I don’t know what you’ve been doing for the past 21 years, but over at Kawasaki they’ve been listening, and making lists. The company’s mainstay dual-sport, the KLR650, has been on the street in much the same form since 1987, so Kawi’s had plenty of time to compile a long list of its shortcomings and outdated components. After two decades, the list was finally passed to the engineers, and what emerged was a different–dare I say new?–early-release 2008 model KLR650.
OK, the KLR isn’t completely new, but major changes to its aging 651cc four-valve engine, marginal brakes and spindly suspension, plus improved aerodynamics, put it light years ahead of past models. And that’s not counting a host of smaller upgrades. As a KLR owner for 18 years, I can tell you that it’s about time! A 350-mile ride on the 2008 bike and a spin on the “old” 2007 at April’s press introduction showcased this major makeover for the nation’s top-selling dual-purpose motorcycle.
Kawi engineers kept the big single’s 100 x 83mm bore and stroke, but modified the intake porting and cam timing to boost performance at both ends of the rev range, and added thinner, higher tension piston rings to slow oil consumption. The compression ratio got a small bump to 9.8:1 from 9.5:1, while a thinner radiator and fan are said to chill the mill 20 percent better. The ’08 still stirs the combustibles with a Keihin CVK-40 constant-velocity carb, and now sports a throttle-position sensor and a new transistorized ignition to optimize spark timing. A strengthened idler shaft lever in the counterbalancing system should address that weak link. The KLR’s mellow sound remains, thanks to the neighbor-friendly legacy muffler with its USFS-approved spark arrestor, but its fury is sharpened by smoother, stronger power delivery.
Handling improvements start with 41mm fork tubes replacing the noodle-like 38mm units. Travel is down 1.2 inches, but reductions in static sag and half-millimeter thicker wheel spokes give substantial stability gains. Steering is also improved, and more front weight bias has reduced the KLR’s front washout tendencies in the dirt. Rear end updates include a new swingarm and chain adjusters, a revised Uni-Trak linkage and a modified rear shock with the same five preload settings but a new stepless rebound damper. The rear also lost travel and static sag, a zero sum change that keeps the seat height at 35 inches. All told, the new KLR is a more stable, better handling motorcycle.
Stopping power is a notorious KLR650 weakness, so Kawasaki tossed the single-pot front and rear calipers in favor of dual-piston units at both ends, bolted on new petal-style rotors, and increased the front rotor size by 20mm to 280. The changes make a huge improvement: stronger braking from both ends, more confidence for panic stops, yet plenty of feel for dirt use. I had to re-learn how to stop a KLR after riding older models for so long.
Severe buffeting and a too-soft seat have sent many KLR owners to the aftermarket looking for comfort, a trip that isn’t necessary with the 2008 bike. A new fairing and tank shrouds create a calm air comfort zone only dreamed of on previous models. Combined with firmer foam in the seat, the comfort upgrades are exceptional. The upright seating position hasn’t changed, but the head-flogging turbulence of the former model never materializes–and neither does the butt burn. Woo-hoo!
Touring and cold-weather riders will appreciate the 2.5 extra amps that Kawi squeezed out of the alternator to increase power for electric accessories and energize a new dual-bulb headlight that makes the old lamp look like, well, an old lamp in comparison. Switchgear is new, too. Especially welcome are the push-to-cancel turn-signal switch, a rocker-style kill switch and a protected, bar-mounted enrichener lever.
Kawasaki picked a gorgeous April day to assemble the motorcycle press in Monterey, California, roll out a fleet of 2008 bikes and lead us on a merry chase over 250 miles of backroads to an overnight stop in Cambria. The route was a go-kart track of tight, narrow pavement to show off the KLR’s solid handling, remote straightaways to let us wring out the updated mill (destroying our fuel economy numbers), and occasional dirt stretches to highlight the KLR’s legendary versatility (the Kawi reps were careful to emphasize that retaining the Big K’s bumps-and-dust adventuring prowess was just as important as refining its street manners).
The all-day ride proved Kawasaki’s point: The upgrades work, and work well. I’ve wanted a sixth cog in my KLR’s gearbox for years, but the modernized motor revs so freely and makes enough additional power that I found myself in fourth gear at freeway speeds, then snicking up to fifth as if it was the long-lost overdrive. I can’t say which surprised me the most, the performance gains, the first-class comfort or the much-improved multisurface handling, but I walked away very impressed with the 2008 KLR650. The only downside is added weight, now a claimed 386 pounds (dry), though the extra pounds didn’t affect handling and the bike didn’t feel much heavier than the ’07 when stopped. Wet roads and poor visibility on day two were no match for the Dunlop K750 tires, larger hand fairings and my neon-red Olympia Motorsports jacket as we coursed north along rainy Highway 1. I was dry and visible, and the KLR’s combo of steady power delivery and good traction made the rain ride fun.
Ready for the big finish? Instead of charging a grand or more for all the updates, Kawasaki has raised the price a measly 150 bucks over the ’07, to $5,349. The KLR has never had any real competition in its adventuring niche, and with a big basket of effective upgrades going for chump change, now it has even less. The 2008 KLR650 should be in dealerships by the time you read this. What else can I say besides, “Make mine blue”?