The end of Big Thump

By the look of things, the dinosaurs may be about to become extinct, and I’m not talking about the triceratops or velociraptor. I’m talking about 650 cc dual sports.

For almost three decades now, the 650 class has been the pinnacle of the on/off-road segment, for good reason. Bikes like Kawasaki’s KLR650, Suzuki’s DR650, Honda’s XR650L, and other similar models have long offered a unique blend of capability and affordability. But that might not be available for much longer.

The writing is on the wall, it seems: none of these bikes have received significant upgrades in years. Suzuki just marked the 20th year of Bold New Graphics for the DR650 line. Some KLR models have updated springs and seat, but otherwise the model is unchanged since 2008 (and people are still fixing the infamous “doohickey” woes, too). The real senior citizen of the class, the Honda XR650L, is basically the same as the bike that debuted in 1992.

Yamaha hasn’t even bothered to sell a big thumper in North America for many years, and it recently announced the XT660Z will be discontinued in overseas markets. A quick look around the UK’s manufacturer websites indicates none of the other Japanese 650s are available for sale there, and neither is BMW’s G650GS. It’s a similar story in other Euro countries.

Face it, 650 thumper fans – your favourite motorcycles appear to be on the chopping block.

The Yamaha XT660Z -- supposedly the best single-cylinder adventure bike ever made, but we can't tell you that for sure, because it never made it to North America and CMG therefore never tested it. And now it's canceled.
The Yamaha XT660Z — supposedly the best single-cylinder adventure bike ever made, but we can’t tell you that for sure, because it never made it to North America and CMG therefore never tested it. And now it’s canceled.

The reason

Why is the 650 single-cylinder platform in decline? Two words: Emissions standards.

First off, the 650s, with their comparatively large bore, are going to pollute more, since the cylinders tend to deform when heated up. This results in oil burning, which in turn increases emissions. Smaller cylinders mean less pollutants.

As an example, check the California Air Resource Board’s comparison of the Kawasaki Versys and KLR, both 650s. It appears the single-cylinder KLR produces twice the hydrocarbons per km that its parallel twin cousin does, and six times as much carbon monoxide.

versys-650-pollutantsWhen they canceled the XT660Z, Yamaha laid the blame on the upcoming Euro4 emissions standards, as its big thumper wouldn’t meet the new guidelines.

It’s not that single-cylinders can’t be made to meet emissions guidelines – with some work, they can, and KTM/Husqvarna wouldn’t be developing their 690/701 if that wasn’t the case. But as Scott Colosimo, the mastermind behind Cleveland Cyclewerks (and veteran of years of dealing with the EPA on single-cylinder emissions standards) says, “The only way forward for big singles passing current and pending emissions is with EFI, catalyst (which is common on all bikes) and air injection in most cases, which raises the price significantly, and adds complexity.”

Modern big-bore enduros like the Husqvarna 701 platform require a lot of work to meet emissions standards.
Modern big-bore enduros like the Husqvarna 701 platform require a lot of work to meet emissions standards.

Case in point: When the Husqvarna 701 Enduro was unveiled last fall, it had a fair bit of electronic trickery on-board, which in turn drives up the cost.

But it appears that, at least for now, BMW and the Japanese aren’t interested in making more complicated and expensive 650 duallies, so they’re not developing the current platforms any further. And that’s understandable, as the current 650s were mainly selling on price point, and versatility/reliability.

What next?

So, if the big single-cylinder street-and-trail models are headed for the chopping block, what will replace them?

It looks as if most manufacturers want to keep a small-displacement dual-sport in the lineup. Kawasaki doesn’t have anything here in the 250 class, but all the other Japanese OEMs do (Yamaha has three!). While they don’t offer the speed and power of a 650, the current crop of 250s all have an excellent reputation for reliability. Many are being pressed into not just around-home usage, but even around-the-world riding (see the adventures of Steph Jeavons, for example).

