Since 1987, the Kawasaki KLR650 has plowed a furrow through the motorcycle landscape, and endearing itself to riders looking for a simple, functional motorcycle. Is it the the John Deere of the motorcycle world?
If we’re talking about American iconography or cultural reputation, Harley-Davidsons are more akin to John Deeres as the ubiquity of allegiance-announcing bumper stickers and T-shirts of both brands suggests. But if we’re talking about tractor-like performance and reliability, the KLR makes a case for being the JD of the motorcycle world.
Legions of fans of the green brands are fiercely loyal. That said, motorcyclists’ loyalty is hard to win. The average suburban homeowner buys a John Deere because of the name. The motorcyclist buys a KLR because 31 years of very little change means that you really know what you’re getting. Other than an update in 2008, the KLR is the same old single-cylinder bruiser it’s always been. When you buy a KLR you’re buying what Kawasaki is selling: an affordable, gets-the-job-done motorcycle without pretense.
IMU-managed traction control, semi-active suspension, and variable valve timing are effective (and awesome), but not strictly necessary. The motorcycle world has moved beyond the KLR. And, it must be said, the agricultural world has moved beyond the stereotypical conception of a simple tractor. These days, top-end John Deeres are as far removed from the old days as a Kawasaki ZX-10RR is from a Z1. GPS-guided tractors with computer-aided tillage technology may fit a field with amazing precision, but that doesn’t make an old John Deere 4020 with a moldboard plow obsolete.
When a KLR takes its rider from highway to single-track without flinching, modern tech seems an extravagance.
And so the KLR, by its tough-as-nails, not-gonna-change hardheadedness, keeps alive an image of vigor and simplicity that people expect out of a tractor and covet in a motorcycle.
When a machine inspires tall tales of its worth, you know it’s endeared itself to its users. You’ve heard the stories. Like the one where the rider runs out of gas miles from anywhere and pees in the gas tank, which amazingly proves high-test enough to get the stranded rider all the way to the nearest gas station. “What a machine,” the guy says as he looks wistfully into the distance. This story always makes me more worried about the guy’s diet than impressed with the bike’s alleged indiscriminance re: combustion fluid, but no matter.
The point is, when a machine’s utility merits little revision and inspires a coterie of yarn-spinning followers, it’s doing something right. On second thought, maybe it’s not precisely a compliment to dub the KLR the John Deere of the motorcycle world. It would be more fitting for John Deere to brag about being the KLR of the tractor world.