Friday, October 24, 2008

BMW F650GS Dakar vs. Kawasaki KLR650

They say that with a dual sport motorcycle, you get the best of both worlds.

Have you wondered about that trail fading off into the woods? Want to explore forgotten corners of the world, travel epic distances, or just keep going after the pavement ends? A dual sport might be the machine for you.

Now the classic question: which bike?
There are several big adventure models out there, but most are too heavy for more than a dirt road. For the rider who wants to seriously get off pavement, there's only a few choices. You want something light enough to handle tough trails but still capable of handling long stretches of pavement. This shootout is between the Kawasaki KLR 650 and the BMW F650GS Dakar.

Please note, this post isn't about the hottest new model. It's about bikes a few years old. It's about getting the right machine at the right price. Gear Thoughts is devoted to the used market. Like Festivus, it's a web site for the rest of us.

This post is also based on a real life story. About a year ago, I found myself bike shopping. With the jingle of a little change in my pocket, I was looking for a machine that offered:
  • Off-road capability
  • Reasonable on-road performance
  • Reliability and durability
  • Comfortable, all day riding position
  • Low cost of ownership
After some research, both the F650GS Dakar and the KLR 650 appeared bright and center on my radar.

The KLR 650
Ronald Regan was still President when the first generation KLR rolled off the assembly line in Japan. It would be twenty years later (2008) before a fully redesigned KLR model was finally introduced. In between, there were only minor modifications.

The 2008 KLR is too new so this report focuses on the last production year of the 1st generation (2007). The last year of a model is often the best year to buy. Prices generally drop when a new model is introduced as many would-be buyers move on to the latest/greatest. Most systematic issues have also generally been worked out in the last year of production.

The F650GS Dakar
First introduced in 1999 as the Funduro, the F650GS was BMW's answer to the need for a light weight dual sport bike. Smaller than the F1100GS and far less expensive, the F650GS quickly developed a following. Unlike its shaft driven bigger brother, the F650 was chain driven and powered by an Austrian built Rotax motor. This BMW was unlike any before. The Dakar edition has useful offroad upgrades such as beefier and taller suspension and a larger front wheel. The seat height of the Dakar is 34.5 inches, compares to 30.7 inches for the base F650 GS. The Dakar also has a unique look to it, distinguishing the bike from lesser models.

In 2007, rumors were swirling about a new GS. The F800 was on its way, a bike both lighter and more powerful than the F650. Pictures first appeared in the Spring and deliveries were expected in the fall. But there were many delays, and the bike finally starting hitting dealerships this autumn. Waiting for the F800, many potential buyers decided to hold off.

The F800 GS is now available and the F650 GS was discontinued in 2007, marking it's last year of production. Supposedly another F650 GS is under development but until its released, 2007 was the last year of production for the F650 GS in the U.S. market.

Head to Head
The F650GS vs KLR 650. Two capable 650cc adventure riding machines face off. Both the last year of production. Both with rabid, foaming at the mouth, cult like followings. The chart below summarizes key differences.

Power: Both bikes offer 650cc engines putting out similar horsepower. According to the manufacturers, the BMW has a slight edge in the power department. In my road test, I barely noticed a difference. On the highway, the BMW may have the advantage but in typical everyday riding, these two bikes are essentially a draw.

Brakes: The KLR brakes are a weak spot. Some riders upgrade by installing a bigger front rotor and stainless steel brake lines. ABS is also not available. Advantage: BMW.

Off-Road: It's a little lighter so the KLR might have a slight advantage off road. But with it's unique fuel tank design, the BMW has a lower center of gravity. In performance it's probably a toss up but one factor cannot be overlooked. Riding off road in rugged terrain frequently results in a dropped bike. Both bikes have weak spots but for the Kawasaki, these are easily remedied or replaced with inexpensive aftermarket parts. Should you break parts on the BMW, the cost is many times more for repair or replacement. Advantage: Kawasaki.

On-Road: These bikes are single cylinder machines (thumpers). On the road, both bikes are underpowered on the highway and are prone to vibration. But they're great in town. Overall, on the road the KLR is less refined and is a cruder machine. The BMW gets better fuel mileage, has smoother power delivery, and slightly more top end. Advantage: BMW.

Hit To Your Wallet: At half the price of the BMW, the Kawasaki is a cheap way to get into dual sporting. Here in Colorado, I see machines only a year or two old for $3,700. Some of these machines are nicely farkled. Others have unbelievably low mileage. Drop down below $3,000 and you'll still find machines available but with substantially higher mileage. Even so, on any given day there are three or four KLR's available on Craigslist.

The Dakar is far rarer and typical asking prices are $7,500 and up. In my experience, mileage also tends to be higher. To find the right one, you'll need a dose of luck, a willingness to travel, and some patience.

Verdict: If money isn't a factor, it's hard to argue with an F650GS Dakar. It's the best F650GS and it's a better bike than the KLR 650 is nearly every way. If you're rarely going off road, there is no comparison. Go with the F650GS.

Money of course is a factor. For the same price, you could probably buy TWO Kawasakis. Think about that. Or you could buy a Kawasaki and a bunch of farkles like panniers, skid plates, and GPS systems. And you'd still have plenty of cash left over.

When I was shopping, I asked myself what I really wanted. I decided that I wanted a bike that I could fix on the road. Even in the middle of nowhere, I wanted something that could be patched together with a bit of wire, duct tape, and some ingenuity. I also didn't want to feel any anguish when I dropped it on a trail. At the right price, I could overlook crude construction.

So I decided on the KLR. Even with all of its faults, it's a very functional motorcycle. Any repair shop can fix it. Tried and tested, parts are abundant and cheap. Failure modes are well known. Modifications, easy. And it's probably a little better in the dirt, if only for my willingness to push myself to the limits of my ability.

I purchased my black and silver '07 KLR 650 last Spring. It had only 400 miles on it and so I paid a little more than the typical asking price. Already dropped once, a plastic side panel was already zip tied. As part of the purchase, I negotiated a steep discount on gear, adding Sidi Crossfire boots and a few other items to my list of equipment.

image: patotenere

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