XR 650L vs KLX 650
For the last two years, looking for a serious dual-sport mount
meant looking no further than your Honda dealer. In 1992, Honda reshuffled the
dual-sport deck with its XR650L, the most dirtworthy big-bore single we've
tested. Armed with top-drawer suspension bits, potent brakes and far better
trail manners than anything in anybody else's showroom, the Honda beat all
comers once the pavement ran out.
Meanwhile, Kawasaki already had a dual-sport contender in the
KLR650. But rather than lose potential sales to riders who figured the big,
heavy KLR couldn't handle hardcore off-road work, Kawasaki countered with a
dirtier big-bore weapon of
Despite having the same basic electric-start, liquid-cooled,
four-valve, 651 cc engine layout as the KLR, the KLX comes from an otherwise
blank CAD/CAM computer console.
The KLX design team started with a new steel perimeter frame
inspired by Kawasaki's KX motocrossers. In the suspension department, the KLX
is blessed with 11.2 inches of travel from a new but sadly nonadjustable
inverted fork. The Uni-Trak rear suspension delivers 10.2 inches of rear-wheel
travel, allowing for a lower, more accessible seat height. But for all the
attention Kawasaki lavished on broadening the off-road side of the bike's
performance envelope, we were surprised to find the KLX's 337-pound claimed
dry weight was only 1 pound under the KLR's. That's primarily because of the
KLR's larger fuel tank and more complete instrumentation. Credit the
unexpected heft of the KLX to the more rugged frame and suspension bits,
bigger 262mm front-brake rotor and a host of other changes aimed at making
sure this bike is up to arduous off-road work.
Though it's hardly noticeable on the street, the KLX's extra
pork puts the Kawasaki at a serious disadvantage hammering down a gnarly trail
alongside Honda's class-conquering XR650L. Honda's air-cooled, four-valve,
644cc machine scales in at 347 pounds full of vital fluids 32 pounds fewer
than the KLX. The KLX's radiator, coolant, pump, hoses and attendant
liquid-cooling hardware account for most of the weight difference, along with
incidentals like a luggage rack and greater fuel capacity (.4 gallon more).
When it's time to saddle up, Honda made it easier to touch the
ground from the XR650L saddle by reducing rear-shock preload, which
effectively lowers seat height by .7 inch. But at 37 inches high, it's still
about 2 inches taller than the KLX. The Kawasaki has about half an inch less
travel at each end than the Honda, which boasts 11.6 inches of travel from its
43mm fork and 11.0 inches of wheel travel through its Pro-Link rear end.
When you get them off the road, suspension performance defines
the two bikes. The extra travel and superior suspension rates make the Honda a
better vehicle for blasting across rough terrain at speed. Testers from our
companion publication Dirt Rider called the XR-L suspension "plush and
balanced," although they felt it was just a bit too soft for full-bore charges
by top-level riders.
The Honda's more composed, compliant suspension makes truly
heinous terrain more manageable for less aggressive riders as well. And even
though the Kawasaki has a more rigid, solid-feeling chassis, its suspension
always has the bike feeling a bit less poised in the dirt. We found the fork's
harsh initial travel delivered a rough ride over sharp hits. The rear shock in
particular provides poor control and is quickly overwhelmed during aggressive
high-speed use. Hammering through big bumps, the KLX's rear end bottoms
against the inside of the fender.
In the slow stuff, the XR-L's extra height can become
something of a liability for shorter humans. All but our tallest testers
preferred the KLX to the Honda when plodding through a rocky stream bed or
switchback-infested trail. Such situations make the KLX's lower seat an
important advantage, especially when you want to take a dab on the low side.
The Kawasaki steers more accurately at plonking speeds, thanks in part to a
lower center of mass. It also emerges on top on fast, smooth fire roads, where
its rigid chassis and lower height give it an edge.
Another mark in the KLX's favor is the riding position. The
flatter seat lets you put your weight where you want it. The Honda feels
roomier and works well when you're standing on the pegs, but it slides you
into single position when you're seated.
