Ride It To
Kawasaki first sold the KLR in 1987 for the meager price of $2999. Today the KLR costs $6499, meaning it’s just barely outpaced inflation. How has Kawasaki done it? Autopilot. Save for a few very minor updates along the way and one pretty significant one in 2008, the KLR is essentially the same sledgehammer of a motorcycle that it was 26 years ago. But the bike just plain works. Make no bones about it; on the route from Fairbanks to Tierra del Fuego, you’ll see just as many KLRs as BMW GSs.
Hello ‘90s! In 2008 the KLR got a new dash that still looked outdated, with the same funct
Closer to home, the Kawasaki is perfectly at ease during the daily commute. Ample legroom, a soft seat, compliant suspension, a luggage rack, and a tall stance that lets you see over traffic make the KLR a good commuter. Beneath the 6.1-gallon gas tank, a fairly ancient 651cc single thumps away with all the charm of a Briggs & Stratton. There’s no powerband to speak of, just a mild stream of torque that pushes you off the line with the pace and resoluteness of a Greyhound bus. At least the Kawi crushes the competition in terms of range. While the Husky and KTM are sucking at the pump after 120 miles or so, the KLR will cover 200 miles before you need to flip the petcock (yes, petcock) to reserve. The Kawasaki is also the most comfortable. Wind protection is excellent thanks to that funky fairing and hand guards, and vibration is reduced to mild reverberations thanks to dual balance shafts.
At speeds below 15 mph, the front end feels heavy and vague, but steering effort decreases with speed and the Dunlop K750s proved plenty grippy while connecting corners above Castaic Lake. A 36-inch-wide handlebar offers plenty of leverage for cranking the 433-pound rig through turns, but soft suspension demands smooth brake and steering inputs if you don’t want to get seasick. The only thing you can get away with using lots of all at once is throttle, since the Kawasaki’s maximum output is just 35.3 bhp at 6200 rpm. We only had one serious functional complaint about the KLR, and that was its habit of dropping out of second gear and into neutral while decelerating, which was more of a problem in the dirt than on the street.
The KLR worked well on the highway and back roads, but nobody expected much of it in the dirt. We were surprised. The chassis is predictable and extremely forgiving, and since the motor makes so little power, the rear Dunlop is more likely to dig in and thrust you forward than spin and step out. Relaxed geometry means the front wheel is less likely to push. When it does, the event happens slowly and is easy to recover from, just open the throttle. The engine is happy to lug and nearly impossible to stall. The KLR’s suspension has sufficient damping in both directions to keep the bike’s movements fluid and relatively in control. You can cover some pretty tricky terrain on the big KLR, but don’t expect to keep pace with the Husky or the KTM.
Frills are nearly non-existent. The all-analog gauges, carburetor, and simple suspension are so 1987, but the KLR’s abilities belie its size and age every step of the way. It’s still one of Kawasaki’s best-selling bikes—and a top choice for intercontinental dual-sport riding on a budget—for damn good reasons. Its place on the street-biased end of the dual-sport spectrum is secure.