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.
And before you could say "focus group," there were supersports and tour
boats and trials bikes and cruisers. No complaints, we got what we asked
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.
Tougher done than said you say? Well, just as the cry goes up for revival of
standard motorcycles, motorcycles that are good at everything rather than
great at one thing, we respectfully submit that you're looking at the
solution. Though they come from a niche that seems initially too narrow to
generate mass appeal, dual-sports are the new standards.
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.
Because they're bigger, heavier and more of a handful once the pavement
peters out, we singled out the dual-sport twins for another day. The 250
singles dropped out because they would have been wheezing on the shoulder
trying to keep up.
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.
You're in Hollywood. It's 8 a.m., and the metro-rail tunnel is burning out
of control. You need to be downtown in 30 minutes, and traffic is packed
tighter than Oprah Winfrey in a size six. Yamaha's revamped XT600 attacks
the belly of the beast with near surgical precision. Soft
suspension absorbs everything from speed bumps to potholes, and steering is
the quickest and easiest of the big bores.
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.
The new dual-piston Nissin front caliper stops hard enough when a
four-wheeler swerves in front of you and cuts you off. A gray grab handle on
the XT's rear fender doubles as a spot to strap workday essentials.
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.
Kicking the little DR to life is easy as long as you follow the drill. From
cold, engage full choke, press down the compression-release lever and kick
through slowly. When the lever clicks up, poise the kick lever at the top of
its stroke and apply healthy boot. Once is usually enough if you follow the
rules, more if you don't. Still, editors spoiled by a steady diet of
electric starters whined every time they drew the 350.
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
the Kawasakis are almost identical in traffic. Neither steers as nimbly as
the Yamaha, but both make more power with less vibration. Both saddles leave
heavy riders (around 200 pounds) feeling like the foam just melted and left
them sitting on the seat pan after 30 miles. Both rear carriers are capable
of packing 22 pounds.
ROAD TO NOWHERE
You're not in the middle of nowhere, but you can see it from here. Imagine a
stretch of highway so unerringly straight and mind-numbingly desolate that
drying paint is a lounge act and you can hear yourself sweat. If you can
imagine that, you've just experienced as much of U.S. Highway 395 as anyone
Thumping along at 70, the Tengai fairing does a better job of directing air
around the rider than the one on its more dirt-oriented brother, and with
less buffeting. The plastic hand guards would be a blessing if it weren't
103 degrees in the shade—if there were any shade. Set standard, the
suspension soaks up most freeway irregularities. The engine shakes just
enough to let you know it's running, and rubber-mounted bars and pegs soak
up most of that. The Kawasakis' too-soft seats are a problem. The only
consolation is knowing your cheeks will go numb after 60 miles or so. But
with enough fuel to cover nearly 300 miles between filling stations, either
one is the mount of choice when straight-line horizon hunting.
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
Though the XT is more relaxed, neither it nor the DR350 feels happy droning
along the highway. The Yamaha gets the job done; it's just happier around
town. Vibration is tolerable up to 75 or 80 mph, but the biggest bug in the
Ben-Gay is a shortage of hamsters running around the XT's exercise wheel.
The seat is comfortable enough to let you squeeze 190 miles out of the
3.4-gallon tank, but skimpy wind protection, minimal luggage capacity and
the puny tank make the XT the fourth choice for any long-distance voyages.
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.
speed work Imagine the perfect road: curves to dream of, perfect traction,
lightly patrolled and all but untra-veled. We could tell you where it is,
but then we'd have to kill you. Getting up to speed on this antidote for
straight-line fever, we got a surprise.
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.
The big Suzuki has braking power to match its muscular power plant. Rock
hard, linear and impressively powerful anywhere from 10 to 110 mph, they're
all but impossible to fade. Suffice to say they're the best. Though the
350's brakes work against considerably less mass and speed, they're equally
excellent in terms of quality and feel.
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
At that rate, you get used to sliding around some. Dual-sport rubber gets a
little loose ridden hard in the twistier bits.
The Tengai's Dunlop Trailmax tires generate the most grip.
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
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
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-
power, the diminutive DR flat leaves them for dead. It's the only bike here
capable of approaching serious technical dirt work. Just how serious or
technical depends on traction and the rider's personal skill level.
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
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.
And repeated pounding is about all the Yamaha got off road. Shorter riders
preferred its relatively reasonable seat height and electric starter, and
our ace off-road warrior went quite quickly on the XT. But soft suspension,
relatively steep steering geometry and slow but tractable engine put the
Yamaha next to last in the dirt. Right ahead of Kawasaki's Tengai.
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.
