Test Ride: Kawasaki KLR650

How the 2000 model looks.

Words: Rob Harris   Photos: Wilfred Gaube

I’m a big fan of dual sport bikes. In fact, if you think about it, it could be argued that the dual sport is really the only bike you need. They not only allow the rider to cut through the urban chaos (which they master thanks to low torque, high seat and a narrow chassis), but they can also coast the highway (albeit not in the best of comfort), and most importantly, explore that twisty, hilly looking gravel side-trail that looks oh-so-interesting (and that’s a lot more fun than zipping up and down the grid system of backroads that plague too much of North America).

Unfortunately, Canada seems a little slow at catching on to this idea, proven by the limited choice of this style of bike. Sure, you’ve got the Triumph Tiger, BMW’s excellent R1150GS and F650GS, but they’re all in the $10,000 and up class, which is up there for what most people would (mistakenly) consider as a second bike.

Graphics for the 2001 model.

There is hope however, with Honda (XR650L), Suzuki (DR650) and Kawasaki (KLR650) all bringing in a mid size dual sport with multi use capabilities. Of all the bikes just listed the cheapest, and probably most successful of the lot is the long lasting KLR650A model.

Since it’s introduction in 600 form, back in 1984, the KLR has changed little, yet has firmly established itself as a minimalistic, no frills and reliable bike, with a hard core following of enthusiasts around the world (including 2 of the CMG helpers).

For some this can cause a problem as the bike is hardly elegant. For one, it retains the blocky, sharp edged design from the eighties, and once you’re on board the suspension feels well saggy, the basic clocks sit behind a crude bikini fairing and the whole thing comes in any colour as long as it’s green. Actually our test bike was a 2000 model which sports a really horrible single shade of green. The 2001 model has a slightly happier green with splashes of graphics across the tank. Hey, they’re trying! But then what do you expect for $6,599.00??

RHS motor cover shows blanking plug for a kickstart. Bash plate is plastic, covering fragile waterpump on the rhs.

Well, I’ll tell you.

Getting on to the KLR you cannot but help notice what a tall bugger it is. With a seat height of 890 mm it’s among the tallest of any road bike. However, there is some sag in the suspension, which means that once your actually up on the seat, the whole thing drops down somewhat, but no doubt still a stretch for many. The seat, although quite wide for this type of bike, is also a bit on the hard side. I found that slapping a sheepskin over it, increased the time between rest stops and had the added bonus of making me the coolest looking dude on a bike. It did. Chicks dig that sort of thing. Don’t they?

Starting is by electric boot only. There is a blanking plug on the rhs of the motor, testifying to the fact that a kickstart may have once been standard fare, available now only as an aftermarket option. Once fired and warmed up the carburated motor responds well at low to mid rpms but tends to run out of go as the revs climb to the 7,500 rpm red line.

It’s adequate on the highway, but not thrilling. In top gear at 4000 rpm, the speedo shows an indicated 100 Km/h. In fact the KLR can cruise in relative comfort up to 120 Km/h, at which point that small bikini fairing ceases its protective qualities. Above 110 Km/h the front end also gets noticeably light. This makes the steering somewhat sensitive to input from the rider and/or the road, but you do get used to it. And that’s not at all bad if you happen to be one of those law abiding citizens that is happy at legal highway speeds .. which oddly enough do tend to be the type that buy these bikes.

Unfortunately the 650 cc motor is not a particularly happy chugger. Where it would be nice to slap it in top at low rpm and chug along on the power pulses, instead it tends to lurch fore and aft, much to the amusement (and odd pleasure) of my partner on the back. Thankfully there is a balancer shaft installed which does a reasonable job at cutting the vibes, although there are still some present, albeit of the non-numbing kind.

Where the KLR (and indeed all dual sport bikes) excel is in urban warfare. The high seat lets you see exactly where the gaps are ahead, the torquey single motor allows you to get to them in a hurry and the slim profile lets you get down gaps normally reserved for those other two wheelers that are sans motor. Hell, even the wide bars make one handed steering easy, allowing the other hand to be used to communicate with the cagers when they try their sad blocking manoeuvres in grid-locked downtown traffic.

The whistling pipe … and melted side panel.

My only complaint in these conditions was the exhaust pipe that gave off a weird whistling noise. Not too noticeable on the highway, but in town it would reflect off all the buildings, right back at the rider. If you believe that loud pipes save lives then you might like this added feature.

Talking of pipes, the one casualty of the test ride was the rhs panel that melted against the pipe. Granted, I had a set of saddlebags on the back which helped to push the panel onto the pipe, but I still see it as a design flaw. Yes, there’s a usable back rack on it, but if you’re taking off for a few days you need to be able to carry some kit. The odd shaped tank won’t allow a bag, so what else are you supposed to do?

