Prior to 1984, street-legal motorcycles that could also be ridden off the pavement (without immediately crashing) were known as “enduros” or “scramblers,” and for the most part, they were lightly modified street bikes with knobby tires, high-mount exhausts and perhaps a bit more suspension travel than their street-based counterparts. They were fine for plonking down a dirt road, buzzing around the farm, or exploring nearby canyons. But on balance, they were small bikes, with limited power, short range and truly limited ability to tackle truly tough terrain – let alone mount an epic journey to the far corners of the globe.
But spurred by wanderlust and books like Ted Simon’s epic 1974 travelogue Jupiter’s Travels, and Elspeth Beard’s 1982 Lone Rider, a new type of motorcycle riding – now called dual-sport, adventure or “ADV” riding – was beginning to take shape, and motorcycle makers began to take notice just as major technological shifts were happening in the motorcycle industry. BMW is generally credited to be the first maker of a dedicated “adventure bike” with the 1980 R80 G/S, an 800cc ugly duckling of a bike that was clearly designed to leave the pavement and haul a rider and their gear to places heretofore unreachable by motorcycle – and most any other kind of vehicle.
In 1984, Kawasaki launched the KLR600, a modern, powerful, sturdy, capable and affordable 600cc single-cylinder model that also tempted riders to start mapping out epic ‘round the world (”RTW”) odysseys. A couple of years later, the bike grew to 651cc, and the KLR650 remained in Kawasaki’s lineup – largely unchanged – for the next three decades. In that time, adventure riding – and adventure bikes – continued to grow in popularity, getting a massive boost in 2004 when Star Wars actor Ewan McGregor and his friend Charlie Boorman released their first RTW adventure bike TV series, Long Way ‘Round, which gave adventure riding massive exposure in popular culture (below). Two sequel series then followed, as did skyrocketing adventure bike sales.
But in 2019, KLR650 fans – now numbering in the millions worldwide – held their breath as the model suddenly went missing from the roster for the first time. Then the pandemic set in and for 2020, the KLR was again MIA. Would it ever return? Late in 2021, there was rejoicing as the KLR650 reappeared – and with several notable improvements.
Recently, Kawasaki’s Good Times Demo Tour swung through the Portland area, and Media Relations Supervisor Brad Puetz was kind enough to bring a pair of top-spec $7,999 2022 Kawasaki KLR650 Adventure models with him for two days of riding around the Pacific Northwest with Forbes.com.
Good news: The updated KLR650 hasn’t strayed far from the successful recipe that has earned the bike legions of dedicated owners. It’s still powered by a liquid-cooled, 4-valve single cylinder thumper, but it’s grown one cubic centimeter to 652 cc’s. The bigger news, however, is the inclusion of a long-awaited digital fuel injection system that replaces the now old-tech carburetor. Additionally, buyers can option ABS brakes and hard rear panniers, USB and 12-volt powerlets, and a pair of additional LED auxiliary lights, which our bikes included as part of the top-tier Adventure trim. Two other trims include a more commuter-focused version and the base bike; but all of the variants share the base KLR650 platform.
Other tweaks across all models include a stronger rear subframe, a digital LCD display in the cockpit instead of analog dials, a larger, more modern and adjustable windscreen, bigger brakes, LED lights all around, more on-board juice for today’s electronic companions, and a better seat. But overall, the KLR is still instantly recognizable as a KLR.
Puetz and I set out for the Oregon coast via snaking Highway 6, a narrow, curving two-lane back road that climbs 1,600 feet and winds through Oregon’s Coast Range before it dumps out into the coastal town of Tillamook, where, yes, they make a lot of cheese (and ice cream). From there we rolled up Highway 101 along the coastline, stopping for a quick snack at the Pronto Pup in Rockaway Beach, home of the original corn dog. Tourist trap box checked, we continued to Gearhart, an upscale burg that grants access to driving (and riding) on the beach.
Oregon’s beaches are all public by law (there are no private beaches), but for the most part, motor vehicles are not allowed to venture out to where the ocean meets the sand – except at Gearhart and a few other isolated spots. Our KLR650 Adventure models were wearing lightly knobbed dual-sport tires, and my bike dutifully churned through a stretch of deep, dry talcum-like sand, throwing up a rooster tail of dusty silt but eventually delivering me to the hard-packed wet sand near the surf. Once there, I ran the KLR through some shallow surf, soaking my TCX Infinity 3 boots and Sai1nt riding pants. But the weather was clear and dry, and by the time we reached Astoria at the top of the state, just a crust of salt remained as a reminder.
