2008-07-13

KLR650 Long-Service Review

Short Review
  • Cons: It's cheap.
  • Pros: It's cheap.
I love my KLR, it's the best bike I've ever owned.

The Really, Really Long Review

I've been riding Killer, my KLR, from the spring of 1991. He's a '90 A4 model and, yes, I refer to my bikes in the masculine form. I beat on them way too much to think of them as ladies. Anyway, this review is intended to show how my KLR has performed over a long period of time. Rather than making it a dry list of specifications and mechanical issues, I'm going to do it as the story of Killer and I.

One day, back in '91, I got a new job. That, of course, meant I could get a new motorcycle. Now, at the time, I was a big Honda fan. Actually, I had 4 Hondas in my garage: an XR-250 for the dirt, an XL-350 for the street, an XR-100 for my little brother to ride, and an XR-200 that I was helping him move up to. I was having overheating issues with both the XL-350 and XR-250 (both had the '84 radial 4-valve air-cooled engine). Prior to that, I had an XR-185 and a CB-750. The 185 was my first real motorcycle and, when I turned 16, I had insured it for the road. The CB-750 was an object lesson in bike dynamics - I sold it to the insurance company after some cager turned left in front of me. It was his fault but I should have been able to ride out of it. Instead, the CB's weight worked against my dirt-biker instincts and I somersaulted over the car. I learned my lesson: born and raised dirt-bikers don't belong on street-bikes. Thus, my preference for dualsports even while owning full-on dirt bikes. Anyway, I never really liked the XL-350 so, with a new job, it was time for a new bike.

My first choice was based on a review in a biker magazine - the Honda XLV-750. I drooled over that little black and white photo like it came from Playboy. Reality set in when I realised that they weren't shipping them to North America, and there was no way I was going to get one, new job or not. I hated the looks of the Honda Transalp and, with the over-heating issues I was having, I swore I'd never buy another air-cooled motor, so the newer XLs and XRs were out. Thus, I decided to break away from my Honda loyalties.

I shopped around but there weren't a lot of water-cooled 750cc dualsport bikes around, at least ones that looked like they were dirt bikes. Like I said, I didn't like the look of the Transalp and the other ones around were pretty much the same - street bikes with tall legs and winter tires. Then I found the KLR. It was a single, where I wanted a twin, and it was 650 instead of 750, but it was half the price of everything else out there. It was unbelievably cheap compared to the Hondas. Really, really cheap.

The bike shop wouldn't let me take one for a test ride and, honestly, I'm not sure if I would have bought one if I had the opportunity to ride it first, so I guess I was lucky there. After relatively little debate, I bought the previous-year's KLR model for $4500 out the door. I figured, it was almost identical to the new model, so why pay more. At the time, I had no idea the bike line would stay almost identical all the way through 2007.

On my first ride, I learned that the Kawasaki KLR-650 was not a Honda. Compared the the Hondas I was used to, it was rattly, clunky, awkward, notchy, and generally rough. It just didn't have the ergonomics or fit and finish that I was used to. It's not a good feeling to be riding home on a brand new bike going, ewww - this is kinda crappy. But, you pays your money and you takes your chances. This was in the days when the Internet was just for us geeks - no KLR650 FAQs or reviews to browse. So, I owned a new bike, number 5 in my garage, and I wasn't very impressed.

The KLR, despite being awkward, rattly, and all the rest, was still fun to ride. So, I rode it a lot. And, even with the fit and finish problems, it was still a better bike than the XL-350, so, as planned, that one got sold pretty quick. One overheating problem solved, at least for me. Of course, before I sold it, I traded the much better rectangular XL mirrors for the stupid-looking round Mickey Mouse mirrors on the KLR. Improvement number one.

I loved the water-cooling on the KLR. After having so many problems with overheating the air-cooled Honda engines, it was a real treat. I still remember the first time the KLR fan came on, while I was trying to turn around on a trail that was getting too tight. It scared the hell out of me; I thought something was broken. Around town, even in traffic, the bike never got hot enough for the fan to come one. Of course, I was still breaking it in.

After the break-in period, I really started to have fun with the KLR. It wasn't as good at wheeling or climbing stairs as the XL was, but the extra power made it really nice in traffic or twisty roads. On the highway, the fairing helped but it dumped rough air right on my helmet face shield, making it rattle. That was really annoying so I came up with a solution, I weather-stripped the bottom edge of my face shield, which stopped the rattling. Worked great and I still do it. Improvement number two.

