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Kawasaki KLR 650
Dual Sport Shootout
Kawasaki KLR 650, KLR Tengai, Suzuki DR350S,DR650S and Yamaha XT600E
In the beginning, there were no
sport bikes, no two-wheeled luxury land I yachts, no cruisers or
sport-tourers. There were only motorcycles, and that was good. In the
beginning, motorcycling was defined by riders, not motorcycles or marketing
departments. By bolting on this or unbolting that, you might tour, bash
around the dirt or dice up a country road all on the same bike. Then the
marketers went to work.
Trouble is sport bikes don't
tour and tour bikes don't dance. Today, the eclectic motorcyclist needs to
be adopted by the Rothchilds and build a big garage, work at a motorcycle
magazine or find one bike for all reasons.
Think about it. You want a
commuter? A tourer? A sport bike? A sport-tourer? A weekend escape module,
perhaps? How about an off-road explorer? An inner-city errand runner? How
about a little of each? Though there is some functional polarization in even
the broadest of mo-torcycling's categories, unless you're an A enduro rider,
an Iron Butt competitor or a professional roadracer, any bike here is up for
about anything you are.
That would have left us with six bikes, but Yamaha decided to keep its XT350 out of the fray, preferring we concentrate on its new XT600. When the word went out, Suzuki sent us one DR350S and one DR650S. Once Kawasaki dropped off a KLR650 and a Tengai, we were ready to roll.
The XT is the sweetest deal of
this group in the city. Perfect fuel metering through the dual-throat carb
and rheostat power delivery (if not a lot of it by big-bore standards) put
it ahead of the rest. The lowest seat of the bunch lets most pilots who have
a hard time with the taller bikes plant both boots flat on the tarmac.
Though it's more visually appealing than the purpose-built racks fitted to the KLR, Tengai and DR650, it's only rated for 7 pounds: barely enough to haul Dexter's lunch.
By comparison, the smaller, lighter DR350 feels like a bicycle. Steering is ridiculously easy, almost too easy. Rider stepping down from bigger, bulkier rigs invariably fed in too much steering effort at first, nearly making some special friends whilst splitting lanes. Set stock, the suspension is hopelessly soft for anyone over 160 pounds. We set it near full stiff, even for city work. Nothing is better at squeezing through tight spots.
The DR350's power output is
relatively modest by modern street standards, but with six well-spaced
ratios and an unbreakable clutch, besting four-wheel traffic is still easy.
Taking any baggage along for the ride isn't so simple since the 350 doesn't
have a luggage rack.
The prospect of kickstarting the DR650 induced glassy eyes, slurred speech and a sudden interest in the rest room for those same snivelers. It's rarely more than a two-kick proposition once you master the drill, but limp-legged street types whined anyway. Following the same drill, the 650 requires little more effort than its little brother. But it's tough to perfect the routine when you're stuck in the middle of an intersection with a flogged right leg and a flooded engine, tougher still with a four-alarm fire engine closing fast. Hot starts can be tricky if you don't get it right the first time.
The big Suzuki is also exceedingly tall. Our test unit wandered a bit at a walking pace, and a lean stumble off idle made snail-pacing through clogged cars a bit tricky. The valve train on our bike clattered like mechanical Armageddon was eminent from the day the bike was delivered, but nothing worse than noise ever materialized. Power delivery was perfect; Suzuki's 650 packs the strongest punch here at anything above idle. The stoppers are up to the task as well; the big DR's brakes are the best here.
Aside from the fact that the
Tengai sits a little lower and its cockpit packaging and switch gear are
ROAD TO NOWHERE
A broader, firmer saddle makes
the I big DR more comfortable over long | hauls, but its tiny little
"fairing" is only 2 slightly better than nothing. The 5.5-gal- g Ion fuel
cell goes dry every 260 miles or § so. The DR650 sends out only slightly
more vibration through its sawtooth pegs than flow through the
rubber-covered variety on both Kawasakis. The DR650's rack makes an
excellent place to pack road gear, leaving enough extra room for a
The little DR feels strained and buzzy bombing along at 70. It's screaming for mercy at 80, and by 85 the big bikes have vanished. Big trucks stir up enough air to blow it around. Freeway stints longer than 70 miles are a cheek-altering experience; the seat is too soft and too narrow to support full-sized humans. Removing the ill-placed seat strap provides some rump relief, but not much. It's not a big problem, though, because you'll be stopping soon anyway, ready or not.
