2008 KLR 650 (Very) Long-Term Test Report

Sometime in late 2007, I walked into a Kawasaki dealership and bought a 2008 KLR 650 without even throwing a leg over. The choice was based on unrivaled simplicity and a price tag less than that of a Vespa, so what was to test anyway? All it would have to do was to take me to South America.

KLR, The Mature Machine

Truth is, I had tried the 650 KLR before, all the way back in 87 when it replaced the 600. But I was only 16, and similar to the fate of the GS, the thumper had felt sluggish and absolutely gargantuan after my two-stroke RD125LC YPVS. I clearly remember thinking “why would anyone buy this?”. Funny, how we get our answers.

1989 Kawasaki KLR 650 motorcycle
Kawasaki KLR 650 was introduced in 1987 to replace a 600 predecessor.

Yamaha RD125LC motorcycle
This 2-stroke 125cc Yamaha from the same period could run rings around the 650 KLR. It consumed less oil than the revised model too!

As purposeless as it may appear to a speed freak teenager, the KLR 650 has been a major success for Kawasaki, outliving motorcycles like the Tenere, DR Big, and even the Africa Twin. To become a casual addition to its success story, even I would end up owning one 20 years after dismissing it with a shrug. Actually, not just owning, but choosing one over BMW’s legendary flagship, the R1200 GS!

Catching Up

But the 2008 model KLR I was taking back home was slightly different than the one I had ridden, representing Kawasaki’s first revision to the bike since ’87. It was still the same tall, slow, and spiritless thing in essence, but now, it at least wasn’t as much of a relic anymore. Many of the changes were significant improvements, and were key to the bike’s eligibility to join me on the trip down.

The new 2008 KLR 650 sported:

  • Beefier forks
  • Stronger wheels with thicker spokes
  • Better rear shock with a stiffer spring
  • Lower sag on both ends of suspension*
  • More powerful front brake*
  • Powerful headlight*
  • Modern electrical system that can handle auxiliary loads*
  • Standard fuses
  • Fairing for wind protection
  • Bar-end weights for reduced handlebar vibration
  • Slightly more powerful engine

* Key changes without which I would not have considered the KLR

2008 Kawasaki KLR 650 motorcycle
The 2008 model year brought the first revision to the KLR 650 in 21 years.

I had mentioned earlier how the power of the GS had felt like a yawner after riding Hoover (my Speed Triple), so you can imagine my mood on CA 405 after picking up the KLR from the dealership. Perhaps the only thing that felt good about the bike was the tall seating and wide handlebars for a motocrosser stance, almost ready to ride over the traffic. Of course, the side effect of that was being able to touch the ground with the tip of only one foot, but nothing new there.

The good news is, everything is relative, and the KLR’s performance only feels better as you adjust her in time. Fast forward to the curves climbing up to Tuxtla Gutierrez, I was having as much fun as riding the Latigo canyon on the Speed Triple.

Loaded

The next couple of months went by preparing Katırga (my KLR) for the long haul, and by the time we left LA, she was almost done with the break in. Once all the cargo and myself were on, the ground clearance was no more than a road bike’s, which also meant I could now touch the ground with both feet! But very few solo travelers will be this heavy on a KLR. (and even fewer will need to be to touch the ground!) Mostly due to all the camera, computer, and rigging equipment on board, Kat was later weighed at 290 kgs. (638 lbs), fueled and loaded.

With all that weight, steering was even slower, but I neither had a problem with stability, nor with the rear bottoming out (much). Most importantly, the oem rear shock commendably withstood everything thrown at it throughout the journey. Nevertheless, upgrading to firmer springs would have made a world of difference in the right direction.

Kawasaki KLR 650 motorcycle loaded
As loaded as a KLR can get. The tight space for the rider means excellent back support.

For a short while during the trip, I also rode two-up with about half the luggage, and that’s where the KLR drew the line, dragging her tail and getting completely out of shape on curves. Unless both riders are light weight and no luggage is involved, I feel that the KLR really shouldn’t be in a shopping list for two-up riding. This holds true even with upgraded suspension, because the extra weight brings the brakes to their limits as well.

Kawasaki KLR 650 motorcycle with passenger
Traveling as a couple? Look elsewhere.

