Editor Score: 76.5%
Engine 17.0/20
Suspension/Handling 12.5/15
Transmission/Clutch 7.5/10
Brakes 6.0/10
Instruments/Controls2.5/5
Ergonomics/Comfort 9.5/10
Appearance/Quality 7.5/10
Desirability 6.0/10
Value 8.0/10
Overall Score76.5/100

The last time I rode a Kawasaki KLR650 was fifteen years ago, in San Francisco as a photo op for a story about the Motorcycle Emergency  Response Corps. MERC was a non-profit organization composed of motorcyclists volunteering their skills to provide mobility, rescue, and communications during a disaster. Sadly, the MERC website now leads to a health blog, and any search I conducted didn’t turn up recent MERC information, so I must assume the organization has disbanded. But, the threat of disaster looms as large now as it did back then. Whether it be an earthquake, tornado, tsunami or zombie apocalypse the KLR650 remains the ultimate get-the-hell-outta-Dodge machine.

Kawasaki KLR650 Project Bike: Part 1 of 8

For much of its existence (1987-2007) the KLR650 reappeared annually with minimal, if any, changes. When the 2008 model KLR arrived it did so in style, flaunting new bodywork with dual headlights, a more powerful 651cc single-cylinder engine, improved braking performance, increased fork diameter, a new swingarm and a variety of other improvements. In 2014, the “New Addition” KLR650 boasted a fork with 40% firmer springs and 27% firmer rebound damping. At the rear, the Uni-Trak linkage suspension offered a 63% higher spring rate while the rebound damping settings were 83% firmer. The KLR’s seat was narrowed at the tank juncture, and widened in the passenger area.

KLR_stack

The 2008 redesign (bottom) went a long way in modernizing the KLR650’s looks and performance, but the carbureted KLR remains about as simple a modern bike as you can get these days.

The 2016 KLR650 is the motorcycle equivalent of your grandfather’s 20-year-old recliner – a relic of incredible comfort and familiarity. The carbureted Single requires a choke to get running when cold, and the occasional switching of the petcock from On to Reserve when fuel is running low. Its power output is modest, at best, while handling resides somewhere between deliberate and truckish. The KLR won’t get you anywhere fast, but it will get you there. When Mommy Nature renders paved roadways impassable, Macchu Picchu is beckoning, or you’re fleeing the living dead, you’re gonna reach for the multi-tool that’ll surmount unforeseen obstacles of both the on- and off-road varieties.

The longevity of KLR and its minimal changes over the years ensures parts availability is universal, and for the parts that aren’t, chances are you can fix the problem with the correct application of duct tape or WD-40. We averaged 38 miles per gallon from the KLR’s 6.1-gallon fuel tank, giving the KLR a range in excess of 200 miles between fill-ups. A low compression ratio of 9.8:1 allows the KLR to run on fuel unfit for more high-performance engines.

Under the correct circumstances of low fuel, engine heat and because of the fuel tank’s tight seal, vapor locking becomes very real at very inopportune times (an issue resounded among KLR forums). For me, it happened thrice with around 180 miles on the trip meter, at continuously fast freeway speeds. The worst occurrence happened at night on my way home from Roland Sands Design.

2016 Adventure Bikes Spec For Spec

KLR_zombie2

With a claimed curb weight of 432 pounds, the KLR 650 falls between the Honda XR650L (346 lbs) and Suzuki’s V-Strom 650 (474 lbs). The Honda has the advantage of being the only air-cooled bike of the three. Like the KLR, the Honda is carbureted whereas the Strom is fuel-injected.

Bombing down the 405 in the HOV lane when the bike starts losing power fast, leaving no time to cross five lanes of speeding traffic. I instinctively flip the petcock to Reserve and press down on the fuel cap to release pressure (something I learned during my first vapor lock experience with the KLR). The bike’s nearing crawling speed and still not starting. With nothing but a painted line and cement freeway divider to the left of me, my nervousness about being stuck on the 405 in the dark with no breakdown lane is slowly becoming panic. Thankfully, no U-Haul with dim halogen headlights bears down before the bike restarts and I make it home safe. I don’t ride far on the freeway now, however, without occasionally pushing down on the fuel cap.

KLR_Instruments

Only the basic clocks and idiot lights.

Otherwise, the KLR scoots around at freeway speeds without complaint. It doesn’t arrive at those speeds quickly, and there’s not much passing power once it does, but the KLR will chug along, covering hundreds of miles without emitting numbing vibrations. Around town the KLR is a friendly commuter, that’s easy to maneuver, thin for lane-splitting and tall for a bird’s eye view. Just don’t be in a rush when the engine’s cold because the carbureted Single requires seemingly eternal warm-up compared to fuel-injected engines. Also, with a 35-inch seat height, it helps if you’re not short.

