The 1999 Kawasaki KLR650
The Return of Swamp Thing
LOS ANGELES, March , 1999 -- The latest version of the KLR emerges from Kawasaki Heavy Industries like a beastly apparition staggering out of a miasmic swamp.
Clearly, this is a bike capable of holding its own in a variety of unfriendly (or friendly, depending on your personal outlook) environments.
Bombing around pothole-infested canyons of a Big City downtown? No problem. Smoking the unpredictably serpentine curves of a treacherous mountain fire road? Yes, please.
Strafing an interstate at illegal velocities from dusk till dawn through torrential downpours? Let's go.
Bogging through narrow Bolivian jungle passages awash with unforgiving mud? If you insist. Kawasaki's big tri-purpose machine (dirt/street/touring) takes a thrashing and doesn't have the sense to roll over and beg for mercy. In other words, this bike is fully equipped to live up to the claims Kawasaki makes: 1999 Kawasaki KLR650, Two-wheeled Adventure Should the Earth be flooded, buy, borrow, or steal a KLR and grab your Aerostich suit.
When approaching the big single, the KLR itself appears quite tall. After saddling up, however, one discovers that a goodly bit of the 9.1 inches of suspension travel -- front and rear -- disappears from sag, and those of you over six feet tall will find yourselves able to plant both heels firmly on the ground. Shorter riders will find themselves making do with tip toes on the tarmac.
Initial feel of the bike is somewhat top heavy, but the KLR's wide bars offer great leverage, so handling is extremely light. One more detail: the person riding on its back holding onto its ears will be smiling fiendishly under a helmet, because the Thing is fun to ride.
"The KLR650 is at home in the concrete jungle. The single headlight is surprisingly powerful. "
Twist the throttle and the KLR responds with alacrity. This bike pulls down low and maintains respectable torque most of the way through the powerband. Things peter off as redline is approached, but power is available where it will be needed most.
At first, one might expect a little more zing from a big single, but it is easy to adapt. The KLR650 still gives a respectable account of itself with its four valve, dual overhead cam mill. Dual counterbalancers do an admirable job of eliminating most of the vibrations coming from the motor. The frame housing this motor is a semi-double cradle frame with a detachable rear subframe made from high-tensile steel. Cool.
The Kawasaki will oblige, just. Perhaps it is the sizable flywheel that prevents the KLR motor from lofting the front tire without a little portion of effort. A bike with the KLR's characteristics should, by all rights, be a mono monster.
Don't misunderstand. Once the front is up, which happens readily if one should happen to roll the throttle off and then abruptly on again in first gear, the smooth power delivery makes for dial-an-angle precision monos. The Swamp Thing is quite at ease balancing on its hind leg. As far as actual touring goes, the KLR will fit the bill with whatever you have in mind. Long superslab stints can be dispatched with aplomb. The wide saddle is comfortable and well padded. The flatness of the seat also lends itself to adjusting position from front to rear, so there are a variety of poses one can adopt to keep one's limbs awake.
The back pegs are well situated and offer another place to rest one's feet on long hauls. Which brings us to the best part of the whole ensemble: The
6.1 gallon gas tank. What a luxury to be able to milk out 250 miles of riding between fill ups. You'll think the bike is magic as you cruise past the 200-mile mark checking to make sure that fuel was not accidentally left on reserve. Those who worry that a mere 650 single won't be up to the task of droning at high speed for hours on end, rest assured. Even at highway speeds, the motor is up to the job of passing cars, and even blasting up around the 100-mph zone.
Two-up touring, however, could be asking a bit much. Comfort would certainly be a factor since movement is restricted with two passengers aboard. Kawasaki makes some accessory soft luggage, such as a tank bag, panniers, and tail packs that offer decent carrying capacity. Those blessed with creativity when it comes to bungee cords will also be able to haul pretty much anything they want. The built-in rack, which houses the tool kit in a recessed pocket, can hold a duffel bag without complaint.
The cockpit is functional, featuring a speedo that actually goes to 120 mph. Mirrors are positioned perfectly, though they buzz at times, reducing clarity. The temperature gauge is an added bonus. Sitting on the bike, it seems like most of the mass is directly in front of you (because it is).
"Splitting lanes is easy because of the upright seating and good visibility."
Splitting lanes is easy because of the upright seating and good visibility, but complicated by the wide handlebars and hand guards. As for gripes, there are a few worth noting. Kawasaki has outdone themselves in the transmission department and managed to engineer a gearbox with a few extra neutrals included. To keep things interesting, they pop up unpredictably, mainly when downshifting. Occasionally, sitting at a stoplight astride the KLR650, you can look forward to finding yourself in a bonus neutral, perhaps somewhere
between third and fourth gear, with the clutch fully disengaged.