Comfort

As for ride comfort, the combination of a short rider, lowered seat, and the Kawasaki tall screen seemed to be a perfect combination. On cold rides, the KLR’s oversized hand protectors proved priceless.

One thing that might be of concern when considering a single is vibration, and handlebar vibration in particular was a complaint among the users of the earlier model. I never rode with the new bar end weights removed to compare, but I’m guessing they are pretty effective because I didn’t find the vibration objectionable for a single.

Inexpensive or Cheap ?

When you buy a 650cc motorcycle for less than $6K, you naturally adjust your expectations accordingly. So pointing out the glaringly cheap instrumentation would be harsh, had it worked. One of the first things that started giving me trouble was the trip-meter. The pin-like stiff button was hard and suspect from the get go, and resetting the counter had turned into a literally painful ordeal even before covering Mexico. As trivial as it may sound, since I didn’t have a gps until Peru, it was my most valuable tool for determining gas stops. The jiggling and the wiggling worked only for so long and I eventually had to take the whole thing apart in Antigua. What I found inside was appalling, not only in terms of build quality, but also design.

KLR 650 trip meter failure
Wishful design, toy-grade manufacturing.

Unfortunately, the trip meter wasn’t the only thing to give up in Antigua. The “FB” branded oem battery of my 4 month old motorcycle was no longer holding charge. Having it reconditioned got it working again, but in 2 more months it would die completely.

Looking back, now I know that finding the luggage rack bolts (on either side) loose was a clear warning that the two other bolts securing the rack vertically to the tail of the subframe had already snapped. But in Antigua, I just applied some locktite and re-tightened them instead of giving it much thought. It wasn’t until Bocas del Toro that I realized why they kept coming loose despite all that blue Locktite.

The 10 kgs max load rating of the luggage rack is probably quite accurate, and bearing more than twice that weight, it would continue being a nuisance throughout the trip. Replacing the broken bolts in Bocas kept things in place for only a short while before they snapped again, making the upgrade to thicker bolts in Medellin mandatory. But there was yet another weak point: the flimsy metal frame underneath the rack, which eventually buckled and sagged. Finally, before the return trip through Brazil, the frame was reinforced with metal braces, and that was the end of problems with the rack.

KLR 650 rear carrier reinforcement
Don’t leave home before reinforcing the luggage rack.

In conclusion, if you plan to use the rear carrier at all, be sure to make the necessary upgrades. Even if you do not anticipate to exceed its load capacity, keep in mind that some road surfaces can change the game significantly. Not to mention, you never know how plans will change along the way.

One thing that annoyed me about the new KLR was how blatantly superficial some of the “improvements” were. Like breast implants on an 80 year old, the plastic radiator shrouds are sad attempts to camouflage age, slapped on with total disregard to usability. Not only do they get in the way of any work to be done, but do so almost on purpose, as they are held together by a myriad of different kinds and sizes of nuts, bolts, and screws. The theme of hasty design is consistent throughout the body work, almost echoing a suit at Kawasaki saying “just make it look nice by noon and don’t spend a penny!”.

KLR 650 break-down
All the things that need to come off to reach the spark plug make you wish she were an R80.

But getting annoyed from time to time is one thing, having to add oil to a brand new engine at every other fill-up is another. As I discovered in dismay, at a steady 5000rpm with 80mph on the clock (74mph actual), the KLR burns a liter (~1 quart) of oil in just 500 miles. At 4000rpm, the consumption becomes negligible, but so does your speed at around 60mph. And before you suggest a modification to final gearing, let me just remind you that under strong winds even sustaining that moderate 60 can be a challenge in 5th.

KLR 650 oil consumption
The smoking gun.

With unheard of courtesy, the wonderful team at Auteco (Kawasaki Colombia) inspected Kat’s engine, and replaced the piston rings with a new set despite not encountering anything out of spec. Yet, the issue remained the same, confirming that it is an inherent weakness of the new piston/ring design.

KLR 650 oil consumption
1 liter of lubricant per 500 miles has to be a record for a 4-stroke engine.

