2016 Kawasaki KLR650 Review

Tom Roderick
by Tom Roderick

The essential zombie survival vehicle

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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.

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

Type651cc, DOHC, liquid-cooled, 4-stroke, Single
Fuel SystemKeihin CVK40 Carburetor
Valve Train4 valves per cyl.
Front Suspension41mm telescopic fork with 7.9 inches of travel
Rear SuspensionSingle-shock with 5-way preload and rebound damping, 7.3 inches of travel
Front BrakeSingle, 254mm disc, two-piston caliper
Rear BrakeSingle, 212mm disc, single-piston caliper
Front Tire90/90-21
Rear Tire130/80-17
Wheelbase58.3 in.
Seat Height30.9 in.
Curb Weight (Claimed)432 lb.
Fuel Capacity6.1 gal.
Tested Fuel Economy38 mpg
Available ColorsCandy Lime Green/Ebony, Matrix Camo Gray
Tom Roderick
Tom Roderick

A former Motorcycle.com staffer who has gone on to greener pastures, Tom Roderick still can't get the motorcycle bug out of his system. And honestly, we still miss having him around. Tom is now a regular freelance writer and tester for Motorcycle.com when his schedule allows, and his experience, riding ability, writing talent, and quick wit are still a joy to have – even if we don't get to experience it as much as we used to.

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2 of 24 comments
  • Krishan adhikari Krishan adhikari on Feb 23, 2016

    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.

  • Idowanna Idowanna on Jul 14, 2016

    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?