I purchased my Suzuki Bandit 650S in March 2011. A dealer offered me a test ride when I expressed an interest in a brand-new model, and this beauty was the one trotted out to take for a spin. When I returned, impressed, I was prepared to give the Bandit a second glance. When I noticed that the very bike I had ridden was for sale, and that 18 uneventful months in the showroom and 90 miles of test rides had taken nothing from the bike except £1000 from the price tag, I jumped at the opportunity. I even liked the colour. It was the end of a long road spent searching for the right new vehicle; one that had taken me to almost every major manufacturer and up and down the price range, as I considered every option available.
One year, 16,000 miles and hours of tweaking and modding later, here is the lowdown on one of today’s great overlooked motorcycles.
My search for a new bike had begun when a few niggling little annoyances with my VFR started to pile up. A 1997 model hefting almost 50,000 miles, it was beginning to show its age with occasional ignition and starting issues. It also wasn’t all that comfortable, and soft luggage being the only option left extra marks on the paintwork every time I toured. It was nothing that enough money couldn’t have fixed, but parts were hard to come by and I didn’t fancy being stranded on the far side of Europe if the little problems I was ignoring became big ones.
My basic requirements were that I be able to ride to, say, the Isle of Man in comfort with hard luggage, then ditch the bags and set a hot a lap around the island, all on the same bike. I also planned to commute to work every day, so something that could squeeze through traffic would be a definite plus. While a GSX-R600 would have been fantastic around the TT course, comfort and luggage would have been limiting factors. Sure, a tank bag and tail pack can hold a sponge bag and a change of underwear, but much more than that and you’re out of luck.
BMW’s RT1200 is a lovely touring bike – comfortable, great luggage, heated everything and even a stereo, but at almost 300kg, and with a massive fairing, it wasn’t going to make sporty riding or filtering easy.
Having discounted the big tourer I discovered my first shortlist contender in the F800 ST. A test-ride confirmed what the specs implied: light, manoeuvrable, and with enough high-tech gadgets to satisfy even my own technolust.
The brakes were great, the engine torquey, attention to detail across the body fantastic, and the trip computer refused to drop below 60mpg no matter how hard I rode. That said, at high speeds the engine vibration was somewhat intrusive, and I wondered how quickly that would become tiresome. But the biggest problem — the biggest disappointment — was the way the screen flapped around at motorway speeds, as though made of chocolate-box plastic. Given the otherwise solid feel of the bike, it wasn’t what I was expecting at all, and it put me off the bike somewhat.
At Triumph I checked out the 800 Tiger during launch and came away impressed enough to book a test ride. The build quality was good, with nice touches such as steel brake hoses as standard, and for anyone who likes to accessorise their bikes Triumph are rapidly becoming an attractive proposition, right up there with BMW and Harley-Davidson. The prospect of being able to load up a bike with driving lights and steel panniers was very attractive.
The problems began and ended at the test ride. When I arrived at the prescribed time I was passed from pillar to post, salesman to salesman, none of whom seemed to consider me important enough to interrupt their work. All I needed was the keys so that I could go ride the thing, but I had to wait almost 40 minutes while they wrapped up with their other customers. When I finally pinned someone down they had me sign the forms, fired up the bike and left me to it – I felt like I was an inconvenience, like a cat who needed to be let out again in the middle of East Enders.
While my local dealer could already count me out, Triumph had not necessarily lost my custom just yet. But sadly I found myself unable to get on with the 800 at all. Despite its high stance I found myself scraping my toes on roundabouts, and this on a bike whose geometry and large front wheel gave so little feedback that I felt I was disconnected from the road. And the engine…somehow not as torquey as I’d expect from an 800, yet also lacking any kind of top end to make up for it. And quite frankly — and I seem to be the only person who thinks this — it sounds terrible. A horrible, persistant whining sound at idle that makes you think it’s trying to run without oil, and overrun detonates in the headers as though gravel is being shot out of the cylinder head. It’s entirely possible that the offered Arrow exhaust would have amended this somewhat, but when the dealer’s response to my concerns was that “everyone else liked it”, I had other places to be.
The Forgotten Suzuki
Having resolved to buy new, the disappointments from Triumph and BMW meant that I needed to go back to the drawing board. Surprisingly few middleweights come with optional luggage, and I had no desire to tack ugly Givi luggage on to a brand new bike. Just one look at the wingrack for the VFR will make almost anyone agree on that score!
I’d already discounted the new VTEC VFR 800 from Honda as far too expensive – and not just at retail. Major services on the valvegear were quoted around £800, a frankly ridiculous sum. And why do so many premium manufacturers offer nothing in the heated grip department beyond horrible rebranded and tacked-on aftermarket garbage? I’ve done DIY installs that are better integrated than what I’ve seen on showroom floors.