The 350's biggest problem is the
smallest gas tank of the bunch. Its 2.4-gallon teacup goes on reserve
between 75 and 80 miles and sucks wind 15 to 20 miles later. The 350 planned
our gas stops for us, and if it hadn't been for the KLR mother ship and an
empty Bud bottle on the roadside, we'd probably still be out there. But
rather than resort to words like ridiculous and inexcusable, we'll start
looking for a bigger aftermarket gas tank. No wind protection (except the
plastic hand guards) or luggage-carrying capability lock the 350 into a
solid last place for any serious extended play.
Though the KLR felt faster,
powering through a gentle series of 80-mph sweepers the DR650 opened a
three-bike-length lead it never relinquished. The KLR stuck close to the
slicker, heavier Tengai, nibbling at its luggage rack.
Shifting is mostly unnecessary
with the big singles. Big pistons make acres of engine braking with the
throttle shut, and long-travel suspension erases nasty bumps and holes. Add
almost unlimited ground clearance (the Kawasakis touch an odd peg when you
get down to it), and going quickly is reduced to its simplest form: twist
The DR650's Bridgestones slide a bit more, but predictably. It takes more effort to flick the DR650 into a corner. It doesn't steer as quickly as the other big singles. When the road is tightjenough for them to catch up, the nimble XT and the nimbler 350 Suzuki are easier to ride quickly, though flaccid suspension makes the Yamaha a bit less confidence inspiring. Flogging that last mile per.hour out of the XT600 is easier since you're not watching a tachometer. Shifting just before the red rev light flickers keeps the engine shy of its 7000-rpm redline.
Hard running fades the KLR's brakes, bringing bar and lever into unnervingly close proximity after a double dozen turns. A new dual-piston caliper and larger leading caliper (9.9 versus 9.1 inches) improve the Tengai's street manners immensely. Still, stopping hard from speed on any of these bikes takes a concerted effort from both brakes. The Tengai's shorter suspension travel is a plus on the pavement, allowing less brake dive and less effort flicking through esses.
Though lights and license plates make them legal rides where real dirt bikes aren't, dual-sports aren't real dirt bikes. For starters, they're all quiet enough to sneak past a stream full of fly fishermen without so much as a second glance. All but the 350 Suzuki are also big, heavy and likely to win any control contest with the rider for one reason: weight. Weight is the enemy off road. It never gets tired, it wears you out, and it'll mash you like a gnat. All other things being equal, the lighter bike prevails.
It doesn't take a quantum
physicist to deduce that the 304-pound DR350S humiliates the others when the
pavement ends. In any off-road contest but horse-
The little 350 likes to rev, laying down perfectly linear, usable power anywhere the tires can get a grip. On truly slippery surfaces it's far easier to ride than any of the big singles. Carburetion was perfect from sea level past 11,000 feet, though the little mill was predictably anemic at altitude. You'll want to watch tire pressure off road, especially in the rocks. Wimpy sidewalls on the Suzuki's Dunlops let the alloy rims take a beating in truly rocky going. Adding grippier, more protective knobbies expands the bike's off-road envelope immensely.
As delivered, the 350's suspension is hopelessly soft off the road. Even though the S is about 20 pounds heavier than the dirt-only DR350, it carries softer springs—go figure. Our bike bottomed savagely through the first rough section. Cranking up the maximum spring preload and compression damping at both ends helped, but not enough. Maximum preload only overpowers inadequate (and nonadjustable) rebound damping front and rear, turning the bike into a po-go stick. Heavier fork oil helps a bunch.
Though not nearly as quick or nimble as its smaller sibling, the DR650 is the most competent and confidence inspiring of the big singles. Though its lofty saddle height can be a bit intimidating to riders under 5 feet 8 inches, acres of smooth seamless power and the best suspension of the big bikes put it firmly in the lead off road. Steering is quite precise when you consider you're riding a bike that weighs just under 400 pounds. The front end is reasonably trustworthy, and with maximum air pressure in the fork and full preload cranked up out back, the big DR behaves itself well. That is, as long as the rider respects the limits of its off-road repertoire: try blitzing an A en-duro trail, and we'll drop you a line in intensive care.
Though softer suspension, slightly vague steering, more weight up front (and everywhere else) and a less muscular engine drop the KLR a bike length behind the big DR, electric starting put it back in the lead for most staffers. We can hear serious dirt types snickering, but after wrestling any one of these behemoths over a hundred-odd miles of gnarly jeep trails, repeatedly booting a big single to life on an off-camber hillside was no fun.
The KLR rates the second best
standard rubber (behind the Dunlops on the Suzuki 350S), though its brakes
still fade from mediocrity to overcooked mush after repeated poundings.
