Having been unchanged for over 20 years, the 2008 Kawasaki KLR650 underwent a thorough makeover to modernize the popular mount.
2008 Kawasaki KLR650
Weight: 369 (Tank empty)
Average MPG: 36
Representing the green faction is the substantially revised 2008 Kawasaki KLR650. The KLR name is synonymous with dual-sport adventure and is world-renowned for its ability to take the rider almost anywhere. The KLR is the bike that has taken riders to all corners of this planet. From the cold, barren landscape of the Artic to the sweltering hot jungles of South America and everywhere in between, you might find a nomadic two-wheeled adventurer’s KLR tracks.
Up until the ’08 model, the KLR was getting pretty old. How old you ask? It first reached U.S. shores back in 1987 when Ronald Regan was head honcho. During that 21-year time span, only a handful of minor tweaks were made to the Japanese machine.
At first look the Kawasaki isn’t going to win any beauty pageants, but at least it finally looks the part of a 21st century bike with its rounded edges and twin projector head lamps. Form most definitely follows function with this legendary dual-sport.
Climbing aboard the Kawasaki also confirms another striking visual sensation – it’s big. In fact, the Kawasaki is the largest of the trio in terms of overall length, width and weight. And that immediately concerned us knowing that we were going to have to manhandle this bulbous beast across terrain where large motorcycles are less than ideal. Once you get over the sheer size of its 369 tank-empty pounds, you immediately praise Kawasaki for designing a bike with such comfortable, intuitive ergonomics. The wide steel bars are up high and the low (35-inch), not overly soft seat feels like a hybrid between a dirt bike and today’s current crop of streetfighters.
The legible instrument panel lies right below the rider’s line of sight and includes all the necessary gauges including: analog tachometer, speedometer, trip, odometer, coolant temperature gauge and assorted warning lights.
Although the bulkiest of our test bikes, the 2008 Kawasaki KLR650 handles itself well out on the streets.
Inside the bulky-yet-aerodynamically effective bodywork dwells the heart of the KLR – a 651cc, liquid-cooled, DOHC, four-valve single-cylinder engine. The powerplant features a 100mm x 83mm bore/stroke that compresses the fuel-air mixture to a rate of 9.8:1. A 40mm Keihin constant-velocity carburetor stirs fuel and air to the proper ratio.
Like the Honda the KLR is slightly coldblooded in the morning. A finger-operated choke switch is mounted on the left side of the handlebar and its use is required even on mild autumn days. Once the ultra-reliable Single is fired, it idles peacefully and awaits the rider’s ham-fisted throttle input.
The cable operated clutch has a feather light pull and very progressive engagement. Once underway, the KLR mill pulled cleanly from 3000 rpm all the way to its 7500-rpm redline. The engine is paired to a five-speed transmission and the combination is enough to get you past any legal speed here in the States (120-mph indicated top speed), however, it will take some time to get there.
The power output of the Kawi can be best described as extremely tame. The liquid-cooled mill lacks any real punch, which makes it a bit mundane on the streets. The dyno reveals that the KLR does have more power than the Honda throughout the rev range but the Kawi is also carrying 63 more pounds without fuel which negates the KLR’s higher power output.
“The motor has a real mild power delivery,” says Dare. “It gets up and goes alright but it just doesn’t give you the same thrill as the Honda or BMW. I wish it had more personality. But, I guess at the same time it makes it really easy to ride and really good for a novice.”
Fortunately, what the big Kawasaki lacks in the engine department it more than makes up in the handling arena. On the road the KLR hides its bulk surprisingly well. The 41mm front fork absorbs road imperfections nicely, and delivers a very smooth ride on the street. The 7.9-inch fork travel is complemented by an equally versatile UNI-TRAK linkage equipped rear shock featuring 7.3 inches of travel as well as five-way preload and four-way rebound adjustability.
Like any true dual-sport, the KLR isn’t content with just cruising on the open road. When the roads start doing the ol’ bob-and-weave the KLR is more than up for the challenge. Its 28 degrees of rake and 4 inches of trail allow it get around corners with ease, but we did notice that it had a tendency to wallow mid-corner, especially when riding at a fast clip.
“The Kawi is the most comfortable overall,” observes Dare. “It’s smooth and quiet and the windshield is fantastic. It changes direction almost too easily and falls into corners nicely but sometimes it will wallow a bit mid-corner but only when you’re riding fast.”
Another thing that makes the KLR a street stunner is the huge 6.1-gallon fuel tank. The KLR lends itself well to hours upon hours of riding, and it’s awesome that you can go on a full day’s ride without having to constantly be aware of where the next fill-up is going to be. We averaged around 36 mpg during our ride which varied from slow, first-gear single track to wide-open fifth-gear top speed tests; appropriate fuel economy considering how much air gets pushed by the big Kawasaki. The large gas tank proves Kawasaki had touring on their minds and as such the KLR comes equipped with an enormous rear luggage platform, which can accommodate enough gear to make an overnight trip well within reason.
Whether off road or on, the Kawasaki KLR650 is a nimble mount. Our only complaint was the front fork’s tendency to wallow mid-corner at higher speeds.
To our surprise, the KLR’s nimble on-road handling manners were also just as apparent on the dirt. The versatile riding ergonomics made standing up on the bike very comfortable for both short and tall riders alike. The 21-inch front wheel and 17-inch rear wheel are shod with Dunlop K750 meats which were at home on all of the terrain that we encountered. The versatile tires coupled with the relatively mundane power delivery make it easy to blaze controllably down any and every dirt segment we found.
“This thing handles the trails amazingly well. On paper the bike is the heaviest of the three but on these trails it feels a lot less-crazy,” says Frye. “I also love the plastic hand guards that come on it. It helps protect the brake lever from getting smashed when riding through brush.”
Like the Honda, the KLR has a potent set of stoppers that were up to the task everywhere. The single 280mm front and 240mm rear petal-style discs are grabbed by dual piston calipers and offer up plenty of power as well as feel at both levers. Additionally the front brake lever offers four-position adjustment to accommodate for different hand sizes.