Small 250-class duallies will remain in the lineups for customers who want a true street-and-trail bike, at least for now.
Small 250-class duallies will remain in the lineups for customers who want a true street-and-trail bike, at least for now.

But of course, the 250 class doesn’t have enough power to keep many people happy, so the manufacturers will have to come up with a Plan B to replace the 650 thumpers.

For now, it seems the solution is to raid the parts bin and create adventurized versions of their mid-range parallel twins. We know Yamaha is planning a Tenere version of the FZ-07 (spy shot here). Honda’s had the CB500X on the market for a few years now, and this year, it’s been very keen to publicize the Rally Raid products that turn it into a proper off-road-capable bike. Suzuki now has a V-Strom 650 with wire wheels. Even KTM, the last company to show a keen interest in big singles, is reportedly working on 500 cc and 800 cc parallel twins, to be slotted into a new line of adventure bikes.

These changes will likely create mixed feelings with dual sport and adventure riders. The new engines run more smoothly than a big single, and may make more power and even offer better fuel economy, but there are trade-offs with weight, complexity, and cost.

Parallel twins like the CB500X seem to be the manufacturers' answer to emissions standards. Bye bye, big thumpers!
Parallel twins like the CB500X seem to be the manufacturers’ answer to emissions standards. Bye bye, big thumpers!

Curious of his opinion, I reached out to Chris Scott, author of the Adventure Motorcycling Handbook and several other handy works on adventure travel and general motorcycling. Scott is often credited with actually coming up with the term “adventure motorcycling,” and has spent decades traveling the world’s wastelands by bike – he’s traveling quite a bit on 250s right now, but he’s owned many big single-cylinder bikes in the past, so he’s familiar with what they have to offer. And he doesn’t think their extinction would be a tragedy – he finds his current small-displacement rides are lighter and easier to manage off-road.

“I am definitely over 650 singles as they are now,” Scott says. “On the dirt, the big single power pulses make nadgery sections awkward where the CB-X twin rolled through smoothly. A single of 450 or less or a twin up to 650 will do me nicely. I can see myself flitting between the two in the coming years.”

If Chris Scott can be happy and work with parallel twins and small single-cylinder bikes, anyone can make it work.

But still, the end of the big thumper will be a bummer for many riders, myself included. For years, the 650 dual-sports were the preferred bike for Canadian riders who wanted a machine that could handle commuting, off-roading, and even long-distance adventure riding with ease. But get ready for it: Unless BMW or one of the Big Four creates a new 650 duallie or significantly upgrades an existing model, the current crop is the last we’re going to see.

68 thoughts on “The end of Big Thump”

  1. Had a KLR and a DR…loved them both but lived my DR air cooled 650 hands down…too many rides in the stable to appreciate it and so I let it go…

    1. Lol I just saw this comment now, but I saw that feedback. Kinda funny getting all that hate. I have a DR650 and love it. A DR350 too!

  2. Well I personally think that Kawasaki,Honda and Yamaha are all the same quality because the 650s are very good
    at there job and my dads KLR 650 has been in good shape since he bought it.
    He has also got a BWS 100 in his garage and he has kept it for like 30 years or something.

  3. Eh, I think the Japanese just have a lot more profitable vehicles to develop. (Including side-by-sides that sell for $30,000, Jet-Skis, snow-mobiles). If they felt there was a market for a new 650cc dual sport they could easily build one that met emission reqs.

    KTM has street legal 450cc, 500cc and the 690 (and all come in “Husky” rebadged versions too). Beta has a 500cc dual sport for sale here too.

    The reasons for needing a 650cc have declined. The 500cc KTM’s have more power than the old-school 650cc Japanese bikes, and being smaller can weigh a lot less. If you have the cash something like the KTM 500cc is the ultimate “dirt bike with lights” that dedicate dual-sport riders have been lusting after for 30 years. It’s here, now, and other than the $10K price there is nothing XRL-650 can do better.

    The KLR is more a poor-mans dual sport. There are a lot of ways to get to that, but the BMW 800cc twin weighs about the same but has way more power and better integrated luggage.

