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.
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.
When 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.”
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.
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).
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.
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.