The KLR goes about its off-road duties in much the same methodical way it carves a twisty paved road – Droopy dog style – not doing anything too quickly. It’s best to have your plan of action submitted for the bike’s approval before attempting anything complicated. The 21-inch front wheel certainly helps the KLR’s off-road proficiency, while its wide handlebars provide ample leverage in the dirt or on the pavement.

2016 Kawasaki KLR650
+ Highs

  • Economical
  • Fix it yerself
  • Will run on crap fuel
– Sighs

  • Vapor Locking
  • Cold starting
  • Underwhelming performance

Braking and suspension performance resides in the same vein as engine performance – adequate. The single front disc and twin-piston caliper reduce forward momentum, just not as immediately as you might sometimes like. The stiffer fork and shock springs added in 2014 help the KLR be a better all-around handler. Too bad the fork doesn’t have the same preload and rebound damping adjustments the shock does.

KLR650

The Matrix Camo Gray costs a couple hundred more than Candy Lime Green but elicited approval from all who saw it in the flesh.

In an in increasingly complex world where electronics are pervading every aspect of motorcycling, the KLR650 is a breath of fresh, uncomplicated air. Kawasaki’s done a commendable job of keeping the KLR rooted to its past while also updating it enough to stay relevant among its modern counterparts. And when it comes to being the bike to have when all the world’s going to hell in a handbasket, the KLR still reigns supreme.

2016 Kawasaki KLR650 Specifications
MSRP $6,599/$6,899
Type 651ccDOHC, liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, Single
Fuel System Keihin CVK40 Carburetor
Ignition Electronic
Valve Train 4 valves per cyl.
Transmission 5-Speed
Front Suspension 41mm telescopic fork with 7.9 inches of travel
Rear Suspension Single-shock with 5-way preload and rebound damping, 7.3 inches of travel
Front Brake Single, 254mm disc, two-piston caliper
Rear Brake Single, 212mm disc, single-piston caliper
Front Tire 90/90-21
Rear Tire 130/80-17
Wheelbase 58.3 in.
Seat Height 30.9 in.
Curb Weight (Claimed) 432 lb.
Fuel Capacity 6.1 gal.
Tested Fuel Economy 38 mpg
Available Colors Candy Lime Green/Ebony, Matrix Camo Gray
  • 12er

    I sold mine about the last time you rode one, and I still miss it…

  • ColoradoS14

    You know, as much as I like these things I just could never bring myself to buy one, especially not new. Living at 5280ft and regularly traveling over 10,000ft and weighing over 225lbs with a bike that puts 35hp to the wheel at sea-level is just not a good combo. I think in 2016 a carburetor is just not going to cut it any more, there used to be a case to be made for the simplicity and fact that you can get it repaired almost anywhere but modern EFI systems are so reliable I just don;t know if it is worth it anymore. I think that Kawi, knowing they only change the bike significantly once every 20 years, could bump the engine up to 750cc utilizing newer engine tech, efi, etc. and get an extra 20hp to the wheel. Throw on a more modern LCD gauge and include different engine maps to allow it to run on crap gas. Then update the suspension and brakes to help bring it into the 21st century a bit more. Refining the chassis and being smart there could drop 20 lbs from the thing. Price all of your tooling and R&D into the fact that you wont change it for 20 years and you should be able to keep it at the same price point. I refuse to believe that this is not possible, especially when you consider that a Yamaha FZ07 is the same price. With all of this being said, I do get tempted to buy one of the low mile used ones I see crop up for $4k here and there…

    • Gabriel Owens

      I ride Independence Pass FREQUENTLY. Bought the bike in North Dakota. Never made a single carb adjustment. It performs admirably at altitude. imho. This bike just works, I did 7800 miles on mine last summer.

      • ColoradoS14

        I agree with you that they just plain work. I just believe that they can work better; and for the same price… If Kawi came out with a replacement to this thing that added 20hp, better suspension, more modern electronics and did it at the same price you would have to be tempted to upgrade.

        • Gabriel Owens

          No, not at all. I think you fail to understand the concept of the KLR.

        • Gabriel Owens

          No, not at all. I think you fail to understand the concept of the KLR.

