2014.5 Kawasaki KLR650 New Edition - First Ride

From Vegas to Death Valley (and back!) on Kawasaki’s updated adventure dual-sport motorcycle.

2014 Kawasaki KLR650 New Edition action shot

Cycle World readers may recall that Kawasaki's KLR650 won the big adventure-bike shootout ("The Road from Armageddon to Salvation") in our April 2013 issue. It was somewhat of a surprise, given that the KLR was pitted against larger, pricier, and far more electronically advanced machinery such as the BMW R1200GS, KTM 990 Baja, and Yamaha Super Tenere. But after hundreds of miles of testing on dirt and pavement, the old-school KLR—a carbureted jack-of-all-trades machine if there ever was one—earned the distinction of being the bike we most wanted to be riding if we had to escape a hypothetical zombie apocalypse. Besides excellent range, good comfort, decent wind protection, and easy repairability, the trusty KLR proved to be competent in the dirt, not unbearably heavy and always able to keep chugging along in a variety of challenging conditions.

Winner of our big adventure-bike shootout in 2013:

But we had one complaint: The KLR was too soft, so it bottomed its suspension when ridden hard off-road. Now, though, with the arrival of the 2014.5 Kawasaki KLR650 New Edition, that may not be a concern because the suspension has been made significantly firmer. The fork still has 41mm tubes, but the springs are a significant 40 percent stiffer than before, and rebound damping has been upped by 28 percent. In back, the traditional Uni-Trak setup remains, but the spring is 63 percent stiffer, and the damping has increased by 80 percent. Moreover, Kawasaki says the oil level in the fork has been raised by 5mm to improve bottoming resistance, while the stock rear preload is now set to the middle (3) of the five settings, whereas previously the bike left the Thailand factory in its softest rear setting. The changes, says Kawasaki, are all aimed at improving the KLR's off-road capabilities while also providing sharper handling and reduced brake dive.

The only other major change is a new seat with better padding, a move that makes sense on a bike with firmer suspension. But Kawasaki has also reshaped the seat, making it narrower toward the front to help riders with short legs reach the ground. And although the KLR has the same 35.0 in. seat height as before, the new seat, from midpoint rearward, is now flatter and 30mm wider for improved rider and passenger comfort. What’s more, Kawi says the new dimpled covering is more compliant, and it use has allowed a seam in the rider seating area to be eliminated.

2014 Kawasaki KLR650 New Edition static side view

To highlight the upgrades and expose a few members of the moto media to the joys of KLRing, Kawasaki staged V2V, a four-day adventure ride from Las Vegas to Death Valley and back, with three days spent exploring this stark and desolately beautiful national park. What follows is not a detailed explanation of everywhere we went on the KLRs; rather, these are miscellaneous (and somewhat chronological) observations about the bike, all gleaned from our 576-mile round trip:

--On highways, such as 95 north out of Vegas, the KLR easily maintains 80 mph, its liquid-cooled 651cc single turning 5,500 rpm and not feeling strained at all. The riding position has a natural upright feel, and wind protection from the compact screen is better than you’d expect. Only at speeds above 80 does the bill of my Shoei Hornet begin to feel any lift, and I’m 6-foot-4. On the smooth pavement, the New Edition does not feel overly firm.

--On our first patch of dirt—moments after spotting some wild horses on Cold Creek Road—we tackle the rough road up 7,700-ft. Wheeler Pass, but only after rotating the KLR’s handlebar forward a bit for some extra height and setting the rear preload to max stiff using a 14mm T-handle wrench. Raising the bars is a good decision because it makes its easier to stand and control the KLR. But on the slow and rocky climb (during which line selection and maintaining momentum is crucial), the back end of the KLR bounces around a lot, as if the springing is overcoming the damping. If I’m Larry Roeseler, I suspect full stiff might make sense, but a rider of my abilities would likely benefit from a bit less preload. Nevertheless, I make it to the top, rocks routinely thunking off the KLR’s plastic skidplate. And although much of the climb is spent fanning the clutch in first gear and working the engine pretty hard, the analog dial of the KLR’s temp gauge never strays from the cool zone. Impressive.

