For 21 years the KLR650 has ruled the dualsport class, and sales have remained strong despite the bike’s unchanging nature. The only question for Kawasaki: Did the KLR650 need to be radically changed, for the sake of change?
That Kawasaki’s KLR650 hasn’t seen much change over the past 21 years isn’t in itself that unusual a situation—there are other motorcycles out there with equally lengthy production runs.
However, that it keeps selling in surprisingly high numbers year after year despite comparative technological handicaps definitely is uncommon, not to say unique.
Kawasaki’s good old thumper has actually sold so well over the past few years that no one could blame the manufacturer if it had chosen to use this success as the perfect excuse to delay an expensive makeover. But Kawasaki decided to go in the opposite direction, using this particular period in the KLR’s history to release the second generation of what has become the industry’s most popular dual purpose bike by a very wide margin.
The manufacturer could have easily turned that decision into risky business by improving and changing the KLR to such an extent that price would have significantly increased, effectively taking away from the model one of its most attractive features: affordability. But Kawasaki wisely resisted the urge to do too much to its trusty thumper. Wisely, because the KLR650 has never been regarded as a luxury item. From day one of its production existence, it has embodied the cheap, capable, rugged way to go anywhere on two wheels. It must be said though, the KLR has always been perceived as a little rough around the edges.
The purpose of this second generation, identified as an ‘08 model and now available on dealer floors across the country, is to accomplish everything the original KLR did, only better. In May, Kawasaki invited members of the motorcycle press to southern California to sample the big dualsport’s revisions. And, after some 600 kilometres of twisty, bumpy and even unpaved California roads and trails, the new KLR650 demonstrated that it’s not just better than previous incarnations, it’s much better.
How Kawasaki managed to both improve the KLR and keep virtually the same attractive pricepoint is relatively simple: what worked was kept—especially costly-to-revise items such as the engine and frame—and what was becoming outdated was changed, especially in the matter of relatively inexpensive and easily upgraded components such as the suspension, brakes or seat. The hard part was making everything blend together into a motorcycle that would feel all new. Amazingly, it does.
Stepping off the old KLR650 and jumping on the new version, differences are major and immediately noticeable.
To begin with, the bike is a bit easier to mount thanks to lower seat height, itself the result of suspension with about an inch less travel, front and rear. Being both quite a bit firmer and more rigid, the new suspension (larger, 41mm fork and new D-section-swingarm/rear shock combo) allows less dive under braking loads and generally behaves amazingly well in corners, even at a fast pace.
On some of the very tight, very twisty, very bumpy back roads we rode on between Monterey and Cambria, I felt the new KLR quite simply owned the environment.
I’m not sure I can think of another bike that would have been able to not only endure this combination of intense rhythm and bumpy pavement, but also perform so seamlessly and pleasantly given the challenging circumstances.
Also helping out in the handling department are vastly improved brakes with petal discs and twin-piston calipers. The setup provides good feel and power up front, although the rear seems too easy to lock during hard stops and in the dirt.
The single biggest improvement though is probably in the area of comfort. The seat is now a much more inviting place to sit, especially over long distances, and the new fairing and windscreen provide a lot more wind and weather protection without the annoying buffeting afflicting first generation KLRs. Currently available factory accessories such as a gel seat, a higher, wider windshield and heated grips should further improve comfort.
What may have impressed me most about the KLR’s tech updates is how much smoother the engine feels and how much crisper throttle response is considering the 651cc single is by no means a new design. Aside from new cams and carb, a new piston, reworked intake porting and new ignition mapping, what you’ve got is very close to the original motor. Although horsepower is close to identical to what it always has been, torque seems to be stronger and available sooner, making for an extremely wide usable rev range.
Combine all those improvements with suspension that still soaks up everything you can throw at it, along with a riding position that’s nearly ideal, and what you have is a bike that’s perfectly capable of crossing long distances and varying terrain while offering surprising comfort.
About the only shortcut Kawasaki seems to have taken with the KLR650 is choosing to feed the bike with a carb instead of a fuel-injection system. This may have been a cost management decision, which in this particular case might not be a bad reason. The upside is that the new TPS-equipped carb works flawlessly.
The old KLR650 was in a tricky spot. Twenty-one years in production meant tooling and R&D had long been paid for and the profits on each unit sold must have been quite interesting. Best of all, that it was an aging platform didn’t seem to prevent buyers from cleaning out KLR inventory year in and year out.
Even better, sales of KLR650s have actually been strongly increasing over the past few years. It’s easy to understand how messing with such a successful formula could have been risky, but the way Kawasaki modernized the KLR essentially guarantees the model’s continued success.
The reason is simple: if you enjoyed the old KLR, you should like this one a heck of a lot more, and you won’t even have to pay a lot more for it—at MSRP $6,599, the 2008 version is about a hundred bucks more than last year.
Sounds like a deal to me.