$3000 Streetbike Surgery: Kawasaki KLR650 Motorcycle

Making Your Pre-2008 Model Better Than New

By Brian Catterson, Photography by Joe Bonello

Kawasaki's KLR650 is one of the longest-running models in motorcycling history. Introduced as a 600 way back in 1984, it was upgraded and enlarged to 650cc in '87 and remained in the model line, largely unchanged, for 20 years. Finally for '08 it received a substantial makeover, with a more powerful and responsive engine, stiffer suspension, stronger brakes, firmer seat and taller windscreen. Even better, it retailed for a lowly $5349 (since upped to $5999) that made it runner-up in the Best Bang for the Buck category of Motorcyclist's annual Motorcycle of the Year competition. Yet owing to popular demand and the high cost of gas that summer, some dealers charged as much as $1000 over retail, which made it less of a bargain. And considering Kawasaki sold some 60,000 previous-generation KLRs in the USA alone, there are plenty of older examples to be had for much less.

The question, then, is can you make a 1987-2007 KLR650 perform as well as a 2008 and later model? And if so, at what cost? Those questions set the parameters for this project.

As one look at the various owners' forums will attest, KLR owners are among the most loyal and enthusiastic. They speak their own language, too, with cryptic references to more mods than Brighton Beach in the summer of '65. They're big on "farkles" and "farkling."

Before we could begin, we had to decide in which direction we wanted to take our '07 model. Did we want to boost its off-road capabilities to make it more of a dual-sport, or enhance its on-road attributes to make it more of an adventure-tourer? Considering that KLRs are among the few bikes we routinely see in the no-man's land between major cities (along with BMWs, Honda Gold Wings and Harleys), we settled on the latter.

The first order of business was improving the KLR's reliability. The Internet is rife with tales of the counterbalancer tensioner arm-lovingly referred to as the Doohickey"-failing. Even if it doesn't actually break, the adjustment spring can stretch to the point that the balancer chain jumps, taking the bottom end with it. Mike Cowlishaw of Eagle Manufacturing & Engineering makes a replacement Doohickey and spring that prevent this from occurring. It's not a simple installation, but most mechanically competent owners should be able to handle it by following the detailed instructions.

Another issue has to do with cooling. KLRs run hot in summer and cold in winter because all the coolant flows through a thermostat that doesn't open until 160 degrees. Bill Watson's Watt-Man Thermo-Bob kit relocates the thermostat downstream and adds a bypass hose upstream of that, so some coolant always flows through the engine. The result is quicker warm-up and a consistent coolant temperature of 185-195 degrees, which is less likely to lead to cylinder distortion. Watson also offers a temperature gauge overlay marked in degrees Fahrenheit instead of a simplistic range of Cold to Hot.

Reliability issues handled, we turned our attention to performance. All KLRs are carbureted, and jetted lean to pass emissions. The owners' forums are full of tuning recommendations on needle-shimming, slide-drilling and fuel screw-adjusting. Many owners have had success installing a KLX650 needle. Some have hogged out the top of their airbox; others have removed the door on the side. But the surefire fix is to install a Dynojet kit, which includes a new needle with variable clip positions, a selection of main jets, a couple of drill bits and easy-to-follow instructions. While we were at it, we slid in a high-flow K&N air filter as well.

By Brian Catterson
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