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.
Below the surface, changes are subtle. Alterations to the antediluvian, 651cc torque pump aim at maintaining horsepower output despite emissions rules that put a catalyst in this year's exhaust system. New intake porting leads to a more efficient combustion chamber with a twinge more compression. The net result is a bit more power than our '07 testbike all the way from just above idle to 6200 rpm, where it peaks with 37 bhp. The '07 needs another 400 rpm to make 37.2 ponies. The new engine manages more torque with less rpm: 33.4 lb.-ft. at 4950 rpm vs. 32.2 at 5850. So far, so good, but there's a catch...
All those new parts add up. At 432 pounds with a full tank of gas, the '08 KLR is 22 pounds heavier than its predecessor. And considering its modest output, acceleration is something less than mind-bending. Our testbike blew through the Los Angeles County Raceway timing lights in 14.81 seconds at 85.97 mph vs. 14.73 at 85.31 for our '07. The old campaigner is a half-second quicker from 0-60 mph and feels a little lighter around town, but that edge evaporates at the end of the quarter-mile. Assuming you're in no spectacular hurry, those new parts also add up to a much better motorcycle.
Still choking on the power thing, Billy? Step into the big-single mindset. It's all about rheostatic torque here. Our '08 KLR made 95 percent of its peak at 2900 rpm. Wind it to redline if you must, but there's enough thrust between 2000 and 6000 to stay well ahead of most four-wheelers and make the first-rate five-speed gearbox mostly redundant. Steering isn't especially quick, but lowering the center of mass an inch or so takes away some of the top-heavy feel that comes with having 30-something pounds of unleaded between your knees. Having twice the travel of the average streetbike takes some getting used to too, but the ride is excellent: compliant, well damped and there's a whole lot less chassis pitch on the brakes. Whoa-power won't impress those accustomed to dual discs and four-pot calipers, and they need a healthy two-finger squeeze, but these brakes are to what came before as Fernando Alonso's are to Fred Flintstone's. Just remember to ease up when the front tire begins to howl.
Theoretically, the KLR has always been capable of going 290 miles or so on its 6.1 gallons of unleaded, but this one is comfortable enough to actually go that distance on purpose. With a little help from '08-spec bar-end weights, the counterbalanced single is smoother than it's ever been. A bit of buzz sneaks into the tank and pegs when the speedometer needle strikes 80 mph in fifth-that's 5200 rpm on the tach and 72 mph according to our radar gun. A clock and fuel gauge would be nice. Otherwise, the new instruments are a huge plus. With a little help from bigger handguards, wind protection is genuinely first-rate.
Though it can't match the twin-cylinder Suzuki V-Strom's pace on the straights, maintain your momentum and the KLR covers that diabolical confusion of potholes, kinks, coils and blind switchbacks a whole lot quicker than 37 horses should be able to thanks to sure-footed suspension and a long, stable chassis. Dunlop K750 all-surface tires were more impressive in '87 than '07. Still, they hang onto the pavement well enough to wear off a set of footpeg feelers as long as you can abide a little slide now and again.
They're genuinely horrifying for anything but relaxed skidding around in the dirt, which is no great hardship considering "432-pound dirtbike" is the same potentially painful oxymoron it was 20 years ago. Tattoo that on your frontal lobes and the KLR is a fine all-surface explorer. Stiffer springs and a new Uni-Trak link mean you use up less travel on the '08 despite the fact that there's less of it. Less ground clearance means going around logs and rocks the '07 goes over, and more bodywork means there's no such thing as a minor tip-over anymore, so don't.
For those of us who can't quite settle on one kind of riding or rationalize a garage full of motorcycles, the KLR650 proves one big cylinder is still a viable alternative to all- surface behemoths that can weigh 100 pounds more and cost three times as much. Someday, there will be a better way to lower the price of high adventure and still have a 50-mpg ride to work Monday morning. For now, it's the KLR.
Kawasaki klr650 price: $5349
It's not the sort of change that shows up on specs sheets, but fattening up the old 3.5mm spokes to 4.0mm makes for a much more direct connection between handlebar and the surface du jour.
Revised combustion chamber design and slightly more compression give the catalyst inside the new one-piece exhaust less to do. New intake porting keeps combustibles moving quickly to boost bottom-end power. Thinner rings cut oil consumption.
Stiffer spring and damping rates at both ends make the new bike much better behaved on the street than its ancestors. The only real shortfall in the dirt comes from diminished ground clearance, making it easier to prang the undercarriage.
BrakesThe biggest single improvement comes from brakes that actually stop the motorcycle without multiple downshifts and/or divine intervention. The new dual-piston front caliper makes most of the difference. We found the rear oversensitive, and what happened to the folding pedal?