Before worrying about the oil consumption though, you should first question whether if you’d be affected by it. Many travelers I know ride within 45 – 65mph, even on an empty straight with nothing to look at. This not only saves fuel but also extends chain, sprocket, and tyre life. If this describes your riding style, chances are you’ll be exempt from the trouble. Otherwise, you should be prepared for the 4/2 stroke experience.

No (Electronic) Brain, Still Headache

One of the main reasons for my choosing the KLR was its freedom from electronic gadgetry, since I dread electrical problems more than any other. So when the gauge needles started dancing around on the way back from Patagonia, I knew I’d be dealing with woo-doo. We were able to make it from Mendoza to Rio Cuarto where I somehow “fixed” it. But when you fix things and don’t even know how, they come back to bite you at a worse time.

I didn’t have to wait long. Riding through a town the next day, Kat suddenly died. The net effect was similar to hitting the brakes with no reason, and no brake lights. Once again, I was able to get her going with my magic touch. Days later, it would catch me again, in pouring rain, on a two laner full of trucks.

KLR 650 electrical problems
Electrical problems can be the hardest to diagnose and cure.

Long story short, I was hit by exactly what I was trying to avoid by riding a primitive machine. Had I not heard of the recall by pure luck, I have no idea how much time and money I’d have wasted before eventually replacing the entire wiring harness, which had self-destructed through abrasion. A replacement had to come down from the US and was not covered by the recall as the bike was out of the country. Much later in Brazil, despite the extra care and armoring I used, a similar problem would require a friend from the road to come to my rescue. So much for avoiding electrical woes by choosing a KLR.

A Trooper

Other than a weld on the exhaust due to washboard roads on the way to Machu Picchu, and a cleanup after the bad gas in Suyckutambo, most of the mechanical work required during the trip was simply routine maintenance. The carburetor needed a thorough cleaning after storing the bike for 6 months in Argentina, before the return trip through Brazil. I replaced the clutch set in Salvador at 35.000 miles, which I thought was commendable for a friction-plate type unit, considering all the weight and my immature riding style.

Thus, Kat did complete the 42.000 miles of the expedition with no mechanical breakdowns.

Speaking Too Soon

Hoping to continue traveling later, I stored her once again, in Colombia. When I returned after 8 months, the carb required another cleanup despite having made sure that the float chamber was empty when I left. Then, shortly after leaving Cali, I started having cooling problems at low speed, and had to haul heinie all the way to Medellin. The fan motor was fine, and replacing the fan switch or the radiator cap didn’t fix the issue. So off came the crankcase, and plop, fell the water pump. The tip of the pump shaft was broken, which meant major engine work, and parts having to come down from the US once more.

Traveling again didn’t happen for me, and after getting her ready for a new journey with new rotors, pads, tyres, and you name it, I had to sell Kat and return to US. She took her new owner all the way back down to Ushuaia with no problems, got sold again, and settled in Chilean Patagonia to keep roaming one of the most beautiful parts of the planet.

Why so harsh?

As I go over all the things I’ve written so far, even I can’t believe how hard I have been on the motorcycle that has taken me through an entire continent almost without a hitch, on routes where I’ve come across stranded motorcycles that cost three times as much. But I think I know why…

No matter how advanced or tough, all modern bikes of today are sissies compared to those of the past which required nothing but some gas and a kick to fire up. The KLR was the last standing motorcycle close to the spirit of that heritage. When Kawasaki revised it, I had imagined an already tried and tested motorcycle becoming bullet proof to create a category of its own. Such romantic naiveté!

Motorcycles are designed and built around sales numbers. Kawasaki could have built a rugged legend out of the KLR, but very few would pay the extra dollars it would take. So, they gave us a new KLR with flashy looks, and not much in the way of smart design or quality engineering. As always, we got what we’d pay for, and the product that could have been faded out of becoming.

No Contest

Our love and hate relationship aside, the KLR has taken me on an incredible journey few other bikes can offer comfort on. Although I realize that you might expect me to arrive at a conclusion after dragging you through 2500 words, I’m afraid the whole experience has left me even less sure about the right motorcycle than in the beginning.

But I can at least tell you this much: somehow it all seems to work out anyway, and chances are, what you ride does not make a journey better or worse, just a little different.

As someone I know likes to say: What’s gonna happen, right?

