Kawasaki KLR650E – Test Ride

Kawasaki revamped their sabre-toothed KLR650 for 2008. CMG wanted to see how she’d fair in the dirt – both in stock and with a few bolt-ons for the more gnarly stuff.


Words: Rob Harris, Photos: Rob Harris unless specified



When Mr. Lewis broke off his  shifter during the 2006 P-D, Team CMG picked him dry. A year later ‘Arris took the KLR …
photo: Richard Seck 

I only own one bike now and it’s a KLR 650. It’s the original ‘A’ model, replete with dented tank, lozenged radiator, dirt stained sky-blue seat and even some electric pink “KLR” lettering still clinging on to the scarred swing-arm … but then it is a 1991 model (thus the sky-blue and pink).

Thanks to the KLR’s ubiquitous nature, there’s a whole world of aftermarket accessories available, allowing the owner to either err it towards the world of dirt, or toward road-based touring or perhaps even that of worldly traveller.

I took mine down the path of dirt/urban but despite the application of stiff aluminium bash guard, bark bashers, Progressive fork springs, cleated pegs and a spare set of wheels (shod with aggressive knobbies of course), the KLR still does not a dirt bike make. It’s heavy, lacks zip in the motor and is prone to trip-terminating damage when dropped.


KLR 650E gets a new look.

But still, despite – or maybe because of this – I still love her. So it
was with great interest that I read about the new KLR650E.

Slated as a 2008, but released midway through 2007, the E model gets a complete revamp but keeps most of the main parts from the A, just with a lot of tweaking. However, the thing I really wanted to know most was just how would this change its dirt characteristics.

A call to Kawasaki later and I had a lovely new E model to go and find out for myself! But before I go any further, let’s take a quick look at what said tweaks have been bestowed on the new KLR …


The KLR 650 has been around forever. Okay, since 1987, but that’s 20
years which is no mean feat for any motorcycle. It was born out of the
KLR600 that only had two years under its belt before getting bored out
and slapped with the ginormous 22-litre fuel tank that has come to
signify the KLR650A.


Seen here with some off-road mods fitted.

There have been some minor modifications along the way – mainly limited to engine tweaks – but apart from the occasional colour change, you’d be hard pressed to spot the differences over the years … that is until now.

The 2008 KLR 650E sees the first major redesign with most parts getting a dusting of thought. The obvious is with the styling that gets a much-needed makeover with a chopped front fender, larger fairing, rad shrouds (though the 22 litre tank remains), wider seat and fatter rear rack. It all works and brings the KLR into the 21st century, looks-wise at least.

Mechanically, pretty well all the main parts get a tweaking – the suspension sees beefier forks (up 3 mm to 41 mm), stiffer springs and a new aluminium swing-arm, the front brake gets a bigger wave disc and an additional piston in the caliper, and the motor gets a boost in midrange thanks to new cam timing, transistorized ignition (replacing the old CDI unit) and one-piece pipe. Oh, and the cooling system gets a more efficient rad too, but no obvious additional protection.


How well will she take to the dirt?
photo: Jim Vernon

Okay, so ultimately this is not a major redesign; it’s a very extensive series of tweaks, but if Kawasaki has managed to keep a bike in the best seller lists for 20 years, why would you want to throw the baby out with the bath water? (unless it was teething … then I can personally testify that this might be a good course of action, but I digress).

The big question (for me at least) was how would the new KLR perform in the dirt? After all, I have all the aftermarket parts on my ’91, and if I managed to return it to Kawasaki HQ without dropping it, they’d be happy too …


DIRT EXCURSION ONE – Standard trim


With the Dunlops, this is about as tough as she’ll cope with!

Picking up the bike from Kawasaki in Toronto I’d timed it to coincide with a Rally-Connex ride from just north of the city. It was slated as a relatively easy romp through some trails and gravel roads and I thought would prove the ideal test of how she copes with easy dirt in standard trim.

Not well – even without hitting mud, in bog-standard trim the KLR is, well, a bit scary. The standard tires feel all too eager to wash out on even light gravel, never mind muddy patches, where they quickly fill up with goo and slide around like a drunken pervert in a Vaseline factory.

Even dropping the pressure to 20 psi sees no discernible improvement and after I have an incident with the rear wheel going one way and the front the other (leaving me parked upright but in the bush) I realize that in order to see how the new KLR really copes in the dirt, a few modifications are in order.


Time for a tough bash-plate, cleated pegs and knobby tires.

Although both the KLR and myself survive the day intact, the obvious
issue here is with the standard Dunlop K750 tires. There are actually a few pretty good road-legal dual sport tires out there that would cope much better with this day’s ride, so I’m not willing to write off the E on this day.


With the KLR safely back in Montreal, I went about seeing if any of the off-road mods I have for my ’91 would fit and thus solve three important issues:

1) Grip – I like my knobbies to be widely spaced and street legal (so that you can get to and from the trails). Being a Yorkshireman I also like them cheap, and so opt for Kenda Trackmasters at a mere $120 (a pair).


