Salt of the Dirt: An Ode to the Kawasaki KLR650

Kawasaki KLR650 against the sunset

“A KLR is not a motorcycle; it is a blank canvas with which to paint the rest of your life.

Okay, I admit it: I nabbed this quote from klrforum.com. It's good stuff, even if the literal side of my brain quibbles with the bit about this Kawasaki not being a motorcycle. The KLR most assuredly is one, a good one at that, and there's nothing wrong with a motorcycle, any motorcycle, being considered a "blank canvas with which to paint the rest of your life."

The KLR, however—one of the longest-running models in motorcycling history—does elicit passion like few others. Since it came out in 1984 as a 600, this Kawasaki has won people over with its easy rideability, its tantalizing versatility, and the enticing prospect of where it can take you. It's a great everyday bike, an affordable dual-sport machine that shines as a commuter or a fully bagged world explorer. Countless folks use KLRs in just this way, exploiting the bike's reliability, range, and go-anywhere nature. Heck, the US military even has some KLRs, converted to diesel and helping our soldiers in far-flung locations.

Chances are, if you are in some remote part of the world and see a traveler ride by, he'll either be on a big BMW R1200GS or a KLR. Great bikes, both, but many will argue that the significantly lighter and less expensive Kawasaki is the wiser choice. It's old school, for sure, but the counterbalanced, liquid-cooled, 651cc single just keeps plugging along on regular-grade unleaded, and the bike's lack of technical complexity is seen as a bonus. No traction control? No ABS? No active suspension? No problem. That just means there's less stuff to break or go wrong.

And therein lies the beauty of Kawasaki's electric-start KR650. It's simple. It's honest. It's unpretentious. It's like a Timex watch: It takes a licking and just keeps on ticking. You might actually be able to repair it on the trail. What's more, the KLR has huge aftermarket support and a very active online community. No wonder it sells better each year than the Honda XR50L and Suzuki DR650 combined.

Apart from the frame-mounted fairing and new engine for the 2008 model, plus a more powerful alternator, Kawasaki hasn’t done a whole lot with the KLR over the years, opting instead to keep it affordable for the masses. And it’s a philosophy that continues to this day with the 2014.5 KLR650 New Edition, whose firmer suspension and wider seat add only $100 to the cost of the bike but make it a significantly better off-road machine without sacrificing one iota of on-road comfort.

Or, put another way, Kawasaki has made the KLR650 “an even better canvas with which to paint the rest of your life.” Amen.

Fully kitted KLR650 New Edition in Metallic Flat Raw Graystone.

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

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

Motoring along on Furnace Creek Wash Road.

KLR suited this environment perfectly.

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

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

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

Small windscreen offers surprisingly good protection on the highway.

New seat is significantly more comfortable than standard KLR saddle.

Kawasaki KLR650 sunset.