On the map it looks like one more intriguing twisty bit running through the Santa Lucia Range between California's arid midsection and the Pacific Ocean. The actual 16 miles of pavement you traverse to get from one to the other are a different story. For 99 percent of the motoring public, the 16-mile narrow-gauge confusion of potholes, kinks, coils and blind switchbacks is an exercise in abject terror. Gold Wing? Forget it. Ducati 1098? Notify your next of kin. But on Kawasaki's latest KLR650, it's paradise.
Sitting 35 inches above said surface behind dirtbike bars takes some getting used to. Acceleration is, shall we say, underwhelming. But somewhere between breakfast and lunch this big, gawky apparition doesn't feel big or gawky. Bumps, roots, holes, stray patches of dirt and Ducati bodywork are minor annoyances. And though the apoplectic unfortunate who tried this so-called road on a 1098 will never admit as much in public, the KLR is impossibly quick up here. "Mustabeen Mike Metzger...yeah, that's the ticket...on a...KLX450 supermoto weapon...or Scott Russell...or Bigfoot." Nothing like a little delusion to dull the pain. Perhaps a little crow for dessert?
The truth is either more painful or gratifying, depending on your point of view. Coined shortly after the discovery of internal combustion, the KLR650 earned legions of loyal followers over two decades of production. Like Coca-Cola, Vise-Grips and Peter O'Toole, the best-selling dual-sport in the business didn't change much because it didn't need to. At least not until Kawasaki market prophets saw sales jump 31 percent in '04 and 68 percent in '05. Add an escalating interest in travel and touring among free-spending baby-boom types and pretty soon there's a spike in e-mail traffic between product planning and engineering. Time to give the olde axe a bit of a grind, eh?
Scrap the dysfunctional bits KLR devotees have railed against since Gorbachev and perestroika: limp brakes, painfully soft seat and suspension to match, maddening vibration and dismal wind protection. But keep the all-purpose nature of the beast, that nifty luggage rack and the ship-o'-the-desert 6.1-gallon fuel tank along with the rational bottom line. At $5199, the '07 KLR650 was a bona fide steal for anyone who could live with the aforesaid quirks. When you figure the original cost $2999 in 1987 dollars, $5349 for the new one isn't even keeping up with inflation.
Kawasaki claims 50-odd differences between the '07 and '08 models-from warmed-up cams and more efficient radiators to nicely legible instruments inside this year's frame-mounted fairing, actual brakes and fresh suspension-all responses to KLR customers that should attract buyers who wouldn't have given the 20-year-old soldier a second glance. And while the check-writing public hasn't weighed in yet, the result looks more like a new '08 than some dusty refugee from the Reagan Years.
It rides better than most modern motor-cycles as well. Kawasaki lists the same 35-inch seat height for both bikes, but subtracting a bit over an inch of travel from the beefier 41mm fork and just under an inch from the shock drops the firmed-up seat a half-inch on our tape measure. There's an inch less ground clearance as well. The subsequently lower center of mass is part of what makes the latest KLR a much better streetbike.
The latest iteration is a bit easier to throw a leg over, with a view from the bridge that's more aesthetically and ergonomically pleasing. The new fairing makes the new bike easier to look at while making a home for the new dual headlights. To keep them lit, alternator output jumps from 14.5 to 17 amps. That means 36 watts of juice on tap to heat up the his-and-hers electric vest combo. Switchgear is refreshingly conventional, and comfortably broad levers replace those excruciatingly skinny ones. Firmer urethane keeps one's gluteus from taking on a permanent impression of the seat pan.
The steel-tube frame and time-honored steering geometry are status quo. An extruded-aluminum swingarm in place of the old box-section steel bit shortens the wheelbase a little and creates a much more rigid, cooperative package. Stout new wheels are a big part of that, laced with 4mm spokes in place of the previous 3.5mm ones. Factor in those beefier fork legs and you have a much more direct chain of command between grips and contact patch on any surface, and a refreshing increase in front-end feedback.
I can see why the KLR has such a cult following: It's a simple, solid motorcycle that's genuinely versatile. The ergos fit me well and it's comfortable enough for relatively long hauls. The new seat is pretty good. The handlebar and controls are a bit old school, but 100 percent functional. Power is adequate in the lower gears, but the single feels wheezy up top. There are more ponies lurking in there somewhere, and plenty of companies can coax them out. That muffler is a massive piece, but at least it's quiet. Despite clean, lean factory jetting, carburetion is quite good. More horsepower would have been nice along with all the other '08 changes. Then again, being cheap and reliable has its advantages.
height: 6' 3"
weight: 210 lbs.
Inseam: 32 in.
I'd never ridden a KLR before as I don't circumnavigate the globe that often, but I was pleasantly surprised by how fun this bike is on the street. You can see over the top of monster SUVs and could probably ride all day with that comfy perch. Once you get used to the fact that you're not going anywhere too quickly, and that even with its redo it's still no looker, this is a bike that should be perfect for those trips where both street and dirt are involved-say camping or tagging along with Ewan McGregor.
height: 5' 10"
weight: 165 lbs.
Inseam: 33 in.