At IMS Outdoors I had the opportunity to try out a wide variety of motorcycles. (So do you, and you should.) My current ride is a 2005 Kawasaki KLR650, and although I’m not in the market right now, I was particularly interested in trying out as many other comparable bikes as I could. Here’s what I discovered.
This is, by no means, a complete list of everything on the market right now. Some manufacturers didn’t attend IMS, among them BMW, which leaves an enormous hole in this comparison and analysis. I didn’t get to try every bike in this category that was present at IMS. And, importantly, I didn’t get to try any of them out in the dirt, which of course is an important aspect of any bike in this category. This is simply my personal experience with the bikes I had the opportunity to try out for myself on a simple street ride.
Naturally, as a current KLR rider, I was most interested in the brand new version of this bike after a three-year absence. I already wrote a full comparison to my current KLR. Among dual-sports in general, the KLR occupies an excellent place. It can handle any reasonable street conditions, and it’s pretty capable when you leave the pavement as well. It’s a good all-arounder, and an excellent place to begin your dual-sport journey unless or until you decide you want something more on- or off-road oriented.
The new KLR’s biggest competition? The vast used KLR market. I like the new one, but it’s only slightly nicer than mine which cost 1/3 the price. Amongst other new bikes, its $6,699 starting price is extremely reasonable. Most of them also give you a tachometer, which the new KLR, surprisingly, does not.
Harley-Davidson Pan America
There’s a lot of buzz about this bike, a vast departure from Harley-Davidson’s traditional cruisers and baggers. I was thrilled to see it at IMS Outdoors, and have the opportunity to see for myself if it really is all that or not.
When it comes to big adventure bikes, this Harley is the real deal. The Revolution Max engine is powerful and fast. If it’s any slower than the smaller Sportster S, I couldn’t notice it. Put it into sport mode, though, and it scoots right along. (It’s a bit of a dog in rain mode, but that’s on purpose.) The riding position is upright, comfortable, and exactly what you’d expect and want on an adventure bike. Standing up while you ride is easy and comfortable. The only quirk is that the kickstand is mounted much farther forward than you’d think — unless you’re coming from a Harley cruiser or bagger.
I talked about the Pan America with Bret Tkacs, and he pointed out a major potential shortcoming. The radiator runs across the entire width of the bike, and has absolutely no protection from rocks, mud, or anything else your front wheel will kick up when you’re going down a dirt road. Additionally, what appears to be a voltage regulator has only a thin plastic cover to protect it from a similar fate. Of course, Harley being Harley, there are probably a bunch of accessories already available to address this issue, because Harley owners love to bolt stuff onto their bikes.
From what I experienced, I’d say the Pan America is best for people mainly interested in street riding, but who also want to hit the dirt occasionally. This is the real deal, not a poser, but best for someone not wanting to get too serious or technical about their dirt riding. Of course, there’s also the question of whether you want to spend about the same for an untested Harley as you would for the tried and true BMW R 1250 GS.
Yamaha Tenere 700
I didn’t come to IMS Outdoors to find my next motorcycle, but I think I have anyway. The Tenere 700 is absolutely everything I love about my KLR, plus absolutely everything I wish it was. In no way should the T700 and KLR be considered competitors to each other. The Yamaha costs over $3,000 more, and it shows in how it rides.
Yamaha’s MT-07 is an excellent naked sport bike, but it’s physically too small for me to be comfortable on. The T700 uses the same engine, and it works perfectly for this bike. While I don’t enjoy riding my KLR long distances to get to good dirt riding, I would have no issues whatsoever doing it on the T700. Then, when I got there, the T700 would be at least as capable in the dirt, probably more. It physically fits me well, and though it has great ground clearance, my seating position is actually a little bit lower than my KLR, so I can just about flat-foot it.
As with the new KLR, I can’t justify spending several times more money than I already spent on my current bike to justify the upgrade. Besides, a bike this nice would deserve an enclosed trailer, or at least a garage to live in. But for me, personally, the Yamaha Tenere 700 is my Goldilocks bike. It’s perfect for me.