 

A few years ago I did something a bit, well, unusual... I packed my gear, got on a motorcycle, and headed south from Los Angeles where I used to live and work as a photographer.

I spent the following two years exploring Latin America, all the way to the southernmost city in the world. By the time I got back to settled life, I had a story worth telling.

Chronicling the adventure all the way to Argentina, LOS ANGELES to BUENOS AIRES is a massive book that will take you on a spectacular journey through 12 countries, with over 800 pages of exquisite photography and candid journals.

The universal app runs on both the iPad and iPhone, and a FREE edition is also available. CLICK HERE to download your copy NOW!

27 thoughts on “2008 KLR 650 (Very) Long-Term Test Report

  1. Awesome report Sunny!! I am sure the engineers back in Kawasaki will very much enjoy reading it!…. Among a bunch of other peolpe.

    “the side effect of that was being able to touch the ground with the tip of only one foot, but nothing new there” ……… classic!

    You got me to cry laughing so hard with the :”Like breast implants on an 80 year old, the plastic radiator shrouds are sad attempts to camouflage age, slapped on with total disregard to usability.”

    Great job man!

  2. Great write-up, Sunny!

    As the second owner of this bike, Sunny can attest that I was a little reluctant to buy a bike that had >40,000 hard miles under its belt. After adding 15,000 more of my own (from Medellin to Ushuaia) without any issue (apart from a speedometer failure), I am a believer in the no-frills determination of the KLR.

    What’s the next adventure man?

  3. Hey Kyle! Just linked it to you for more pics of Kat with an oil bottle strapped to the side 🙂

    Next… I’m hoping Asia, perhaps in a year.

    Walter, thanks for pointing it out. I tried to clarify it and added a link to details of a preventative repair.

    1. Enjoyed reading your report. Thanks for sharing. Bought a 08 klr 650 a bit over a year ago. Did some research before and new about the oil consumption. Asked specifically at the dealer where I purchased it whether this has been remedied on this bike. I was shown an invoice that engine work has been done and there should not be an excessive engine oil consumption. On my first longer trip (1100 km, 690 miles) in 2 days I figured I used 2.0 L of Oil!
      Did some more research and went back to the dealer. They then installed a Schnitz Kit. Bigger sleeve, piston and rings, yet lighter and brought it up to 685 cc (also available to 700cc)
      Instead of the 700 cc I chose to get 4 new larger valves and get intake and exhaust tuned. Near 0
      Oil consumption between oil changes ( every 3000 km).
      But what a surprise in the new power of this klr. The Chain needs to be upgraded to a top quality material and I just installed a Galfer
      Oversized wave rotor kit (rotor dia. 320mm). All in all it is a pleasure to ride and can go almost anywhere just as quick, if needed, as bigger and more powerful bikes.

      Also the first week of riding the engine quit for no reason and would not restart. Got fuel but no spark. Checked the main fuse, blown. Replaced it and carried on.
      It happened once more. Then I installed Dinali LED’s during the wiring installation I found the culprit causing the fuse to blow. Exactly what you reported chafed wiring harness. Instead of replacing the harness I repaired it and routed it differently.
      No further problems since. Rode about 16,000 km (10,000 miles).
      Still looking ahead to explore my home province of British Columbia, Canada. As I started riding motorcycle only a bit over a year ago. I like the KLR. Can ride 4 hrs continuously with no problem due to the dished Corbin sattle I installed. Oh al
      Oh almost forgot a very important upgrade. Installed a Thermo Bob.
      A cooling system upgrade which functions basically the same as in a car. This causes the operating temperature of the engine be the same ( or close to the same) throughout various ambient conditions. Most importantly it allows the same temperature at the bottom of the cylinder as on the top does keeping the cylinder in its original shape. The factory cooling system configuration causes abnormal temperature fluctuations and different temperatures at the bottom and top cylinder area thus wearing the cylinder oval and causing excess oil consumption (read in
      Watt-man.com)

      Walter

  4. It seems to be a hit and miss affair, as I have a 2011 KLR 650, according to the retailer all the issues with the former models were to have been fixed. Well after 10, 000km the KLR was burning oil, at this stage not to the same extent, but I was throwing in a bout 1 Ltr every 3 tanks of petrol. I began using the KLR to ride to work as the distance was costing me in the mazda I thought the KLR would save me some money in petrol/materials/service on the car. I was riding about 75km round trip on a motorway 100km speeds, but the consumption of oil increased and in the summer it over heated all the time. It broke down at 4am halfway in to work a blown head. Kawasaki replaced it under warrenty as well as a lot of other things. I personally have been forced to learn a lot of mechanical bits and bobs to pull apart/put back together this bike no a bad thing really, but its very cheaply made and its show in so many places.