I bought the KLR as my street bike; I already had a real dirt bike. So, I wasn't expecting much in the way of off-road performance. And, yes, I wasn't entirely surprised on my first trips off the blacktop. In the tight stuff, the weight of the KLR is formidable and you can't ride it like a dirt bike. On the other hand, it's way, way better on gravel roads than any other bike I've ridden. It just tracks unbelievably well and put my XR-250 to shame. I could ride way faster on gravel with the KLR than I could with the XR. Another thing that surprised me is that the KLR would tractor up hills really well. With the XR on loose rocky hills, it was important to keep momentum because, if I slowed down too much, it would just dig in and that was that. The KLR will just keep pulling and pulling and pulling, and pulling, with the engine chugging away slower than I would set the idle. It just doesn't dig in like a dirt bike would. Somehow, the extra weight helps it keep going. Even to this day, after learning how to make the most of the beast, it still surprises me with its tenacity on these types of hills.

Another thing that I fell in love with on the KLR was the huge gas tank. With my XL or XR, I could get 150Km before hitting reserve. That meant that my rides got interesting at 75Km. When the odometer hit that point, I had to stop and think: can I ride through or do I have to turn back now? Just how many side-trips did I make? With the KLR, I would hit reserve at 330Km, more than double the XR or XL. That makes a huge difference out in logging country; a much bigger difference than you would think at first. It means that I just don't really worry about gas. I just go for a ride. Only once, in 17 years, have I really gotten concerned about my remaining fuel - and it got me home. Those concerns used to be a regular thing with the Hondas. Well, once, I did run out of gas on the KLR, while riding to Vancouver. I had completely forgotten that I had hit reserve on the way to the ferry, and, once off the boat, rode past all the gas stations. I sputtered to a halt in some industrial area, no one around, just a bunch of barking guard dogs. After the initial "oh-crap, I'm an idiot" moment had passed, I remembered an old trick, I laid the bike down on its left side, letting the last drops of fuel from the bottom of the right side of the tank spill over the frame hump, and rode to the nearest gas station. Killer has never stranded me, not yet anyway, even when I've been stupid. And, believe me, I've done plenty of stupid things on that bike.

I bought the KLR so I could go motorcycle camping, camping well away from where I live. So, in short order, I strapped on all my camping gear and headed for the interior of BC. The bike handled it well, very well actually, with the only whimper coming from my butt. Dang, that seat gets annoying after a while. I managed to ride through snow in the passes, bake in the desert, dodge cows in the pastures, scream down some highways, ride the Kettle Creek rail line before it became part of the Trans-Canada trail, and generally have a really good time. I did lose my license plate (the first of 3) somewhere along the way, but that was the only mechanical issue. The KLR comes stock with a really stupid plate mounting system. The only limiting factor was my endurance, which was less than I expected.

I learned a few things on that trip: 1) The KLR is an awesome machine, 2) my butt really hurts after a couple of days of riding, and 3) when motorcycle camping, the only thing you can do is motorcycle camping. I love road trips, that's the ideal holiday for me; just get a vehicle and drive, anywhere. But, when you're camping on a bike, you can't stop and do something else because all your gear is just sitting there on the bike. Even stopping somewhere for lunch is cause for concern, always trying to find a window seat with a view of the bike. I guess this is why long-distance riders prefer hard-luggage they can lock up. I learned that I last about 3 days while travelling on a bike. After that, the joy of free discovery is buried under a sore butt and a craving for something different. Maybe it's better in a group, where people can take turns on watch, I don't know. It seems to me that the bigger the group, the less freedom to follow a whim. For me, travelling is mostly about getting away from people, so groups are kind of counter-productive. That first trip did, however, teach me a lot of respect for the people that ride solo on long distance trips. It takes a special kind of person, one with an iron butt, and I'm not one of them. I guess that's learned point number 4.

After that trip, I settled down to shorter jaunts, mostly on the island. During them, I learned that the KLR can carry way more camping gear than I need, that this extra weight can catch you off-guard and dump you over in the dirt if you're not careful, and that saddlebags suck in tight trails. I've tried, over the years, several different systems for carrying my camping gear. Too much on the rear deck makes for interesting handling; saddlebags will snag your feet when you dab down for balance in a tight trail. I also learned that the best solution for carrying gear is to carry less gear. Just because the bag is really big, you really don't need to fill it up with things you might possibly need. Good gear, packed well, and a minimalist attitude make for the most pleasant riding experience. Oh, I also learned that the stock mounting system for the license plate sucks, again.

