“Re-Cycling” is a new series highlighting great bikes–and buys–of the past.
Call it a dinosaur, a pack mule, a two-wheeled Jeep––the KLR650 is all of these and more. Kawasaki’s biggest dual-sport has probably been around the world as many times as any two or three other types of overland vehicles combined, and has done it while also proving itself to be one of the most rugged and budget-friendly commuters and trail bikes ever made.
There are people who will tell you that the KLR is slow, its suspension is crude and its front brake is a joke. These people are all telling you the truth. The liquid-cooled 651cc single’s leisurely climb to redline won’t leave you hanging onto the handlebar for dear life, but there’s enough torque to get you past a semi on the highway, or pull you out of mud or sand on a rutted cow trail. It doesn’t seem to mind droning along the Interstate for hours, either, although you might, especially on the stock seat. Forget that complicated fuel-injection foolishness; the KLR gets its fuel through your basic carburetor clamped to the DOHC four-valve head.
The chassis is a nearly a museum piece, with a simple damper-rod fork, a single rear shock and that woebegone front brake, which cries out for a bigger rotor, better pads and a stainless-steel line. Fortunately the KLR aftermarket is teeming with upgrades for just about every part on the bike, from the chassis to the seat to the exhaust, leading many riders to spend thousands on what started out as a budget bike.
There are several other known weak spots on the first-generation KLRs. The bolts that hold the subframe to the main frame are low grade, and should be replaced with higher-grade bolts if you plan to fit heavy hard cases, or if you ride hard off-road. The stock alternator bleats out a mere 196 watts, barely enough to power auxiliary lights and a heated vest, never mind more robust electrical gadgets. And then there’s the balancer-shaft adjuster, known as the “doohickey,” or just the “doo.” The stock one is fragile and failure prone; if it hasn’t been swapped for a sturdier aftermarket part, it should be at the earliest opportunity.
For serious off-roading, the kind where if you break down you’re on your own, savvy KLR riders disconnect the side-stand and clutch-lever cutout switches, both of which have been known to immobilize a bike when they get wet or rusty, or when they just feel like it. The KLR is better suited to highway riding than most dual-sports, so the stock seat is often shelved for a flatter, firmer one, and the tiny windscreen joins it in retirement in favor of a taller model that blocks the wind more effectively. With a 6.1-gallon gas tank and decent mileage, the KLR650 will take you a long way between fill-ups.
Shopping for a used KLR650 exposes you to the full spectrum of KLR owners, from the ones who bolt on thousands in RTW gear to those who just put in gas and oil and ride the wheels off. Ask if the doohickey has been done, and ask for proof. Check for oil smoke, a poor idle, a dirty air filter, a slack or rusty chain, leaky fork and shock, coolant level, and milky-colored engine oil caused by coolant leaking into the crankcase. Most of what you need to look at is in plain sight, and if anything looks off, move on to the next KLR on your list.
1987-2007 Kawasaki KLR650
Pros: Cheap, durable, versatile, hard to kill, easy to love
Cons: Almost everything on it is low-tech and can be improved–some things absolutely need to be improved
Final Drive: Chain
Wet Weight: 432 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 6.1 gals.
Seat Height: 35 in.