To find proper neutral, some banging around with the shifter and pumping of the cable clutch is necessary. For a bike with a Jurassic life span like the KLR, there is no reason to put up with a shortcoming like this. This niggle should have been remedied back in the 80's. Swamp Thing deserves a five-speed gearbox fit for such a charismatic mutant.
The fork is great for soaking up irregularities in corners and landing wheelies. However, it could be more compliant and progressive around town. Bumps are felt more than one would expect with 9+ inches of travel to play with. The air adjustment feature is largely useless. The front binder is a single piston unit and feels mushy and anemic.
Next gripe: The wimpy front brake.
Clearly, dirt-oriented motorcycles don't need the same level of braking power demanded by street bikes (can you say, "front-end wash outs"). Get real Kawasaki, the Swamp Thing may look like a Jeff Emig special, but this is a bike that belongs on the street; riding a KLR in a serious dirt environment is like mud bogging in a Geo Tracker. It might look like a fish, but it will drown if you actually submerge it in water. A second disc up front would inspire more confidence in the front binders.
At the very least, a larger diameter disc would help. The rear brake, which performs quite well, features a disc that is almost the same size as the front! KLR riders may want to replace the way-long front brake line with steel braided piping to eliminate some of the frightening vagueness one encounters in hard braking situations on the street. The prospect of making an emergency stop going down a steep hill, on a fully loaded machine, full of gas, with a passenger, from high speed, with the wind at your back, will lead to an understanding of why they build those runaway truck ramps on long steep inclines.Clamp down on that skinny front lever for all your worth, because you ain't stopping in hurry, not with stock brakes anyway.
"Anyone searching for a bike for heavy adventure applications would be wise to consider the KLR650."
The star of the show is the 6.1 gallon fuel tank. An oil level sight window is well placed and makes checking oil levels a snap. A minor amount of oil was consumed in 800 miles of testing. The token skid plate on the bottom leading edge of the motor might deflect small critters and even smaller rocks, but would be hammered silly by real blows from logs and errant mufflers. Still, it's nice to have something there.
Minor gripe-age: what is up with that starter? It always works, but some fiddling is often required. Pull the clutch in? Kick stand up? Choke? What do you have to do? It can be a black art, this awakening of the Swamp Thing. One more thing, must the parking light be the last click on the ignition switch? Can't it just be all the way to the left?
I'm sure some batteries will be slain by new KLR owners leaving the tail light blazing, unaware that they left they've removed the key with the ignition switch in the park position. But as we mentioned, these are minor issues. They may in fact lead to a closer relationship between bike and rider since bikers often revel in the quirky subtleties of their own machines. It's like having children: We can love them despite their faults especially if they are our own.
Anyone searching for a bike for heavy adventure applications would be wise to consider the KLR650. This is one of the few bikes that strike a balance between relative light weight (compared to a BMW R1100GS, for example) and enough substance to feel at home on the interstate. Little touches like the Swamp Thing's spark arrestor and adjustable UNI-TRAK shock will encourage some gentile dirt-oriented exploration.
Since the Kawasaki features liquid cooling and has a decently sized radiator with an automatic fan, hot, summer days in the Big City and thick traffic and multitudinous stoplights won't precipitate meltdown. This will also assure long distance tourers that reliability shouldn't be a problem.
The KLR is a bike designed to fill a very specific niche. It is lucky for us that niche seems to overlap with many different facets of the motorcycling universe, touring, exploring, dirt trails, potholes, etc. Kawasaki has managed to create a machine that can comfortably adapt to almost any environment.
Riding the KLR is good fun, perhaps not always clean fun, but good fun nonetheless. If you plan on banging around Bangladesh, or buying some chilies in Chile, and you plan on blowing across some borders and dicey roadways to get there, Swamp Thing will deliver you in style.
Engine: liquid cooled, 4-stroke,
DOHC, 4-valve single
Bore x stroke: 100.0 x 83.0mm
Carburetion: Keihin CVK40
Suspension type, front: 38mm,
Suspension type, rear: UNI-TRAK®
single-shock system, rear
5-way preload and 4-way
rebound damping adjustment
Ground clearance: 9.4 in.
Seat height: 35 inches
Fuel capacity: 6.1 gallons
Wheelbase: 58.9 inches
Dry weight: 337 pounds
Price: $4,799 (USD)