Yes, I lost another license plate. Then, not more than two weeks later, I was bopping around in the trails and noticed the third plate swinging by one mounting bolt. The other bolt was still there, holding the broken-off corner of the plate. It seems that if you happen to bang the plate inwards, which happens a lot in tight trails, the plate will snag the tire on a big hit. Once that happens, it just rips off. So, out on the trail, I just crammed the plate up under the fender, rolling the top over in the process, and then used the bottom mounting holes, instead of the top ones. On the way home, I, of course, ended up riding through a roadside motorcycle inspection campaign. You know, the ones they have every year. Anyway, the cop checked my drivers license, stared at my plate for a while, humming and hawing, but decided to let me go without saying anything. Once home, I drilled my own holes in the plate about a third of the way up and remounted it from there. That plates been on the bike like that for over a decade. Cops keep doing that double-take when they see it, but so far I've been lucky. Maybe it's just because I'm older now. I don't really recommend my plate mounting system but I do recommend changing from the rather stupid stock system. Improvement number 4.

On another trip to Vancouver, a few years after owning Killer, I had my first big mechanical problem. It was my fault, really. Rather than re-reading the manual like a good owner should, I went from memory. Of course, my maintenance was all wrong. Instead of adjusting the balancer chain every 5000km, I was doing it every 500km or so. And, instead of barely turning out the bolt, I was cranking it out and in a few turns. I did this in Vancouver. When I went to start the bike, it made a horrible grinding noise and seized up. Mortified, I immediately double-checked that the balancer adjuster was tight, and it was. I managed to get the motor loose by rocking it back and forth in high gear and then dared to hit the starter again. This time, after a nasty clunking noise, it started and sounded normal. So, I took the chance and road home.

Killer got me home without incident and I immediately pulled off the engine cover to see what was wrong. The engine balancer chain adjuster, the 'doohicky', had come partially off the shaft that it rides on and bent when I re-tightened the adjustment bolt. Further, the side of the large gear the starter turns had ground off the edge of the now out-of-place doohicky. I pulled it apart, after making some custom tools to get the job done, and went off the bike shop for a replacement. There, I had one of the biggest shocks in my life. That stupid little part cost, get this, $4.95. That was the first sub-$5 bike part I had ever, in my entire life, had the privilege of buying. Nothing on a Honda costs under $5. I had to ask twice to confirm the price, I though he was wrong. Anyway, after securing the part, I went back to install it. I stared at that part for a long time when putting it back on. It seemed like there was another part missing, or the bike was put together wrong, because I couldn't see anything that kept the adjuster from falling off when the adjustment bolt is loosened off. There isn't anything. In my opinion, this is a design flaw on the bike, but I just live with it. I make sure the bike is leaning to the right when I do my adjustment and I make sure to not loosen the bolt very much, just a quarter turn and then I tap the head to make sure things can slide as necessary. Anyway, despite all the metal filing that drained out with the oil during the repair, the bike has been fine ever since.

The only other mechanical "design" issue I've found with the bike is the stupid stock-skid plate. If you're planning on doing any significant off-road excursions, you really need to replace it with something better. The oil drain plug is just way too exposed otherwise. My drain plug has a large chunk tore out of it's head, and now I've got a thick aluminium skid-plate. Improvement number 5.

At that point, my bike was still entirely stock, except for the skid plate. It was also still dent and mostly scratch free. I thought that big steel tank would get dented up pretty fast, but it's actually quite well protected. Besides that, I still hadn't had any incidents "at speed." In fact, the fasted get-off I had was when I didn't make it up a hill and was sliding back down, backwards. I dumped the bike over and tore off a radiator shroud. I managed to glue some tabs back on and, other than a couple of scratches, it's still there. For the most part, dumping the bike over causes surprisingly little damage. Things are tucked in well and those that aren't generally can bend or push out of the way.