Losing a bit of suspension travel puts the latest KLR a bit closer to the ground. We found the new cockpit roomier and more comfortable all the way around, assuming your jeans show an inseam measurement near 32 inches. The package hasn't changed much. A higher bar sits a bit farther away, and there's a tick less legroom. All told, the '08 package is a sizeable improvement 90 percent of the time.
Engine type: l-c single
Valve train: DOHC, 4v
Bore x stroke: 100.0 x 83.0mm
Fuel system: 40mm Keihin
Clutch: Wet, multi-plate
Frame: Tubular-steel double-cradle
Front suspension: 41mm fork
Rear suspension: Single shock adjustable for pring preload and rebound damping
Front brake: Dual-piston caliper, 280mm disc
Rear brake: Single-piston caliper, 240mm disc
Front tire: 90/90-21 Dunlop K750
Rear tire: 130/80-17 Dunlop K750
Rake/trail: 28.0 /4.4 in.
Seat height: 35.0 in.
Wheelbase: 58.3 in.
Fuel capacity: 6.1 gal.
Weight (tank full/tank empty): 432/395 lbs.
Measured horsepower: 37.0 bhp @ 6200 rpm
Measured torque: 33.4 lb.-ft. @ 4950 rpm
Corrected 1/4-mile: 14.81 sec. @ 85.97 mph
Acceleration 0-60 mph: 6.27 sec.
Top-gear roll-on 60-80 mph: 7.3 sec.
Fuel mileage (high/low/avg.): 50/39/47 mpg
Colors: Candy Lime Green, Sunbeam Red, Blue
Warranty: 12 months, unlimited mi.
Contact: Kawasaki Motors Corp.
9950 Jeronimo Rd.
Irvine, CA 92718
Though underwhelming in terms of sheer peak output, the big banger makes almost as much muscle at 1200 rpm as it does at 6200. It gives up a bit of steam to the old KLR on top, but you won't care. Props to the engineers who managed to clean up tailpipe emissions on a carbureted engine without lousing up that linear flow in the process.
What's mean, green and drinks kerosene? HDT-USA's 100-mpg military diesel apoleon would have told you an army runs on its stomach, but since British Mark 1 tanks ran over the Germans at Cambrai in 1917, fuel has become as vital as food. Making everything on the battlefield burn the same stuff streamlines the logistical nightmare of modern warfare, so NATO made it a goal in 1984. A U.S. Department of Defense edict declared diesel the primary fuel for air and ground forces in April 1999. As of 2005, the Navy locked in that single fuel concept by halting the transport of gasoline.
That's a predicament if, for instance, you're the United States Marine Corps Commandant looking at rows of gasoline-burning Kawasaki KLR650s. The search for a diesel-burning fleet led to a contract with Hayes Diversified Technologies (www.hdtusa.com) in Hesperia, California. Though primarily a military contractor, HDT had some experience on two wheels, having sold and raced Penton motorcycles under the Metco banner in the '70s. After delivering more than 2500 motorcycles to U.S. and allied forces, HDT was the logical source for a diesel-powered KLR.
Switching to so-called "heavy fuel" offers other advantages. Diesel is less flammable, simpler to refine and produces more energy per liter than gasoline. Plus a single designed to ingest kerosene-based combustibles should get twice as many miles per gallon of anything from NATO Military Spec Diesel Fuel to JP4 or even simple kerosene. But designing a stone-reliable engine that digests such diversity while spinning fast enough to meet military performance requirements is considerably more difficult than upping the compression and swapping the spark plug for a glow plug.
Working with Cranfield University in England, F1 Engineering in Hesperia and others, HDT developed a 611cc KLR derivative-fed by an ingenious indirect fuel-injection system that allows lower combustion pressures and a lighter engine-that makes a claimed 29.6 horsepower at 5700 rpm along with 33 lb.-ft. of torque at 4200 rpm. The M103M1 being built for the Marines weighs 369 pounds dry, complete with MilSpec upgrades. It gets from 0-60 mph in 9.7 seconds and can click along a bit beyond 90 mph. That gets it from A to B a bit behind a civilian KLR. But the diesel gets 96 miles from a gallon of aviation kerosene (a.k.a. JP8) or biodiesel at 55 mph. That means upward of 400 miles from the 4.2 gallons in its roto-molded, plastic fuel tank.
Though it's currently engaged with military production, HDT has civilian designs waiting in the wings. Looking much like a production KLR650, the D650A1 Bulldog uses essentially the same 611cc single as its warrior brothers, but takes 10.6 seconds to hit 60 mph from a stop and can cover 600 miles on one 6.1-gallon tank of petrol or biodiesel. With the price of gas these days, that may be the most popular specification of all.