Just right: Suzuki's Practical Classic

Just right: Suzuki's Practical Classic

Once upon a time (and this is no fairytale), a motorcycle was just a motorcycle. It came from the factory in one flavor  -  plain vanilla. What you did with it after that was up to you. To go touring, you could add a rack and a pair of panniers; for off-road jaunts, a set of knobby tires; for sportier riding or some track time, clip-on handlebars and rear-set foot controls. Your motorcycle was what you made it. No one needed  -  and few could afford  -  more than one bike.

But this is the age of specialization. Motorcycles are built for a narrowly defined purpose and they rarely perform satisfactorily anyplace other than their ideal environment. Paris-Dakar on a Hyabusa? Track days on an Ultra Glide? The Three Flags Rally on a Gas Gas? Not likely.

Is it still possible to buy a single motorcycle that can handle all-day highway speeds, gravel, a little off-road action, and maybe even turn a circuit or two? If you were building such a bike, would you end up with a disastrous compromise or a practical classic?

Suzuki's first attempt at all-purpose construction married a retuned version of the powerful TL1000 L-twin with cycle parts that offered comfortable seating, good ground clearance and effective weather protection. The DL1000 worked well, but felt much more at home on the interstate than the back roads. A slightly smaller package, perhaps?

The V-Strom feels at home on almost any road surface.

Enter the DL650: smaller, lighter and livelier but still happy on the highway. If the DL1000 is Papa Bear's too-big chair, then the DL650 is Baby Bear's more agreeable perch. I'm no Goldilocks, but I'd say the DL650 is "just right!"

V-Strom Lite

I spent a pleasant day on the DL1000 a year or so ago, and was immediately impressed. There was no break-in period to riding the big Strom: it was simply "twist and go," an immediately friendly package that offered more fun as the day evolved. I wanted to take it home.

Eventually I did get to take the DL650 home for a long-term test involving five major tours for RoadRUNNER, plus a number of fast interstate "just get me there" trips. The V-Strom never disappointed.

Rugged good looks, go anywhere capability. What's not to like?

The DL650 V-Strom uses the DOHC, 8-valve liquid-cooled 645cc L-twin from the brilliant SV650, retuned for mid-range, and it's fuel injected with Suzuki's Dual Throttle Valve System. The engine makes use of advanced materials, like composite plated cylinders and plastic covers to reduce weight, and drives through a six-speed transmission with chain final drive. The aluminum twin spar frame carries the 5.8 gallon gas tank, a compact front fairing with twin headlights, and an adjustable windshield. Both front and rear suspensions are adjustable for preload, and connect to the ground via 17-inch cast aluminum wheels. Three disc brakes, two front, one aft, handle stopping.

This translates into a bike that sits tall, with a classic dual-purpose upright riding position: feet below hips, high bars and straight back. However, the seat is broader and softer than most d-p bikes (there's also a gel option available), and the V-Strom's fairing bodywork makes it feel much bulkier. The dash has twin analog dials for speed and engine revs, plus gas and temperature gauges and the usual idiot lights. A digital panel includes two trip meters and a clock.

I collected the V-Strom, just broken in with less than 3,000 miles recorded, from American Suzuki's HQ in Brea, CA. My plan was to ride the Strom to my home in Vancouver, BC, with a stop in Medford, Oregon. Navigating LA's rush-hour freeways on a strange motorcycle might have been a problem on anything other than the Strom, but everything felt comfortable and in the right place from the start  -  no fumbling or groping for the controls  -  so I was able to concentrate on grappling with LA's traffic scrimmage.

This lively 650cc L-twin has great character and plenty of power.

It was here I appreciated the DL's high stance, narrow profile and agile handling (aided by the wide bars). Slipping between the lines of stop-start cars, I soon felt like a veteran courier rider, with a clear view over all but the tallest SUVs. Over Tejon Pass on I-5, snow patches at the roadside, and north across California's central valley, I wound the Strom to 90mph and held it there for hours, pausing only for gas and nature's call. I got to Medford in record time, and easily made the Canadian border the next day. Highway capability established.