One day, I realised that I hadn't gone for a ride on my XR-250 for most of the year. It was just so much easier to hop on Killer and go for a ride, way easier than trailering out the XR. I didn't have to worry about my car, trailer, gas, where I was going to ride. I'd just hop on Killer and go. By that point, after having my primary riding buddies move away or give up riding, I was mostly riding alone anyway. With Killer, I could make the most of dualsport riding that was close to town, hopping from one little off-road area to another. By that point, I had reduced my bike stable to 2: the XR-250 and Killer. The XR was still overheating, despite everything I tried to do to fix it, and it didn't take too much more to push me over the edge. I sold that XR and I was now a one-bike kind a guy, a Kawasaki guy at that.

Then, that fateful day arrived when I discovered DOT approved (street legal) knobby tires. The full story of that is HERE, so I won't bother repeating it. I will mention that I was also due for a new chain and sprockets at that point, so I went a tooth down in the front. Oh, what a difference that made in the tight woods. It completely changed Killer and we started having some serious fun. That bike constantly amazes me at the stuff it can tractor through. It doesn't ride like a "real" dirt bike, there's no dancing over the rough at speed, but it just keeps going, and going, and going. The only thing that makes me cringe now are big log crossings. I just can't keep up enough speed to clear them. As soon as the skid-plate hits, the bike just stops dead. Then, suddenly, I'm aware that the KLR really is a huge, heavy beast. But, other than that, with decent tires and lower gearing, not much can stop Killer and I. I guess that's improvements number 6 and 7.

By this time, I was having way too much fun so I thought I'd spend a little bit to make Killer even more of a dirt machine. I forked out for progressive springs (pun intended), a K&N air filter, a jet kit, and a hydraulic clutch. The springs are awesome, I can't praise them enough. On one ride, the 2003 Mystery Creek Dual Sport, I swear those springs saved my life. The K&N filter is, well, not so good. Sure, it works, but it's more of a nuisance than it's worth. I had to clean it in a gas station bathroom on one trip; I was not impressed. The jet kit does add a nice kick to the bike but it kills my gas range. I went from 330km before reserve down to 220km. That is really annoying. I'm still debating on taking out the kit. The hydraulic clutch, like the springs, is fantastic. I love that clutch and it's worth every penny. It really makes tight woods riding a joy, rather than a pain. So, improvements 8, 9, 10, and 11. On a side note, I loaned my bike to a friend for a bike trip he was doing with his father. With street-biased tires and the stock gearing, he was getting 350km per tank. I have never gotten that kind of range, jet kit or not. So, I guess mileage depends on the rider too.

So, I was feeling pretty good about Killer at that point and, what with being in the bike shops waiting for these after-market parts to come in, I notice that the Victoria Motorcycle Club was putting on a Dual Sport Enduro. I hadn't raced in years, and that was a hare scramble on my XR-250. I used to be a member of the VMC, but I had long since given that up. I had no idea they were doing dual-sport enduros. So, I had to try it out, and it was a blast. I had so much fun. The course was typically-challenging VMC stuff and, after riding alone for so much, it was fantastic to be able to really cut loose and ride as hard and fast as I wanted. And yes, I rode hard and fast, not really even worrying about the enduro timing, but somehow managed to come in second anyway. Well, that was it, I was hooked on racing again and I rejoined the VMC. The next year, I actually tried to win, so I obviously failed miserably and came in way back in the pack. That year, I also did the Mystery Creek Dual Sport.

Killer really shone at Mystery Creek. This was, as I found out, and "event" and not a race. So much for redeeming my miserable VMC dual-sport performance that year. I also learned that it was the last one, which is sad because it was a lot of fun. Anyway, it was a route-charted A/B loop affair. I rode to the event, carrying my full camping gear, and tented the night before the race started. People there were surprised that someone would actually ride to the event and camp. Isn't that what dual-sports are all about? Besides that, everyone was telling me that people on KLRs should stick to the B loop, the A loop was way too hard. Once I started riding, I gave up on the boring B stuff, way too easy for Killer and I. We bounced through the A loop sections without any issues. On the ride home, the bike started making a weird squeaky noise. It turned out that my air filter had vibrated loose and was bouncing around my air-box. One more strike against the K&N filter. Now, when I mount it, I really torque it up.

