With 23 litres of fuel and 109 litres of luggage space aboard the only limits on how far this KLR650 can take you are those you set yourself.
With 23 litres of fuel and 109 litres of luggage space aboard the only limits on how far this KLR650 can take you are those you set yourself.
The Kawasaki's sexy new clothes and updated (but still all
The Kawasaki's sexy new clothes and updated (but still all
You can put together a seriously competent safari bike for less than R80 000.
You can put together a seriously competent safari bike for less than R80 000.

Kawasaki's KLR650 has been around since 1987, practically unchanged except for a (mostly cosmetic) makeover in 2008 that did, however, address the big single's two weakest points: weedy front suspension and dangerously poor brakes.

The KLR now has air-adjustable 41mm front forks in place of the previous 38's and a decent twin-piston calliper on a 280mm front petal disc disc that will actually stop the bike in an emergency - even with a pillion aboard.

With neat, modern plastics, improved instrumentation, and up-to-date brakes and suspension, at R58 995 it represents outstanding value for money in a big off-roader.

But the world has changed in the intervening two decades; even BMW has recognised that only superheroes can wrestle a quarter ton of armour-plated two-wheeler across the trackless wastes.

Count how many times Ewan McGregor fell off - in front of the camera! - on his “Long Way Round” ride from London to New York, factor in that neither he nor Charley Boorman could pick up their bike without assistance, and you begin to get the picture.

Along the way the big-inch beetle-crushers have morphed into “adventure tourers”. They still look as if they're Packed for Patagonia but now the emphasis is on long-haul comfort, whether on narrow, bumpy tar roads to places you'd never dream of visiting on an Electra Glide, or on gravel roads and jeep tracks to the remotest corners of this country - or this continent.

Kawasaki dealer Mike Hopkins of Cape Town has embraced that change, paging through aftermarket catalogues to create a KLR650 “budget tourer” that does the job almost as if born to it.

The current KLR650 produces a quoted 33kW at 6000rpm and 40.2Nm at 5500, unspectacular by today's high-tech standards but more than adequate for the job at hand. It also comes with a 23-litre fuel tank as standard, so all the basics are there.

To the R58 995 Kawasaki are added an ADV 3mm aluminium bash plate (R1575), crash bars (R2100), Bark Buster hand guards (R1150), mud-proof footpegs (R895), a 35-litre Kappa top box (R1900), a pair of 37-litre SW Motech Trax aluminium panniers on quick-detachable frames (R9500) and a stainless-steel Powerflow silencer (R2375).

It's difficult to overstate the importance of that pipe; it doesn't have a catalyser, so won't clog up when fed dirty fuel, it has a pleasantly authoritative bark and it's considerably lighter than the stock item.

But, most important of all, once the big Keihin CVK carb has been rejetted, it transforms the engine from a rough, vibratious, power-thudding, prone-to-stalling thumper into an extraordinarily smooth-running prime mover that will pull evenly from 1900rpm in any gear and simply gathers momentum, with no fuss or snatching whatsoever in the driveline, whenever you twist its tail.

And that makes it amazingly controllable, whether you're picking your way through the Monday night traffic or down a rutted jeep track between Noplace and Neverland.

Or cruising the open road; the engine “goes to sleep”, running turbine-smooth at 4900rpm - about 110km/h in top gear. Above 5000rpm mild but intrusive secondary vibration spoils the music, which can make doing the national speed limit a bit tiresome. So settle down and see the country instead of rushing through it - isn't that what adventure touring is all about?

There was also a slight, unsettling weave above 140km/h, so we took off the panniers and top box (a three-minute, no-tools job) for performance testing.

That improved top speed by about 8km/h but didn't help the weave.

I eventually resorted to holding the 'bars with my fingertips and hiding behind the fly-screen to record a two-way best of 157km/h with 162 showing on the speedometer at exactly 7000rpm.

Hopkins later told me the weave is common to all KLR650's, caused by too porky a rider (I'm 106kg) sitting too far back and unloading the front suspension. The cure, apparently, involves shifting the handlebars slightly further forward and, if necessary, dropping the forks 10mm through the triple clamps.

The drivetrain is as civilised as the engine; the clutch is light, sweet and predictable (and seemingly abuse-proof!), the five-speed gearbox crisp and positive - within three minutes of collecting the KLR the clutch had been retired from duty on upshifts.

Over a week of (very) mixed riding, mostly with all the baggage in place, the KLR burned just less than seven litres/100km, so tank range should comfortably exceed 300km.

By which time you may be glad of a comfort stop. The soft, long-travel suspension soaks up the bumps like a down pillow but the fairly narrow, enduro-style saddle (although well padded) is a bit too narrow for all-day comfort.

If it was wider, however, normal riders would find it difficult to reach the ground; saddle height (unladen) is a vertiginous 890mm - that's what you pay for 200mm of wheel travel in front and 185 at the rear.

The new brakes are a huge improvement, inducing some spectacular nose-dives in the soft front end if you grab a handful. In fact, the limit of performance is now the front tyre rather than the brakes.

When pushed hard on tar the KLR becomes a little wallowy in hard cornering, thanks to that magic-carpet suspension - but I thought we weren't in a hurry and besides, it settles down very nicely in long sweepers and the steering, thanks to a narrow, 21” front tyre, is pinpoint accurate.

Off-road, it's reassuringly stable on hard surfaces but, as always with big trailies, a handful in sand. At one point the jeep track I was following through the bush on my favourite bit of the Cape Flats deteriorated into what looked like beach sand and I found it easier to ride on the grass next to the road!

VERDICT

The Kawasaki KLR650 offers a proven, ultra-tough engine, forgiving suspension and - at last - decent brakes at a budget price. The current model's sexy new clothes and updated instruments work great, even thought there's no clock (but does that matter on an adventure tourer?) And you can put together a seriously competent safari bike for less than R80 000 - way less than the German or Austrian equivalent.

Would I take it over the Roof of Africa? No - that's for rock rabbits on 200cc klipspringers. Would I ride it to the other end of the world?

Absolutely.

Price: R78 490 (as tested).

Test Bike from Mike Hopkins Motorcycles, Cape Town

SPECIFICATIONS

Engine: 651cc liquid-cooled four-stroke single.

Bore x stroke: 100 x 83mm.

Compression ratio: 9.8:1.

Valvegear: DOHC with four overhead valves per cylinder.

Power: 32.3kW at 6500rpm.

Torque: 40.2Nm at 5500.

Induction: 40mm Keihin CVK carburettor.

Ignition: Fully transistorised electronic.

Starting: Electric.

Clutch: Cable-operated multiplate wet clutch.

Transmission: Five-speed constant-mesh gearbox with final drive by chain.

Front Suspension: 41mm, leading-axle, conventional cartridge forks, air-adjustable for preload.

Rear Suspension: Unitrak linkage with monoshock adjustable for preload and rebound damping.

Front brakes: 280mm petal disc with twin-piston floating calliper.

Rear brake: 203mm disc with twin-piston floating calliper.

Front tyre: 90/90 - 21 tubeless.

Rear tyre: 130/80 - 17 tubeless.

Wheelbase: 1480mm.

Seat height: 890mm.

Kerb weight: 175kg.

Fuel tank: 23 litres.

Price: R58 995 (base motorcycle), R78 490 (as tested).

Bike from: Mike Hopkins Motorcycles, Cape Town.