For the past 40 years, Kawasaki’s multi-purpose KL range has tackled both the rough and the smooth with bite.
‘Why don’t we have both?’ says the young girl, shrugging a pair of pixelated shoulders, then the whole town celebrates.
As GIFs go, this looping snatch of taco ad has long since peaked, troughed and boomeranged back to retro classic status but it still makes a mighty fine point: it’s no good limiting our options.
Plenty of bike nuts and petrolheads agree; the concept of a two vehicle garage, where one ride crushes commutes and the other flushes out endorphins, is a well-established way to temper duty with joy.
For some riders that isn’t enough: their required remit is wider still. Where should you head if you want to mix bitumen with beat up trails? What if you need to do all that with one moto? The burgeoning adventure bike market has you covered, with the BMW 1200 GS, Ducati Multistrada and Honda Africa Twin blending considerable pace and limb-long spec lists to create mutli-talented monsters. Yet, long before heated handlebars and cruise control became the new normal, a more utilitarian breed ruled the do-it-all roost: the dual sports bike.
KTM, Husqvarna and all the Japanese manufacturers have had a crack at the category over the years but it’s Kawasaki who can lay claim to the longest production run in the genre, thanks to the KLR 650. Introduced in 1987 and still in production today, the 650 has never been a posh bike. It’s got a low-revving, oversquare single cylinder engine, there are only five ratios in the gearbox and the styling won’t be getting a Tate retrospective any time soon. But it works, it keeps on working and it’s cheap.
Keen to bake in enough off-road ability to justify the dual sports moniker, Kawasaki also designed the KL 650 to handle whatever an owner might throw at it. A 17 inch rear wheel offered plenty of sidewall meat for low traction rock hopping, a steel tube frame provided extra give for compliance and the long travel forks worked with substantial ground clearance to ensure even the roughest surfaces couldn’t stop play.
The spec might have been simple but it was perfectly fit for purpose and soon won admirers. Even the US armed forces were impressed, fitting scores of KLR chassis with a range of petrol and diesel engines to create the M1030 military motorcycle. Time hasn’t diminished the Kwak’s talents either: it remains popular with adventure tour companies and intrepid soloists to this day.
Sadly, Europe is no longer in on the no frills action. Emissions regulations ousted the 650 from our shores in 2002 but the big-lunged KLR story is still being written today in other markets around the world. 2008 saw the introduction of the mildly revised KLR 650-E, which offers a little more power, a more aggressive plastic fairing and some comfort tweaks to the seats, but the fundamentals are still in line with the 1987 original. Plus it’s still a great value proposition: think $6,699 for a brand new bike sold in the States.
Back in Blighty, we weren’t left lacking for long. In 2006, Kawasaki introduced the Versys KLE 650 as an almost-replacement for the hardscrabble veteran. Styled like a high-rise sports bike, the new model added a dose of road-focused civility, retaining the upright steel frame and affordable price tag of its predecessor but benefiting from a parallel twin, six-speed gearbox and twin front discs. The dually had turned debonair.
Don’t go thinking Kawasaki has turned away from down and dirty KLs, though. Enter the KLX 450R, a 449cc bruiser that takes plenty of inspiration from the race-winning KX450F. Sure, they’re not road legal straight out of the showroom and, yes, there’s no way you could call the decade-old design refined but 450R puts an aggressive spin on the dual-sports philosophy. Huge low rev torque, a squat rear wheel and an electric starter give the bike serious enduro skills, while an aluminium perimeter frame and fully adjustable compression and rebound damping ensure the headbanging one-banger still throws shapes like a pure-bred motocross bike.
Whether you’re looking for rugged, reliable transport or a jumping, yumping sports star, Kawasaki’s KL range has been offering mixed purpose machines for a full four decades. That kind of longevity doesn’t happen without good reason.
These Kwaks aren’t as quick as an H2 or as stylish as a Z900 RS but they counter with a skillset flashier machines can’t match: a KL is a go-everywhere machine on an everyman budget.
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