In February, Kawasaki announced the updated version of its KLR650 adventure bike/dual sport. ADV readers had mixed reactions to the new bike, and as you can see below, so did ADV’s writers!

Mike says:

As we’ve already told you, the Kawasaki KLR 650 is back.  And presumably, it’s back better than ever.  And that may be the case.  If it is, that’s good news.  An “updated” machine should be better than the one it replaces.

Although I haven’t ridden one yet, I’m happy Kawasaki chose to bring the KLR back.  I was at AIMExpo in 2018 when the news broke that the KLR would be no more.  Now, a couple of years later, it’s back and with some changes that should improve it over its predecessor.

While not an inclusive list of changes, some things should make this next-generation KLR better.  Kawasaki says the newly updated machine now sports fuel injection, an adjustable windscreen, LCD dash, LED headlight, a larger front rotor, a welded-on subframe, longer swingarm, rubber-mounted handlebars, footpegs, revised ergos, and a revised seat.  OK then.  That’s the new KLR 650.

But is it much better than it was before?  I would argue that it’s not.  Sure it has incremental changes, but is the sum of the changes a worthwhile update?  Since Kawasaki chose to pull the bike from their product lineup for about two years, would they have been better off taking some additional time to design a bike that could rival other “middleweight” adventure machines?

Probably the KLR’s closest rival is the Suzuki DR650.  Honda’s XR 650 also fits into this category, but it’s clearly more off-road-oriented than either the KLR or DR.  The XR is more a dirt bike than a street machine, while the DRs and KLRs are more street-oriented with dirt capabilities thrown in.  For that reason, I’ll just compare the KLR to the DR.

And which bike is better is a hotly contested subject.  Some say that the KLR is a better road bike and the DR is the better off-road machine.  My opinion is that the DR is the better machine overall, but that’s just me.  Others think very differently.

From my perspective, the DR is lighter (about 100 pounds), more maneuverable, has more suspension travel by a significant margin, and perhaps is more user-friendly than the KLR.  The DR doesn’t have the bucket and shim valves that the KLR has which makes engine maintenance a bit more tricky.

The previous-gen Kawasaki seen here was canceled in late 2018. It hadn’t been updated since 2008. Still, Suzuki’s DR650 hasn’t really been updated since 1996, and the Honda XR650L hasn’t been updated since 1992. Photo: Kawasaki

And the DR can cover on-road distances pretty capably as well.  My wife Kim rode hers from our driveway in VT all the way to Alaska and it never missed a beat.  It had over 20,000 miles on it at the time if I recall correctly.

The DR is also much narrower and about an inch lower stock than the KLR.  And without buying parts, you can make it even lower using factory settings (you’ll have to cut the sidestand down though).  For inseam challenged or smaller riders, that can be a big deal.

With the 2021 KLR updates, the bikes are closer, but I think the DR still has a decent edge overall.  The KLR still has a weight problem.  Depending upon where you read about both bike’s engine and torque outputs, the DR has both more HP and torque than the DR.  Add that to the KLR’s around 100-pound weight and size disadvantage, and the KLR looks like the loser in this bout.

Even with new electronics like ABS and the LCD dash, they’re not enough to make the new KLR better than the Suzuki competition.  So even with the new updates, in my opinion, the new KLR misses the mark.  It’s not that it’s a bad machine, it isn’t.  But it could be so much more.

The new bike comes with lots of factory options for luggage and other travel and offroad accessories. Photo: Kawasaki

Frankly, that’s what bothers me the most about the new KLR.  I think that Kawasaki missed a huge opportunity to bring the KLR back as a competitor in the more “modern” middleweight ADV segment.

While the KLR still meets US emission regulations, I have to wonder how long it will.  The regs keep getting tighter and Kawasaki just spent its money fitting the single lung machine with fuel injection.  How long that formula will meet the regs is unknown.

But even more importantly, the KLR is still a very heavy beast for a single-cylinder machine.  Yamaha’s Tenere’ 700 weighs in at nearly the same amount as the new KLR and it carries a parallel-twin engine.  Of course, it kicks the KLR’s butt in horsepower, torque, and suspension.  Why Kawasaki chose to bring the KLR back relatively unchanged seems to be a huge lost opportunity.

Mike wonders how long that DOHC single will continue to meet US emissions regulations. Photo: Kawasaki

The bike was already off the market.  Large displacement single-cylinder engines are going to have a harder and harder time meeting emission specs going forward.  My thought is that Kawasaki should have just bitten the bullet and taken the time (and money) to bring the KLR back in a form that can compete with “modern” dual-sport/adventure bikes.

Significant redesigns to single and twin cylinder machines cost a lot of money.   To me, it doesn’t make sense for Kawasaki to spend a lot of money on building a new single-cylinder machine.  They’re somewhat narrowly focused, more emission unfriendly, and often less comfortable than a twin.

