It’s rare that old hardware finds a second life in the high-tech, fast-paced world of off-road motorcycles, but that’s what happened here. You can thank BMW, KTM and Yamaha for expanding the previously tiny adventure bike category into a fairly large movement with even more interest at its outer boundaries. There are thousands of aging dirt bike riders looking curiously at bikes like the BMW 1200GS. But how do you get your boots wet in this arena without spending $15,000? Easy. You turn to the 650s. You might even have one in your garage already. In the old days, you might have tried to strip one down to make it lighter, but in light of this new calling, you’ll probably want to go the opposite direction with bolt-on accessories. These are the four main players in the 650 world.
HONDA XR650L: This bike was introduced in 1993 and was the most dirt-worthy, dual-sport bike of its time. That wasn’t saying much back then, but the XR650L had a good pedigree. It wasn’t far removed from the air-cooled, four-valve XR600R that Scott Summers was using to win GNCC races. Admittedly, Summers was a freak of nature and could ride the old 600 better than anyone on earth, but Honda still made a serious effort to make the new dual-sport version of the XR a legitimate dirt bike. It gained about 50 pounds with the addition of an electric starter, battery, steel tank and various horns, blinkers and such. The 650’s extra bore came with a decrease in compression and milder state of tune, but the suspension and geometry were basically the same as those of the dirt version.
The 650L hasn’t changed in all these years. Everyone assumed that the liquid-cooled, aluminum-framed XR650R that came out in 2000 would eventually morph into a dual-sport replacement for the old air-cooled bike, but it never happened. The original 650L has remained in the line while other models have come and gone. Today’s L still weighs the same as it did in 1993—328 pounds without fuel.
KAWASAKI KLR650: This bike was more or less forgotten by the dirt bike world for most of its long life. The original KLR650 was a weird bird back in the late 1980s when it arrived. It had a massive fuel tank, a small fairing and what appeared to be a very high-tech motor. It was liquid-cooled, had a DOHC engine and had four valves. Even though off-road guys were initially disappointed by the bike, it was embraced by the street crowd because it was light by their standards, had an electric starter and that little fairing actually worked.
Kawasaki tried to woo the off-road market with a more dirt-oriented version of the bike in 1993. It disappeared quickly, but the KLR lived on. Finally, the bike got a remake in 2008. That’s when the frame-mount fairing arrived, along with new bodywork. Then the Kawasaki really got a second wind. With the 6.1-gallon tank and wind protection, adventure bike guys fell in love with it, and a wealth of aftermarket parts were developed for them. Now, the KLR can be anything you want it to be. Without any accessories, the Kawasaki’s dry weight is right at 400 pounds.
SUZUKI DR650SE: The Suzuki DR650S has been around for almost as long as the Kawasaki KLR, but it never found a home with any cult or sub-group. The Suzuki’s air-cooled, SOHC motor wasn’t as sophisticated as the Kawasaki’s, but it always made more horsepower. Initially, it had a very large tank, just like the KLR, but no fairing—just an oversized headlight cowling that offered no wind protection. The Suzuki DR was always positioned right between the dirt-ready Honda and the street-oriented Kawasaki.
In 1993, the DR650S became the DR650SE with the introduction of electric start. That was a huge step forward. In 2001 and 2006, the bike received updates and was restyled. Along the way, the big fuel tank’s capacity was reduced twice. The Suzuki’s dry weight is 383 pounds.
HUSQVARNA TERRA: Husqvarna always seems to be in transition. The Terra is a major part of the company’s current plan and is a smart move. It replaces the short-lived TE630, which had been assembled from a mix of existing parts and new technology. It was a more dirt-oriented bike, but it was very expensive to build. The Terra, on the other hand, has an all-new chassis and a motor borrowed from the BMW G650. The motor is made in mainland China, so the real appeal of the Terra is that it’s affordable and, unlike the other 650s, uses somewhat modern technology.
The DOHC, fuel-injected, four-valve motor was designed in Germany and built to BMW’s standards. It has a slightly higher compression ratio and different EFI mapping from the version used in the BMW. The steel chassis is fairly straightforward, but the bike is stripped to the bone to keep the price down. There’s no wind protection (not even handguards), no skid plate and very little instrumentation. We can’t say much about the future of the Terra. It’s had an enthusiastic reception so far, but, once again, the Husqvarna factory is in turmoil. BMW recently sold the marque to a group that also holds a large interest in KTM. Does that mean that the motor supply will dry up? No one will say. For now, the bikes are selling like crazy and still have BMW-backed consumer financing.
