By now, we’ve seen months of sneak peeks, previews and now ride reviews of the new-for-2022 Kawasaki KLR650. The new version has EFI, ABS, and a lot of added bodywork—it’s less of a dual sport, more of a travel-focused adventure bike. Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
That depends on what you want to use your bike for. However, this is nothing new for Kawasaki. As far back as 1990, Kawasaki had a touring-oriented version of the KLR650 in production, the KLR650-B, aka the Tengai. These days, it’s one of the hardest-to-find adventure bikes that ever entered the North American market.
A bike of its time
These days, 650 thumpers generally have a reputation for being bare-bones machines that owners accessorize into full ADV bikes. Back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, this wasn’t the case. Manufacturers were willing to build adventure bikes around engines in the 650-750 class. Honda’s Trans Alp and original Africa Twin are good examples, or Suzuki’s DR Big … or the KLR650-B Tengai.
Kawasaki probably saw little point in developing a new engine for the Tengai, after all, because this was the heyday of the KLR650 platform. It was extremely affordable, especially when compared to big adventure bikes from Europe (particularly BMW’s GS series). It had liquid cooling, a DOHC top end and electric start, putting it well ahead of Yamaha’s XT series and Suzuki’s DR series at that point. As long as your Doohickey didn’t self-destruct (and remember, Kawasaki officially denies this is a problem, to this day), the KLR engine was solid. Even though it was more advanced than thumpers from other Japanese OEMs, it was still very simple when compared to flashier sport tourers.
It was also much less powerful than the muscled-up 1200s from Yamaha, or other big mile-eaters from that era. The Gen 1 KLR makes around 42 horsepower at the crank, and 45 pound-feet of torque. That’s enough to keep up with traffic on most highways, but you won’t be setting cross-continental speed records.
That’s not what the Tengai is for, though. The Tengai is for riders who wanted KLR affordability and reliability with just a bit more comfort.
Differences between the KLR650-A and KLR650-B models
What made the Tengai different? The plastics are the most obvious change, with fairing and fuel tank integrated, unlike the standard KLR650-A model. While this means there’s way more chance of damage in a crash or even a tip-over, it gives the Tengai a distinctive look and possibly some added wind protection.
The gauges were mounted to the fairing, and Tengai fans generally say the instrument cluster is better than a KLR650-A, although it certainly looks dated in today’s world of TFT screens.
There’s also a low-mount front fender, desirable for street riding but a possible liability when offroad riding, as mud or rocks can get jammed under there.
The main section of the frame is the same, but the Tengai also has a slightly different subframe, and the front end is different. The suspension settings are changed, and there’s a new front brake. The Gen 1 KLR650 had a horrendous single-piston front caliper arrangement, but the Tengai models had a two-piston caliper to deal with the bike’s added weight. There wasn’t much difference in the dry weight, only 14 pounds, but no doubt Kawasaki expected owners to ride their Tengai loaded down with touring kit.
All these changes added up to make a bike that looked different from the standard model, and felt a bit different, but it wasn’t really transformed into something all-new. Many riders found the standard KLR model suited their needs just fine, and they weren’t hungry for the pseudo-rally fairing. That was more of a Euro thing, and Kawi was selling the KLE500 over there, not the KLR650.
So, the Tengai never really became a success in the US or other markets. Imports started around 1990 and ended around 1992 (depending which market you’re in), and today, they are extremely hard to find on the used market. When you do find them, they’re often well-knackered. Not only were original sales numbers low, but the bike’s nature (an ADV-oriented machine) meant they tended to eventually end up on the trails, thrashed soundly. There are few survivors in decent condition.
What about this bike?
This Tengai is for sale in Belleville, Ontario, close to the US border. The ad shares barely any details, and only has two photos. The seller says the odometer reads 21,900 kilometres, which certainly isn’t much for a KLR engine.
Is it worth the $4,000 CAD asking price? It does seem to be in good nick, so maybe it has interest for a collector. For someone who just wants to ride, you can get a much newer bike for that kind of money. Remember, parts will be hard to find, if and when you need them. Limited production means limited spares availability for the bike’s unique components, and you might even find difficulty sourcing engine parts. This was the first-generation KLR engine, and if you own one, you’ll know there were several changes in 1996. The engine is generally the same, but there are enough differences between internal parts that it’s getting harder and harder to keep the Gen 1 bikes on the road.
If you must have a Tengai, though—this is a rare chance to buy one. Otherwise, if you want to learn more about the Tengai, check out the Thumpers sub-forum. These are rare motorcycles, but several ADVers have them, and can share more info.