  5. I have a 2008 KLR with 26,000. I too had the oil consumption issue at 70 mph with the thumper sucking down 1 quart every 500-600 miles. I upgraded to a 685 Big Bore Kit 17,000 miles ago; put a 15 tooth front sprocket on (lowering rpms by 800 at 75mph) and the KLR does not burn any oil even running at 75-80mph for 8 hr stretches. I had addressed a lot of the issues mentioned above by putting in a Eagle Mike subframe bolt, doohickey, and all recalls. Trip meter did crap out 9,000 miles ago but I just hosed it down with WD40 and its worked like a champ ever since. Even added ROX Risers (2.7″ with longer Motion Pro cables) and upgraded the suspension. Bike runs great-although the vibes do kill after 8-9 hrs in the saddle. A good all around beater bike. Been down on gravel at 40mph; Pelican cases took the brunt of the high side but besides a bent handlebar (still rideable) cranked right up and rode for another 8 days through Idaho and Montana with no problems.
    Dream bike? Hardly. Swiss Army knife? Yeah. No frills, get you from A to Z and if it gets stolen, dinged, dented; oh well-been good while it lasted.

    1. Sunny (& Ed),
      Thanks for sharing the details of your experiences – it has helped with my planning.
      Just for reference: I bought a new 2007 and loved it – until the vibes destroyed the battery contacts in my GPS and shook some nuts & bolts off. This, and the appeal of the new Versys, eventually led me to replace it – but I miss the big front wheel for unimproved roads and the leg room (6’2″ with 34″ inseam). The factory improvements to this latest generation and the big bore kit option push me favorably over the decision threshold as I look at the KLR versus Versys again 🙂
      Best,
      Jef

  6. y’all a bunch of whiners (and jerk offs.) Oil, weak luggage rack, wiring, too soft suspension, too hard suspension, too high, too low, trip reset difficulty, Just ride it…and fix it when you need to. That’s half the fun…fixing it. I’d love to write more, but I’d love to ride more so let me go and top off with some 10/40, wait 5/40, no wait, 15/40 cuz it’s hot today. Hmm. I forget. Do I use synthetic or dino? Dino I think. Was it Shell, Castrol. Quaker State, PennZoil, AMsoil, Rotella (yeah Shell.) Hmm? Now which chain lube? What tires? Lemme read the bs on all the klr sites as to what’s the best for this regal steed. Glad the bike is gonna be garaged till all the necessary parts and equipment arrive so i can mod it correctly to ride.

    1. I laughed at this. “Ya bunch of whiners… Just ride it and fix it.”
      I agree. For the $$, this bike beats them all. I rode with guys on BMWs and KTMs that had glitches way more often than I did. I met a guy with a 2008 that had 72000 miles on it when mine had 25,000. He said oh sure it uses oil, but it always starts. And isn’t that what matters?

    2. LOL, that is pretty much my local independent mechanics feeling about KLR owners..”You damned KLR owners start replacing every damn thing on a perfectly good machine, you guys spend all your time worrying about stuff. Go ride the crap out of it!”

  7. My buddy rode his KLR to Argentina also. He left from eastern Canada and ended up putting over 50,000 kms on the bike with only one real problem. He had a short circuit caused by a carelessly installed accessory that pinched the wires. I only have 10,000 kms on my KLR so far without any problems.

    I guess it is the luck of the draw.

