Review: KLR 650 (update)

This is a long overdue update to a previous review of the Kawasaki KLR650. NOTE: Unlike most review updates I write, this one is entirely new instead of adding updates. This is because the motorcycle is a very complex subject and I have lots of new thoughts. Please refer to my original review for my initial impression after riding to Alaska and back to the USA.

The Kawasaki KLR650 has been one of my most controversial choices for this trip among people I talk to. Opinions range from certainty that it is a good choice, if not the best, to horror that I would even consider such a bike. I hope to track how good or bad a choice the KLR really is for my trip.

Name: The Phoenix
Total Mileage: 86,000 miles
Trip Mileage: 59,000 miles
Trip Duration: 2 years 3 months 21 days


Flexability
 ★★★★☆ 


I spent the first thirty years of my life exploring the Colorado Mountains with my parents, my scout troop, and eventually by myself. I’ve traveled by motor home, car, motorcycle, bicycle and on foot. Through all of this there is one constant: I want to explore the interesting side roads. Any motorcycle I travel on must support this desire to seek out and explore the roads less traveled.

The KLR650 has been perfect for this. I have ridden every condition imaginable, continually pushed back my own limits, and been continually amazed at the capability of the mighty KLR I ride, The Phoenix. I have ridden from sea level to 5,200 meters (17,060 feet). I have ridden smooth highways more pristine than anything the USA has to offer and dirt roads so bad a dedicated dirt bike would be challenged. I have forded rivers and ridden across endless miles of salt flats. I have ridden in blistering heat, pouring rain and even snow. I have navigated every type of surface imaginable from pristine pavement to seemingly bottomless mud.

The limits of this bike are hard to find. More often I run into my own limits of skill or endurance before I encounter the limits of what this bike can handle. Yet there are, eventually, limits.

There are times I wish the bike were smaller for off-road riding or more powerful for highway stretches. Rather than being annoyed by these limitations I take this to mean I have found a good compromise which allows me to explore both types of roads with equal ease. There are trails and roads far from civilization which the Phoenix is simply incapable of navigating, but those are places which, to be honest about it, I should not even consider going alone.

All of those are limits, yet in the nature of compromises that mean I have found an excellent bike for RTW travel. There are two notable limits for which I am forced to drop my flexibility rating to 4 stares:

First, riding in the rain when it is cold is miserable. I have almost no protection from the elements and insufficient power for heated gear. Riding for hour after hour in temperatures below 50°F (10°C) when it is raining, the physical and mental strain becomes indescribable. Better protection from the elements is needed or else more power for heated gear.

Second, riding with a passenger shows the lack of power in the engine and the limited space for as and all our gear. The KLR simply is not designed for riding 2-up with a full complement of luggage.


Maintainability
 ★★★★★ 


Reading through other people’s travel stories, one common theme occurs: The more thorough the maintenance, the fewer mechanical problems occur on the road. The simple design of the KLR makes maintenance quick and easy. I can perform all maintenance myself, if necessary with the tools I carry with me on the bike. Changing the oil takes mere minutes, I have replaced chain and sprockets at campgrounds, I have pulled off the carburetor by the side of the road for cleaning, and I have done a valve check in the courtyard of the hostels. All simple, easy, and fast.


Durability
 ★★★★☆ 


While the KLR has its faults, the fact that it has been made since 1987 with only relatively minor modifications means that the faults are well known. The stock bike probably deserves a rating of only 1/5, but I have made prudent changes and have no hesitation giving high marks in this category. Many durability problems I encountered were because of choices I made preparing the bike which were insufficiently strong for the demands of how I ride. The one item of note is that I did break the frame in two places in Bolivia, but this is likely because of how hard I push the limits of this bike rather than any inherent problem. However, it could be better even with all possible modifications. Larger and stronger bolts could be used. A few things could be stronger and more durable, such as the fairing bracket. All of these are minor but they add up.


Fixability
 ★★★★★ 


Any bike ridden as long and hard as one on a tour around the world will have breakdowns. I view the true test of a bike not in how long it lasts before breaking down, but in how easy it is to recover from those failures. How much time is wasted waiting for parts and how costly is it to obtain those parts? Can I repair the bike myself or am I forced to use a mechanic? When a failure occurs, how likely is it I will be stuck until a repair is made, or is it possible I can perform a field repair and ride on until a permanent fix can be made?

The KLR receives top marks here because the design is extremely simple and has been around mostly unchanged since 1987. I carry most of the tools necessary to work on the bike and have the knowledge (and manuals) to perform repairs myself if necessary, up to and including rebuilding the engine should that become necessary. Parts as widely available as any other bike I might choose given I am looking to ride anywhere and everywhere in the world. When parts cannot be found locally they can surprisingly often be manufactured somehow, at least good enough to last until an official repair is possible. When that is not possible a new part can be shipped in from the USA. The part itself is usually inexpensive, the price dwarfed by shipping costs and import taxes.


Longevity
 ★☆☆☆☆ 


The KLR is an inexpensive bike made with cheap components. The bike is not designed to last for the number of miles I plan to put on it. I have had failures in OEM parts and make repairs with higher quality components when possible. Yet it is entirely possible, even likely, I will not complete this trip on the same bike I started on.

So far I have always been able to find some way to find a part and get back on the road, some way to keep the bike running. Yet these repairs are regrettably frequent and increase in severity far more rapidly than other bikes. This is a constant battle as the miles add up and it gets worse over time until major work is done to fix up the bike and any accumulated problems. That has been done three times now and needs to be done again.

Luckily I enjoy working on the bike.

Important Notes: Because the KLR650 is such a simple and easy to repair motorcycle, it is theoretically possible to keep rebuilding it for a very long time assuming no catastrophic failures. However, I consider this as part of ease of repairs (“Fixability”) and not “Longevity” because (a) the same the same can be said of a great number of motorcycles and (b) Longevity is more closely related in my mind to how often such work is required. Keep in mind also the harsh use I have put the Phoenix through, far above and beyond the average.


Customizability
 ★★★★★ 


If a motorcycle is going to be my home for a few years I want my “home” to be as close to my ideal as I can make it. The long history behind the KLR has led to a wide availability of parts I can use to turn a cheap bike not really suited to me or this trip into my idea of the perfect motorcycle. I have spent a significant amount of time and money making modifications with no regrets.


Overall Rating:
 ★★★★☆ 


Overall I am delighted with the KLR650 as a travel bike. It has been perfect for solo travel through the Americas and sufficient for solo travel through Europe. The bike looks beat up and dirty. It has oil leaks that need fixing and the Stator is running at only 2/3 capacity. It has literally fallen apart in two pieces because of the abuse I have put it through yet I have no regrets about my choice and trust the Phoenix without reservation. I highly recommend it to anyone traveling solo around the world.

I tend to push the Phoenix and myself to our limits more often than all but a small handful of people on the road. Most travelers on a KLR650 will likely encounter, with good maintenance, fewer problems than I have had in the past years of travel.

Who is this bike not suitable for?

If you have a passenger, think carefully. It can be done. But space is limited and the engine is severely under-powered. If you are picking up random passengers instead of exploring with a long-term travel partner this is especially true as the volume of luggage is increased significantly.

If you do not enjoy working on the bike yourself, think carefully, especially if you like searching out dirt roads and challenging riding conditions. The KLR650 is easy to fix but will break down more often than other bikes. On the other hand, repairs can be made anywhere for a relatively low cost.

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