Over ten years ago I built a KLR650 using part of a KLR650B Tengai front end including
larger disc (same diameter as the 2008); stoppier two-puck brake; and front fender which
had a light, built-in fork brace. I used KLR650 inner fork tubes, progressive springs, and
modified stock dampeners to improve action. I had fork extenders machined so I wouldn’t
lose rake and trail or ground clearance with my new 100/90×19 front wheel and tire. This
bike is still the best stopping, best handling street KLR650 I’ve ever owned. By the way, I
also adapted superior Suzuki DR350 master cylinder and clutch controls to my custom
KLR650 street bike.
Now fast-forward to the new 2008 KLR650. Since the new bike has already been factory
lowered, we stayed with the 21” front wheel. We did, however, install an improved 2.15”
front Takasago XL rim (the stock 1.60 is not recommended by tire manufacturers for a
90/90 tire). The result is that equipped with 90/90×21 front and 120/90×17 rear wheels
with Avon Road Rider tires, the bike is slower steering and “swoopier” than my old
KLR650 A/B special. Is that bad? No, not as long as you don’t corner at maximum speeds
on twisty roads. We have already had to remove our 2008’s front peg feelers due to
numerous touch downs (we are NOT recommending that you remove these safety feelers).
By the way, the front brake master cylinder unit on the 2008 is exactly (except for the
color) like the DR350 part I’ve been using all these years. At last the KLR650 has great
handle bar controls and knuckle covers.
Since Todd Vosper, Top Gun C.O., decided to buy a 2008 KLR650 for study, let’s get
down to business reporting to you some of what we’ve found so far.
From the day we picked up San Diego House of Motorcycle’s first 2008 KLR650 from
Shaun Warner, we have realized the new model is less dirtable then the old one. With less
travel, less ground clearance, and more weight over the front wheel, it has become an
inexpensive, single-cylinder sports-tourer or adventure bike (whatever that is?). I only took
it once into the dirt with stock tires. The stretch I rode was about ten miles long and fairly
bumpy except for two miles of moderately deep sand. The new bikes front end was more
difficult to control in the sand and not very plush over the bumpy stuff.
Todd and I decided to install a proper front rim and Avon Road Rider street tires for the
rest of the test since we don’t really consider the 2008 an M.S.M. Following are a few of
our 2008 KLR650 observations:
People seem to like the looks of the new KLR. I even had a fat little skunk waddle over to
inspect it when parked in front of a pie shop in the mountains. I had the presence of mind
not to shoo the critter away and it left without changing the fragrance of the new machine.
If the finish of the new KLR is attractive (but not crash-worthy), the fit is just the opposite.
The KLR650 has always been Kawasaki’s step child, but since going to Thailand it has
deteriorated considerably. The new model has various fasteners that don’t line up with
their holes. The 2008 gas tank is just the old model with more brackets welded to it.
Pauline had to help me push and pull to line things up after the valve inspection was
Speaking of valve inspection; the new bike’s valve gear is almost identical to the pre-2008
models except you have some smog gear to remove in addition to the usual parts before
the cover can be removed. Once inside the cover everything is the same. Todd insisted
we check the valves despite Kawasaki’s claims that the first check should be at 15,000
miles. We don’t believe our engine would have made it to 15,000 miles since we had a .
004 intake and a .007 exhaust. We left them at .009 exhaust and .006/.007 intake. We
strongly recommend that valves be checked according to the pre-2008 schedule.
We didn’t get the gear-driven balancer system we had hoped for, but the old one has
been improved with a new shaft, some better bearings, beefier extension spring, and the
toughest little balancer idler lever on the planet (read: doohickey… ugh, ugh). We think
that an extension-type adjustment spring in conjunction with our inspection port is the best
way to go; but we can’t figure out why Kawasaki made their spring so long. Rod Morris just
found his aftermarket “second” generation balancer adjustment spring missing (the third
one we know of). He discovered it through his inspection port and didn’t compound his
problem by loosening the adjustment lever holding bolt.
Rod hopes to soon have a proper length, more durable extension spring and we’ll install it
in all our KLR’s along with the tough, new factory balancer lever. We believe the KLR
balancer system will then be good for 50,000 miles before service is required. Our mode
of balancer service, we believe, will allow the very expensive chain to live 100,000 miles or
more. I’ve lived with the KLR’s goofy balancer set-up for 210,000 miles now and soon I
hope to be able to finally stop worrying about an engine blow-up.
Todd and I thought that since the 2008 has less wheel travel, our Chain Master upper-
chain control unit might not be necessary. We were wrong. Firstly, the rear wheel appears
to travel at least as far up into the wheel well as before and the 2008 uses the same, low-
hanging air box. Careful study proved the Chain Master control wheel contacts the chain
well before full bump. Secondly, Chain Master fitment is perfect since the frame and
subframe are the same as the old model. Any 2008 drive chain that is properly cared for
and has the Chain Master to prevent excessive upper chain slack should live a long and
prosperous life, since excessive chain slack is a major cause of chain wear. Less
swingarm movement in the 2008 should also help reduce chain wear. By the way, we are
convinced the factory is wrong regarding their chain adjustment numbers. Careful study in
our garage convinced us that slack should be set at the loose end of the factory
recommendation. Our chain came from the factory too tight.
We like the old swingarm better than the new one especially where the adjusters are
concerned. Our old, flat washer, nut, lock washer, and jam nut has never come loose. On
the new one, we loctited the one lock nut.
The new side stand is huge, ugly, and heavy. With the springs on the inside like the
DR650, expect lots of wear and eventual contact with the swing arm unless you grease
the pivot constantly. Side stand brackets should always be bolted on instead of welded to
the frame so they can easily be changed when worn out.
We didn’t like the look of the stock shift lever weld, so we installed a MacDonald Products
bullet-proof, beautiful, black replacement (available at MMP).
Long-time expert MSM rider Ron Jensen and I took the stock 2008 KLR650 on a mountain
pavement ride and agreed that the new bike is better than the old one on the street. It has
a good, planted feel at reasonable speeds, and the brakes work well at those same, sane
speeds. The suspension is adequate for the street, and dive during normal braking is in
the acceptable range.
We plan on modifying an Ohlins pre-2008 KLR650 shock and installing it on the new bike.
We won’t change the front forks since we don’t plan on taking the ’08 off-road. We’ll stay
with the pre-2008 model for MSM duty and have plans on developing the older models
even farther than we already have.
In closing, the 2008 KLR650 is a nice, single-cylinder sports-tourer for the money.
However, if you can afford a little more, buy a Suzuki DL650 which is better in every
measurable way than the new KLR. If you want to travel a variety of surfaces, build a
KLR650 like ours based on the pre-2008 models from 1990-2007. The older model is
lighter (especially up front), less complex, more crash-worthy, and has proven electrical
and fuel-delivery reliability.
P.S. Horsepower to weight ratio seems about the same on both new and old models. Also,
we wonder how Kawasaki thinks it will get away with not making balancer chain
adjustments (no longer listed in the maintenance schedule), even with the new, improved