • Dry weight: 386 lbs.
  • Fuel capacity: 6.1 gal.
  • Wheelbase: 58.3 in.
  • Color choices: Candy Lime Green, Sunbeam Red or Blue 21
  • MSRP: $5,349