  4. I just rode Baja last March on a KTM and Honda America gave Lawrence Hacking a brand new 650 to ride with us. Brand new one,…so not sure where the rumours are coming from. It looked just like my friends early 90’s one also,…speaking of not changing much. I rode behind him a bit doing video,…he took a side sand trail and I shot him from the road. I think about a third into it,…and we have him riding out of the motel room on it and doing eddies on the sand beach. LOL https://youtu.be/IQzruhZJies

    1. You’ll see the 650 singles in the lineup for a while yet. They aren’t likely to discontinue them next year. But the evidence seems to indicate that once they’re pushed out by regulations and/or flagging sales, that’s it. No more big thumpers for you, unless you want to buy a pricier Euro model.

  5. Honda HAD a 650cc liquid cooled 4 stroke mounted in an aluminum frame in the early 2000’s. Where they missed out with the XR650 was they didn’t deign to give it electric start. Had it been so-equipped it may have provided them with the long range platform to prove this article wrong. Alas…..

    As mentioned KTM (and thus Husqvarna) produce a technologically advanced large displacement single that seems to perform and sell well. I guess the niche doesn’t offer enough return on investment for the largest manufacturers.

    Personally, I wish KTM would bring the Free Ride 350 to Canada. I LOVE trail riding and my KTM 530 and I just don’t seem to be on the same page. I just want to go out and explore and fool around and it seems to have more serious intentions.

  6. The KLR has got to be closer than the other two…it has liquid cooling and air injection…add a nice little EFI system and better exhaust and it can keep thumping til the next ice age 🙂

  7. Have an XT660Z. Really love it. Stopped production last year worldwide because engine will not meet Euro 4- but the comments are right- it has a cat and is efi- which is why klr not sold in Europe. But Yamaha could do it and make it euro 4- just everybody seems to either want more powerful twin adventure bikes for touring, or lighter 450 and below singles for trail riding- so in Eurpoe and Africa the singles do not sell well.

    1. I used to have a G650 xCountry, it was a great bike but wasn’t suited to fun touring once you got back on the road. At highway/motorway speeds it lost it’s amazing fuel economy, and while it would sit at 70mph all day, it wasn’t fun to do so. On trips to Morocco and South America I would have been better served by something with a little more power.

      The DR650, KLR, XT660 had even less power (so does the Honda CB500x), so can’t imagine what they would have been like continent crossing, even if you have all the time in the world.

      Personally I look forward to a new range of twins with around 70-90 bhp.

  8. Zac – good article! Definitely food for thought. With that said – the big singles are still very popular on travel sites like ADV. Why? Because they are cheap, get the job done, are cheap, reasonably easy to maintain, cheap, have adequate power, use ancient technology, and are easy to fix if something goes wrong. Oh – and they are cheap. The best big single I’ve ridden? A BMW 650 Dakar. Super smooth, and very good power compared to the DRs and KLRs I’ve ridden. Would take it over a DR650 or KLR650 any day because I’d rather ride something that smacks of some technological progress. I know, I know, fuel injection is more complex than a carb, and injectors break down constantly when out in the middle of nowhere, and when you can get FI to work, on those rare occasions, it achieves much poorer fuel efficiency than carbs, won’t start in freezing temperatures (unlike carbs that miraculously start immediately with hardly any choke under any weather condition), and fuel injection doesn’t compensate for changes in altitude in the mountains – unlike carb that can be re-jetted instantly without any inconvenience.

    Well…… at least that’s what I’m learning from the big DR and KLR riders online……Maybe Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki engineers read the same forums and have been swayed like me to suddenly believe that modern technology and fuel injection is a huge step backwards……

    1. Have to take issue with your statement that “carbs can be rejetted instantly.” Rejetting my KLR was at least an hour process as the fairing shrouds and tank had to come off to access the carb and if you didn’t have the proper bent needle nose pliers, you’d break the plastic choke cable end wiggling the carb. Definitely wouldn’t want to do it anywhere but my garage and certainly not on the trail. If you had an extended air mixture screw (as I did that I put on when I installed the KLX needle and rejetted it), you could fiddle with the mixture and idle speed easily on the trail but that’s about it.

