There is no bike more closely tied to CMG history than the Kawasaki KLR650. Editor ‘Arris owned one (a few, actually, if you count parts bikes). Costa and Steve Bond had them, and so have many other hangarounds who worked or contributed to the mag short-term or long-term.
But, I’ve never owned one. Back when Rob and I worked out of the Sackville office, we’d often joke about the respective advantages of my Suzuki DR650 and his Kawasaki KLR650, but I was never tempted to buy one. When Kawi canceled the Gen 2 KLR in 2018, after a 10-year production run, I thought that was it—not just for the KLR, but for big thumpers in general. Surely it wouldn’t be long before the DR was also canceled, and then we’d all be doomed to an awful future of either riding parallel twin adventure bikes, or small-cc singles?
Turns out I was wrong. Kawasaki brought the KLR650 back last year, in new-and-improved form. Because the bike has sold so well (and because you live out on the east coast, in the middle of nowhere—Ed.), I haven’t been able to test-ride it until this spring. But, I’ve just wrapped up an extended test on the machine, and I can tell you: Finally, Kawasaki’s made a KLR I’d like to buy.
The new KLR is better in almost every area: Brakes, suspension, motor, and the bodywork are all improved.
The liquid-cooled DOHC single still looks, sounds and feels a lot like the old model, but Kawasaki added fuel injection. Now, it runs smoother, and makes more horsepower throughout the midrange, thanks to updated cams (max output around 40 hp at 6,000 rpm, and 39 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm, which aren’t remarkably different from the old numbers). Kawasaki also upped the charging system output to 26 amps, so you could run heated gear and accessory lights easily. The emissions system is cleaned up for the 21st century.
One very big change: The Doohickey. KLR owners know this internal engine mechanism (technically, the Balancer Chain Adjuster Lever) was a problem on Gen 1 models, and some Gen 2 owners still considered it a problem. The Gen 3 KLR sees this part re-designed; Kawasaki says it’s more reliable, but you can bet the aftermarket is already working on a replacement, should that prove to not be the case. Time will tell!
As for the brakes, the notoriously weak front disc of past models is replaced with a much-more-competent 300mm disc and two-piston caliper. ABS is optional.
There are no fancy-pants name-brand race-bred suspension components, but the rear shock is adjustable for spring rebound and compression damping (no adjustment on the telescopic front fork).
The new, improved bodywork is the first thing most people will notice. There’s a new rally-style fairing, with a lot more coverage than previous models—except for the Tengai variant, a sub-model Kawasaki sold around 1990, which had similar full-coverage plastic.
Other major and minor changes include a weld-on subframe (mated to a dual-cradle steel frame), LED headlight, wider footpegs, an adjustable windscreen, and LCD display (with speedo, gas gauge, tripmeters and clock, but no tachometer).
Kawasaki also pushes a strong accessories package for the new KLR, and will sell you an already-farkled bike, the KLR650 Adventure, with 21-litre saddlebags, fog lamps, DC and USB charging ports and crash bars already installed. The Adventure model is $9,999 with ABS, $9,699 without. The standard KLR650 is $7,799 with ABS, $7,499 without.
Going into this test, I only knew two things: The new KLR is heavy for a 650 dual sport, even heavier than the outgoing 2008+ model (219 kg at the curb, for the non-ABS Adventure model). And, I heard the engine was much easier to live with on the highway. I’d say those were the first two things I noticed, when I took the bike out for its initial ride around the neighbourhood. Pushing the bike out of the garage, it was noticeably top-heavy when filled up with gas. Firing up the engine and rolling away, the weight was no longer a problem, though; instead, I was impressed with this updated single-cylinder.
Just like the previous versions, you can braaaap your way into a wheelie right off the line in first gear, and you don’t need to abuse the clutch. However, when you’ve picked up speed, you’ll notice that you’ve got traditional thumper torque, but as much of the usual thumper buzz. This KLR doesn’t shake, rattle and roll as the rpms rise. In fact, you’ll get more vibration from lugging the engine than you will from winding it out.