In the dirt the KLR did well. Actually, I should expand on that statement. Dirt roads were a lot of fun. Dirt trails through the forest were not considered. With a set of more dirt oriented tires, it might fare well, but I wasn’t prepared to find out. On the gravel roads it could cruise along without much additional consideration needed than you would if you were on asphalt.

The suspension is definitely soggy. Grabbing a handful of the front brakes would cause the front to dive a bit alarmingly, even though the front brake was a bit sad. The single disc, single piston combination proving inadequate if you really had to stop, and stop really soon. On the other hand, the rear suspension gave no concernable problems and the brake was just about right.

It looks good but all that damn water went right up my leg!

Handlebar mounted hand guard’s are there to help protect your paws from any nasty branches. Since it’s unlikely that you’ll ever find yourself negotiating this kind of terrain on this bike, their primary use is somewhat questionable. However, they’re great on a chilly day at highway speeds to keep the wind off and hands warm. Add some heated grips and you’d never have to suffer frozen hands again.

Similarly, it’s also unlikely that you’d really be using the bash guard (except for maybe the odd squeegee kid), although it looks like it would do a reasonable job at protecting the engine and especially the water pump on the rhs (those nose rings can do some nasty damage you know).

Passenger wise it’s not bad, with a wide seat and enough space to the pegs to prevent leg cramping. There’s also a couple of built in hand grab loops for them in the rear rack. Oh and that reminds me, the toolkit is strapped into the top of the rack, which makes it extremely nickable to say the least. Oh yes, and the battery, fuses and air filter all require the seat to be unbolted to access them. What’s wrong with hinge and lock seats anyway?

All in all, the price can’t be beat for what you get. Granted, it’s worth spending a few extra bucks to bring up some of its shortcomings (see below), but it’s a great all-rounder and more bike than most people would probably ever need.


Aftermarket pipe gives more power and the Givi racks solve the luggage problem.

One of the CMG photographers also happens to have a KLR650. His 1993 model has what I would consider to be some funkier graphics but apart from a few minor factory engine mods and a switch from a black to gun-metal grey motor, not much has changed in the last 7 years.

However, much has changed to this example, which Wilfred has adapted to upgrade some of the bog standard KLR’s failings. For starters there’s braided brake lines front and rear (approx $75) which help to sharpen up the braking effect significantly. Also, the motor’s being subjected to a performance air filter and jet kit, along with a (rather loud) Cobra slip-on pipe (approx $50, $115 and $170 respectively). The net effect of all this is more oomph across the range, especially noticeable during 2nd and 5th gear roll-ons against the test bike.

He’s also fitted a heavy duty aluminum bash plate (approx $120) and a pair of hard bag racks (approx $120) which allow Givi bags to be mounted and thereby solving the baggage/melted side panel problem. Riding comfort can be increased by fitting a contoured and wider Corbin seat (although it does hamper dirt riding slightly), as well as a set of Progressive Suspension springs in the front, which give a firmer ride and better highway stability. Other smaller adaptations include an aftermarket centerstand (approx $150) to make chain maintenance a lot easier, a pair of Avon Griptsers (more street orientated) and a big set of honkin’ horns (for all the deaf cagers out there).

By my estimations that’s about $1200 of accessories, which would bring the total price of a new bike with these adaptations to $7,600. Still a bargain.

Not much has changed for the ’93 model (front) and the 2000 model (rear).

A couple of things to note that came up during Wilfred’s many years of ownership are a tendency for the gear shifter to break and a rather annoying oil leak from the output shaft of the gearbox. While these may or may not be common faults, the oil leak will require a complete engine strip down thanks to the vertically split crankcases, which is a rather expensive proposition to say the least. However, Wilfred can follow the leak back to when he had the bike serviced at a local shop, the result of which was an overtightened chain. This will cause significant pull on the output shaft and so the resulting leak from a deformed seal. While this could be seen as a progression of faulty maintenance, it serves as a reminder to take care, especially with dirt orientated bikes where long suspension travel requires significant chain slack. We’d be interested to hear from any other owners with similar complaints.

As far as rideability goes, Wilfred reckoned that he can max out at about 600 Km a day (with lots of breaks), which is quite usable. His only complaint was if he dropped it in the dirt (relatively common), in which case, even at 170 or so Kgs (wet), the bike can be a real bitch to get it back up and out.



KLR 650 A




651 cc

Engine type

Dohc single, liquid cooled


Keihin CVK 40

Final drive

Five speed, chain drive

Tires, front


Tires, rear


Brakes, front

Single 260 mm discs with single-piston calipers

Brakes, rear

Single 230mm disc with single-piston caliper

Seat height

890 mm (35″)


1495 mm (58.9″)

Dry weight

153 Kg (337lbs) (claimed)

Canadian colours

Olive Green

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