2014 Kawasaki KLR650 New Edition downhill trail action shot

--On the hardpack, mostly downhill dirt roads headed toward Pahrump, Nevada, the KLR feels neutral and predictable at 50 to 60 mph. The OE Dunlop K750 dual-sport tires, which are smooth and quiet on the highway, offer decent grip and easy breakaway characteristics on the hardpack. What’s more, the single-disc brakes work well, with stopping force that feels about right for the effort applied to lever and pedal. It is easy, however, to lock the rear on this slippery surface.

--Each KLR in our V2V adventure was fitted with a tank bag, saddlebags and a soft top case, all genuine Kawasaki accessories nicely tailored to the machine. But I use only the top case ($134.95) and decide to remove the tank bag ($109.95) and saddlebags ($179.95) because I have no need for them or any added bulk. And removing the tank bag means I can slide up onto the KLR’s big 6.1-gallon tank—one of the bike’s big selling points, for sure, but also representing a lot of weight when full—while negotiating tight bits.

--Headed north on Furnace Creek Wash Road in Death Valley, the KLR could clearly benefit from a knobby front tire. Nevertheless, even with stock rubber, this two-wheeled mule masters the deep gravel as long as I keep my weight back and the throttle on to keep the front wheel atop, not in, the unpredictable surface. Deep gravel, incidentally, seems to be accumulating on many Death Valley roads (put down as a way to prevent erosion, I guess), but it does make two-wheel travel more challenging. If you find yourself watching the scenery instead of the road; there’s a good chance you’ll go down.

--When you wake up the next morning and it’s 80 degrees outside, there’s no need to use the choke to start the KLR; the bike just fires right up and settles into a perfectly smooth idle. Almost like it’s injected.

2014 Kawasaki KLR650 New Edition on-road action shot

--A ride on pavement up to the Ubehebe Crater reminds me that Death Valley is huge, and that it will take a long time for all those alluvial fans we’re riding across to fill in the place. Racetrack Road, which heads south, is so washboarded that I want to stop on the spot and dial back the rear preload. Not wanting to lose the group, I choose to stand up more often and to put more weight on the KLR’s rubber-covered pegs. It helps, but aftermarket pegs, wider and a bit more dirt-oriented, would be welcome.

-After zip-tying an autographed teakettle on the sign at Teakettle Junction (a DV tradition), we hit The Racetrack, a dry lake to the south of us in which large rocks, some the size of a basketball, slide for many yards across the flat, smooth surface, leaving a long track in their wake. How these rocks move, and how long it has taken for them to mysteriously slide as far as they have, nobody knows.

--We do know this however: The KLR is an excellent dual-sport bike for exploring Death Valley and the spectacular scenery on Hidden Valley Road south of The Racetrack. Purple and red spring wildflowers are carpeting the place, and the Joshua Trees are just starting to bloom. It feels like we’re on a movie set, only those cacti are real. And we’re cowboys on mechanical horses whose quiet four-stroke motors allow us to explore in a minimally impactful way that will help keep these parts open to motorcyclists.

--As we head east on the new tarmac of Highway 190 toward Panamint Springs, it's immediately apparent that the KLR650 is a slug when compared to sportbikes and big adventure bikes. But it carries its speed well in corners, and is a kick to ride on pavement. As we pulled into Panamint Springs for a root beer, I reminded myself that KLR is not about speed; it's about getting there, doing a bit of exploring, and then riding back. At a good price. As one sage noted, you can buy one $6,599 KLR New Edition (that's only $100 more than a standard KLR, which is still available) and do an extensive around-the-world trip for less than the total purchase price of, say, a new BMW R1200GS Adventure.

