Once the juggernauts of the
dirt, 650s have a new calling
If you pick up a magazine from 20 years ago, you might see a story that looks just like this one. A 650 showdown from 1993 would include a Honda XR650L, a
Kawasaki KLR650, a Suzuki DR650S and maybe some
kind of kitted Husqvarna. But even if the photos looked
the same, the messages would be very different. In
1993, these bikes were the extreme heavyweights of the
dirt bike world, bordering on absurd. Now they are the
featherweights in a new category. These are the budget
adventure bikes of today. And compared to the BMWs
and Super Teneres of the world, they are lean, mean,
fighting machines—and cheap too.
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 forgot-
ten by the dirt bike world for most of its long life. The origi-