Every time the theme for MacGyver plays in my head, three things come to mind – a Swiss Army Knife, a Jeep Wrangler, and, more importantly, a dual-sport motorcycle.
The latter helped fuel my love of motorcycles during my single-digit years. Every time I see a dual-sport nowadays, those youthful feelings of falling for two wheels resurface.
The dual-sport bikes also enforce the theme of utilitarianism that was woven throughout the seven seasons (1985-1992) of MacGyver. The value of these single-cylinder thumpers came from their wide range of uses both on and off the road, and simplicity.
One motorcycle that brings back MacGyver’s theme of utilitarianism has always been Kawasaki’s iconic KLR 650. The classic simply stood the test of time. Even in years of hi-tech technology where electronic suspensions and multiple-level traction control are nothing unusual, the KLR 650 remains relatively identical to the initial one that was released back in 1987. The bike received one major update in 2007, which consisted of thicker forks, enhanced cooling, and revamped bodywork. Besides that, all remains the same.
After years of bugging Kawasaki to bring a test fleet to the East Coast, it finally happened this summer. And the first bike I wanted to test? The one that would bring back those youthful feelings and images of a MacGyver lifestyle – the 2013 Kawasaki KLR 650.
I rode a few of them back in the early 90s, crashing a friend’s KLR multiple times in the coal banks of Northeast Pennsylvania during my pre-road days. Regardless of abuse, that early 90s model – in horrible florescent colors – kept constantly chugging away.
But at least 20 years have passed since I last piloted a KLR. When my East Coast Kawasaki contact delivered the 2013 KLR, my original fascination returned, but more powerful this time.
No florescent colors here; the 2013 KLR 650 donned Pearl Solar Yellow, and the odometer barely had 500 miles on it. Knowing it would be my test mule for six weeks, I vowed to use it as my only machine not only for adventure riding, but also daily commuting, hoping to show the true utilitarian ways of such a machine.
My travels took me everywhere from the city for fresh fruit and vino, to dozens of fire roads and rocky trails built for ATVs. And my review ended with a two-day adventure ride with Ultimate MotorCycling contributor and good friend Jason Belz; before that day, he never did any serious ADV riding, or actual camping in complete desolation for that matter. We took the KLR and my well-prepared Suzuki V-Strom DL1000, and had some fun. Let’s just say by the end of the trip, we were fighting for the KLR.
The 2013 Kawasaki KLR 650 – An Overview
Without any negative overtones, the KLR is simply archaic in design. And at 35 horsepower, it’s simply weak. But the wide power ban makes all the difference, and its five-speed has a gear for just about any situation.
The simple, 651cc single-cylinder four-stroke engine features a Keihin CVK40 carburetor, which can be tuned/repaired anywhere without the use of special tools or a computer.
This would be useful when touring vast distances in various climates, but for my short test, I never had to adjust or fix anything. The engine performed flawlessly in every situation, from whining down the highway at top speed (hmm…90mph), to chugging around on tight technical trails for hours. And I must admit, using the choke lever brought me back to simpler times.
The KLR arrives with a 6.1-gallon fuel tank that will provide 250 miles of travel (with the reserve engaged through the forgotten petcock switch), a 21-inch front/17-inch rear spoke wheel setup with tubes for off-road terrain, and fairings that protect form the elements. The fairings, debatable on style, keep the rider adequately protected from rain and wind, and the small hand guards protect phalanges from the colder temperatures and those unexpected branches that arrive from nowhere.
As for suspension, the 41mm fork provides 7.9 inches of travel up front, and a Uni-Trak linkage system provides 7.3 inches of travel in the rear. These numbers create comfort on the road, and enough clearance on the trails.
The KLR also features a simple dashboard layout with analog tachometer, speedometer and temperature gauge. It also has an odometer and tripmeter, keeping things very utilitarian. But with the spoils of today’s adventure bikes, an ambient temperature gauge and gas gauge would be more than welcomed.
In stock form, I’d rate the bike about 70-percent on-road, 30-percent off-road. But those numbers can quickly change due to experience and/or tire choices.
The 2013 Kawasaki KLR 650 – Daily Commutes
As with any long-term test, I take the motorcycle and insert it directly into my lifestyle. And this involves many commutes, whether a ride to the offices, or a jaunt downtown for some vino.
Initially I thought I’d dread the commute on a tall dual sport, but the KLR provides an agile platform to get around even the busiest of traffic. And due to the five-speed transmission’s gearing, wide torque band of the single, 432-lbs wet weight, and easy clutch pull, the bike maneuvers through traffic without any issues. The KLR also chugs like a diesel automobile, almost impossible to find the wrong gear at the wrong time.
The vibrations are slight, and increase through the bars and pegs while droning down the highways around 70-75 mph. But in town, it’s just fine, mostly due to the engine’s dual-balance shafts.
Holding onto the 36-inch wide bars, the view is very commanding, allowing you to see more and recognize danger quickly. This is due the 35-inch seat height, which may limit some riders from fully touching the ground. The bars, seat and well-distanced foot pegs also create an ergonomically-correct triangle, allowing both shorter and taller riders to comfortably sit in the commanding position.
The rubber foot pegs provide comfort in town, but if it begins raining, they can get slippery. As for the seat, it’s long and plush, though gets uncomfortable on longer commutes. But due to its roominess, it’s easy to adjust the body for maximum comfort.
Braking is taking care of from a single 280mm petal-style disc up front, which is squeezed by a four-piston caliper. Though not the strongest biters in the world, when combined with the 240mm petal-style rotor squeezed by a two-piston caliper out back, emergency stops are adequate, even when loaded with cargo.