The two machines are remarkably similar in terms of absolute
power. The Honda provides better off-idle throttle response, warming quicker
from cold. The liquid-cooled Kawasaki gets better fuel mileage, which combines
with its slightly greater fuel capacity to offer almost 50 percent greater
range before you need to switch to reserve. The Honda normally drank its main
fuel supply in about 80 miles of off-road riding, but the Kawasaki logged over
110 miles before sputtering onto reserve. This turns into an extra-large
off-road handicap for the Honda since riders couldn't get much farther than 50
miles from a gas station when exploring new trails. Out here in the wide-open
spaces of the western deserts, that's just not enough. On one particularly
hairy ride, the few street upshifts. As the miles mounted, the gearbox seemed
to smooth out somewhat and required less pressure to switch cogs, but it still
didn't shift as smoothly as the Honda after 1500 miles. Both clutches worked
with comparable consistency.
Though they are a major improvement over KLR brakes, the KLX
stoppers lack the power of the Honda units. Still, some riders felt they
offered better control than the XR brakes. We got the KLX's binders to fade
slightly during hard street use and on long off-road downhills.
Both bikes use the same tires—Dun-lop K850As—front and rear,
although the Kawasaki Takasago alloy rims are wider (1.85 versus 1.60 for the
21 -inch fronts and 2.50-17 versus 2.15-18 in the rear) than the XR-L's D.I.D
hoops. The tires are about as dirt-oriented as a motorcycle intended for any
kind of regular street use can realistically carry. Predictably, most riders
wished for more aggressive tires off the road, but those are available in a
growing number of aftermarket choices. On the street, the
tires can't match the sheer grip of average standard-issue street rubber and
are quick to tell you when they're nearing their cornering limits.
With more street-oriented rubber, these two motorcycles could
provide impressive performance on kinky roads, though again, the lower KLX has
a marginal edge. It dives less under braking, and a lower center of mass makes
it a bit easier to flick around. Because these bikes are so light and narrow
compared to the average pavement-only mount, they turn quickly enough and lean
far enough to embarrass the Alpines-tars off unsuspecting sport-bike pilots
through a tight set of esses.
Both of these dirtworthy dual-sports make excellent day-to-day
scalpels with quick, broad-band power delivery and the extra
visibility afforded by tall seating positions. All that suspension travel
makes it easy to negotiate those bottomless potholes. And with the added
bonuses of street-only fuel-consumption figures over 50 mpg and relatively low
insurance rates, both provide practical transportation too.
Neither one makes a good long-distance runner the way some
other dual-sports, notably the KLR, do. They vibrate a bit too much, offer
little wind protection and are too narrow in the saddles. However, if you're
happy on them on the open road, the big singles seem content to putt along all
Since it's little changed from the KLR, the KLX engine should
wear well. On the other hand, just changing the spark plug requires fuel-tank
removal. The air-cooled XR-L may need slightly more regular attention, but
it's much easier to work on.
Neither of our test bikes required more than regular service,
and aside from a KLX inner rear fender that was eventually eaten up by
repeated arguments with the rear tire (Kawasaki is fixing this under warranty,
and the fix includes a new rear shock—standard on the '94 model with about .7
inch less wheel travel), nothing failed.
Choosing the right dual-sport becomes a matter of matching
what you want with what the bike can do. Both of these machines fall far on
the dirt end of the dual-sport continuum, but the XR650L with its great
suspension still sets the standard for off-the-rack dual-sport dirt work. At
$4799, the XR-L costs $100 more than the KLX, but the KLX650 is better for
riders who are shorter of inseam, planning to ride on tight trails, want more
responsive street manners or
just need that extra range. Neither of these 650 thumpers
offers the range, comfort or multitask capability of the KLR650. But if you
want electric starting and big-bore power in a bike that leans toward the
dirt, you're looking at a field of two. And for our money, the Honda narrows
it down to a field of one. M