IN THE DIRT
When you get all four bikes off-road, it’s easy to spot the dirt bike. The Honda is perfectly at home, while the others are a little out of place. Weight is the biggest factor. The XR is a good 60 pounds lighter than the Kawasaki or the Husky, and you feel every pound. It also has real dirt suspension. In fact, the Honda’s fork works very well, even by the standards of dedicated off-road bikes. Its weakest point is its motor. The Honda is the slowest of the four. Its top speed is acceptable because of super-tall final gearing, but at the other end, first gear is so tall you have a hard time on anything resembling a real trail.
It’s also clear that times have changed since the Honda was developed. We actually raced a stock XR650L in the Baja 1000 back in 1993, and it seemed perfectly natural at the time. By today’s standards, the Honda’s ergos are stone age. You sink endlessly into a wide, soft seat; the fuel tank rises straight up; and the bars are oddly low. We suppose we could get used to it—we did back in 1993.
Next highest on the dirt meter is, predictably, the Suzuki. It weighs less than the Kawasaki or the Husky, and it has more power than the Honda. It also has a very tall first gear, but the motor is a little meatier down low than the Honda’s, so it can disguise its gearing better. But, it can’t compete in the suspension department. The Suzuki only has about 9 inches of travel. We have to give it a little credit; it does the best it can with those 9 inches, but it’s not in the same league as the Honda.
We fully expected the Terra to line up dutifully between the Suzuki and the massive Kawasaki, but it was a closer call than we imagined. The Husqvarna has several big things going for it. First is power. It’s not just a little faster than the others; it’s on a different planet. On the dyno, the Husky produces about 43 horsepower, while the others are around the 34 mark. On the dirt, the difference feels even greater. Like the Honda and Suzuki, it’s geared very tall but does well at low revs. The motor’s only fault is an occasional cough at awkward moments; it’s important to make sure you have the latest EFI software update when you leave the dealership. We did, but the mapping still wasn’t perfect.
We were more disappointed in the Terra’s suspension. The Sachs fork and shock are very stiff and springy. The travel is similar to the Suzuki’s. Even the massive, street-oriented Kawasaki has better suspension action. It’s soft but predictable and doesn’t do anything wicked unless you do something dumb. The Kawasaki’s suspension rates about the same as the Suzuki’s, but the KLR’s extra tonnage is both an advantage and a disadvantage here. The weight can actually make for a cushy ride, but there’s no getting around the fact that you’re dealing with more than 400 pounds. Despite similar weights, the Kawasaki seems much larger than the Husky because of the fairing and tank. You never seem to get past the sheer size of the bike. The Kawasaki might be smaller than big, twin-cylinder bikes like the Yamaha Super Tenere and the Honda NC700X on paper, but it seems just as big in the dirt. The KLR motor, on the other hand, doesn’t feel very big at all. It might be modern, but the power output is only slightly better than the Honda’s. The Kawasaki’s gearing is lower, which is helpful off-road, but the bike revs oddly high at freeway speed.
Other dirt details: The Honda, Suzuki and Husky have good footpegs, while the Kawasaki’s are tragic. The Suzuki’s bars have a flat, low bend that we haven’t seen since the earth’s crust was still warm. All the seats are poor for a variety of reasons: the Husky’s has a big dip that locks you in place, and the others are too soft and pillowy.
ON THE ADVENTURE
It’s silly to rank these bikes strictly on their dirt performance. They’re all lame compared to the KTM EX-C. Where they’re meant to shine is on long, continent-crossing adventures, and that’s where the Kawasaki really struts its stuff. Two things give it a huge advantage: the massive tank and the frame-mount fairing. Any time the speeds get over 50 mph on the dirt or on the street, the Kawasaki rider can sit back in total comfort while the other three battle the wind. The Kawasaki even has excellent handguards. The Suzuki has good ones, too, but the Honda’s are small and the Husky’s are nonexistent.
