The Defending Heavyweight
Kawasaki’s pavement prowess with the KLR is so authorative it’s hard to get past. It is surprisingly nimble for such an awkward looking package.
This was our third go-around with the big Kawi, and once again it left us impressed. With every passing mile this bike continues to hint that it might really be more than a dual-sport machine. Knowing when you have a good thing going is sometimes hard to do, but Kawasaki doesn’t have that problem when it comes to the KLR650. The bike’s popularity over the past two-plus decades has been astounding, and the changes for the heavily revised 2008 model have only bolstered the machine’s status with the dual-sport crowd – and others.
Kawi admittedly is pushing the bike in a more touring-friendly direction, but there is now so much road-going capability mixed with just enough off-road capacity that this bike is really more of a mini adventure-touring machine. The Suzuki was vital in pointing this out because it proves that even the 650 class of DS bikes still offers a heavy dose of dirt performance.
Sure, the KLR is porky, but it’s amazing how slimming forward motion can be. The 650 is like that fat kid in school who somehow kicked ass at sports and was way more athletic than he should have been. They’re both freaks of nature, but we’ve talked before about the bike’s low center of gravity, even with the enormous 6.1-gallon tank, which lends itself to seamless side-to-side transitions and deceptively quick handling. It’s entirely possible, and ridiculously fun, to find the edges of the stock Dunlops.
Attempting some high-speed weaves made it very apparent how effortless it is to pick the bike up from a lean and toss it back the other way. The Suzuki, on the other hand, literally takes muscle to pull upright again. At lower speeds, the lighter weight and slimmer chassis of the DR give it more of an advantage, but the KLR rules the high-speed maneuverability and stability.
Neither machine has much in the way of tunability with the suspension. Both fork sets offer no adjustment but the shocks will give riders a bit to play with. The Kawi has five different preload and four rebound settings. Riders can fiddle with compression damping on the DR’s piggyback shock. The Kawi overwhelms its sticks with ease when the terrain or rider get’s aggressive off-road. But, it is extremely forgiving on the pavement. Every test rider, at some point or another, compared it to a Cadillac; it’s that cushy.
It’s clear that the Kawi is built to go longer distances and you can’t do that if you’re just poking along, so the KLR is also built to be comfortable at speed. It can sustain freeway speeds for long periods with a soft seat and suspension, bulky fairing and usable windscreen.
“Riding at highway speeds on the DR made me long for the smooth handling and stable feel of the KLR,” says tester Greg Anderson. “The short but effective windscreen and fairings of the KLR go a long way to increase protection from wind buffeting and the overall riding experience when traveling over 55 mph.”
We didn’t let the ghosts along Bear Camp Road or this painfully obvious sign deter us. It was just the right type of country for these bikes.
Engine performance is also friendly in this regard with a double balancer and fluid delivery. The KLR excels at providing smooth, usable power with its 651cc Single. Changes to cam timing, intake porting, a new piston and rings and exhaust system all contribute to its performance and the 40mm Keihin carb controls fuel delivery much better than the DR’s similar sized Mikuni. You have to be a wheelie master to get the front end up, and the thought alone of trying to find the balance point with such bulk is terrifying, but it isn’t really necessary for the bike’s intended use. We’ll take the Suzuki into off-road situations where elevating the front wheel is needed, but aren’t so bold with the Kawi. We’re happy listening to the barely discernable exhaust putter as we cruise gravel roads in comfort.
“Neither of the two bikes is in danger of winning a beauty pageant, but looks aren’t as important as function for our two contestants,” commented one tester.
He definitely speaks the truth. The general consensus among our group is that the KLR makes the Suzuki look like a prom queen. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and honestly, the Kawasaki grows on you after getting to know it a bit. But it still isn’t the companion you can’t wait to introduce to family and friends.
Kawasaki really has a bike that offers a lot with the KLR. What we can’t figure out is why the instrumentation is so barren. A speedometer, odometer, tach, trip meter and water temp gauge and some warning lights cover the spectrum. It’s easy to lose track of how long it’s been since your last refill of the cavernous gas tank. We’d like to see, at minimum, the addition of a fuel gauge and a clock. Some upgrades in the rider interface would be worth the boost in cost. If you think the Kawi is lacking, the DR is even worse! Even though the DR is much more minimalist in design than the KLR, a speedo, odometer, trip meter and lights for neutral, turn signals and high/low beam is one of the puniest info packs we’ve encountered. Here’s an area where both OEMs could take a few notes from BMW.
Some riders complain about the tires for off-road use, but it isn’t the rubber that’s holding the KLR back. The Dunlops are actually a good match for what the rest of the bike can handle in the dirt.
This bike is really built to go around the world. Sure, we’d all like to hop on a loaded BMW R1200GS and set out, but for most that just isn’t a reality. The KLR has a lot of things going for it in terms of becoming a globetrotting platform. It’s affordable, common and relatively interchangeable with models from the last 20 years, so parts are readily available. It has a huge support network, plus it’s so ugly it probably won’t get stolen. Seriously though, the bike’s range and its ability to give the rider a larger scope as well make this bike possibly one of the best adventure-touring bikes available. It can’t be classified with the more powerful multi-cylinder machines of the genre, and so is something of a loner in that respect. But who says a big bike is really necessary?
Kickstand is terrible
Oil sight window for quick inspection
Since we’ve had plenty of experience with the new KLR and its classmates this year, this was a good opportunity to put a fresh set of cheeks in the saddle. What we needed was someone who could appreciate both street and off-road riding, but never blends the two. Greg Anderson is all about sporty riding and his garage shelters a Yamaha R6 and Honda CRF450R, arguably the best of their individual worlds. We told him to leave his leathers at home, packed an extra set of dual-sport gear and made him ride in our dust for a couple days. As our DS newbie, Anderson has a perspective on this funky form of motorcycling which is probably similar to that of many people out there.
The seating position is a little more cramped on the Suzuki. The Kawasaki has a very comfortable layout for sit-down riding.
“Dual-sport bikes have never filled me with a sense of awe and wonder, but after my recent experiences during the China Hat ride in Central Oregon I now understand their purpose, and the passion surrounding the sport itself,” he admits. “When looking at both the KLR650 and DR650 it’s hard not to think of the correlation these two bikes have with the late Ranchero and El Camino. The vehicles were not really cars and not altogether trucks, as are our two dual-sports are not really road bikes and not truly off-road machines. What we do have are two bikes that fill a much needed and unique niche of the motorcycling market.”
Out of four testers, three confirmed that the Kawasaki was a little better overall, but each did so with a slight grimace as we forced them to decide. The DR certainly stretched a few heart strings in its short time with us. Our newer riders in particular found the DR more appealing, mostly due to a lighter weight and ease of maneuverability in most situations. It scored major points as the best 650 DS we’ve ridden in the dirt, with the exception of BMW’s whiz-bang Xchallenge.
Here’s how it boils down. The KLR requires a slower pace off-road, but can get to the same places as the Suzuki. The same can’t be said for the DR when it hits the pavement. Riders get too sore and tired or simply run out of gas. If it weren’t for a few shortcomings like the uncomfortable seat, short fuel range and lack of important instrumentation it might have knocked off our perennial dual-sport Megatron. Faulting a bike for having too much fuel is hard to do, so all considered, the Kawasaki has managed to hoist its big self to the top one more time.
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