Other standout Strom moments: picking my way through storm debris on a rain-slick, potholed goat path in the Santiam Wilderness in northwest Oregon, the DL's poise and traction always secure; storming over gravel roads in Oregon's Siuslaw National Forest; squeezing between the boulders and hovering over a streamside drop to get past a landslide that had "closed" a road in the Siskiyous; and blasting over Washington's North Cascades Highway at speeds I'll not admit to, shaming a couple of sportbikes in the process. A practical classic, the Strom performed flawlessly through it all.

Many of the V-Strom's "just right" features were quickly taken for granted: the 300-mile range the big gas tank affords, that comfortable all-day riding position and seat, the weather protection and sensible instrument panel, its excellent brakes, and, central to the joy of riding, the responsive, powerful L-twin motor. Starting was always instantaneous, throttle transitions always smooth, and the fuel injection/automatic cold idle always supplied quick getaways from cold. As many before have commented, the SV-derived engine is a sweet-revving, hard-hauling delight, with just enough "feel" to be interesting, but it's always civilized, whether idling, pulling hard at low revs, or screaming to the redline.

The bodywork seems ungainly, but it provides good weather protection.

Nothing's perfect, and I do have a couple of gripes. Every street motorcycle should have a center stand: without one, routine maintenance, like lubing the chain, is a real chore. And while the luggage rack was appreciated, the single high muffler gets in the way of soft bags. A motorcycle with touring pretensions should be designed around luggage, not vice versa. The handlebar lever protectors from the DL1000 would be nice, too. But that's about it...

In four months, I covered close to 11,000 miles on the DL650 without it missing a beat. Maintenance costs were $ 260 for a new rear tire and a lube, oil and filter. Oh, and around $ 90 for a new shifter, clutch lever and left turn signal. A stop-and-drop caused the damage to the signal while the bodywork escaped unscathed. Clever design, or just lucky? Fuel consumption in a heavy-handed mix of back road wandering to highway hustling and everything in between averaged 50.3 mpg, yielding a range of just under 300 miles.

An incurable collector, I'm not comfortable answering the "which motorcycle if you could only have one" question. But when I'm pressed to mention a few, my shortlist includes the DL650 V-Strom.

Technical Specs

Suzuki DL650 V-Strom

Retail Price $  6,699.00
Warranty 12 months, unlimited mileage
Maintenance Schedule n/a
Importer/Distributor American Suzuki P.O. BOX 1100 Brea CA 92822 1-800-828-RIDE

Type four-stroke, 90 degree V-twin
Cooling liquid
Valve Arrangement four valves per cylinder, DOHC
Bore & Stroke 81.0 x 62.6mm
Displacement 645cc
Compression Ratio 11.5:1
Fuel System fuel injection
Lubrication wet sump
Ignition digital/transistorized

Gearbox 6-speed
Clutch wet, multi-plate
Final Drive #525 chain

Frame aluminum twin-spar
Wheelbase 1540mm (60.6 in.)
Rake 64 degrees/26 degrees
Trail 110mm (4.33")
Front Suspension telescopic, oil damped
Stanchion Diameter 43 mm (1.7")
Adjustments spring preload
Travel 120mm
Rear Suspension mono shock
Adjustments spring preload and rebound damping

Wheels & Tires
Type cast aluminum, three-spoke
Front 2.50" x 19"
Rear 4.00" x 17"
Front Tire 110/80R-19
Rear Tire 150/70R-17

Front Brake dual hydraulic disc, twin-piston calipers
Diameter 310mm (12.2")
Rear Brake single hydraulic disc, single-piston caliper
Diameter 260mm (10.2")
Combining no

Dimensions & Capacities
Seat Height 820mm (32.3 in.)
Dry-Weight 190kg (418 lbs.)
Fuel Capacity 22 liter (5.8 gal.)

Claimed horsepower n/a
Torque n/a
Top Speed n/a
Fuel Consumption 50.3 mpg
Fuel Range 292 miles
Equipment Luggage rack, passenger grab handles, adjustable brake lever, height adjustable windshield (2" range).

RoadRUNNER Test Diagram
Engine 5/5

Chassis 5/5

Brakes 5/5

Comfort 4/5

Luggage w/accessories 4/5

Equipment 4/5

Design 5/5

Bike for the buck 5/5