    1. I bought a 2006 KLR Deliberately even though the 2007s were becoming available. Didn’t like all that plastic. Fitted bigger bulbs in the headlight. Giving Pretty reasonable Glow. Have traveled non stop on occasions. from Exmouth to Perth West Australia 1356 kilometers. Not the longest ride I have ever done but surprisingly the most comfortable (and I have three ZRX 1200 and a W800). Most of the WA at reasonably High Speed and in 13hrs. Not bad for a fully loaded KLR with a five liter plastic fuel container in case. Bike has done just over thirty K klmtrs. and burns a little oil. Last trip 400klms about a quarter to a third of a litre. Might fit the Big Bore kit if it gets worse. Fitted a new sealed battery just after purchased never had any problems. Have a suspicion original was swapped for a used during prep for sale. Last trip was all loose gravel and some very rocky sections a ten o’clock at night. Don’t think I’ll try that again but all went well. Chains stretched a bit with all the snatch and judder over rocks but that was all. Only problem that made me pull out of a sand dune run was a broken rear brake lever caused by a bush stump. Not much good riding fully loaded on sand with only a front brake. Apart from a couple of broken locating spikes on the side plastics now replaced with rubber cushioned bolts the bike has never let me down. Oh yes I did replace the Doo Hickey a week after purchase. Last trip followed a bitumen bash so climbing dirt tracks on a front 16 and a rear 43 tooth sprocket was a little hairy to say the least. Since changed for a 15 42 arrangement may even go to a fourteen someday if we tackle more severe stuff. but prefer a little less revs on the black stuff so a compromise is necessary. Oh and it may not be the most powerful motor ever but not much can get away from me on a tight loose gravel logging track
      it depends more on grip than power..

  8. Good story. Enjoyed it.

    As far as KLRs, I have owned 11 of them. Eleven. And I won’t touch one that is newer than the 2007 model. I use the KLRs for the guided tours I do in southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, based out of Puerto Natales.

    I do two fingers on the front brake lever and there is no problem in fast stopping — just don’t understand those who complain about the KLR single-piston front brake with OEM metal pads. And my longest KLR riding day in Chile so far has been just over 1000 km in a day.

    1. Hey Pax, what is your issue with anything newer than 2007 models? I am debating between a 1998 with 800 miles on it and a 2008 with 15000 miles. The 2008 has a skid plate and some other things, both are about $3000 US. I want to use it for a trip this fall (2015) from Denver to Vancouver through Yellowstone and other similar areas. What are you thoughts?

    2. I sorta agree about the F brake, but replaced brake line with SS and now much firmer at lever.

  9. Bought an old tengai with 80 k on clock. Uses no oil and rides dirt so much better than my previous Transalp and pegaso. Great comfy bike with 480 k tank range. Kawasaki got it right with the tengai ( minus fairings ) straight up. Am I happy ? You betcha.

  10. I will be turning over 45,000 miles this week on my 2008. On my 2010 1,600 mile trip to Texas it used about 1/3 quart of oil much less on the way back. It is the sustained higher rpm that does it. During the summer I consistantly get 60 + mpg with a high of 63. The wiring harness recall was not an issue with my bike. Great transportation.

  11. Great bike!.Travelled a lot in the Middle East with it. Drinks oil if I hammer along with it.
    Butt gets numb on long trips, but I am happy.

  12. I like the old KLR 650 better! Hate the new one. If they made a old style one now, I would go buy one in a minute. Would never buy the new one they have now. It was the perfect bike, that’s why it went unchanged for so long. Why did they ruin a great thing?

    1. Have any ridden both a lot, I can assure you that the new model is a lot more aerodynamically smooth on the highway. The old model feels lighter but blows around more at speed. My ride to Tierra del Fuego was on the old model. Wish I’d had the new one. Granted, both suck oil if pushed beyond 70mph. Back home in USA, I got sick of adding one quart after every two tankfuls so I upgraded to EagleMike’s 685 kit. It runs much smoother, is slightly more powerful, and I haven’t added any oil in the last thousand miles.

  13. I have had three KLRs…’01, ’13, and ’06. After purchasing the ’13 new and realizing it added almost 100lbs to the weight, I purchased the ’06 for more off road manageability. Still have the ’13 an added The Doohickey fix and encountered a problem with the water pump. My combined mileage on all three bikes is about 35k miles. Never any major problems and these hacks just run and run. Oh, and my combined expenditure on all three bikes was a mere $11,000. Sadly, I only have one ass!

    Mike
    Glen Mill, PA

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