Less suspension travel means less Ground Clearance and more bottoming, which
is likely to clean your boots off the rubber-covered footpegs; they're
slippery when wet (ditto the KLR's), and they aren't spring-loaded so they
fold up and stay there when you need them most. Like in a rocky stream bed.
All our contestants survived more or less intact, if missing a few
nonessential parts at the end of the extravaganza. The Yamaha's tool kit
tried to eject itself over the first bump. The third bump knocked it loose
for good; we never did find it. The DR650 shook its exhaust header pipe
loose, but a couple of nuts pirated from the other bikes put us back in
business. The 350 lost a rear turn signal in a low-speed bail-off, and the
KLR blew its headlight fuse (the fuse box could be easier to access, by the
way). Considering all concerned hit the dirt more than once, it's remarkable
our casualty list isn't longer.
HYGIENE FOR MODERN SINGLES
While it's true that single-cylinder en-
gines are inherently easier to wrench on than their multipot brethren, some
are easier than others.
The DR650 is the simplest of the big singles. Accessing anything on
air-and-oil-cooled singles is easy. Wet-sump oiling makes oil changes a
snap, and tinkering with valve lash every 3500 miles via the customary screw
and locknut arrangement isn't much harder. Servicing the foam air filter is
a slice of cake. All that goes for the 350 as well, except valve adjustments
come every 6000 miles, and a dry sump adds a couple of steps to oil checks
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.
Yamaha has been building big singles longer than anyone in Japan, and the
SOHC, air-cooled XT has proven itself bombproof; ours was no exception. The
XT's quartet of valves should be ministered to every 3800 miles, but no
radiators or hoses to wrestle simplifies inspection and screw/locknut
adjustments; maintenance is about as simple and straightforward as they
come. The Yamaha's dry sump complicates oil changes a bit, and its
disposable paper filter has no business on a bike with off-road aspirations.
THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE
No comparison is worth the papyrus it's printed on without hard-hitting
conclusions, and here are ours, starting with our smallest entry, Suzuki's
By now you've deduced that the barely street-legal line is more than snappy
ad copy. Though the DR350 would benefit immensely from a few improvements in
the suspension and traction departments, it's small, it's light, and at
$3299 it's also relatively affordable. But although omnipotent off road, the
little Suzuki is limited on the street by a lack of power, rider and
passenger comfort and baggage-handling capacity. You can't have everything.
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.
After ending up king of the dirt last year, Yamaha's XT600 turned away from
its roots and focused on the street. Electric starting, a swoopy new look
and a more accessible seat height make it more attractive to all-surface
novitiates who are after a big bore but aren't up to the height or heft of
the others. The XT engine was relatively long of tooth last year, and now
it's going soft around the gums: power is adequate but just. On the whole,
the Yamaha's biggest stumbling block is its $3799 asking price.
In our eyes, the best-looking
bike here and certainly the nicest street ride, the
Tengai isn't enough better than the KLR on the pavement to justify its
expansive (and expensive if you fall) bodywork and $300-higher price. In the
end, it's a notch ahead of the Yamaha overall on the strength of a more
muscular engine, broader comfort band and longer range.
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
dual-sport marbles. It's not particularly great at anything except being
good at everything, and that's precisely the idea behind this whole premise
is-Dakar pretensions and odd looks aside, it's simply the best at going
where you want it to go, wherever that happens to be. M
OFF THE RECORD
• This was my first time riding
on the dirt, but relearning how to ride is easy compared to picking a winner
all depends on where you put the emphasis, dirt or pavement or any
combination of both. The featherweight DR350S wins hands down in the dirt,
but its tiny tank would have me pushing the bike home all too often. The big
Kawasakis rule paved roads with unbelievable comfort, but difficult dirt
riding with these two heavyweights is too difficult for me. The Yamaha
strikes a successful compromise between the too-big KLR and the run-it-dry
DR350S, handling much lighter and turning quicker than any of the other big
bikes. After my thorough and complete crash testing of each and every test
bike, the lightweight, electric-start Yamaha was my after-crash favorite,
but its smallish fuel tank and so-so street manners keep me from loving it.
The Suzuki DR650, despite its kickstarter, is the one I'd own. Its
long-range fuel tank, reasonably light weight and king-of-the-hill
horsepower make it my favorite all-around package.
• 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.
While the street sissies hand the big DR big demerits for its kickstarter, I
respectfully submit that it isn't wired for a blow dryer or a bidet or a wet
bar either. Dual-sport is half dirt, sports fans. If you want a poseur or a
street bike, there are plenty of choices. If you want to ride hard
regardless of the surface, the DR650 is the one and only choice.
Source MOTORCYCLIST 1990