Each has advantages over the other.
Honda and Kawasaki are like the Chevy and Ford of the motorcycle world. The companies are fierce rivals competing for the same markets, and many people are fiercely loyal to one at the exclusion of the other. I've owned both, as has Francois of Adventure Bike Troop. His current ride is a Honda XR650L, their offering in the popular middleweight dual-sport market. He's also owned two Kawasaki KLR 650s, among other bikes. Which bike is better?
This video discusses eight things Francois likes better about the KLR 650 than his current XR650L. Don't worry, Honda fans—we're not here to bash the Honda, and will list some of the XR's positive attributes as well.
The KLR Has Cush Drive
When I removed my KLR's back wheel for the first time, I was surprised to find the rear sprocket bolted to a round piece of rubber that sits inside the hub. This is the "cush drive" he's referring to. That big rubber piece dampens vibrations between the transmission and the back wheel. This results in smoother operation and gear changes, as well as protecting the drivetrain from shocks and excessive wear.
The KLR Has Better Gearing
Gearing is a rather personal choice, depending on exactly what conditions you're riding in. For Francois, the XR650L's second gear is too high, even after he reduced the overall ratios by switching from a 15 to 14 tooth front sprocket. He's always shifting between first and second gear on the road he lives on because second is just too tall. I have no such gearing issues on my KLR, either with stock gearing or the larger 16 tooth sprocket I added. I just find myself riding some easy dirt roads in fourth gear instead of fifth with the bigger front sprocket.
Even on hot days riding slow technical trails, I have never had overheating issues on my KLR thanks to its liquid cooling. Sure, the temperature gauge is quick to rise, but then the fan turns on and everything is fine. You'll have to manage the air-cooled XR650L more carefully to make sure it doesn't overheat in similar conditions.
Detachable Rear Subframe
If you break the XR650L's rear subframe in a crash, you're either welding a new one on or totaling the bike, since it's integrated with the rest of the frame. The KLR 650 has a separate subframe that you can detach and replace if necessary. Just make sure you use hardened bolts since these bolts are a known weak point on the KLR.
Bigger Gas Tank
The XR650 hits reserve after just 60 miles with its 2.8-gallon gas tank, making an upgrade necessary for any serious distance. The KLR's stock tank holds a whopping 6.1 gallons, with even larger options available. I have a stock tank, and I normally start looking for gas at 200 miles before even hitting reserve. Not even my previous road bikes have had a range this good.
Standard Luggage Rack
The KLR 650 comes with a small luggage rack, suitable for throwing gear on top of and strapping on saddlebags. The XR650L doesn't have this, though aftermarket solutions are available.
We're getting into nitpick territory here, but the KLR has a tachometer, while the XR doesn't. I like having a tach so that I don't redline the engine. I especially like it on my KLR in particular because it has a tendency to drink oil above 4,000 RPM, so I try to keep the revs below that if I can. I'll briefly rev it all the way to its 7,500 RPM redline when accelerating if I have to, but other than that I keep them down to keep the oil inside the engine.
Lower Seat Height
I can't flat-foot my KLR 650, which has a 35-inch seat height. I'd have even more difficulty on the XR650L, though, with a taller 37-inch seat height. Francois is six feet, one inch tall, and even he has trouble with the XR's tall seat, though once he's going it's not a problem.
So why doesn't he sell his XR and get another KLR if he likes them so much? The reason is that the XR650L has quite a bit going for it, too.
Despite its height, the XR weighs just 348 pounds. That's a heavyweight compared to a dedicated off-road bike, but it's a feather compared to the KLR. Francois claims 415 pounds for the KLR, but its spec sheet gave a wet weight of 432 pounds. What I do know for sure is that I can pick up my KLR twice before I'm out of strength for the day.
Great Ground Clearance
The other side of the coin of the XR's tall seat height is its 13 inches of ground clearance, far superior to the KLR's 9 inches. I've been glad for my KLR's bash plate when I've high centered it more than once. That likely would not have been an issue on an XR.
Inspires Confidence Off-Road
The XR650L is a more dirt-oriented bike than the KLR 650, which means it's simply better at playing in the dirt. Francois feels more confident about tackling tricky hill climbs and other maneuvers on his XR than his previous KLRs.
This advantage really applies to both the XR and the KLR. They are simple, one-cylinder carbureted motorcycles. There's very little to go wrong, so they are both easy to maintain and repair.
Again, this goes for both bikes. The XR has been around since 1993, while the KLR dates back to 1987. All of the bugs have been worked out. Both bikes have strong enthusiast communities who know how to fix every problem, make every modification, and tell you anything you need to know about these bikes.
However, Francois didn't mention one enormous advantage of the XR650L over the KLR 650: You can still buy a brand new Honda XR650L. Kawasaki discontinued the KLR in 2018, so the only ones you can buy now are used. Keep your scanners peeled on Monday, November 23, though, when Kawasaki will announce some new models in its lineup. Many of us are hopeful that it will include an updated replacement for the venerable KLR 650.