They say: "The bike that does it all."
We say: "And then some!"
An old adage holds that some things get better with age. While that may be true, some things don't change much at all. It's only our appreciation of them that changes. Such is the case with Kawasaki's KLR650. Introduced way back in 1987, the middleweight dual-sport went virtually unchanged for 20 years before receiving a long overdue makeover in 2008. For 2014, it's been further refined.
The KLR650 actually traces its roots to the 1984 KLR600. That model was kickstart-only, which hindered sales. When three years later the KLR650 arrived with electric start, it was an overnight sensation. To this day it remains the best-selling bike in its class.
That 2008 makeover saw the KLR receive more modern bodywork including a frame-mounted fairing, a new headlight, a new instrument panel, revised suspension with a larger diameter (41mm vs. 38mm) fork and reshaped swingarm, upgraded brakes with petal-style rotors and a two-piston rear caliper, and more. The troublesome counterbalancer idler shaft lever (a.k.a. the "Doohickey") was also updated at this time, cast as one piece rather than welded together.
Which brings us to the 2014.5 KLR650, dubbed the New Edition. What's so new about it? Not much: Revised suspension settings and a reshaped seat are the only mechanical changes. But as another old adage holds, the parts sometimes add up to more than the whole.
To sample this latest KLR, Kawasaki invited journalists on a three-day ride from Las Vegas to Death Valley and back. Total trip distance was around 500 miles, about half of which was off-road.
It seems odd nowadays to turn the ignition key on a motorcycle and not see flashing lights and sweeping needles. There are no engine modes to select, no anti-lock brakes or traction-control systems to fret over. You just turn on the petcock, actuate the bar-mounted choke lever and push the "magic button." That done the KLR fires instantly, producing an unhealthy-sounding combination of piston slap and rod knock. But the liquid-cooled, 651cc single is rock-solid and will probably continue to make that racket for 100,000 miles or more.
On road, the KLR is a capable tourer. The riding position is all-day comfortable, helped by the new, firmer seat, which is narrower and rounder in front but wider and flatter in back. Wind protection is more than adequate, and there are myriad taller windscreens available for those who want more. The motor is fairly smooth-running, thanks to dual counterbalancers, and while tall overall gearing helps reduce vibration, a sixth speed in the transmission would help further—a few 75-mph highway drones with the engine spinning around 4500 rpm had my fingertips tingling. On one deserted stretch I tucked in behind the windscreen and saw an indicated 95 mph, with no hint of instability. That's damn fast for a single! And since it holds 6.1 gallons of gas, the KLR can theoretically go more than 300 miles on a tankful—twice as far as its Japanese competitors.
The KLR works just as well off-road, and better than ever thanks to its revised fork and shock. The stiffer springs and firmer damping soak up bumps big and small, with only high-speed g-outs using up the 7-plus inches of travel. The only time I wished for softer settings was on the washboard dirt road to Death Valley's so-called Racetrack, where rocks mysteriously move across the playa, leaving tracks in their wake. It's a testimony to Kawasaki's build quality that we didn't leave nuts and bolts in our wake!
Earlier we climbed a technical jeep trail to the top of 7700-foot Wheeler Pass. There I appreciated the narrower seat front, which made it easier to dab, as well as the plastic hand guards and skid plate, which took quite a beating from the cacti and rocks. But I didn't much care for the wide gas tank that prevented me from standing farther forward on the bike, nor the bulging sidepanels that dug into my calves, Also, the solid-mounted steel handlebar transmits sharp jolts straight through your wrists, and the rubber-covered footpegs proved slippery. And again a six-speed gearbox would have been beneficial, as the bike was awkwardly between first and second gears for much of this stretch.
Those nits aside, the 2014.5 KLR650 has to be considered a winner. It doesn't quite live up to its New Edition billing, and I've got to believe there are buyers who would pay a premium for a more modern machine with more of what adventure-tourers want. But considering that the KLR has always been a bang-for-the-buck leader, and this latest version costs just $100 more than the base model, Kawasaki is probably wise to leave that to the aftermarket.
More than any other machine, the KLR650 perfectly bridges the gap between dual-sport and adventure-tourer. The fact that it remains a bargain just makes us appreciate it that much more.
||Steel-tube semi-double cradle
||KYB 41mm telescopic fork
||KYB shock adjustable for spring preload and rebound damping
||Nissin two-piston caliper, 280mm disc
||Nissin single-piston caliper, 240mm disc
||90/90-21 Dunlop K750
||130/80-17 Dunlop K750
|Claimed curb weight
The best-selling 650cc dual-sport just keeps on keeping on.