If you were in the market for a dual-purpose, big-single
sort of ride back in 1993, Kawasaki certainly had the market covered. It
offered three different models with the same basic engine.
Two were street-legal, the third, called an enduro, had lights and no turn signals—but a cop would have to be pretty mean-spirited to ticket a rider for trying to get back to his pickup truck on a mile or two of public road.
On the conservative end was the venerable KLR650, which began life as a 600 in 1984 and showed a very modern approach to dual-sporting as it had the first liquid-cooled engine, with a kickstarter and a smallish gas tank holding just three gallons. For 1985, the engine-starting procedure got an electric leg, and sales showed that customers liked this innovation, the first in the single-cylinder dual-sport world. This 600 grew into a 650 in ’87, and the gas tank grew to 6.1 gallons. This was followed by the brief one-year appearance of the Tengai version in 1990, essentially a restyling of the standard KLR with a Paris-Dakar look and a bigger fairing. These bikes were directed at riders of modest accomplishments who liked to ride 50 miles to a national forest and then potter along dirt roads for half a day.
However, some feisty off-roaders had bought the KLR, taken it out into the wide-open spaces, and thrashed the heck out of it. And found it lacking in the frame and suspension. This was not surprising, as the dry weight was a hefty 360 pounds. This “abuse” was not quite the treatment that Kawasaki had in mind when it developed the KLR, but if customers would pay for a tougher version, the marketing types at KMC USA said, “Let’s build one.”
For the ’93 model year, Kawasaki introduced two more models with a reworked engine that used a very different chassis. The KLX650 was a more powerful, better-handling dual-sport, and the KLX650R was intended for the boys and girls who liked to load their bikes in a pickup and go race around the wide-open spaces or ride 100-mile enduros. With fancy paint jobs, colorful saddle covers and very decorative lettering on the tank. Would flash sell? Granted, that was slicing the pieces of pie more than a bit thin, but it could be worthwhile.
Kawasaki’s liquid-cooled, wet-sump engine in the KLR was a very good one. It had an oversquare 100 x 83mm barrel for a total of 651cc, four valves in the head operated by two overhead camshafts, and fuel was fed via a 40mm Keihin carb. The KLX engine looked like the KLR and had those same rough specs, but was quite different inside.
The biggest change was in the balancing system. To keep down the vibes, the KLX had a single gear-driven balancer, as opposed to the KLR’s chain-driven balancers and its infamous “Doohickey,” a part of the balancer chain adjusting system. Valves were larger and the piston was new, though the compression ratio was 9.5:1 on both engines. Jetting in the carb was different. The truth-telling dyno reported 39 rear-wheel horsepower at 6,300 rpm, a better than 10 percent improvement on the KLR, with 38 lb-ft of torque at just under 3,000 rpm.
The full-cradle chassis design on the KLR was OK for moderate use, but the two KLX models got a new steel perimeter frame, using both tubular and rectangular sections. It was very nice, but the way the frame angled up to the steering head meant limiting the size of the gas tank. On the KLX650R, it was down to 2.1 gallons and a hard-charging rider was running on fumes at 50 miles. Best to choose shorter enduro courses.
Suspension was by KYB, a highly reputable Japanese company that has been in the business since 1919. The cartridge-type upside-down fork—with “up-side down” notably imprinted on the fork covers—was 43mm in size, appreciably larger than the 38mm type on the KLR. These were adjustable for compression damping, but not rebound. Rake was 28.5 degrees, trail a long 4.8 inches, which by the standards of the day were more play-bike figures than a serious competitor’s, as making sharp turns was in the slow category with front-end geometry like this. The Uni-Trak single shock had three-way adjustability—preload, compression and rebound-damping—but was criticized as not being of the same caliber as on the KX racers. Wheels were 21-inch front, 18-inch rear, and the aluminum swingarm brought the wheelbase to 58.6 inches.
Weight was an important factor. The lower the avoirdupois, the easier to wrestle through sand and mud and up steep hills. The R weighed in at just 298 pounds having no starter button to push, but with its automatic compression release, kicking this big single into life was not a problem. The question was, would the consumer mind kickstarting this modestly powered machine, or would he opt for the full-on race-worthy KX500?
Now to the KLX650: Biggest change was the weight, now 358 pounds dry with the starter, bigger battery and larger DOT-approved muffler adding 60 pounds. So it was only 10 pounds lighter than a standard KLR. The gas tank was enlarged to 3.2 gallons, but a happy throttle hand could burn that up in under a hundred miles.
A few changes were made to the KLX650R chassis to make the KLX650 more roadworthy. The swingarm, this one made of steel, was lengthened slightly to create an axle-to-axle measurement of 59.3 inches, which was good for the highway, not so good in the dirt. The rear wheel was reduced to 17 inches. The KYB suspension was downgraded slightly from the KLX650R, with a non-adjustable fork and a less-expensive shock absorber. Which rather defeated the whole purpose of building a better handling version of the KLR. As one magazine tester put it, the KLX650 was “a decent shock short” of being an exceptional trail bike.
Notable differences among the three models included their prices. In ’93 the KLR650 went for $3,899, while the KLX650 cost 20 percent more, $4,699, no mean differential. The KLX650R had a tag of $4,499. Three rather inflationary years later in 1996, the KLR was at $4,749, the KLX $5,699, the KLX/R $5,499.
Sales of the KLR far exceeded those of the KLX; time to take a long, hard look at what models should be cut for the next year. Only leftover KLXs were available in ’97, with the price considerably reduced.
(This Retrospective article was published in the October 2013 issue of Rider magazine.