Test Ride: Kawasaki KLR650

Words: Bertrand Gahel Photos: Kawasaki

2008 Kawasaki KLR 650

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2008 redesign keeps the basic package but improves just what needs doing.

Models that have been around for a long time without significant updates aren’t that uncommon in motorcycling. But for a bike to still sell so well after some two decades on the market without any significant change describes a situation essentially unique to Kawasaki’s ubiquitous and economically priced KLR 650 dual-sport. Even more extraordinary is the fact that for the past few years sales have actually been picking up!

While some could see this situation as the perfect excuse for delaying an expensive makeover, Kawasaki did the opposite and decided to bring out the second generation of its KLR 650 as a 2008 model – but which is available now.

This is a risky move, as makeovers can add significant costs to a model and the KLR 650 has already established itself as an affordable workhorse amongst its loyal user-base. Thankfully though this is a moot point and the way Kawasaki chose to update its trusty thumper is nothing short of brilliant.

SMART AND ECONOMICAL

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Bert contemplates his own off-road route …

Let’s face it, nobody ever perceived a KLR 650 as some kind of luxury item. From day one, it has embodied the cheap, capable and rugged — and, admittedly, a little rough around the edges — way to go anywhere on two wheels.

At the recent press launch Kawasaki showed complete faith in their new model, offering it up for a 600 km joyride through twisty, bumpy and unpaved California roads and trails. After an exhilarating ride I determined that the 2008 is exactly what the old KLR was, only better. Way better.

Oh, and get this: at $6,599.00, it costs just $100.00 more that the ’07 model.

The way Kawasaki was able to both drastically improve the KLR and keep its price low is relatively simple: keep what’s working (especially if it’s expensive stuff like engine and frame), and change what’s getting old and outdated (especially if it’s a relatively cheap and easy upgrade like suspension, brakes or seat). The hard part was making everything blend together into a motorcycle that would feel all new, but that’s exactly what Kawasaki did.

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It’s hard not to enjoy California.

Getting off the old KLR650 and jumping on the ‘08 version, differences are major and immediately noticeable. First, thanks to about a one inch drop in suspension travel, the seat height is lower, making it easier to get onto for the average rider. Being quite a bit firmer as well, that new suspension (larger, 41 mm fork and new swingarm/rear shock combo) has the KLR diving way less under braking and generally behaving amazingly well on twisty pavement, even at a fast pace.

Talking of brakes, they have been vastly improved with “petal” brakes and new two-piston calipers front and rear, although I sometimes found the rear too easy to lock.

On some of the tight, curly and bumpy back roads we rode between Monterey and Cambria in California, I felt like the new KLR plain-and-simple owned the environment. As a matter of fact, I just can’t think of another bike that would not only have been able endure the combination of such an intense rhythm and bumpy pavement, but would have also done it in such a seamless and pleasant way.

Comfort is probably the single biggest improvement on the new KLR. For starters, the seat is now much better, especially over long distances, and the new fairing and windscreen provide a lot more wind and weather protection without the annoying buffeting of the first generation bike.

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Brakes have been beefed up although maybe a little too much for the rear.

But what impressed me the most is how much smoother the engine feels — it’s also crisper and torquier — considering the 650 cc single is by no means a new design: aside from new cams & piston, reworked intake porting, a new carb and new engine mapping, what you’ve got is very close to the original motor.

Combine those improvements with suspension that still soaks up everything you can throw at it along with a riding position that’s all but ideal, and what you have is a bike genuinely capable of crossing long distances made up of all kinds of terrain in surprising comfort.

THUMPINGLY GOOD

Although one could wonder why Kawasaki chose to go through all the trouble of designing a new bike without fitting fuel injection, there’s nothing to criticize about the new TPS equipped carb setup. Actually, there really isn’t much to criticize about the new KLR 650 at all!

It would seem to be common business sense to not mess with a successful formula. In this case, Kawasaki didn’t mess with that formula, it made it a better one, and on every single count, all the while leaving pricing basically untouched.

Job done!


FROM THE NMBG …
by CMG staff

The KLR650 is another model from Kawasaki that’s been basically unchanged for two decades – 21 years, specifically, as the new version just announced will be badged as a 2008 model (though it will be available in 2007).

On first glance at the specs, it looks like the machine has been functionally moved toward street and away from dual-sport use, particularly in the loss of suspension travel, 30.5 mm less at the front and 20.3 mm less at the rear. On the other hand, Kawasaki insists that the off-road ability of the bike isn’t compromised, adding that spring and damping rates are firmer and the effective seat height with the rider on board is unchanged.

Also more street-looking is the front brake, a 280 mm petal rotor that looks very much like those on the sport bikes. New calipers are fitted at both ends, with the front getting a much needed twin piston jobbie. There’s also a new swingarm, beefier front forks and stiffer wheels.

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Rear rack gets wider.

The rear luggage rack is larger, a narrower tail section supposedly makes mounting saddlebags easier, and all-new bodywork includes a taller windscreen for better protection. The fuel tank is still a hefty 21+ litres, so it should still go forever between fill-ups. In that line, the seat is said to be better (that would be nice …), and a higher-capacity alternator is fitted to deal with a brighter headlight and “stuff” – GPS, heated grips, etc. – that many if not most riders fit.

The basic strong-like-bull engine returns with minor changes to ignition mapping, TPS, cam timing, and a reprofiled cylinder head, all said to improve both low and top-end power. The radiator is thinner and lighter and the new exhaust pipe is now a one-piece.


SPECIFICATIONS

MSRP

$6,599.00

Displacement

651 cc

Engine type

four-stroke dohc single, liquid-cooled

Horsepower
(crank – claimed)

43.4 bhp @ 6,500 rpm

Torque
(claimed)

37 lb-ft @ 5,500 rpm
Tank capacity
23 litres

Carburetion

40 mm Keihin CVK

Final drive

Five speed, Chain drive

Tires, front

90/90-21 (54S)

Tires, rear

130/80-17 (65S)

Brakes, front

Single 280 mm disc with dual-piston caliper

Brakes, rear

Single 240 mm disc with dual-piston caliper

Seat height

890 mm (35″)

Wheelbase

1480 mm (58.25″)

Dry weight
(claimed)

175 kg (465 lb)

Colours

Candy lime green, Blue, Sunbeam red
Warranty
12 months

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