Suzuki's Six-and-a-half

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith, Suzuki

In the 1960s, when I first got interested in motorcycles, 650 was a number heavy with significance. It had special connotations of power and speed. Royal Enfield's oddball 692cc Constellation notwithstanding, a 650cc was the biggest, most powerful bike you could buy in England. Vincent had gone to the wall, the side-valve, 1000cc, sidecar haulers of pre-WWII days were extinct, and while there may have been some big Harley imports, I'd certainly never seen one on the road.

So a 650 was the height of performance and acceleration, and the object of many a biker's aspirations. Yet, most of us entry-level riders were stuck with cast-off 50cc mopeds or the ubiquitous BSA Bantam.

It seems ironic that now a 650 is described as "entry level," in spite of the fact that a modern motorcycle of that cubic capacity produces at least twice the power of a 1959 Triumph Bonneville. So that begs the question of Suzuki's SV650: is it in fact only a beginner bike, or does it provide enough excitement to maintain the interest of more experienced riders?

Overachiever
Both the naked SV650 and half-faired SV650S have sold well since their introduction in 1999. The SV650 consistently places high in mid-size biker rivalries, more because of its easy handling and characterful L-twin engine than outright performance, where four-cylinder 600s beat it handily. But the same characteristics that give the 600s their outrageous speed also make them a chore to ride. An aggressive riding position and quick throttle response with little flywheel effect work well on the racetrack, but are less suited to a road bike. The SV650's L-twin is down on power compared with the fours, but is easier to manage in "real world" traffic situations: its throttle response is more linear and less reactive. It also enjoys a not inconsiderable price advantage!

Yet, SV650s do go racing, performing well against more storied opposition in the American Historic Motorcycle Racing Association's "Battle of the Twins" series, which allows them to compete with Ducatis, Moto Guzzis, and the like. So: friendly beginner bike, respected road performance, and sometime race bike. It seems there are few arenas in which the SV650 and S don't succeed.

On the Road
Our long-term tester is a 2006 SV650S, kindly loaned by American Suzuki, on which I clocked more than 3,000 miles in two weeks of touring. Suzuki offered me a choice of the naked SV650 or half-faired S version, and I chose the latter for the tour. I collected the red SV650S from Suzuki's Brea, California, premises, threw on a set of Eclipse Sport Panniers, and hit I-5 to meet my tour partners in Yreka, close to the Oregon border, nearly 750 miles away.

Much of the SV650 range's appeal to new riders is its nimbleness and ease of operation, and I quickly settled into its rhythm. There are no quirks to the controls: the clutch is light, smooth, and progressive; the brakes more than adequate and nicely balanced between front and rear; gear shifting is light and positive with neutral easy to find; and power delivery is free of hiccups or awkward transitions. The overall effect is confidence inspiring - just what newer riders need.

Though the S-model's low handlebars promote an aggressive riding position, the wind pressure at highway speeds balances my body weight perfectly. The beautifully smooth 650cc L-twin provides plenty of power for highway use, too, and, speed limits notwithstanding, I'm sure I would have been able to maintain a cruising speed of anything up to three figures with acceleration to spare.

In the tight, twisting mountain roads of northern California, I acquire even more respect for the 650 motor. It's no surprise that the SV650S has found its way onto the racetrack: the engine is tractable enough to pull hard from as low as 2,000rpm in tight hairpin turns, yet delivers a surprisingly vigorous thrust as the revs rise above 7,000 or so. Revving the engine hard becomes addictive, accompanied as it is by a delightful humming from the exhaust, yet the engine never feels stressed or "buzzy." My companions are riding bikes with engines as much as twice the SV650's capacity - two BMW 1150GSs, a K1200RS, and an R100GS. Yet I'm able to keep up without difficulty, perhaps in part because of the bike's low overall weight.

The mountain roads also give me an opportunity to test the 650's handling, and this is where there's room for improvement. The narrow roads through northern California's Siskiyou Mountains are some of the most tortuous and precipitous on the continent. Though the chassis works well in most steady curves, it does not handle as well in rapid transitions, especially in the front end and under braking, The result is a sense of wallowing and unsteadiness in challenging turns. The suspension is on the soft side and seems under-damped, which may be the cause. I also find the riding position too forward for comfort in long descents due to the heavy and constant load on my wrists. Overall though (and especially at the price), the SV650S adapts adequately to what many riders would agree are some of the most challenging sportbike roads in the country.

Perhaps the best aspect of touring with the SV650S is that I never have to think about it. Each morning, I load up my cargo, check the oil level through the handy crankcase window, and fire it up. The bike is immediately ready for duty and never misses a beat. One could accuse it of lacking "character" by being so Swiss-watch reliable, but on a motorcycle tour, character is rarely an attractive attribute - especially if it means unscheduled interruptions to the journey.

In fact, writing a test report on the SV650S was more difficult because of the bike's almost total lack of shortcomings. My only real complaints at the end of two weeks were the riding position and the overly firm seat. I could have easily avoided the former if I'd chosen the more upright SV650 model; and the latter seems to be a property of most modern bikes, correctible with aftermarket replacement seats.

So, to return to the original question: is the Suzuki SV650S just a beginner bike that lacks the force to challenge experienced riders? Absolutely not, as the many riders now circulating the nation's racetracks in AHRMA racing would surely agree. The SV650's all-round utility, easy-going rideability, and solid performance make it the kind of bike you'd own if you could only have one. But even if you had a garage full of rides, it would probably be the bike that got the most use. There's very little not to like: its light weight and lively engine give it sparkling performance, and the rest of the motorcycle works as well or better than the competition. But most important of all, the SV650S is big on the F-factor: plain, old-fashioned FUN.

TECHNICAL SPECS:

Suzuki SV650

+ easy riding nature, willing and torquey engine, light and smooth controls
- one-hour seat, two-hour ergoes,
under-damped suspension

Distributor American Suzuki Motor Corp.
www.suzukicycles.com
Engine inline four, DOHC, 8 valve
Displacement 645cc
Bore x Stroke 81x62.6mm
Carburetion EFI
Power 71hp
Cooling liquid
Ignition digital / transistorized
Transmission six-speed
Frame vacuum cast aluminum
Front Suspension 41mm conventional fork, preload adjustable,
5.1in (139mm) travel
Rear Suspension single shock, link type,
7 way preload adjustable
Rake/Trail 25° / n/a
Brakes front/rear two 290mm (11.4in) discs, 2 piston calipers /
single disc, 1 piston
Tires front/rear 120/60 ZR 17
160/60 ZR 17
Dry Weight 372lb (169kg)
Wheelbase 56.3in (1430mm)
Seat height 31.5in (800mm)
Fuel Capacity 4.5gal (17l)
Fuel Consumption 50mpg
Colors blue, red
MSRP $ 6,499