And Kawasaki makes loading the bike easy due to a wide aluminum cargo ramp. While testing, the Japanese motorcycle marquee also supplied us with the factory soft saddlebags, tank bag and tail pack – all easily installed within minutes. Due to the usefulness of the tail pack, it almost never came off the bike. We loaded it with generous amounts of stuff, from two 12-packs of ale to bags of apples from the farm, and the bag performed its assigned duty, though sometimes even when not being consumed the ales threw off some of the bike’s balance. As for the tank bag, well, we didn’t use it as often. It expands awkwardly toward the rider, and when not expanded, it holds the equivalent of what a jacket can hold.
The 2013 Kawasaki KLR 650 – The Harsh Trail
On the trails, the KLR 650 is only as good as its tires. The stock Dunlop K750s are street biased, and optimal for most dirt back roads with loose gravel. But drop the pressure down a bit (22 psi…don’t want to bend any rims), and for most riders they fair well for light trail duty. While testing the KLR, we didn’t have many issues with the stock tires, though sandy and wet sections were a bit challenging while pushing the bike.
Times like these, we wished for lower tire pressure, but that would have surely destroyed the spoke wheels. With tires that offer more grip, the trail systems would still require work, but much easier work.
That being said, everything else is spot on for some excitement off road. Sure, it’s a bit hefty for those who ride a motorcycle built for just trail riding, but again, some sacrifices need to be made for a truly utilitarian motorcycle.
And similar to its comfortable sitting position while commuting, with a few adjustments to the controls for optimal clutch/brake lever pulls, the bike is just as comfy standing up. The gas tank’s wider design also becomes a great place to rest the knees when the legs become tired from standing long distances.
Throttle control was spot responsive on the trails, and the low power lends to a very forgiving bike on the trails. Though more power is always welcomed, especially for sliding or wheeling over objects, the KLR’s ability to chug along in almost any gear creates some laziness on the trail; this laziness can be a great thing for the beginning adventure rider, or those who have not seen blacktop for a few hours.
The chassis’ design also lends to more forgiveness. The long 58.3″ wheelbase allows for some corrections when the front starts to slide.
The 2013 Kawasaki KLR’s rear brake isn’t a powerhouse, but is exactly what’s needed for the trails, whether to engage a bit of slide through a turn, or “picking” through some down-hill sections, allowing your bike tire to slide into the path your front wheel is taking.
And if things get hectic on the trail, the stock plastic skid plate is worthless if debris comes crashing towards the bottom of the engine. We recommend aftermarket accessories, such as those offered by Touratech and AltRider.
Why you’re at it, might as well add some crash bars, larger hand guards and covers for the extremely vulnerable headlights; they will help save much of the bike (and money) in those dire times.
The 2013 Kawasaki KLR 650 – Weekend Warrior Getaways
Weekend warrior getaways – this is where the KLR shines. Most riders dream of having that big Adventure bike in the garage, such as a BMW R1200GS, and also that smaller trail bike, such as a Honda CRF250L. With the KLR 650, you get almost the best of both the bigger and smaller dual sports, and extremely cheap for what’s offered.
Besides commuting and intense trail riding, we wrapped our test with a weekend getaway in Pennsylvania’s backcountry around the Poconos. A simple day of both trail and on-road riding that segued into an overnight camping trip. We tackled around 120 miles of riding, with about 80-percent consisting of country dirt roads and trails. With minimal complaints here and there, the bike completed it’s purpose. And with ease.
Depending on who you are riding with, whether a dirt-oriented dual sport or heavy touring-savvy Adventure bike, the KLR holds its own. It may take some muscle off road, and a bit of discomfort on the road, but the KLR’s utilitarian platform creates the optimal motorcycle for those who just need to get away for a weekend.
And Kawasaki’s stock luggage provides enough room for the essentials of a weekend getaway, though remember these bags are not waterproof. What would MacGyver do? Simple; pack some garbage bags (and don’t forget the duct tape just in case).
Ultimate MotorCycling contributor Jason Belz was along for the weekend getaway. A talented street rider/former Supermoto competitor, he never participated in any adventure rides. Swapping back and forth between my DL1000 and the KLR, when settled by the camp fire, Belz quickly decided the KLR was the better choice. Stay clicked to UltimateMotorCycling.com for his experience as a first-time ADV rider on the KLR.
The 2013 Kawasaki KLR 650 – Conclusion:
Yep, we’ll say it one more time – utilitarianism. This is the sole philosophy behind the KLR 650. The motorcycle lives up to a truly “dual purpose.”
It’s a great commuter in town, allowing you to take whatever back roads to get there. On lighter trails, it will hold its own, though it may take some sweat for the fun results. And, with the correct luggage, the bike is perfect for the weekend warrior who wants to split from everyday life for a few days and thrust the mind into the beauty of nature.
Then there’s price. At below $6,500, it’s hard to consider anything else in the dual-sport category. The KLR 650 is easy on tires, maintenance, and gas, making it one of the most utilitarian motorcycles currently available.
How many other bikes arrived on the scene 26 years ago, went through one major overhaul, and remained a successful seller? The KLR doesn’t need any excuses – its bare-bones makeup creates a no-nonsense platform for a rider who seeks adventure in the unknown, but still wants an everyday motorcycle without breaking the bank. Even if the KLR goes another 26 years without change, expect the bike to please. Riders who seek true utilitarian motorcycles will never fade – there will always be a few MacGyvers among us.