      Further to Zac’s article, saying the KLR pumped out twice the emissions of the Versys just because it was a single vs a twin is misleading. The Versys has EFI, which helps in those tests.

      Yamaha dropped the XT660 likely because the FZ07 Tenere is on the way – it’s likely been in development for four or five years so they actually do long term planning.

      I’ve ridden a CB500X with the full Rally Raid kit and it’s a great bike – I would’ve swapped it for my KLR in a heartbeat but….. when you add the cost of the bike and the kit, you’re into nine grand or more.

      And finally – I don’t really have a dog in this fight as I sold the KLR last month.

      Let’s talk Triumph triples. 🙂

      1. I generally agree. My posting was mostly tongue-in-cheek. Some people just love carbs and make claims about them that border on the miraculous – and they continue to keep a straight face when discussing how they are so superior to FI in virtually every way. That’s what I was trying to communicate. And I completely agree about re-jetting. I suppose on some bikes it’s possible to re-jet in a minute or two. Just not on any carbed bike I’m familiar with.

        What I liked about Zac’s article is that it raises an important question. Why haven’t Honda, Kawasaki, and Suzuki updated their large singles? If updating these bikes and meeting emissions requirements is as simple as throttle bodies and injectors – why hasn’t it been done yet?

  9. One of the worst articles I’ve ever read. If you don’t know your ear from a hole in the ground about engineering, then stick with the touchy feely articles about riding in the mountains with only the sound of your heart beating in your ears. It probably has a hollow echo.

  10. A lot of fallacies here… If “large cylinders” were the problem with emissions, then 1200 twins would be just as extinct, as they have two 600cc cylinders. What about HD’s 1600cc twins?
    It seems to me that not having fuel injection is more likely the cause for the difference in emissions.

    Also, quite a false dichotomy with the “if we can’t have 650 only 250 will do. What about the 400, which in my opinion are the absolute perfect advice displacement, for best of both worlds? The writer doesn’t even mention it.

    Finally, the “adventures” street machines such as the CB500X don’t come near the off road capabilities of the mentioned thumpers. Shouldn’t be mentioned as substitutes.

    Anyways, if there won’t be any newer bikes of this category, I’ll keep using old ones till my dying day. I see plenty of people adventuring on 2000’s KLRs, or even 1990’s.

    Out with the new, in with the old!

    1. Not sure what the “fallacies” are.

      The emissions tables are fact.
      The XT660Z cancellation is fact.
      The years of unimproved DR650, KLR650, XR650L, are fact.
      The disappearance of the BMW 650 from our market, and much of the Euro market, is fact.

      Of course a 400 would be a better replacement than a 250. But quick, tell me, how many Japanese manufacturers sell a 400-class duallie? And how long has that model been in their lineup, unchanged? The 350/400 class is dead, and has been for many years. KTM doesn’t even sell the Freeride 350 here.

      And of course Harley-Davidsons have huge air-cooled cylinders. That’s why you see them developing new liquid-cooled platforms:
      http://canadamotoguide.com/2014/06/10/streets-costa-rides-harley-davidsons-new-500-750/
      http://canadamotoguide.com/2016/08/23/harley-davidson-milwaukee-eight-engine-debuts/

      And of course the CB500X and KTM’s new twins will not be as good off-road as the 650s, nor did I for a second imply they would be. It’s the same as the current crop of 250s that are arguably not as good as the ones they replaced. But that doesn’t change the facts.

      If you love your KLR or whatever big single you ride, good for you. I like my DR650 a lot. I think it’s the best bike for the money in North America, and when I bought it, most of the big-name US motojournalists had one. Doesn’t change the fact that emissions regs are going to render it obsolete.

      😉 It’s why I’m stockpiling parts for my DR350. Obsolescence is no match for the compulsive part hoarder!

