Jun 5, 2013

Motorcycle Review: Riding High 2002 KLR 650

[This is pretty cool. Way back in 2002, I was still wearing my 1984 Aerostich Roadcrafter. I'd almost forgotten about that old reliable suit with the cotton stuffed into the shoulders, elbows, and knees as "armor." It was so worn out that no part of the Goretex resembled water-resistant and the nylon was as soft as a cotton t-shirt. I really wanted to enter this suit in one of Andy's "ugliest Aerostich contests, but I was always teaching a motorcycle class when those contests were happening. 

The magazine didn't use many of my pictures, so this could be the only place to look at a slightly stripped-down KLR in a review. In retrospect, I'm not ashamed of my take on this classic motorcycle.]

Take a look at a Kawasaki KLR 650, the next time you're standing under one. It's a pair of stilts on wheels. The KLR 650 is a motorcycle SUV, it seats you tall enough to see over anything shorter than a refrigerator semi. Following me on a trip to Red Wing, my son-in-law said that he never once lost sight of me, even when he was jammed up in freeway traffic a full freeway exit back. If one of your goals in riding a motorcycle is to be noticed, this is the bike for you.

It's got a cool-factor that can't be measured in normal bike terms. Ride one of these things in to downtown Minneapolis and everyone looks and you get to look down on all of them. The military-green paint job is a lot more attention grabbing than you might suspect. The bike looks like the only thing that's missing is a machine gun mounted between the forks. Its post-apocalypse, Mad Max styling just begs for armament of some kind, at least a giant pump-powered water cannon.

There are some significant limitations to a bike this tall. My first attempt at getting on to the KLR ended with me and the bike lying down together in Victor's driveway. Our test bike's kickstand had been trimmed away for some unknowable purpose and the combination of the bike's unnatural over-center perch, a 35" seat height, and my 28" inseam was a formula for a little driveway comedy. I managed to protect the bike with my body parts and, after hitching my Aerostich into full-wedgie mode, I got on the KLR and waddled out of Victor's neighborhood. Either the wind was blowing not so gently through the trees or there was an alley full of folks laughing at me as I drove away. On the other hand, it's something of a comfort advantage to be able to hang your legs freely while long distance touring. Win some, lose some.

When I got the bike home, I let some of the air out of the forks and stared at the rear suspension until I gave up on the hope that there would be a way to drop the seat height a foot or two. Once again, Randy Newman's "short people got nobody to love" has returned to haunt me. If I was going to test ride this thing, I'd have to take it as it is. I considered a pair of mount-and-dismounting options from my ancient past: the Wild Bill Hickock hayloft-drop and the Hopalong Cassidy running mount. The barn-drop tactic seemed impractical, so I went for the other routine. As long as I had an unobstructed ten-foot starting gate, I was in business for the rest of the test ride. I started the bike (while standing beside it), punched it into first, and swung on board as I let out the clutch; Pony Express-style. I've been getting on to bicycles that way for 50-some years, so why not motorcycles?

After getting used to the handling and height, the KLR sets you free from normal street riding restrictions. You start looking for roads that will offer a challenge. I don't mean just off-the-beaten-path two lanes, or even dirt roads. I mean any spot you can squeeze the KLR's wide bars through. On boring stretches of highway, I found myself examining the ditches for off-road diversions. Even I35E's exit ramp hillsides attracted my attention. Railroad tracks are fun to skate over, if you have the suspension for it. My own backyard got a little trials action workout, which caused a small domestic conflict. She'll get over it, when the flowers grow back.

Off road, the KLR is pretty darn close to being a pig. Kawasaki claims a dry weight of 337 pounds, add another 30 pounds or so for 6.1 gallons of fuel, and the odd 20-50 pounds it usually takes to complete the wet weight figure, and you're pushing a lot of tonnage for off road work. The seat height and weight combination would make me very nervous about a rocky stream crossing, for instance. However, the bike skates over mud, sand, gravel, and asphalt. For adventure touring, the KLR is more than up to poor road surface travel. The KLR rolls over curbs like they're grains of gravel. Speed bumps are a waste of cement, unless they were intended to be KLR boredom-busters. You can catch a little air on a properly designed speed bump and that's entertaining.

Fifteen years ago, I was a very dissatisfied owner of a 1986 KLR 600. The 600cc KLR was overweight, under-powered, and handled poorly on the street or dirt. It was a bit fragile, too. The KLR has grown in many dimensions since then. From 1987 on, the KLR picked up 50cc, a few inches of seat height and suspension travel, and became considerably more sophisticated and a lot more fun.

