Jan 4, 2016

My Motorcycles: Kawasaki KL250 Super Sherpa

Back to Basics

All Rights Reserved © 2008 Thomas W. Day

When I got back from Alaska, I'd had enough of riding a touring bike on dirt roads. Going upside down and backwards at 50mph with 500 pounds of motorcycle and gear grinding up the roadway in front of you will change you that way. I had regretted selling my XT350 Yamaha from the day I sold it and had been watching for something like that bike ever since. I got more serious about that search in July of 2007.  One of the guys in the local dual purpose motorcycle group advertised a 2001 Kawasaki KL250 Super Sherpa on the list and I took it, sight unseen. The price was right, the size was right, and I knew this guy's word was good, so if he said it was in good condition, it would be in good condition.

2000 Kaw Sherpa 001 kawi_k1 The picture at left is of my 2000 KL250 Super Sherpa just before I sold it. The picture at right is the Australian version, called the "Stockman." Aussies get a lot of the coolest stuff from Japan and I think we should give up on getting anything useful out of Iraq and Afghanistan and immediately invade Australia to get their motorcycles. Everything about the Stockman is what I hoped to get with my own Super Sherpa. I was a little disappointed.

A friend drove me across town to pick up the bike. I took it for a test drive, swapped money for motorcycle, and drove it home through city streets to get a feel for the bike's character and problems. It turned out to have plenty of problems. It had been ridden hard and put up bent a few times and some of the bent bits bothered me more than others. When I got it home, I took it apart and began to straighten out the things I though desperately needed fixing. A couple of levers, a new front fender, new handlebars, new grips, new tires (yanked the knobbies and replaced them with street-oriented Bridgestone Trail Wings), a new chain and sprockets, a new air filter, a serious carb cleaning, and the bike was ready to ride.

I rode often it for three solid years; to work, on errands, on meandering trips into the countryside, and anywhere I would ride a bigger bike as long as the trip total doesn't exceed a few hundred miles. The bike is comfortable, insanely fuel efficient (70-90mpg!), fun to ride around town, lightweight, mostly easy to work on, and an absolute blast off road. The Sherpa is no motocrosser, but it's a fun trail bike. It's not powerful, but it can get out of its own way. I've even played trials with it, going up a staircase at work and hopping logs in my back yard. The 10" of ground clearance makes for a pretty versatile off-roader. 

2000 Kaw Sherpa 003 As a local commuter, the KL250 was a pleasure and real budget saver. When I was careful with the throttle, I could squeeze around 90mpg from a 1.4 gallon tank of fuel. If I was hammer-handed, the little guy still gave me 65-75mpg and a lot of fun. The bike is easy to park and, if you can't find a normal parking space, the Sherpa is enough of a Sherpa (you Bultaco fans know what I mean) to climb some stairs and park where the bicycles park. Top speed is about 70mph, according to the speedo. I mounted a GPS  but didn't get enough time with the touring rig to double check either the speedo or the mileage accuracy, but the bike seemed to keep up with normal freeway traffic. It's wailing at top speed, though. If there were a tach, it would probably be near redline.

My used bike came with a KLR's high fender in front. On the highway, I noticed some front end weirdness that seemed to be linked to that big fender flailing around in the wind. I dumped the high fender for an old, ugly red Acerbis low fender that I had lying idle in my garage for 15 years. The bike became more stable at speed and I lost a little mud clearance off-road. For my purposes, the trade-off was a good move. I had the Kawasaki low fender, but never bothered to try to make the KL look pretty while I was riding it. I prettied it up just before I sold it. 

Replacing the knobbies with street-aimed "trials tires" was a good move. The knobbies made the bike absolutely terrifying on grated bridges and rain grooves. The Trail Wings are a great improvement, but real street tires would improve mileage, highway stability, and street traction. I may keep looking for the perfect DP tire for this bike. Since the KL is so light, I'm unconvinced that I need knobbies to get me out of the kinds of dirt and mud situations I'm likely to experience. So far, this has been true in deep sand, muddy dirt roads, and all sorts of rock and gravel single-tracks. If trials tires do the job for Dougie Lampkin, they would probably work for me and they did fine for as long as I owned the Sherpa.

2009 Sherpa 001 The Sherpa was a work in process. To make the Sherpa a decent touring bike, I expanded the range of the 1.4 gallon fuel capacity to about 3 gallons. I added Acerbis Rally Guards, a tail rack, Eclipse bags, a small MotoFizz tailbag, and a GPS mount and electrics.  The bike was ready to go on a long North Dakota tour when it blew the countershaft oil seal and dumped all of the engine oil in a few feet. It took a season to put it back together, but my confidence in the bike was too low to trust the little guy for anything seriously adventurous. Before I sold it, I pulled off all of my mods and sold them independently. 

