COAL: Kawasaki KLR650 – Is This The Jeep Cherokee Of The Motorcycle World?


“Dirtbike.  Psshh.  Really?  Time for the next post…”  No really, don’t leave!  This is not a dirtbike, this is a totally hidden gem that is right out in the open.  In fact, to me, this is one of the best motorcycles ever created and one that is perfect for almost all occasions.  Let me explain…

It had been several years since my last motorcycle; I had since matured a bit more and realized that while each of my previous three motorcycles had been larger, more powerful, and faster than the last one, each one had also been less comfortable than the last and realistically I was not able or willing to risk enough to exploit anywhere near all of the performance anyway.  So I started looking at more standard types of bikes.


Comfort was important.  Reliability even more so.  Cost was a factor as was usability.  I looked all over.  I really liked Kawasaki’s W650, which reminds of an old Triumph more than anything else in every aspect bar reliability (Very much like a Miata compares to a Lotus Elan for example).  In the end they were too new and still too pricey used.  I also liked Yamaha’s TDM850, a somewhat oddly styled tall all-terrain type of motorcycle.  Again, too expensive.  Then I saw a Kawasaki KLR650.  Hmm.  That might work.  Let’s give it a try.  OK, sold! 

What is a KLR650?  It is considered a Dual-Sport, at home both on paved and unpaved roads.  Realistically it is not optimized for either but works very well on both.  It was produced almost unchanged for twenty years between 1987 and 2007. They are simple, reliable, cheap, and extremely comfortable. 

The thing that changed most often on it is the color it was offered in but even that was not always an annual thing so it is difficult at a glance to tell the age of one.  The engine is a 650cc single-cylinder (called a “thumper”) four-stroke with 4 valves, a single sparkplug and water-cooling.  37hp with a dry weight of 390 pounds is plenty on something like this.  You probably see at least one every week if not more often.  The CC effect will make it so if it has not already occurred….


Mine was the darker teal green with the garish purple “KLR” graffiti-style graphic on the side and a black engine.  I think that made it a 1996 model but honestly am not sure anymore.  I believe it had around 10,000 miles on it when I got it and was in excellent condition.  All of the pictures are ones I found on the internet, I do not seem to have any of my own.

The first thing you notice when you get on one (as I did) is that it seems like you are sitting at the dinner table.  On the most comfortable chair ever.  With lots of padding.  And  suspension!  It just gets better from there.  You sit upright, your stretch your legs to reach the ground, when you put your feet up on the pegs you don’t feel all contorted.  Turn the key, hit the electric start button (from 1996 on) and the big single springs to life.  You quickly realize that although it vibrates a bit, it has tons of character. 

You put it in gear and pull away smoothly and all of a sudden you feel like the king of the road.  So comfortable, like the first time you rode a bicycle with full suspension.  Bumps and bad pavement just disappear.  The engine is immensely tractable.  Not superbike powerful, but plenty to more than keep up with traffic and pull away at lights. Cornering on the big knobbies, while obviously not as good as a normal streetbike tire, is better than you’d expect and feels sort of predictably spongy (in a good way).  Stopping is fine with a fair bit of dive as is to be expected.


I used mine for a while to commute to work from Oakland to San Francisco.  Anyone familiar with bad commutes knows this is one of the really bad ones.  The Bay Bridge toll plaza is horrible for a single driver in a car. Lining up and paying the toll is not the problem, it is the metering lights afterwards that slows everything down.  On a typical day commuting on the KLR I would get on I-580 near my house, ride for about half a mile until the merge with I-24, at that point traffic would stop, I would split lanes (legal in CA) at about 10-15mph between the stopped cars until I met the merge with I-80 from Berkeley. 

At that point I’d head to the left into the carpool lane (motorcycles OK), go through the tollplaza (free) and through the metering light section (no metering for carpool lanes) and into the part where something like 15 lanes merged into five for the bridge itself.  Keep to the left, cover the brake and be a gear lower than cruising gear and that last merge was no problem.  Over the bridge in seven or eight minutes and then off at the end into downtown and find a spot to park for work. 

