The Kawasaki KLR650 is a single-cylinder relic of the Cold War Era.
Sitting on a Kawasaki KLR650 ($6,599) for the first time is like time travel. There’s a choke on my left, analog gauges up front and a stiff mechanical throttle on my right. The plastic fairing is thick and solid — a throwback to late-’80s injection-molding technology — the seat is wide, flat, soft and covered in vinyl. Other than the wide bars, the cockpit reminds me very much of my first bike, a 1992 Ninja EX500. It’s been sitting cold, so I choke the beast and switch on the electrics. The needles don’t dance and there are no LEDs. The 651cc four-stroke single fires on the first try. I let it warm a few seconds, free the carb and drop it into gear. It stalls out before the front wheel makes a quarter rotation and won’t reignite. Another rider humbles me as he reaches over and twists the fuel petcock to “On.” Like I said: time travel.
I’m surprised by how easily this thumper gets up to interstate speed. It’s nothing blinding or grip-the-bars-for-dear-life fast, but before you know it the beak chatters and the speedo needle crests 70. I had always had doubts of its slab-cruising abilities, so I push it to 75 — then 85. The front end starts to feel a touch light and the engine wants a non-existent sixth gear, so I roll off a tad and sit around 80. Maybe the flux capacitor had kicked in, but I doubt it. I settle in and find a comfort zone.
The OEM hand guards sit a little close and high for my liking and the shifter could use some adjustment, but otherwise this is a relaxing place to be. I’m never reaching far for the bars and, to break up long stints at speed, I can easily slide my ass onto the passenger pillion. Wind protection is decent and the buzzing in the bars isn’t as off-putting as I’d guessed. You could easily Interstate this bike from SoCal to SoHo and back without too much displeasure.
Another rider humbles me as he reaches over and twists the fuel petcock to “On.” Like I said: time travel.
Not that you’d want to. You’d miss out on too much fun — as well as the point. There are no “aha!” moments to be found on blacktop when riding a KLR. There are no revelations grinding pegs along roads like the Dragon’s Tail or Ascari Bend. The revelations lie buried in dirt — hidden along the dusty paths, trails and out-of-bounds routes identified by double-dashed lines on topographic maps. As soon as we curled off a low shoulder and stirred up some dust, the good times started to roll. Staying light on the bars and steering with my legs, the KLR feels intuitive. Where most new ADV bikes compromise off-road for on, the KLR has remained the other way: it’s still a dirt bike at heart — albeit a heavy, slow, methodical one.
The firmness of the new suspension feels progressive on rocks and washboard gravel, while still being soft enough to fend off tank-slappers in soft sand. It absorbs the most jarring thuds, although — if you’re not careful — it can still bottom out. Despite being plastic, the OEM sump guard deflects most terminal damage. Here again, the game is not about speed — a reasonable pace is rewarded. Just toe-up into second or third and let that one piston pound through everything: with a deft clutch hand it’s virtually unstoppable.
Sand, gravel, rocks, ruts and smiles. This is the reasoning behind the Kawasaki KLR650. Its why Kawasaki keeps it low tech. Why its engine remains carbureted. Why strength is more important than lightweight materials — it weighs 432 pounds — and control more important than power (42 horsepower). Motorcycle riding is always about the journey, never the destination. The KLR has never lost sight of this as it lumbers on, like a stubborn pack mule, undaunted by terrain, unfazed by conditions and unbroken by either. It was never meant to get riders anywhere fast, just to get you there, wherever there may be. This is why we crowned it one of our bikes of the year last year. That, and of course its price. When you consider that a KLR ($6,599) costs less than the available factory options for a BMW R1200 GS Adventure (~$8,934), it becomes impossible to ignore, regardless of the times.