Being a member of the VMC, it wasn't long before I was called in to help put an event on. So, I volunteered to run a check on the Equaliser Enduro. This is a full-on dirt-bike enduro but all I had to do was ride up the road and man a check where people came out of the bush. Yeah, it was boring. So, after the race was over, I tried my luck with riding the course. Now, having run VMC enduros before, on my XR, I had an idea of what to expect, but it wasn't like that at all. I rode the first section without any problems, so I kept following the course, and then I ended up at the finish going, hey, that was too easy. I asked around and was told that this was what junior-level events are like. So, the next year, I entered the March Hare Enduro, and won first in the juniors. Then, I entered the Equaliser Enduro, and did, well, not so good. But, somehow, between those races, and maybe one other (I can't remember), I managed to win that year's Junior Series Championship, on a KLR-650. Everything on the bike was going fine, other than it was running a little warmer than it used to, and I was having a blast racing. Well, I did finally bust off one of the rear signal lights. The only other thing to report at this point was my very first dent in the tank. I was working on the bike and had a wrench in my hand while I turned around. Yup, ding. First one. Man, was I pissed off. All those years of riding and the first dent is in my shop.

The next year, when the March Hare rolled around, I entered again. This time, the event was much, much harder. The full report is HERE for those interested. I had my first at-speed wipe-out during this race, my first real dent in the tank, and I ripped off both of my brush guards. At least it wasn't my first dent. So, I put some aluminium lever guards in place, and that's improvement number 12. Honestly, I preferred the stock brush guards, so it's not really an improvement. I still hadn't fixed the signal light - they wanted $39 for a stock replacement and I don't use them anyway. I learned to signal with my arm while riding my old XR-185 and still do to this day. Honestly, the real reason is that I feel like an idiot when I look down and realise I've been riding for the last 20km with the signal flashing. It's really hard to forget your arm is sticking out.

By this time, my old nemesis - overheating - came back to haunt me. I don't know what it is about me and engines that run hot. I thought I'd be done with that by going to water-cooling, but no, it's happening again with Killer. It has not actually overheated yet, maybe 3/4 on the temperature gauge at most. However, each year it runs a little hotter, and I can't figure out why. The re-jetting didn't help, I checked the water pump, and radiator, everything seems fine. So, I started running water-wetter instead of antifreeze, and that helps quite a bit. But, still, I've not solved the problem. I'm starting another round now, going back to basics. I have a thermostat ready to go in. But, yeah, it's frustrating.

Another year and another Dualsport Enduro passed by without any trophy again. I'm really going to have to stop trying at these races if I want to get a decent finish. This year, after the race, I blew some extra air in the tires, strapped on the camping gear, and took my girlfriend on an Island trip. Now, there are other bikes out there that would be way better for a dualsport enduro than a KLR650; there are better bikes out there for going motorcycle camping 2-up. But, how many bikes out there are capable of doing both reasonably well? Now, that's what makes the KLR so great.

At this point, Killer is looking not quite so new and a little bit more like a dirt bike. I have long since given up washing it. I wipe off the parts I'm fixing and that's about it. My maintenance plan is basically, if it has lots and lots of dirt on it, then it's probably due for an inspection soon, well, someday, when I get around to it. I've finally fixed the rear signal lights. I was too cheap to buy the proper unit and picked up a couple of rectangular clearance lights from Princess Auto, $1.99 each. Did I mention that I was cheap? Anyway, these lights are too small to work with the flash relay so I paralleled some resistors to increase the load (I'm an electronics technologist by trade, so this is pretty simple for me). I might change to an electronic flash relay at some point. Then again, signal lights are just legal baggage as far as I'm concerned.

The speedometer cable broke during the trip my friend was on, and he replaced it before giving the bike back. I've gone through a few sets of brake pads, a few batteries, lots of tires, and a set of fork seals over the years. And, at present, I'm in the process of replacing the clutch pack - all those single-track trails with the hydraulic clutch have taken their toll. Other than that, I keep checking the valve clearance but, even after 17 years, still don't need to adjust them. The bike is starting to burn a little oil, but I'm not sure if it's just because it's running hotter. There's not much more to report, maintenance wise.

Overall, Killer has been the best bike I've ever owned. It's not beautiful, but if you throw a little mud on it, it kind of has a tough look. Not a KTM/Chuch Noris kind of tough, mind you, more like a coal-miner respectable working-man tough. I've heard there are quality-control issues but I've, thankfully, not experienced any. I have noticed a few design flaws but they are manageable and/or solvable with after-market parts. Overall, it's a hell of a lot more bike than I expected for the price. What more could a biker want?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

love the review :) definitely going to get one of my own!