Suzuki V-Strom 650
There are many who compare the KLR650 and the Suzuki DL650, a.k.a. the V-Strom 650, a.k.a. the “Wee-Strom” as compared to its previously 1000, and now 1050 cc big brother. After all, both are 650 cc single-cylinder motorcycles that claim both on- and off-road cred. The bike I rode had huge side boxes that simply screamed “adventure bike.”
The ride, however, was probably the most road-friendly bike of the bunch I rode. Where my KLR feels like an adventure tractor, the V-Strom actually felt a bit sporty — certainly not compared to something like a Ninja 650, but within the dual-sport category, I think this is one of the most road-friendly motorcycles there is, and one of the most comfortable for me.
If I was sticking mostly to paved and dirt roads, with the occasional trail or unmaintained road thrown in for fun, the V-Strom would most likely be my pick. I have friends who swear by these bikes, and I completely understand why now.
There are those who criticize the KLR650 for never evolving. There are also those who praise it for exactly the same reason. That second group will also be fans of Suzuki’s direct competitor, the DR650. That goes double now that the KLR’s design has moved into the 21st century, while the DR650 remains the same. That means it’s still a single-cylinder, carbureted, simple motorcycle that can tackle anything you can throw at it.
I may criticize the KLR’s tachometer deletion, but the DR650 never had one. That’s how basic of a bike this is. It’s physically smaller than the KLR — both the new model as well as my personal first-generation bike. Unlike my KLR, I can flat-foot the DR650. It feels lighter, but that’s probably because it’s slightly smaller than the KLR. It’s also the least refined of any of the bikes here.
If your primary interest is dirt riding, the DR650 is for you. It’s basically a big dirt bike that’s legal for the street, the opposite of the V-Strom 650. That’s probably why Suzuki offers both.
Royal Enfield Himalayan
This is one I’ve been wanting to get my hands on since it came out. It comes from India, and by its name it purports to be ready to handle the Himalayan mountains. Is it?
The riding experience feels basically like a less powerful version of my KLR. That’s because it has only a 411cc engine instead of my 650. While I noticed the lack of power, it still had plenty for everything I needed to do on this demo ride. From experience, it would’ve struggled on the Cherohala Skyway, where I had to wring my KLR pretty hard to get up some of those hills, especially two-up.
Other than that, it was quite comfortable and familiar, even though I’d never ridden any Royal Enfield before. The instrument panel was basic, but complete. It includes a speedometer, tachometer, and fuel gauge, as well as a compass. Are you listening, Kawasaki? It can be done!
My main concerns with using the Himalayan for serious off-road adventures is parts availability. While Royal Enfield is making a big push into the US, their network still isn’t nearly as big as the big four Japanese brands, BMW, or even KTM. If I break something in the middle of nowhere, I just need to find the nearest Kawasaki dealer, and I’m all set. The nearest Royal Enfield dealer may be hundreds of miles away, and the aftermarket is tiny in comparison.
Triumph Tiger 850 Sport
While the Tiger 900 and 1200 have been around for a while, the 850 Sport is a new addition at the bottom of the Tiger lineup. It’s distinct from its brothers in that it has a three-cylinder engine, not a twin borrowed from the Bonneville and its numerous variants. I’m a sucker for a triple.
The Tiger 850 Sport is… nice. There is absolutely nothing wrong with it. There is also absolutely nothing that stands out in my mind about it, either. It’s a good solid motorcycle, but there was nothing about it that played with my emotions, either. That was very much not the case for the Street Triple R I rode immediately afterward, which I immediately wanted to take to the track and wring out.
I’ve ridden both the 900 and 850 Sport. Unfortunately, despite the very different engine, I can’t tell a great deal of difference between them in the riding experience. Maybe it just comes down to how many cylinders you want.
I have no complaints at all about the Tiger 850 Sport. It’s a great bike. For me, though, I’d take the Tenere 700 all day long.