Rox Speed bar risers give the bars a much needed boost.

2) Protection – My aluminium bash-plate and cleated pegs transferred
directly onto the ’08, although a redesigned front bracket means that
the bash-plate is a bit of a tight fit.

I’d also like to add some bar bashers (Emgos at $60 a pair work well), but that would involve cutting off the ends of the grips which I thought wouldn’t look so good when the bike went back. Besides, I wasn’t going to get that rough, so didn’t need them anyway … did I?

3) Bar Risers – Unless you’re of short midriff then you’ll likely find that the bars are too low for serious dirt riding (’cause you need to be able to stand up). Luckily I had a set of Rox Speed bar-risers kicking about that were duly fitted.

Okay, that’s that done; let’s take her into the Laurentians to see how she performs.



Better dirt tires make a world of difference.
photo: Jim Vernon 

As I’d thought, the more aggressive tires allowed the bike to be pushed much harder without fear of washing out. Before long I found myself with the bars turned out and bike arching sideways, as the gruntier motor spun the rear wheel and I tore through gravel corners with ease.

With grip at last, I could push the bike hard into the trails and without fear of engine damage as the expansive bash-plate bounced off rocks and over felled tree trunks. The beefier front forks kept the front end significantly more compliant than the old spindly units of before, which needed a set of Progressive springs and a good fork brace before they would do something remotely fork-like.

Although the suspension has been lowered for the 08 model, Kawasaki claim that they drastically reduced the amount of sag (the amount the suspension sinks just when the rider gets on) and so the usable suspension is about the same.

A quick measurement between the two KLRs seemed to disprove this, though I didn’t have any issues with lack of clearance on the trails (which is officially down 29 mm), though this could be down to the taught and significantly improved suspension.


Motor gets extra zip.

Another pleasant surprise is that the updated brakes actually work. Anyone who has had the misfortune to try and haul a KLR650 to a stop from a good rate of knots will be only too aware of the adrenal gland release, copious swearing and large sigh of relief as the front brake takes its sweet time to do much of anything at all.

Problem solved with a larger diameter disc (up 20 mm) and a two-piston caliper (yes, it used to have only one!).

The rear gets the same upgrade treatment and although I feared that two pistons might make for an overly aggressive rear, it’s very progressive in its action and doesn’t lock up at the hint of foot pressure.

Add to all this a very light clutch, positive gear shifts (non missed or false neutrals) and super slick box (making the clutch optional) and the new KLR upgrades all seem good.



Now you can even stop …
photo: Jim Vernon

Having the old-style KLR I was very interested to see how Kawasaki would approach a redesign of one of their most iconic motorcycles. The fear was that they’d either redesign it too much and lose its soul, or not enough and miss an opportunity to tweak all the little issues that have been on the old model for too long.

Well, hats off to them as they hit the nail on the head with a good stylistic update and all the right technical improvements to boot. The whole package feels a lot tighter (thanks to the reduced travel and beefed up suspension), the brakes now work (no more “squeeze and hope”) without being overly aggressive in the dirt, and the extra oomph in the motor gives it a much-needed additional spark across the rev range.

If like me you like to take your KLR into the dirt, then a few simple mods (with a lot of the current stuff fitting right on) will make it into a usable off-road machine. I didn’t have the opportunity to see how the new expansive side fairings would cope with a dumping – which is good.


The KLR650E gets the ‘Arris seal of approval.
photo: Jim Vernon

They cover a lot more than the old style panels and look stronger (the old panels would just bend in and transfer any force directly to the rad!). But I fear that they may fare worse and still offer little rad protection. Still, they look pretty.

All this leads me to wonder why Kawasaki haven’t taken the next logical step and come out with an “adventure-ready” version. Pegs, bash-plate, more aggressive tires, and some rad/crash guards would suffice. Or even take it further with optional aluminium side bags, and taller and adjustable suspension. Okay, that’ll add a few grand to the price tag, but other companies do it, and with 20 years of being the global rider’s bike of choice, why not make it official?

Of course, at a claimed 175 Kg (dry), it’s still no off-road bike, but if you’re looking for something that can be used for shooting around town, taking on a tour or slapping on some knobbies and exploring the back woods, the KLR650 is a really difficult bike to beat – and you get it all for just $6,599.00!





four-stroke dohc single,

(crank – claimed)
43.4 bhp @ 6,500 rpm

37 lb-ft @ 5,500 rpm

40 mm Keihin CVK


Five speed,
Chain drive

90/90-21 (54S)

130/80-17 (65S)

Single 280 mm disc with dual-piston

Single 240 mm disc with dual-piston

890 mm (35″)

1480 mm (58.25″)

175 kg (465 lb)

Candy lime green, Blue, Sunbeam


  1. Northern Ontario is full of secondary highways and logging roads. It just makes more sense to get a KLR. Is the doohickey still an issue with the ’08? (and if so, why won’t Kawasaki give it a factory fix?)
    Curious minds want to know…

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