The downside was the single driver morons that would decide they had had enough and cut into the carpool lane without noticing the cop parked at the tollplaza that would pull them over and hand them a $271 ticket…What they also would not notice is the guy on the big green motorcycle and either make me swerve hard to the side and/or have to hit the brakes hard.  Early on I took to riding all the way on the outside edge of the lane but there were a couple of close calls I have to admit that eventually made me give up riding to work, since I had a young daughter and preferred a longer commute with a better chance of actually getting there in one piece to the alternative…


All motorcycles are great on nice days, this one was great even on gloomy or downright cold days.  KLR’s have big built in hand fairings that keeps the wind off your hands, the little windshield does a pretty good job of protecting the rider as well and the upright seating position means that you can wear a fairly heavy parka style motorcycle jacket comfortably.


If for some reason the bike does tip over, the plastic pieces are durable but easy to replace if needed.  And a couple of scuffs never look out of place on this kind of bike either as opposed to the latest Ducati for example…I didn’t just use it to commute, it was great just around town and even fun on twisty roads.  Just like a car, it is more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow. 


A friend of mine, Bob Cunningham, had a BMW GS1200, the large offroad motorcycle that you see in the Paris-Dakar rallies.  Together we decided that we would take our motorcycles to watch the USA Rally in Laughlin, NV one weekend.  So on Friday afternoon we packed up our bikes into the back of his mid-90’s Ford F150 XLT (6 cylinder, manual, 2WD – an honest working man’s truck…) and drove all the way from the Bay Area to Laughlin. 

We got in late at night, but saw the crews working on the cars in the hotel parking lot.  We were beat so went to bed soon after.  The next morning the first stage was supposed to be at 10am on Indian land about 50 miles away.  We unloaded our bikes and set off.  The temperature was just above freezing, it was windy and it was COLD!  We stopped on the way for coffee to warm up and eventually got to the turnoff, which turned out to be a heavily crowned dirt road covered in snow. 


We slowly turned on to it and about 100 yards in, Bob went down hard.  He was fine, but his bike had a large ding in the tank and a mirror had broken.  I slowed and tried to turn but ended up sliding into the ditch, still upright.  Eventually we got both bikes back in the middle of the road and kept going.  We each went down one more time at low speed without more damage but it took us a good hour to go a few miles.  However we were both quite warm when we got there from the exertion! 

We had a lot of fun watching the rally cars go by us and then continued to follow them on several stages.  During the afternoon we made our way back to the hotel without further incident but wisely decided that on Sunday we would just take the truck, which we did all the way to the rim of the Grand Canyon for that day’s stages.  Later that day we reloaded the bikes which we had left at the hotel and drove back home.

Single-cylinder motorcycles are a bit different from other ones as you are completely dependent on ONE cylinder. We’ve all had cars or maybe motorcycles where one or more cylinders were not working properly, no biggie, the other ones will get you there in an emergency, albeit more slowly.  When you only have one, it must work.  Many guys will carry a spare sparkplug with them at all times just in case the installed one breaks. 


These bikes are widely used as a cheap adventure and touring bike.  You can add luggage in all sizes, both soft and hard, there are a million accessories available, and at least one has fully circumnavigated the globe.  In other words, almost infinitely adaptable.  Just like a Jeep Cherokee; built for what seems like forever, not many changes, very customizable and cheap to buy and own, but totally usable in multiple environments. 

A few years ago I was pretty sure my motorcycle days were over, now although I am not out shopping, I like the idea of something like this again just to mess around with and have fun around town and in some of the hills here.  I think it’d be a fun bike to try a set of street tires on as well and maybe stiffen the suspension a bit, kind of like making a poor man’s supermotard bike.  Looking for pictures I came across tons of these without knobbies so this appears to be a popular change.


I obviously sold it, but I have no recollection of doing so or who bought it.  I’m not even sure exactly when.  I do know that one day I realized I was not using it enough anymore and it’d be better suited for someone else, at least at that time in my life in the place and space that I was in.