It was beginning to look like the combination I was looking for did not exist within my price bracket. There seemed to be a real gap between the seven grand street bikes and the full-dress tourers, both in price and design. As such it was a surprise when, while wandering the aisles at a dealer, I spotted a pointy black thing with an ABS wheel and a £6000 price tag. Further inspection revealed that this was, in fact, a Suzuki Bandit – the newer water-cooled 650S version.
I had placed Bandit’s in the “meh” category a long time ago – back when I’d chosen the Yamaha FZS600 Fazer as a lighter, faster, better-built alternative. I had no reason to go back to that aged design, and it seems Suzuki had agreed back in 2007 and rebuilt the bike from scratch. As such it was well-constructed, with many modern amenities such as the aforementioned ABS, and came with factory fit luggage as an option. A test ride revealed exceptional road manners, very smooth fuelling all the way from idle, predictable and neutral handling and a surprisingly comfortable riding position.
I returned from the ride impressed, and sat down to do the deal.
With my new bike chosen, it was time to make some changes. In total I paid the dealer almost £1000 over purchase price on the bike for luggage, heated grips (properly installed ones!), a Scottoiler, crash protection etc. I also placed an order for a Beowulf Warrior end-can to replace the abomination Suzuki includes as standard. So little effort has been made to disguise the cruise-missile bolted to the back of the bike that I wonder if they expect people to replace it straight out of the dealership. In my case it never even made it that far.
At the first service I had the technicians wire in my TomTom SatNav system, then followed this up with a dedicated mount from SW-Motech and a set of Touratech Hand Guards. In both cases I had to do a lot of research to find items that would fit my bike. It would seem that the faired late-model 650s are in the blind spot of a lot of part manufacturers, and even Suzuki seem to forget the bike, leaving it out of their most recent Motorcycle Live! show lineup entirely. As it turned out, the GPS mount for the naked Bandit fits the faired one just fine, but the hand guards, meant for the older-styled fairing on the 1250, rub ever-so-slightly at full lock. Still, better than nothing.
When the air filter came around for replacement, I opted for a K&N washable item. The rate I was putting miles on the bike meant that a significant savings would be made over a very short period of time. The slight boost in power was a welcome side effect, same as with the end-can.
The main headlight bulb was replaced with a much brighter, but still legal, Osram Night Breaker, significantly improving night-time visibility. But this made the side-lights look almost orange in comparison, so led replacements were sourced for them too. I considered LED indicators and tail lights, but did not wish to change the indicator housings themselves – mini indicators look hideous in my opinion, and finding mere bulb replacements has proved a challenge.
A local suspension expert helped me set up the bike to suit my weight, dramatically improving the handling by stiffening up the whole bike, but the lack of dive in the front highlighted that the brakes were actually not as great as I had believed. Fortunately the original pads were almost worn out, so sintered metal replacements were fitted, which improved matters. A phone call to HEL told me that a 7-line replacement set of braided steel hoses would set me back around £200, and my dealer has quoted around £100 for fitting. Given the complexity of bleeding an unfamiliar ABS system, I’ll probably take them up on their offer sometime soon.
With braking and suspension sorted, the tyres began to show up as a weakness in the handling. A combination of late braking and motorway miles coupled with a heavy chassis had left my front tyre pointy and my rear squared off. This made cornering interesting, to say the least, and after a few scary moments I resolved to replace the set. Bridgestone’s BT21’s had done this to me in the past, and it’s possible that the newer 23’s would last better, but I’d been reading glowing reviews of Michelin’s Pilot Road 3’s, particularly in the wet – a weakness of the Bridgestones.
With new Michelins on the bike I began to notice that although the bike rolled smoothly from side to side now, it took significant effort to do so. I’d been reading about how lowering the front of the bike could quicken up steering at the expense of stability, and with no plans to cruise at 150mph, I considered this a worthwhile tradeoff. Raising the rear would’ve had the same effect, but replacement linkages to enable this were an additional expense I could avoid here. A simple 10mm drop at the front proved effective, and a further 10mm (the maximum realistically achievable given handlebar clearance) really sharpened up the turn-in, such that a tight line could now be held without drifting wide.
Unfortunately this latest improvement has highlighted weaknesses in the suspension. The tighter handling has enabled higher cornering speeds than before, but my limited knowledge of motorcycle suspension indicates that the damping on the front forks is insufficient to deal with the bumps at these speeds, making the ride anything but smooth when pushing hard. Race Tech cartridge emulators are on order, as are stronger springs and thicker fork oil, the whole job lot including installation estimated to cost around £300. Balancing this upgrade will require a replacement rear shock, and with options extremely limited for the Bandit, a HyperPro 2-way seems a likely candidate, albeit a pricey one at around £650.
Once the suspension is up to scratch, I suspect I’ll be looking to continue improving the brakes with the aforementioned HEL lines, and maybe even upgraded disks if I’m feeling silly. ASV do some gorgeous black CNC-machined aluminium levers, and I’ve always got a touring screen or two in my Watch List on eBay. Concerns around buffeting and aesthetics have delayed that particular upgrade thus far, but we shall see.
So far, so good.