For most of human history, the word “technology” has been identified with progress. An ax made of metal instead of stone makes life easier and better. Just like refrigeration or power steering. It’s only in the past few decades that the scientific and industrial processes we’ve invented have created so much progress that it’s sometimes too much. All of the advancement has created a social construct that is, for the first time, seen negatively. And so instead of basking in the modern world, we yearn to unplug and disconnect.
For many of us, motorcycles are that conduit to simple joy and our own meditative state, but at the same time, they have advanced into staggering complexity. This is the age of $20,000 dirt bikes, after all. Not just fuel injection and cruise control, but cornering headlights, adjustable windscreens, heated seats, and shock preload adjustment with the click of a button. Fear no dirt road, as long as you have a friend to help you pick it up and a savings account for the repair costs. If you spend any time listening to the puffed-up coastal elites at magazines, it’s easy to forget that uncomplicated machines still exist, but they do. Brand-new, even, for less than $7,000.
This trio is a proper blast from the past. The venerable KLR650 from Kawasaki, first introduced during the Reagan administration, along with Honda’s XR650L and Suzuki’s DR650S, which debuted in the early 1990s. And they feel like it. Three 100mm bores mated to five-speed transmissions. No liquid-crystal displays, no light-emitting diodes, no fuel injection. They are uniquely unsophisticated in this day and age, and the farther you get from our modern world, the more at home they feel.
We’ll get to how these machines took on the multiday frolic through the woods, but it’s prudent to mention their street chops. To nobody’s surprise, the Kawasaki is far and away the most comfortable of the three, from the wide and comfy seat to the fairing that blocks wind and weather. Similarly obvious is that the Honda and the Suzuki feel less like ADVs and more like big dirt bikes. Along with the very tall seats (especially the 37-inch XR perch), the riding positions are surprisingly compact—lots of ground clearance means high footpegs, and the handlebars are rolled back in the rider’s lap.
Even if the multilane slab is a slog, 650cc of tugboat thrust means there’s enough power to get out of the way of traffic and, in the case of the KLR, trundle along indefinitely as long as you’re not in a hurry. The Suzuki’s engine is much smoother than the Honda, but the seat is worse on the DR. Then again, there’s no sense in complaining about the lack of refinement. That’s the whole point. The glass-half-full outlook is that there’s nothing to distract you in the cockpit. On the XR and DR, the brake line runs right across your field of vision, obscuring what little info is available on the hilariously small dashes. There’s not much action except a few jittery speedo needles and the KLR’s wild flourish of extravagance, a tachometer.
Point them the right way through suburbia and the road will fall apart. We climbed up and away from the city, diving in and out of coniferous woods on dilapidated fire roads, past abandoned campsites, and peered over reservoirs in the distance. The bikes skipped along, geriatric gazelles of the backwoods—comfortable in the surroundings but not fast. Waterproof boots were tested at creek crossings. Granola bars were eaten in the shade, and our phones stubbornly proclaimed “no service.” Dual-sport thumper heaven.
Getting frisky and pretending a meandering, washed-out dirt road is a stage of the Baja 1000 is delusional, and also the most fun on the XR650L. It might have something to do with Honda’s Baja pedigree. The 11 inches of suspension travel and the lightest weight (342 pounds full of gas) make the XR a capable off-roader. It’s oddly uncomfortable to stand on the pegs—probably because of the handlebar, which is, of course, an easy fix. It’s no KTM 350EXC, but it’ll brap and saunter pretty gracefully over just about anything with the right attitude. A long inseam will help.
The KLR is the sensible uncle of the group. Drive it into too deep a hole or catch flight and it will quickly remind you that, by gum, it’s an older fella whose knees aren’t what they used to be. To put a finer point on it, the KLR weighs almost 90 pounds more than the XR, rides 5 inches closer to the ground, and it carries more than double the fuel (6.1 gallons to the XR’s 2.8). The Kawasaki is liquid-cooled but loosely strung. There wasn’t anything the KLR couldn’t do, it just needed a little more time on occasion.