The seal seat design is retarded, at best, and the oil seal problem is a well-known issue with the 2000 Super Sherpa. Kawasaki used a seal that, apparently, doesn't grip to the cases and is easily pushed out. It's possible there was a breather problem, but I found no evidence of that. After replacing the seal, it still leaked; slowly, but surely. I replaced the seal, again, and it still leaked. I couldn't figure out the carb problem from the last time it gummed up and I gave it to a friend who discovered the oil seal seat stops just before a beveled bit of the case housing. If he tapped the seal flush to the outer case, the seal got bound on that bevel and leaked. -Not an intuitive or impressively secure design. It turned out that I managed to lose the anti-backfire spring during the last cleaning and that's why it gave me so much trouble starting and running smoothly. I gotta get a bike lift. Seeing all of that stuff would have been a lot easier if I wasn't crawling around on my garage floor to do maintenance. I'm too old for lying on concrete.

2009 Sherpa 004The Super Sherpa is about the only modern DP bike with a reasonable seat height. However, that low seat height has a cost. One price paid is the slight difference between the bottom of the fuel tank and the carb fuel inlet. This close relationship means the fuel pressure is barely enough to push fuel past the float needle. Add a fuel filter and you might not be able to get the last half-gallon out of the tank. When I put a small ceramic fuel filter on my stock tank, I lost about 30 miles of range due to this problem. The gas was there, I just couldn't get it into the carburetor. Even worse, the reserve petcock position wouldn't give me much more than a 1/4 mile before the bike sputtered to a stop. With all of the tiny anti-pollution jets and air passages, the tank filter isn't enough to keep particles from stopping up the carb and an accessory filter isn't a possibility. That means regular carb cleaning is part of owning a Sherpa.

After a year of messing with the Sherpa, I decided to return it to mostly stock form. I went back to the stock low fender, not as effective as the Acerbis fender, but less color-jarring. I reinstalled the stock tank, removed the handguards, and cleaned it up to sell. After all that, I rediscovered how much fun this little bike is to ride. For its intended purpose, urban commuting and light weight off-roading, the Kawasaki Super Sherpa KL250 is a decent, well-behaved motorcycle.  Since I replaced it with a fuel-injected Yamaha WR250X most everything I liked about the Sherpa will still be in my stable. The one thing I will be losing is that great mileage. The WRX squeezes 60-65 miles from a really carefully managed gallon, but more typically turns in 55mpg consumption.

Since I didn't need it anymore, I kept a little hope alive that my grandson might want to go off-roading with me. He expressed exactly zero interest in motorcycling last summer and, again, this summer. So, I put the Sherpa on Craig's List and it went in a week to the first caller.

KL250 Specifications

Four-stroke, DOHC, 4-valve single cylinder  
Bore x Stroke
72.0 x 61.2mm  
Fuel System
Single 34mm Mikuni BST34 carburetor  
Frame Type
Semi-double cradle, high-tensile steel  
Front suspension/wheel travel
36mm telescopic fork / 9.1 in.  
Front Tire Size
2.75 x 21  
Front brakes / rear brakes
Single hydraulic disc / Single hydraulic disc  
Overall width
30.7 in.  
Seat height
32.7 in.  
Ground clearance
10.6 in.  
Curb weight
282.1 lbs.

Kawasaki KL250 Accessories

Air Filter

From my experience, this is a no-brainer. I replaced the stock filter with a K&N. I have had K&N filters in every vehicle I have owned since my 1973 Rickman 125 ISDT and my 1973 Toyota Hilux pickup. Call me "superstitious," but I think those filters have added something to the incredible reliability I've experienced in my vehicles. I don't consider a K&N filter an aftermarket "accessory." I think the lack of a K&N filter is simply an incompetent motorcycle design that has to be rectified before the bike is a reliable vehicle.

Kawasaki's Rear Luggage Rack

This is a middle-of-the-road piece of equipment that isn't great but is far from bad. Like many factory racks, the Kawasaki piece has a 5 pound recommended max load capacity. Obviously, that is close to useless, so I'll be exceeding their recommended capacity by 2-4x. I plan to take the Sherpa on a trip or two, so the ability to carry some luggage is going to be critical.

Eclipse P38 Saddle Bags

I've had these bags since my 1st Yamaha TDM. On the Sherpa, they work well, minimally affect handling, and hold a fair amount of junk. Like a Colorado neighbor who'd used his P38's for years of commuting, my bags are severely bleached out but they still work flawlessly. I had to build a heat shield to keep the exhaust from baking the right side bag, but it was fairly simple and seems to work fine.


Anonymous said...

Interesting read, thanks for posting.

The Stockman version in Australia is not able to be road registered. It is used on farms across the country, and is very popular with sheep and cattle farmers.