          • ColoradoS14

            I guess not. I have never been in the camp that says don’t improve it because it has been this way forever. I guess for me the concept of the KLR does not change just because you update it. The KLR is probably one of the most heavily modified bikes on the planet and if Kawi made it so a 685cc or 701cc kit was no longer something that people needed. Or made it so tons of guys did not have to replace the shock or put Race-Tech valves in the fork because they were great from the factory. Or added better drivability, gas mileage and power from EFI. Stifling progress because you like the old one is silly.

          • Gabriel Owens

            If those are the things you think would make the KLR better, then you probably should go shop the Tiger 800. The beauty of the KLR is ruggedness and simplicity of the design. It can easily be worked on, on the trail. Far away from a dealership. The only thing that the KLR is missing from the factory is crash bars and knobbier tires.

          • Rodger Manco

            This is a good point. If one actually rides off-road vs. to Starbucks; Something gets F’ed up on your BMW on the trail & if you can’t duct tape it back together or fix it yourself (which the old school tech on a KLR more often than not allows you to do), you’re done & it’s going to cost a fortune to fix when you do end up dragging it out of whatever swamp you’re in.

          • Gabriel Owens

            I literally just traded in the KLR for a new 1190 adventure

          • ColoradoS14

            Those are the things that make every bike better. If I snapped my fingers and suddenly your KLR had better suspension, 20 more hp, better gauges and weighed 20 lbs less would it not be a better bike?

          • dustysquito .

            I don’t think what he’s suggesting (except for possibly a change to the gauges) would impact reliability in any significant way, and certainly not simplicity. Overboring my DR650 didn’t take away from the fact that it’s a stone axe simple, air cooled, single cylinder brute. It just added more power. Upgrading the suspension didn’t make it any more complicated to work on, and certainly didn’t affect what I could fix on the trail. It always sounds like people assume that when we say “more power and better suspension,” we’re talking about swapping out the carbureted single for a BMW sourced twin and fitting electronic, self-adjusting BS to the suspension. Again, the DR isn’t 100% the same bike as the KLR, but it’s very similar, so I think my point is valid. My front suspension work completely transformed my bike for around $350, and that’s consumer price. If Kawasaki had sourced all those parts, they probably could get it for a fraction of that, especially since they wouldn’t have to put the “stock” springs in first. At factory prices, a price increase of $500 over last year’s model could provide a whole different level of suspension that wouldn’t impact your ability to fix it on the trail. Let’s face it, if you jack up your suspension out on the trail, you aren’t going to fix it anyways.

          • Rodger Manco

            Sure Honda, KTM, and BMW did it and look at the price point. I can buy 2 KLR650’s for the price of a new Africa Twin, 3-4 KLRs for the price of a KTM or BMW. I can do without some of the improvements if it keeps the price point affordable. I know you say they can amortize that over the longevity of the update & keep the price the same… but if you think any company would do that, you’re living in a fantasy world. If it’s spec competes with an Africa Twin – it will be Africa Twin priced within $50 to $100.

          • ColoradoS14

            Every company does that, in literally every sector of the economy. Do you not think that Apple has massive research and development cost associated with a new iPhone and yet the price remains the same model after model. Do brand new versions of cars not come out every year and keep a price that is within a few hundred dollars of the old one? Name one consumer product that gets updated and suddenly jumps exponentially in price? None of them do, the nature of the competitive landscape is such that everything has R&D priced into it already. Do you not think that the $6,800 of the current KLR includes some portion of the development cost of the bike? I am shocked at the lack of basic economic understanding of this group…

        • Baldazzer

          This is the typical fantasy of the so-called ADV rider. No matter what the bike, some genius declares they would buy it if it was lighter, more powerful, better suspended, and with all the latest gadgets for the same price. Of course, if said bike did come out, they would find another reason not to buy it because THEY ARE CHEAPSKATES AND WHINERS!! There is a reason the KLR is so cheap, and that reason is because it is NOT “20lbs lighter, better suspension, more modern electronics”…..

          • ColoradoS14

            Haha, I really struck a nerve with my comments. I can only imagine if I actually said something controversial. I think you are wrong, the KLR is no longer cheap, it is a poor value now if you objectively look at what you are getting for the money. This is why I claim, and I believe rightly so, that Kawi can improve the hell out of this bike, not lose any of what makes it so popular, and sell it for the same price as they do now. When any manufacturer builds any product there are multiple pieces that go into the equation of pricing. The cost of materials, the cost of labor, the cost of development, tooling and machinery investment, etc. Materials and labor are a cost that must be taken in whole when they are consumed. The development cost and the cost of tooling can be amortized out across the expected life cycle and total number of bikes that can be produced. With how infrequently they update this bike the development and tooling cost per bike is pretty low, materials are also cheap. The bike here is just shy of $7,000, why don’t we just compare this to another $7,000 bike, the Yamaha FZ07. The FZ07 has twice the pistons, rods, bearings, rotors, calipers, crank journals, cam grindings, bore honings etc. It has modern electronics, ECU, sensors, etc. And yet it is the exact same price for the most part. I guess I just don’t get not wanting the bike to be better. I am 100% convinced they can do it for the same price too.