Suzuki’s DR650S falls somewhere in the middle, in specs and in feel. It’s about 20 pounds heavier than the XR, and with 10.4 inches of ground clearance, it falls right between the other two bikes.
Technically, the seat is a quarter-inch lower than the KLR—even so, Suzuki was quick to point out that there’s a lowering kit available. Practically, it feels a lot more like the XR, but smoother and more welcoming. As one tester put it, this is literally his grandfather’s dual-sport bike. And, to that point, it makes the plank of a seat even more perplexing. The Suzuki can be goaded into long wheelies and power slides in the dirt, and all the while it feels solid and ready for more. The more road-oriented tires seem to hint at the DR’s destiny, and maybe even all of these machines.
We thrashed them through puddles and over rock gardens, down sandy single-track, and along twisty tarmac in the mountains. Maybe it’s the testers in us, but the literal use of the bikes always felt overshadowed by what they represent. The grease monkey in the group pointed out the real tool kits, tucked in a nylon satchel somewhere inside each of the bikes. Archaic, sure, but it starts to soften the criticism of curb weight and pulling choke cables. The chivalry of being prepared to take off wheels or pull a spark plug is lost on modern bikes. Kids these days, all they care about is their screens.
We never intended to rank these bikes, frankly. Because 35 horsepower and 30 pound-feet of torque is the same no matter where in Japan it’s from, and the few hundred bucks variance in price is trivial. In the end, the all-millennial crew of testers on this ride were simply too overcome with love for the KLR. The asking price of $6,699 seems high until you consider the astounding capability—it’s $150 less for the DR and $200 more for the XR, incidentally. The Kawasaki’s legend is sturdy and proud, even among the YouTube generation (go ahead and search for “which dual sport motorcycle is right for you” and listen to the man in the bandana). All of these bikes are as simple as a hammer and just as reliable, so why the KLR?
Being more accommodating than two dirt bikes isn’t saying much, but scrambling over everything else that we threw at it is admirable and downright likable. Did it bottom out a few times? You bet it did—and it didn’t miss a beat. Did it stall on a steep climb? Hell no. It feels like the Earth will stop and rotate the other direction before a KLR stalls. Even if the rider’s dignity is lost paddling through a river or up a rut, there is a cosmic force that keeps the KLR’s engine lugging and chugging. Just enough technology to pull you along, no more. In the end, it’s probably not the capability but the versatility of the Kawasaki that always shatters our expectations—it can plod along willingly over almost any surface, freeway to mud bog.
The air-cooled duo is lovable too, but somehow less appealing by being more focused. Being really good at one thing is what new bikes do best, so this lot needs to be careful not to get typecast into a role where there’s a younger, more handsome face at the ready. The XR and DR are like athletic, middle-aged dads. Gray in the temples and faces weathered, but still in good enough shape to whoop your ass on the trail. And yet, even though the KLR is undeniably overweight and dorky, it somehow always holds its own. It’s almost as improbable as being on a showroom floor at this age.
The fact that any of these bikes are for sale feels like a miracle in its own way. The KLR has seen the most updates, and that’s arguably why it fits into this Jurassic niche more gracefully than the others, but it’s still a hacksaw in a land of power tools. For context, think about the genuinely innovative, interesting, and popular machines that this group have outlasted. A Yamaha GTS1000, or Ducati Streetfighter, or the Honda Hawk—all trying to be some kind of ultimate, and therefore trampled in the march of progress. It’s easy to laugh at spinning a knob to reset the barrel-type trip meter, but hey, it worked 20 years ago, and it’ll probably work 20 years from now.
These antiquated dual-sports are totally outgunned in every category except one: simplicity. They have been thumping along for decades at 46 miles per gallon, and with every year that passes, it becomes more likely that they’ll be back for another trip around the sun. Case in point, among the many features that these machines do not have, a clock is one. It’s quaint, and an allegory for these bikes in that they are oblivious to the march of time and able to transport us to an era where riding pants and jeans were the same thing. But it’s also a message to any and all of us living life on two wheels. Time is our friend, but a deadline can be the enemy. A stone ax might not be fancy, but it will get the job done.