The Tengai is great fun for
following the horizon down some easy bit of two-track or exploring graded
dirt roads at a conservative clip, but beyond that, the Dunlop Trailmax
rubber gets only a feeble grip, upping the odds of unwary riders bashing all
that nifty (and expensive) bodywork. And since most of the Ten-gai's weight
gain over the KLR rides on the front wheel, wheelying over off-road
obstacles is tougher and steering is even less precise.
HYGIENE FOR MODERN SINGLES
Both Kawasakis use the same liquid-cooled, double-overhead-camshaft, four-valve engine. Though reliable as a hammer, it's considerably more complex. Shim-over-bucket valve adjustment is a good news, bad news proposition. The bad news is the Kawasaki valve train is a bit more complicated to work on; the good news is you only work on it every 10,000 miles. The wet-sump design makes oil changes easier, and the reusable oiled-foam air filter is easily accessible.
The engine's balancer-shaft
chain should be checked for slack every 5000 miles, a reasonably complex
procedure best left to dealers or competent mechanics.
THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE
The tiny gas tank keeps weight
down but puts the 350 on a short tether and out of the adventure-touring
hunt. Still, it's the only (reasonably) capable dirt bike you can buy that
gets to the dirt sans pickup truck or loading ramp.
In our eyes, the best-looking
bike here and certainly the nicest street ride, the
Pairing the most power with the best suspension and steering, the DR650S ends up the best big bore off road and by a margin. A 5.5-gallon fuel cell lets it go nearly as far as the Kawasaki between fuel stops, but being the lightest 650 comes at the expense of an electric starter. That drops the big DR into second place by the length of a kick lever. But for riders who spend as much time off the street as on and have what it takes to light a big single the old-fashioned way, the Suzuki is a clear winner.
However, for the second year
running, Kawasaki's KLR650 rolls off with all the
OFF THE RECORD
• This was my first time riding
on the dirt, but relearning how to ride is easy compared to picking a winner
• Lance and I had burst around the corner riding side by side, both of us standing up on the pegs, when we first saw the stream, too late to grab the brakes or do anything but get wet. My riding partner had quickly adapted to the dirt and had taken to heart the main lesson, "When in doubt, gas it," and gas it he did, scooting his weight back over the passenger seat and sending a beautiful wave of frigid water cascading into my lap. I almost fell off the XT laughing, whooping and choking. I got him back at the next water crossing, and we continued zigzagging up Silver Canyon Road in side-by-side synchroneity, getting wetter in each stream crossing until our boots filled with water and our ribs hurt from laughing. At that point, it didn't matter which bike I was riding; the fun was nonstop. I've never been on a dual-sport ride that I didn't enjoy completely.
By the end of a month of testing, these bikes had separated themselves into a hierarchy depending upon the terrain you wanted to travel. While all the bikes feel tall to my 32-inch inseam, the Suzuki 350 and Yamaha XT proved the easiest to handle off road because of their measurably lower saddles and smaller overall profiles. The KLR and Tengai felt tall and slightly unwieldy in comparison but were quickly adapted to; the two Kawis were surprisingly manageable in the dirt and positively terrific on the pavement.
The bigger Suzuki DR has an
all-conquering engine and felt quite at home on or off the pavement, though
it can't quite match the Kawasakis' comfortable ergonomics. Both Suzukis
suffered from their lack of electric starters, though one-kick starting
became quite common (especially if there was a cash bet on that first kick).
But arguing the merits of these dual-purpose bikes is almost a moot point:
the most important feature to look for is a good friend to ride with.
• When choosing from among a group of bikes that are supposed to do everything, go for the one that does the most well. That's the KLR650. It leaves the XT600 behind no matter what the task. The Tengai is fractionally better on road, but the gap is bigger—in the KLR's favor-off road. The DR350 is much better off road but falls on its face on road in power, range and comfort. (The 350's street manners are sufficient for crossing the street, but you are going to have to be pretty intent if you actually plan on riding any distance on the street.) The DR650 may perform better both on the pavement and off, but you have to get it started first, and some days that just seems impossible. In fact, if you've just fallen on your leg for the third time that afternoon, it may be.
If you want a good street bike
for commuting, sport riding and touring with a bit of dirt roading thrown
in, get a Tengai. Want a dirt bike but don't want to have to buy a truck to
get you that short distance to the dirt? Go for a DR350S. Interested in a
large-displacement dual-sport bike but worried about those tall seat
heights? Try the XT600 for size. Need right-leg exercise? Get a DR650S. Need
a tourer-enduro bike-commuter-fire roader-sport bike? Do what I'm doing and
buy a KLR650.
• I want to ride as hard off the
pavement as I do on it. I require the maximum in horsepower, legitimate
suspension and a trustworthy front end in my dual-sport mount. That's why I
would buy the DR650.
Source MOTORCYCLIST 1990