The motor is a kick. The KLR is a little cold blooded, needing a lot of choke to get it going, even on relatively warm mornings. Once it's firing cleanly, the motor pulls like a truck. It starts pulling from idle and builds torque and horsepower (about 41hp) all the way to redline. The tach provides fairly convenient speed markers with 55mph at 4,000rpm, 70mph at 5,000, and you can do the math for the rest of the critical numbers. I, of course, would never exceed the posted legal speed limits. The bike comfortably cruises at any legal or marginally legal speed you select. I’m pretty sure that top speed is somewhere very near 100mph, but how would I know? The engine note is strange at idle, the exhaust makes a quirky whistling noise that almost sounds obscene. Once you twist the throttle, a badass single-cylinder, low-pitched, splat-blub-pop takes over.

It's not loud, but it's not tame either. During my test ride, the KLR burned a gallon of fuel every 58 miles. That works out to a full tank range of almost 350 miles! The 5-gear transmission is overkill. The bike really only needs 1st, third, and fifth. Hooligan-wise, it's possible to pull a 1st gear wheelie, but 2nd gear and beyond are solidly anchored to Mother Earth.

Stopping, on the other hand, is something the KLR does with solid power. Both brakes are progressive and powerful.

One of the more interesting street compromises made on the bike is the rubber footpegs. With a little mud on the pegs, they're pretty much useless. However, unlike real dirtbike pegs, they don't grind up the soles of your boots. Something that might be important to a commuter or someone riding from Texas to Alaska with a single pair of boots and a couple of changes of clothes.

This motorcycle is likely to spend 90% of its life on pavement. Considering that purpose, the KLR's seat is a perfect screwup. The seat wastes at least an inch and a half of unnecessary seat height, it's too soft to be comfortable for more than 20 minutes on the road, and that's just getting this bike warmed up. The Kawasaki engineers ought to invest in a seat from Corbin, Sargent, or any of the half-dozen companies that have provided aftermarket solutions to this component.

I put almost 300 miles on the KLR, looking for terrain to challenge the suspension. I really wanted to try a stream crossing, some whoops, and get a little air time to see how the bike worked away from pavement. The only opportunity I got to test any of these characteristics was on the way back from Redwing, Sunday night. Unfortunately, it was dark, I was wearing a tinted shield, and I'd lost my support team so nobody was there to take pictures. As Victor found out, in an early trial of the KLR, it will fly and it lands so softly that you could get into a lot of trouble before you really tax the suspension.

In too many ways, the KLR reminds me of the first days of SUVs. Pickups with passenger seats, tall suspensions, and minimal comforts. The real market appears to be in imitation SUVs, like those overstuffed, 4-cupholder-per-passenger station wagons sold by Acura, Mercedes, and, even, Cadillac. The KLR may be over and under-kill for just about every rider except for a really tough few. It's too heavy for serious dirt riding. It's too tall for all but a tiny minority of the riding population. It's too macho for just about everyone. What it does is something unavailable from any other bike imported into the US. Since the KLR650 has been in production and imported here since 1987, I'm guessing that there are a reasonable number of riders here who want to go where the KLR can take them.

Kawasaki's $5,000 MSRP seems like an incredible deal compared to the limited competition in this area. While Honda and Suzuki's 650 bikes appear to be much better dirt bikes than the KLR, the KLR and the BMW F650s stand alone as a fully equipped adventure tour bikes available in the US. The BMW’s MSRP of $8,200 is more expensive and way less well distributed across the country. Something you consider when you're aiming a bike cross-country.

If you do your own maintenance, the KLR might be your dream bike. Pop off the side covers, the seat, and the tank and you've exposed almost everything you're ever likely to need to get to repair. The engine, carb, and electrical parts are completely exposed after removing four screws and two bolts. The air cleaner is one more screw and a wingnut away from being out of the airbox and in your hands. Kawasaki has done a wonderful job of protecting the intake from dirt and water and I'd be surprised of the KLR wouldn't power through seat-deep water without a hitch.

A Google search on Kawasaki KLR650 will get you more than 5,500 hits. This motorcycle is a serious topic of conversation. One of the many highly detailed links is found at http://www.angelfire.com/co/klr650/. You can go just about any KLR-where from there. You can buy highway pegs, comfortable aftermarket seats, larger than stock brake disks, tall windscreens (Kawasaki even sells one), any gearing configuration you can dream up, steel lined brake cables, hard and soft luggage from a dozen different manufacturers, suspension kits, electrical modification kits, and even larger accessory fuel tanks. If you have a craving for a motorcycle you can completely customize, the KLR has to fit somewhere on your list.

After returning the KLR, I quickly noticed that there are bumps on the road. Lots of them. I discovered cracks, potholes, heaved asphalt, and other irregularities that went unnoticed on the trip to Delano. Now I'm really missing the KLR.

Originally published in Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly, September, 2002

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