Just purchased a 2005 model Super Sherpa with 5,500 kl on the clock and in really good condition. 100% original, even down to the original tyres.

I gave it a service and clean over the weekend, and spent some time getting familiar with it.

Things I noted so far so are:-

1. The headlight is hard wired on, and there is no switch to turn it off on the 2005 model. Annoying factor only.
2. Battery strap is rusty, needs replacement.
3. Clutch lever end is broken off. Needs replacement.
4. Exhaust clam is rust,will replace with Stainless Steel exhaust clamp.
5. Rear right footpeg looks like been for a slide down the road. Needs replacement.

After reading your article, will look into the K&N air filer and probably will investigate the carb modification that I've read about elsewhere, to improve the performance abit.

Sydney, Australia

T.W. Day said...

Keep an eye on the shifter seal, too. When it goes, all of the engine oil escapes with it.

oregonsurveyor said...

Maybe something in between like a DR650? Mine is under 400 lbs. wet and loaded up. I dropped it a stop in town once and was so embarrassed I had it back up in a flash without even thinking about it. I think I pulled a muscle, though!

T.W. Day said...

I wish. I love everything about the DR650 except the seat height. With a 28" inseam, that 400 pounds is a problem for me. I ended up with a WR250X and love it to death.

Unknown said...

I have just got my Sherpa running and there is oil getting into my air box what could it be

Robert J. Hall said...

"I expanded the range of the 1.4 gallon fuel capacity to about 3 gallons." Did you use magic air to expand it? Because it magically changed into a old Vesco Skinny-Fat tank in the photos. Or IMS or whoever has the Vesco molds now.....
Nice writeup!

T.W. Day said...

Man, that was a while ago. Seems like a lifetime, even. I think it was Acerbis "magic," but I don't remember. I think the tank was actually designed for a Honda XL650 or something like that. It took some adapting.

T.W. Day said...

First quess would be poorly adjusted intake valves.

Tom P. said...

Only stupid people like k&n filters. More air flow equals bigger openings in the filter equals larger dirt particle getting into the engine and chewing it up from the inside out. The big motorcycle companies don't spend five millions dollars and 5 years of research in air filter development to produce and inferior product; they're a little smarter than the guy switching parts in his garage because his neighbor said it's better. Whenever I see a car or motorcycle for sale with a k&n filter in it I run the other way.

T.W. Day said...

Not a particularly scientific statement, but cute. I don't know what "big motorcycle companies" you're imagining spent "5 millions dollars and 5 years of research," but Kawasaki didn't put 5 minutes into the design of the KL250's cheap, fragile, and poorly designed filter. Suzuki's attempt at as decent filter on the DL650 was a much more robust and modern filter, but it turned to tissue paper after 500 miles in a Canadian rain storm. Don't worry, I won't miss your money when I sell a motorcycle. There are plenty of people with a more realistic attitude toward engineering out there to sell to.

Actual data about K&N filters is messier than your delusion: https://www.nicoclub.com/archives/kn-vs-oem-filter.html. I've never had a K&N filter "fail," but I've been in the boonies when an oil-soaked foam filter filled up and had bits of the damn foam sucked into the motor and, luckily, I wasn't 100 miles from civilization or my vehicle when that happened.

Unknown said...

Which k&n filter did you use? I can't find a specific model

T.W. Day said...

I wish I could accurately answer your question. It was almost 15 years ago and I pretty much gave up on the bike after the transmission seal failure and when I sold it most of that history went with the bike. Sorry.

Tom P. said...

The reasoning you have about ANY vehicle manufacturing company (cars or motorcycles) NOT taking adequate time to design an adequate air filter is just very strange. Only idiots think a K&N filter is better than the factory filter. Quick story: someone was selling a Dodge car a few years ago for really cheap because it didn't run right and stalled out at stops. I opened the hood, saw the K&N filter, and gave the idiot his money. Then I took the car home, threw out the garbage filter, put in the OEM filter, then the car ran excellent. I then sold the car the next day for 8 times what I paid. So the moral of the story is: there's alot of stupid people out there. If stupid people want to believe the b.s. that K&N advertisements feed to them, then it's their problem, not mine.

T.W. Day said...

You've possibly missed my point (or ignored it). I'm sure the paper filter Kawasaki included in their design is "adequate." However, I don't often ride places where there are Kawasaki dealers and, often, I'm riding 1,000s of miles off pavement. A little dish soap, water, and fresh K&N oil and I have a restored filter that you're grossly underestimating. As for "idiots," you might have marked yourself as one since a good cleaning of that car's K&N and fresh oil would have saved you the cost of an OEM filter. ;-) Your research should include actual comparisons of filter operation under extreme conditions.

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