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Evolving the Kawasaki KLR650

In 2018 Kawasaki halted production of its legendary KLR650, a decade after the dualsport’s first and only major revision back in 2008. Because little has changed for the bike since then (other than its demise) we felt that now is the right time to look back at how the KLR evolved up to Model Year 2008. It would be a few years before the legendary returned similar but updated again in 2021.

Ten Years After

Brandy. Corvettes. Your first love. There are things in life that remain ageless with the passing of time. Add Kawasaki’s KLR 650 to that list. During its first two decades of production, many things changed around us, but the KLR was not among them, give or take a colour combination or two. 

Still, everything must move forward or eventually fall behind and even the mighty KLR650 had to finally undergo changes of a substantial nature. Kawasaki announced 2008 as the KLR650’s time of evolution, with many significant changes made for that year. 

But now, ten years after what would ultimately be its first and last major revision, the end has finally come for this dear old friend. Kawasaki declared it has halted production following the 2018 season. 

With that in mind let’s review the history of this classic dualsport up until the pivotal model year 2008.

KAWASAKI’S BIG SINGLE THUMPED ONTO THE scene way back in 1987, replacing its predecessor, the not-quite-ready for prime-time KLR600. After a comprehensive and well thought-out redesign by Kawasaki engineers, the KLR650 A1 emerged, a bigger, better machine that would soon develop a loyal following among adventure riders, back-road explorers, daily commuters, and even a few stealth canyon carvers.

Once available in three flavours—the A, B, and C models, each with minor and mostly cosmetic differences—only the tankish “A” version soldiered on right up until model year, 2007. Outfitted with a 6.1-gallon tank, the Kawasaki KLR650 was universally hailed as a bike that can be ridden just about anywhere, and referred to as “bulletproof” more often than Kevlar.

Over the years, the KLR garnered an iconic status among North American riders while its popularity grew worldwide. 

In 2004 Kawasaki introduced the A-model to the Australian market for the first time, and in those days it could also be found in Brazil, South Africa, Costa Rica, Mexico, and Peru (where it was known as the KLR630 but still displaced 651cc).

Another boost to the KLR’s popularity came when motorcycling website Horizons Unlimited (—a site that has become a tremendously important and legendary communication and information resource for hardcore adventure travelers flung across the planet—released the results of an informal member survey in 2005. 

The KLR came out on top as the most popular real-world choice for adventure riders. Site owner Grant Johnson wasn’t surprised. “Excellent reliability, low maintenance requirements, ease of repair at the side of the road, inexpensive, and almost a glut of aftermarket parts make the KLR a great buy,” he said at the time.

For the lack of change to its Kawasaki KLR650 in its first 20 years, Kawasaki made no apologies: simplicity, reliability, and consistency are dualsport virtues. Factory modifications of the base model were rare, but there were a few. Extra bolts were added to the engine cases in 1988, and in 1990 the countershaft was improved with longer splines. In 1996 (a watershed year for KLR evolution) Kawasaki modified the clutch basket to allow for additional clutch plates, improved the engine balancer-chain tensioner, and changed the countershaft sprocket retainer from a slotted plate to a single nut. Minor details aside, the KLR maintained its mechanical heritage right down to its nuts—and bolts. 

Prior to 2008, the only significant change occurred in 2001 when Kawasaki shifted final assembly from Japan to a long-established Kawasaki factory in Thailand. While there were some initial concerns, they were soon alleviated when the first Thai-assembled bikes arrived with all the classic quirks still intact: a tickle of vibration in the bars and pegs, a chirping sound mysteriously emitted from some stock silencers, and a gear shift lever designed to break away a little too easily.

When it came to colour however, the Kawasaki KLR650 changed like a chameleon. In a span of five years alone it donned a dizzying array of colour combinations: green and silver, green and black, red and black, red and silver, lime green and black, and in model year 2007, for the first time ever, in black and silver. 

A glance back in time adds a few more colours to the mix, including the legendary greyish/blue, the only-in-1994 turquoise (a colour change that doubled sales in some areas), and the original blue and white. That was a lot of change for a bike that didn’t change, but it was only paint-and-plastic deep.

Even without substantial improvements, the Kawasaki KLR650 remained surprisingly up-to-date. The liquid-cooled, four-valve, twin-cam engine was deceptively smooth for a big single and produced torque and horsepower numbers right up there with other bikes in its class. The suspension was adequate, adjustable, and easily upgraded, and the brakes, while not stellar, were certainly up to the task.

Still, any bike that remained virtually unchanged for two decades was bound to have a few shortcomings, and the KLR A-series was no exception. 

Some owners complained about the overly soft front fork, the weak front brake, and the buzzy bars and pegs. Others said the seat could be firmer, the engine could use a few more ponies, and the chassis could drop a few pounds. Only a few ever complained about the dated looks (this was a dualsport bike, after all). But it seemed Kawasaki was listening. 

FOR 2008, THE KLR650 BENEFITED FROM A LONG LIST OF OVERDUE improvements—starting with a new 41mm fork, redesigned Unitrak linkage, and upgraded brakes (a 280mm petal-style rotor up front and a new caliper in the rear). 

All new bodywork smartened up external appearances; a larger luggage rack added to the already impressive carrying capacity; and an all-new urethane foam seat and taller windscreen addressed rider comfort on those long, cross-continent rides.

A high-capacity 36W alternator offered more power for accessories, and a higher-output headlight meant KLR riders would finally be able to see where they’re going on dark trails and unlit roads. And that legendary, torquey, and rugged lump of an engine—long a KLR strong point—got even better. 

Throttle response improved with the addition of a new position sensor and revised ignition mapping.    Performance at high rpm (“high rpm” being a relative term for a 650cc single) also benefitted from revised cam timing, and a redesigned cylinder head produced more bottom-end torque.

Fine-tuning like this might have seemed minor but for fans of the KLR (having owned three by then, I counted myself among them) this was major change.

While the Kawasaki KLR650 wasn’t traditionally as light, sophisticated, or flashy as its rivals, it wasn’t intended to be. Everything about the KLR A series screamed mediocrity. But this was also a strength: a jack of all roads and master of none, a bike designed to handle any terrain reasonably well and go just about anywhere.

And go anywhere is did: in its first decades the KLR just might have been ridden, enjoyed, used, and abused by more riders (military and civilian) on more terrain than any other dualsport motorcycle on earth. Again, the word “bulletproof” comes to mind.

No bike can be all things to all people, but the KLR650 A series came about as close as possible. Its reputation as a workhorse-motorcycle that can be ridden hard, put away wet, and never misses a beat, was well earned.

True, a few of the rough edges were smoothed off in 2008, a revised clutch basket was introduced in 2011, and there were important suspension upgrades for model year 2014, but the essence of the classic remained.

For many dualsport and adventure riders this was still a bike that represented motorcycling at its purist, its simplest, and its best.

by Ben Hilton Canadian Biker #341

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