As far as range is concerned, the Kawasaki destroys the other three. That’s why you put up with that 6.1-gallon fuel drum between your legs. It can be the tanker for the others. Unfortunately, the actual fuel efficiency isn’t all that good. In fact, it’s the worst of the four, typically just over 50 miles per gallon on the road. Most of the blame belongs to the low fifth gear. The Honda and Suzuki are slightly better but have microscopic fuel tanks (3.4 gallons for the Suzuki and a measly 2.8 for the Honda). The Husky, on the other hand, almost always breaks the 60-mile-per-gallon mark. Unfortunately, its 3.6-gallon tank means you still have to plan your trip around gas stops—or have a Kawasaki nearby. As a side note, the Husky’s fuel tank isn’t where it appears to be. The fuel filler on top leads down a long tunnel to a cell under the seat, so you can’t see the level by peering under the cap. You’re at the mercy of a fuel light.
Aside from the lack of wind protection, the Husky is a wonderful bike at speed. The motor makes all the difference. When all four bikes reach 65 mph, the Husky is the only one with power left over. When you open the throttle, it moves out. The three Japanese 650s just gurgle and struggle to squeeze out something you might call acceleration. It also has the most powerful brakes. The Honda’s might be the weakest, but since the bike is so light, it can actually stop faster than any of them.
All three have acceptable vibration levels for single-cylinder bikes. The Husky is the smoothest and the Honda is a little shaky, but you don’t really think about that on long rides.
Right now there’s a shortage of Terra accessories, but almost everyone is working on it. Touratech, Twisted Throttle and Husqvarna’s own accessory department are working on everything from panniers to windscreens. Touratech already has an excellent aluminum skid plate that we installed before riding in the dirt. Consider it mandatory. As products become available, we’ll try them on our Terra. We’re especially interested in suspension products. Stay tuned.
Virtually everything is available in bulk for the Kawasaki, with Honda and Suzuki items only slightly more scarce. Here are some recommendations.
Kawasaki: Get new footpegs the day you get the bike. We’re using a set from Twisted Throttle, along with their crash bars. The stock luggage rack is great and accepts a wide range of aftermarket items, so don’t get rid of it. We use Kawasaki’s own soft saddlebags. We also like the tall windscreen from Kawasaki. Seat Concepts makes a much better saddle; the stocker is good when it’s new, but the foam breaks down quickly.
Honda: A fuel tank is at the top of the list here. Acerbis, IMS and Clarke all make good ones. The bike is old, though, so most of the fuel tanks that will fit look slightly dated. For the Honda, it seemed best to go with Wolfman Expedition soft bags, which can be removed quickly and easily from the side racks—that way the bike can be converted into more of a pure dirt bike when a trail calls.
Suzuki: We built up our DR650 for a test in the March 2013 issue. It got an IMS fuel tank and a set of Moose racks with hard luggage. We also installed a DG pipe, a Seat Concepts saddle and a set of A’ME hot grips. High on the list of things we plan to do is install some kind of windscreen. We know that the fork-mounted variety can perform as well as the Kawasaki’s stocker, but we’ve seen some brands we would like to try (TCI, for one, which is the dirt brand of Turbo City).
All of these bikes are priced well. The Suzuki is priced the lowest at $6300. Next in line are the Kawasaki ($6499), the Honda ($6690) and the Husky ($6999). The next bikes up the food chain are twins, like the Honda NC700X ($7499) and the Suzuki V-Strom 650 ($8499). There are also two other singles that are players: the BMW G650GS ($8650) and the KTM 690 ($10,300).
When you look at the overall value, the Kawasaki becomes even more stunning. It’s so cheap; you almost have to have one if you’re a hardcore adventure rider. It could be a back-up for your BMW 1200GS. It’s good to know that if you crash, you can’t do more than $6499 worth of damage.
The Terra has the potential to be a better adventure bike because of its spectacular motor, but it’s such a strippo that you have to finish building it yourself, and there are certain limitations that you’ll never get around—fuel capacity and no possibility for a frame-mount fairing being the biggest two.
As for the Honda and Suzuki, they’re left out of the adventure bike world. The Honda is still a good dirt bike, but the competition has moved far beyond its capabilities. The Suzuki will continue in its role as inexpensive campus transportation.