Preparing our KLR650

--After an approximately 75-mile stretch dealing with the sandy and mixed conditions of the West Side Road and Harry Wade Road that lead out of DVNP, we spend lots of time on the asphalt heading back to Vegas. We’ve been on the bikes at this point for nearly 500 miles and four days, but I still occasionally shift up into an imaginary sixth gear on the highway. Which gets me thinking: If Kawasaki wanted to put a six-speed into the KLR, the company could easily do that. And if Kawasaki wanted to use fuel injection instead of a carburetor on the KLR, ditto. But a KLR so equipped would probably cost $9,000 and put it into a wholly different competitive segment.

--As it stands right now, the KLR occupies (some might say established) a sweet niche. Sure, some may say it's stuck in the 1980s technology-wise—and at 432 pounds it's certainly not the lightest tool in the dual-sport shed—but there are numerous reasons why the bike sells better than the Honda XR650L and Suzuki DR650 combined. Chalk it up to its proven durability, its price, its ability to cruise at highway speed, its real-world range of more than 250 miles, and now its significantly improved dirt manners. It's a regular bike with no pretentions, it runs just fine on regular 87-octane gasoline, and it will take you to Death Valley and back without breaking the bank. If you could own only one motorcycle, the Kawasaki KLR650 New Edition makes a great choice.


2014 Kawasaki KLR650 New Edition
ENGINE Four-stroke, DOHC, four-valve single
BORE & STROKE 100.0 x 83.0mm
FINAL DRIVE Sealed chain
FRAME Semi-double cradle, high-tensile steel
RAKE / TRAIL 28º / 4.4 in.
FRONT SUSPENSION / TRAVEL 41mm telescopic fork / 7.9 in.
REAR SUSPENSION / TRAVEL Single shock with 5-way preload and stepless rebound damping / 7.3 in.
FRONT TIRE Dunlop K750, 90/90-21
REAR TIRE Dunlop K750, 130/80-17
FRONT BRAKE Single 280mm petal-type disc, two-piston caliper
REAR BRAKE Single 240mm disc, single-piston caliper
SEAT HEIGHT 35.0 in.
GVWR 788 lb.
WHEELBASE 58.3 in.
COLOR CHOICES Candy Lime Green/Ebony, Metallic Flat Raw Graystone/Ebony, Pearl Stardust White/Ebony
MSRP $6599

We made it across Nevada?s 7,700-foot Wheeler Pass.

Proof that we paid our entry fee to get into Death Valley.

Fully kitted KLR650 New Edition in Metallic Flat Raw Graystone.

Going over the all-important map with Kawasaki?s Jeff Herzog.

At The Racetrack, rocks like these mysteriously move long distances.

Expert support from Kawasaki?s Aaron Lach and Jeff Lasiewski.

Mike Chavez tops off the KLR?s 6.1-gallon tank.

The road starts to get rocky as we begin approaching the road up Wheeler Pass.

Nice place to stop for lunch.

KLR?s torquey single can be lugged, and it powers up most anything.

Tight sections of the trail headed down from Wheeler Pass.

KLR would have been better on knobs, but stock rubber sufficed.

Motoring along on Furnace Creek Wash Road.

Springsteen?s ?Badlands? comes to mind in Death Valley?s Twenty Mule Team Canyon.

Who said Death Valley is all dry and sandy? Not us.

KLR suited this environment perfectly.

Up on the pegs, picking the best line.

On the road to Panamint, the KLR acquitted itself quite well on the pavement.

Dusty tires are a giveaway: We spent most of our time in the dirt.

Soft top case is loaded; we?re ready to roll.

I removed the tank bag and saddlebags because I wasn?t using them.

KLR felt like it was supercharged below sea level?just kidding.

Small windscreen offers surprisingly good protection on the highway.

Many Gold Rushers tried to cross Death Valley in 1849. Would have been easier on a KLR.

Preparing to head south on the West Side Road.

Fully loaded KLR with tank bag, saddlebags and top case.

New seat is significantly more comfortable than standard KLR saddle.