I recognize that an overhaul of any bike is expensive and that architectural changes would increase the price of the KLR significantly.  But now with only a very slight $100 price advantage against the DR, the KLR still comes up in the number two position and that’s a shame.  Kawasaki put the KLR on a two-year hiatus, spent money on it, and it still isn’t a better machine than the Suzuki DR in my opinion.  Where’s the real benefit in that?

It kinda looks like an old Tengai model, or maybe, er … “European.” Photo: Kawasaki

So why didn’t Kawasaki design a new multi-cylinder machine?  Perhaps they could have scavenged the engine from the Versys and wrapped it in a new frame with upgraded suspension.  That could move the bike into “modern” competitive territory.  But unfortunately, that didn’t happen and Kawasaki has delivered more of the same with some new bits and bobs.

So all in all, I think Kawasaki tried but didn’t really improve much.  Perhaps Kawasaki is already working on a new bike that will put Team Green into modern adventure bike territory.  Hopefully, the new KLR is only a placeholder until they can bring a new machine to market.  Something like an adventure-oriented Versys might be nice.

In the end, though, Kawasaki did deliver a better machine at an inexpensive price.  And that does count for something.

New LED headlight, plus fog lamps if you pay for the Adventure model. Photo: Kawasaki

Zac says:

I agree with a lot of what Mike says above. I’ve owned a Suzuki DR650 for more than a decade, and never owned a KLR650. All my friends have had KLRs; I’ve ridden them, wrenched on them, but never owned one, because I thought the Suzuki was a simpler bike, yet superior in many ways. And, I think that’s what people wanted Kawasaki to build—something lighter, with a bit more power. In fact, if you read a lot of the comments after the updated KLR was released, it sounds like a DR-like KLR wouldn’t have been enough for some riders—they wanted Kawasaki to push the KLR into KTM/Husqvarna territory.

In my opinion, that would have been a terrible idea for Kawasaki. Sure, some people would have happily bought a KLR with about 70 horsepower, but that market is getting crowded. On the leaner, trail-friendly side of the market, you’ve got the near-identical KTM 690 Enduro and the Husqvarna 701. On the travel-friendly side of the market, you’ve got the Yamaha Tenere 700. A Kawasaki with similar specs would have grabbed some sales from both. But, it probably would have alienated many existing KLR fans, as it would have had to come in at a much higher price. More power and lighter weight would have required a re-design, and pricey materials. Kawasaki would have lost its frugal fanbase by aiming higher. The same is mostly true if Kawi had tried to build a bike equivalent to the DR650; it still would have required significant investment, and it’s hard to imagine the resulting KLR could have competed with Suzuki on pricing.

The big gas tank should have roughly the same fuel rang as the previous model. Photo: Kawasaki

Instead, Kawasaki built a bike that nobody else is making: an affordable 650-class thumper with the bare essential modern features. It’s the future.

The situation looks grim, after all. The Honda XR650L and Suzuki DR650 haven’t seen major updates since the 1990s. Both bikes see limited distribution now, thanks to emissions laws. Neither of those bikes has ABS or EFI, and they’re more likely to be canceled than updated. It doesn’t matter how much better they are, when compared to the KLR. Their manufacturers just aren’t that interested in them. Then there’s the KTM/Husqvarna mentioned earlier. They’ve got traction control, ABS, EFI, and other modern tech, but they’re priced out of the traditional budget-friendly 650 thumper range.

The new KLR650 has EFI and optional ABS, unlike the other budget competition. Kawi barely hiked the price for the new machine; it’s competitive with Honda and Suzuki’s MSRPs in the segment, and it’s still well below the Euro bikes. It’s heavy. its liquid-cooled DOHC single-cylinder engine is low on power. That doesn’t matter in the long run. For riders who want a KLR – or at least, an affordable, do-it-all 650 – this bike will be available for years to come. Yeah, the up-specced versions, with factory crash bars and luggage have silly pricing, but who’s gonna buy those ones? Only the uninformed, who don’t care about the pricing anyway.

Who knows? With ABS and EFI, Kawasaki may even figure out how to sneak it into regulation-happy markets like India or the EU.

The Adventure version comes with (almost) everything you need for your ride to the Panama Canal. Unfortunately, that drive the price up a lot. Photo: Kawasaki

I also think Kawasaki made some very smart choices with the styling. Lots of riders used the KLR as a dual sport, and it kinda worked in that role, but where it really worked was the budget ADV role. It was an affordable bike that could handle highway, bad roads, gravel roads, and some minor offroad, at an average Joe price. It was the mass market alternative to the BMW GS series, a gateway drug to the ADV world. With the new rally-style fairing, the 2021 KLR doubles down on that adventure bike theme, with lots of bodywork to hide behind.

So yeah, it would have been great to see the bike 40 pounds lighter, and 20 horsepower faster. But Kawasaki delivered an affordable, decent-looking bike that should just plain work, when the competition fades away. Unless Suzuki or Honda comes out with a surprise, this is the future of big-bore thumpers.


What do you think? Let us know in the comments below …

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