    • Randy Pancetalk

      hell, KTM can get 76hp/60whp out of their 690 thumper. Even if they were conservative for reliability’s sake, Kawa could get 50 wheel hp out of this thing with a revamped 650-700cc engine. If they decided to put in the effort.

  • SXV 550

    Ive had 2 KLRs, both stone reliable, taking me to the Northwest Territories through the arctic circle via the dempster hwy without a hitch…where you really need it to start without drama. I later sold that KLR where the next owner took it all the way to the tip of South America, also without a hitch.

    Ive never heard much about vapour lock and never experienced it over thousands of miles. I wonder if there are additional SoCal emissions parts that cause it? My Panigale had its share of vapour lock on hot days before I removed the useless evap canister

  • Speedwayrn@yahoo.com

    No excuse for not having EFI

    • Gabriel Owens

      naw man. that comment matches your avatar perfectly

  • Rokster

    Got the 2014 NE and I am still enjoying it a lot. Might be getting something else this year (probably the XSR900) but won’t be selling the KLR (even if I really do not have much money).

    • Gabriel Owens

      it truly is a Swiss Army knife of motorcycles. I ride till 30k and sell em or trade em for another.

  • SRMark

    I had a love hate relationship with the older KLR. Hated the low-rpm stammer, hated the lack of power and surplus of weight. Loved that it went anywhere. Hated adjusting the valves. Loved the range. Hated the 17″ rear wheel. Loved the fact that it was butt ugly and looked no worse after dropping it. ’08 and newer ones look better but look worse after a drop. It still has a carb. LONG history of oil burning. Nice suspension update, decent seat. Sure would be nice if they went back an made the KLX650 and put on FI and kept a large tank. Something about halfway between the KLR and Husky 701/KTM 690. Keep it under $8K. And how did you get 38mpg outta that thing? Musta whipped it mercilessly.

  • Craig Hoffman

    In case you have not seen it. This KLR video by ADV rider Halfthrottle is hilarious :)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YvYBwBNwhU

    And this one explains the attraction of the KLR really well.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M62y6BgvO-0

    • KLRJUNE .

      I’m a big fan of Halfthrottle. He pounded the shit out of that KLR in Panama and it never failed him.

  • Randy Pancetalk

    sadly my KLR was not reliable at all. My ducati has proven to be more reliable. Things went wrong with the ducati in 10 years of ownership: battery. Things that went wrong with my KLR in 5 years of ownership: valves toast, preemptive doohickey repair, electrical gremlins, some carb issues. Yeah, I probably got the rare lemon.

  • krishan adhikari

    Would I buy it, no way. But I guess that can be said about a lot of bikes. The bike must have something special for it to have sold for so long.

  • Randy Pancetalk

    Hey, with those new EPA regs coming that will impact dual sport bikes, it might be the end of carbureted motorcycles in this country. I’m happy with that. I’ll be the first in line to buy a fuel injected DRZ-400sm

  • KLRJUNE .

    I have an ’08 KLR with 43K miles trouble free miles on it and it’s my second one and there will probably be a third. It’s very rugged and reliable and I have no fears it won’t finish a trip.

    The tips:

    1)Use commuter tire pressure (32 psi) front and rear and you’ll get much better mileage. I get 48~53 mpg.

    2)Clean out the fuel cap vent system with WD40 once in a while and you won’t have the tank vacuum issue. Vent tube also.

    3)A sixteen tooth front sprocket works well for highways and is still usable for dirt roads and some offroading.

    4)Get a metal engine guard and a low profile oil drain plug and you’ll never be sorry you didn’t get them.

    5)Center stands are available and awesomely useful if you have a flat in the middle of nowhere.

    6)Change the oil and filter every 2500 miles and it will never wear out.

    7)Convert all lights except headlight to LED and you’ll free up enough power for heated clothing and grips.

    8)Do the “22¢ smile maker” carb mod for a good low and mid range power boost. It’s a dirt cheap, effective and easy mod. Find it at KLRWorld, KLR650.net or just search using “22¢ smile maker”.

    Don’t ever race anyone.

  • idowanna

    The article says that the seat height is 35 inches and then gives the specs at the end that say 30.9 inches. What gives?