Heading back into the interior of Oregon’s panhandle, we traced down the winding Highway 202, moving through tiny timber towns like Jewel, Vernonia and Mist before arriving back at our starting point outside of Portland.
The next day, we headed east into the Columbia River Gorge (above) and crossed over to Washington to pick up Highway 14, which traces along the steep canyon walls formed by a series of cataclysmic seismic events eons ago along the river. Crossing back into Oregon at the Hood River Bridge, we followed GPS crumbs to Lolo Pass Road, a narrow line on the map crossing the flanks of 11,250-foot tall Mount Hood. Eventually, pavement gave way to even narrower strips of gravel roads, complete with potholes and dropoffs you’d do well to avoid, as well as tree tunnels, sheer rock walls and epic views of Mount Hood.
The KLR650 was in its element, however, the revised long-travel suspension soaking up the bumps and washboard sections with ease, the bars at the perfect height for standover riding, where the rider stands on the pegs to avoid harsh hits. Adventure riding is a very active form of motorcycle riding, similar to dirt biking, but often out in traffic (light as it may be on gravel roads). It can be a workout, both for bike and rider, but the KLR650’s friendly power delivery, easy shifting and relative light weight make traversing the tough stuff manageable, and it’s easy to understand why riders don’t hesitate to mount epic tours on the KLR. Eventually, Lolo’s gravel roads rejoined narrow pavement, and we stopped for a delicious lunch in the tiny mountain town of Zigzag. Yes, such a place does exist.
Admittedly, these several hundred miles comprised the longest ride I’ve taken on a KLR650, although I’ve sampled the bike many times over the years since I know many riders who own them (I personally do not). Several aspects stood out: The engine, while not terrifically powerful, is incredibly smooth and tractable, with only a hint of the physics at work below coming through the bars and pegs. The new EFI also means better mpg – and more range from the big six-gallon tank. Adventure riders are far less interested in huge horsepower and braggadocious top speeds as they are in being able to go long distances on a fill-up and finely control their motorcycle, especially when traversing a technical trail or low-traction passage. Kawasaki knows this and has retained the KLR’s slow-speed charms, yet it’s still able to blow down the highway at extra-legal speeds all day thanks to liquid cooling and the new EFI.
I was further impressed with how comfortable the KLR650 is while it rolled down the highway. As noted, you spend a lot of time out of the seat while riding adventure bikes off road, so it was nice to slump into the firm but comfortable seat after a long session on the pegs traversing Lolo Pass. Leg room for this 6-foot-1 rider was pretty much spot on and the riding posture is neutral and comfortable, with room to move around on the flat seat.
The new adjustable windscreen is a huge improvement over the old bike, and on the road, the KLR650 goes around corners with a confident, controlled composure, even with a large rider like myself and rear cases full of camera gear and riding kit. Adding a passenger and more gear may change things, but the rear shock is adjustable for preload to help offset any imbalance. Overall, the KLR650 just feels solid and capable, whispering in your ear that hey, another 100 miles to that viewpoint, tiny town or international border is no big deal, just enjoy the ride.
Complaints? I mourn the lack of a tachometer in the new and somewhat simple LCD gauge screen, but having a gas gauge was a nice plus. While modern, the new gauge cluster is fairly basic, it would be nice to see Kawasaki invest a bit more there as I and many other riders can never get too much information about what their motorcycle is doing. The stock rear panniers are plastic and on the small side, but appear to be waterproof and remove easily. And while the KLR650 isn’t really meant for droning down an interstate for hours at a time, that is indeed how many adventure rides begin, so I’d love to see Kawasaki add cruise control as an option or even standard equipment now that EFI is in place. And I was not in love with the quasi-military cypher-camo paint/wrap on the KLR Adventure’s tank, while other model variants have solid colors to choose from. Red, white, blue or Kawi green, please. Or basic black.
Otherwise, the new KLR650 continues the appeal of the old KLR650: An affordable, reliable platform for launching an adventure to the local coastline and mountains, or with some planning and accessories, a world tour to lands distant and exotic. KLR riders have been making it happen for decades; now they have an even better bike upon which to safely arrive at most any distant destination.
TCX Inifnity 3 Boots
Bell X-9 Adventure Helmet with photochromic visor
Tifosi Sunglasses (prescription)
Adventure Spec Dirt gloves
Adventure Spec Aqua Pac rain shell (just in case)
Sa1nt Riding pants
Bilt adventure jacket (old)
Cardo Edge helmet comms
Lumix 2500 digital camera
Insta360 One X2 360-degree camera
Apple iPhone 13 Pro