    2. I agree with you Dan, I’d be down with a 400cc and never look back to 650. Especially if it turned out to be some rendition of a CRF450 DS or similar.

    3. It’s the Rally Raid stage 3 conversion, for Honda’s super reliable CB500(X) platform, that is being referred to here. A very competent package. It’s been rated as more capable than a KLR off road.

  11. Every machine is in the process of being eliminated from the day it’s born. Some just last longer because they struck the right balance. Just saw the 2017 DR650 pictures… yep, BNG as it’s been for the last 21 years. If euro trends had any indication of the machine’s demise this article would have been better posted about 20 years ago. Of course emissions will be the final blow for the machines with carbs and air cooling. Until then the MFG’s can enjoy nearly clear profits from machines that really don’t need updating in the minds of the people who purchase them.

  12. I agree that emissions standards are an important consideration for the manufacturers, but there are certainly more variables at play.

    If, for example, a particular model is selling exceptionally well – you would logically expect any marque to at least consider broadening the audience base. One exception might be Honda – in that case, you should expect them to curtail flooding the market with a hot seller, so as to minimize the cross sales with their other – less popular products.

    Here’s an interesting comparison between Yamaha and Kawasaki – one of the subject motorcycles is not sold in North America, the other is not sold in Europe.
    I believe we can speculate the reason Yamaha’s XT660 is not sold in North America is the comparative cost to other offerings – the bike has FI and most likely a catalytic converter. Perhaps they feel the motorcycle would not be competitive in our market of readily available 650s. These are the same normally apirated models that somehow manage to pass the strict California emissions standards.

    The KLR is not available in Europe – I’ve been told that non FI bikes have not been available in the UK for many years – I’ll let others do the research if this is accurate or not, though I have no reason to doubt the teller.
    Again, that would suggest emmissions standards play an important role in available model considerations.

    As for how can the carb’d models pass CA emissions? Three words – lean, lean and lean.
    The stock configuration on my XR650L produced the whitest spark plugs you’ve ever seen.
    The fuel/air mixture is so lean, it’s a wonder the motorcycle could run at all; in fact, it barely did.
    There is a strong market to correct this injustice, with readily available kits for all brands. I can say from experience the results are very pleasing.

    I have a newer, shinier, much lighter and more powerful off road motorcycle since the beginning of this year.
    After having ridden it for an entire season, I can still say that my XR650L will not be leaving home anytime soon – there are many things it does better than my Beta 390RR – all of them away from single track and gnarly offroad sections, but still – that leaves an awful lot of riding.

    1. Billy – how much would you pay ?
      The big singles are cheap because they’re old technology.
      Its a great idea, let’s hope they build one.

  13. And yet Europe is shortly getting two new thumpers; the AJP PR7 and the SWM Superdual. Both are from relatively tiny companies using the old Husky 630 unit but have got through type approval inspections, implying that it is not so very difficult to modernise these engines. There just needs to be a large enough ground swell of demand.

    1. Good point about the old 630 being reused. I seem to recall reading that as long as a small manufacturer expects to sell less than a certain amount (as AJP and SWM will, compared to the Japs) they get a pass on the full emissions regs. Could be wrong.
      I’m currently on a WR250R – but only because there isn’t a WR450R or a CRF450L and probably never will be. They stopped importing the Dee Arr Zee Four hundirt here nine years ago (same as the WR – but that was due to price). I hear the SWM Shineray 440cc engines are pretty ropey. A similar 400 Mash I tried felt no faster than a CRF250L.

  14. You could make a 500 twin or 650 twin with the klr ergonomics. It would sell like hotcakes. The kle was never in North America for some stupid reason and would have outsold the klr imo

    1. Would always be weary to claims of lower displacements, performance and mpg! Smaller engine performance usually comes at higher rpm, leading to lower torque, soreness in mpg and more wear and tear on components!

  15. SWM with their 500 and 650 and AJP with their SWM powered PR7 to the rescue.Sadly a recue can be expensive and in the case of Canada might not be possible.

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