Road Test

2002 Kawasaki KLR650

1,750 miles, 4 days,  50mpg
KLR650 Test)

Where would you like to go today?

What can you say about a 651cc single cylinder 4-stroke dual sport machine first introduced over a decade ago, and basically unchanged since. You could choose to say that it's outdated, underpowered, low-tech and more. If you choose to think this way, however, you'd be missing what the KLR is all about. Read on, and we'll explain.

The KLR is certainly a bit of an odd-ball. Most other single cylinder 4-stroke dual sport machines that survived into the 21st century are more focused on dirt use. In the early 90's the KLR was used, by many, as a serious dual sport mount. Today, as the anti for off-road capabilities has risen, the KLR finds itself as more of a do-it-all adventure bike - and arguably the most capable adventure bike around. Don't get us wrong, we love what the OEMs are pushing as adventure/go-anywhere bikes. Problem is, most of them won't easily go everywhere you wish once you get them off-road. The KLR, on the other hand, will go pretty much anywhere, and it will do so while providing a very comfortable ride - both on and off the pavement.

The tall and softly suspended KLR is built around a 651cc, 5-speed, liquid-cooled, electric start, DOHC 4 valve engine. It runs smooth, has useable torque, and is just perfect for all day rides.  The engine is bolted to a simi-double cradle steel frame which sits high off the ground, once the 17" rear and 21" front wheels and tall suspension are added.

Bolted to the chassis is a standard rear rack, a frame mounted and very effective small fairing with windscreen, and a large 6.1 gallon fuel tank that's rather slim in back. Together the tank and mildly tuned engine provide a no-worries range of over 230 miles, while the windscreen takes much of the wind blast off the rider making for carefree riding. The standard hand-guards simply add to the bikes comfort no matter what the conditions. The long, and yes brown seat, is pillow soft yet quite good for all day rides. The seat positioning is very neutral so it's easy to reposition yourself without sliding around. The seat was equally good for street duty and off-road exploring. At a claimed 337 pounds (dry) , the KLR isn't a fly weight, but it's not particularly heavy either. In street use it feels light weight as the wide off-road bars provide gobs of leverage for quick and light steering. Off-road, the bars that feel a bit too wide on the pavement work well to keep the bike manageable.

The KLRs stock tires, the type we usually yank before we get the bike back to the shop, surprised us. We chose to run the bike completely stock including the tires. We knew this would be the best bet with hundreds of hard-charging pavement miles to come on Hwy 1s endless twisties. We ran about 28 pounds of air in back and 22 pounds up front for street use, and the tires worked well indeed. Once we hit dirt, we ran about 20/15 with far better results than we anticipated. 


There's very little not to like about the KLR, but there are some weak points. Most of all the suspension is way too soft, not in how it works, but in it's lack of progressive damping. As the going gets tougher, the suspension doesn't change. In fact, the long travel forks dive what feels like two feet every time you seriously use the front brake. It can be so bad that you loose the use of the headlight, as we did, braking for a coyote in the road. We love the plush ride, just give us something more as the suspension goes through it's stroke.

The other weak point is the brakes, particularly the front. More stopping power is definitely needed, but only after taking care of the suspension problems mentioned above. And speaking of power, we'll take more of it if from the mildly tuned engine.

What's most remarkable about the KLR, other than how long it's been offered to the public, is how much fun it is ride. You sit up high with excellent road visibility; the thing is whisper quiet so it never gets on your nerves and it's just so dammed comfortable - whether on your way to the store or to Northern California as in our case. (just make sure to adjust the bars back further than stock) What other bike can you ride 1,750 miles through the night on the highway, follow it up with two days exploring off-road, and then do the pavement thing all over again?

The best way to describe the KLR, other than fun to ride, is to say that it ads up to far more than the sum of its parts. As a package, it's hard to beat for what it can do and how comfortably it does it. And at a price of only $4,999, it can provide this fun to a lot of riders for not much green.

Kawasaki: 2002 KLR650
Quick Specs: Ratings:  Poor Fair Good V/Good Excellent
Displacement: 651cc, liquid-cooled, single Acceleration           6        
Drive:   5-speed, chain Brakes             7*      
Fuel Capacity:   6.1 Gal.  Carburetion                 9  
Fuel Mileage:  mpg Comfort (overall)                 9  
Fuel Range:   miles Comfort (DS touring)                 9  
Susp. Front: 38mm Telescopic air-adjustable fork Finish (quality)                 9  
Susp. Back: Single shock, Uni-Track. 5-way preload, 4-way rebound Handling (overall)             7      
Tire Front: 90/90 21" Stability (handling)             7      
Tire Back: 130/80 17" Suspension (overall)         5          
Weight:   Dry - 337 lbs.

Fun Factor

Retail (US): $4,999

Overall Rating


* Weak, but good feel. Function better off-road.
** Rating is for the bikes function when used for the intended type of use, easy dual sport or adventure touring.

Ups Downs
Comfort, Comfort, Comfort Suspension is not progressively damped
Fairing and hand guards Could use more power
Electric start, rack Needs stronger brakes
Great fuel mileage, range Rubber footpegs should be
removable for off-road use
Attached fuel cap,
Handlebar mounted choke
Turn signals delay before flashing,
no push to cancel for signals
Truly a go anywhere bike Too tall for many riders

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