That means it’s an excellent touring bike; Kawi’s engineers obviously designed this machine to run along the highway all day at 110 km/h, or even faster where legal. Except for the KTM 690 series, I’ve never had another big single that I’d jump on and ride for hour after hour at speed without getting worn out by vibration eventually. The new KLR is easy to live with for long rides, without the expense of the KTM equivalent.
Of course, it’s got far less horsepower than the KTM as well—around 35 less. But, does that really matter, to most KLR owners? It does not. It would be nice to see this machine pick up more jam, but it is sufficient for its intended task, and comes at a very affordable price. For most KLR buyers, that’s enough. The only performance complaint I had with the engine was the five-speed gearbox; a six-speed would have drastically improved this machine. I also found the rad fan blew quite a bit of hot air on my left leg when stuck in traffic on a hot day.
The bodywork and seat are well-matched to the adventure touring task. For me, the seat was 100 percent comfortable at all speeds, all day long. I haven’t found another Japanese dual sport this comfortable in stock form, and the large fairing keeps most of the windblast at bay.
On the highway, this bike offers almost as much comfort as a middleweight touring bike, with plenty of dead air behind the windscreen. The plush suspension matches the easy-to-live-with engine, seat and fairing, fending off the battering of back-road potholes.
Pick up the pace, and that suspension is still OK on pavement, but you’ll notice its deficiencies off-road. This machine isn’t made to hoon around through the whoop sections. There’s potential here; the bike is fine for firm gravel road riding, but the tires (Bridgestone Trail Wings) are aren’t confidence-inspiring in loose gravel (surprisingly decent in sand, though!). Replacing the rubber would be the biggest off-road performance upgrade you could make, and since the stock tires seen to be wearing down at a very quick rate, you’ll likely have to replace them sooner rather than later anyway.
Otherwise, you’d want to install wraparound handguards to protect your knuckles, and the bike’s levers, if you planned to do much off-roading. If you want to ride off-road fast, a better skid plate (made of aluminum) would be a must-buy, and probably some sort of metal crash cage for the engine and lower fairing. There are several such units already in production, including Canadian-made options from Dirtracks.ca and made-in-the-USA parts from Happy Trail.
If you want to ride off-road fast? You’d probably want to put new suspension in, too, or at least upgrade the front fork while spending considerable time tweaking the rear settings. But that’s not what this bike is really about; if you want to push your dual-sport down single-track, buy the KLX300 instead.
At end of test, I’d taken this bike down everything from forestry roads to deserted, potholed back roads to four-lane highway, and it ate it all up. I think I’m finally ready to move on from the DR, as long as my financial manager (aka, my wife) approves. That might take a while.
Which one would I buy? Probably the standard model with the ABS option. The Adventure comes with great foglamps and the accessory plugs are also handy, but I wasn’t a fan of the cases. They held up fine against torrential rain, and the quick-detach function was slick (although I did find one of the cases finicky to install/remove) but I’d want something more solid for long-term use, especially if I planned on a lot of gravel road riding. Already, the aftermarket provides solid rack options, allowing you to attach sturdy luggage that would hold up better in a crash.
Many riders aren’t going to ride their KLR to James Bay, though—they just want a versatile, utilitarian machine for beat-up Canadian back roads. The pre-farkled Adventure model will definitely appeal to that set, especially because there’s a backlogged wait period for any accessories after you buy the bike, not to mention install time. The KLR Adventure is good to go off the showroom floor, if you add a large waterproof bag to the tail (the sidecases hold enough clothes for a few days, but there’s little room for a tent or other camping gear). You just won’t get anything else set up like this for $10k (plus taxes and fees).
So, Kawasaki’s got a winner here. It’s probably the best deal on an all-round bike for non-urban Canadians. The only question is, can Kawasaki bring enough bikes in to meet demand? Let’s hope so!