I’ve spent the past nine months or so test riding, researching and carefully evaluating any number of motorcycles for consideration as my two-up tourer and winter commuter. A year with a Triumph Street Triple R has shown it to be a bike with tremendous strengths, such that I if I were to sell it I would merely want to buy another in short order. It is not without it’s fair share of weaknesses, of course, many obvious and inherent to any naked street-bike. It is these weaknesses that have led me to look for a second bike to slot into the garage alongside it.
Throughout my search I’ve tested full-fat touring bikes (BMW R1200RT & Triumph Trophy SE), I’ve sampled some high-profile adventure bikes (BMW R1200GS, BMW F700GS & Triumph Tiger 800/XC), and even experimented with the current out-of-favour class of “light-weight” sports-tourers (BMW F800GT, Suzuki GSX1250FA & Triumph Sprint GT SE). I’ve found that many of these are excellent motorcycles with much to recommend them to prospective buyers for a variety of tasks, and yet none were quite perfect for my needs.
Many of my desires may of course seem contradictory – reasonable power, yet good fuel economy; all-day comfortable for rider and pillion with good wind protection and hard luggage, yet with light weight and sporty handling; top-notch build quality and reliability, yet minimal maintenance and cheap servicing. Oh, and I’d really rather not pay more for my motorcycle than I did for my car.
Yet the more power an engine makes the more fuel it burns, the better the luggage and wind protection the heavier it is. I’d love to avoid chain drive for the hassle during long tours and salty winter commutes, but shaft-driven motorcycles tend towards the expensive luxury models. Aside from the F800GT only cruisers use belt drive, and while my Street Triple meets many of my criteria, adding hard luggage and a full-sized screen has proven all but impossible.
I was sure that adventure bikes would not give me the all-over wind protection that only a full-fairing could provide, so sports-tourers were top of the agenda. I’d just ridden Suzuki‘s own offering, the Bandit-based GSX1250FA, which had the advantage of basically being my old Bandit 650, but with a lot more torque, still available with the same luggage. It was perfectly competent, with perhaps not quite as much low-down torque as I was expecting from a 1.25 litre engine, and even more weight and wobbliness to the suspension than I remembered. Nothing that a similar upgrade regimen wouldn’t have cured, and with the current range of promotions a worthwhile contender.
I’d then tried Triumph’s Sprint GT, in it’s current fully-loaded and heavily-discounted incarnation. Beautifully made, with details such as 12v power built in to the top box and a familiar three-cylinder power delivery, the bike could unfortunately do little to disguise it’s ~270kg wet weight. The relatively aggressive riding position meant that the bike had a tendency to flop into corners when attempting low-speed manoeuvres, possibly due to the lack of leverage the body position offers, even with the risers fitted in the change from the previous generation ST. And while the standard gel seat was extremely comfortable and the touring screen much better than the standard item on the Suzuki, there was still a lot of buffeting at motorway speeds, and a lot of weight on my wrists at anything below it.
What really struck me was how I really missed the riding position and tall, eye-level windshields of the big touring bikes I’d ridden. And yet I’ve decided that I’m not yet ready for the weight, bulk or cost of such machines. Then I heard someone comment that in their opinion adventure-touring bikes were an evolution, or even the future of sports-touring models, because they offered the same combination of good power and low weight of the traditional sports-tourer, along with the luggage capacity and wind protection, but with a much more comfortable riding position.
Furthermore, I was reminded how effective the cleverly designed cowling on the F700GS had been at directing wind away from the rider’s legs, and that adventure bikes, by their very nature, still look just fine with giant screens perched on their noses. It therefore took Rosa very little effort to convince me to take another look at Suzuki’s middleweight V-Strom 650, a bike that promised to deliver all the advantages, but at a much lower cost.
I’ve mentioned before that I’m not an off-road rider, mostly by circumstance rather than prejudice – I’ve simply never had the chance to give it a go. And as I had no desire to take a trip through the Mongolian wilderness, the V-Strom‘s obvious road-biased design was a relief straight away. While still popular with the American ‘ADV’ community, research shows that anyone considering serious off-road work found issue with a number of features that I positively relished.
19″ wheel rather than 21″? Better on-road handling. Cast instead of spoked? Much easier to keep clean! Large, wheel-hugging front fender? Horrible for getting clogged with mud, but brilliant for keeping road salt off the front of a road-bike’s engine. Always-on ABS? Road-bike ride and seat height? Not ideal for sliding around in the dirt perhaps, but perfect for a 5″10′ all-weather commuter!
The more I looked at the bike, the more there was to like. Whereas the Triumph Tiger 800 looked good in photos and progressively worse the closer I examined it, the Suzuki seemed cheap in press shots yet was surprisingly robust and well-made up close. The closer I looked, the better the materials, fit and finish and overall construction seemed to be. Triumph had tried to make a cheap GS – Suzuki had simply built a more upright all-rounder that could survive being dropped a lot.
All the matt-black plastic that makes up the majority of the fairing is surprisingly strong and tough-looking, protecting the bike in the event of a tip-over. It means that the V-Strom looks its best in darker colours, the white and red shades clashing unpleasantly in my opinion. In those shades it almost looks like the bike’s black plastics have swollen and almost completely swallowed up the painted fairing. Very odd.
The upright position and wide, well-padded seat made for an extremely comfortable ride, and the standard 3-way adjustable screen provided excellent wind protection right out of the box. By ducking my head during a motorway ride I was able to confirm that raising it to it’s tallest position might be all that was needed to completely silence wind noise, just as the electric screens on the RT and Trophy had done. This would have required some tools, but should still be within the grasp of most owners.
Further more, a set of OEM hand guards cost a mere £50 and bolt right on, providing more wind protection than any of those on the BMW or Triumphs. The brakes, while similar in spec to the two-piston sliding callipers on the Tiger 800 seemed to do a much better job of stopping the bike, the basic suspension provided a comfortable, well-composed ride even when cranked over, and I suffered none of the toe-scraping that the Triumph offered, even when leant hard over on roundabouts.
The dashboard, like much about the Suzuki looked far more upmarket upon closer inspection than it does in photographs, and provides not only an easily readable analogue tachometer and digital speedo, but also gear position, engine temperature, average fuel economy and even an ice warning, supposedly triggered when the ambient temperature drops to frosty levels. The clutch was light, and the wide bars provided excellent leverage for tipping into corners, with none of the rear-heavy feeling I expected on such a light bike (214kg) with a pillion present. Suzuki have even included a remote preload adjuster for the rear shock, so that you can compensate for a passenger or luggage.
And then we have the engine. Triumph‘s 800cc triple disappointed me more than any engine in memory, by feeling gutless in comparison to the smaller 675cc version in my Street Triple, yet returning just ~45mpg in gentle riding. In comparison, Suzuki‘s 15-year-old 650cc 90-degree v-twin should be completely overwhelmed in it’s current application, and yet I’ve never ridden something with just 67bhp that felt so torquey and responsive across the entire rev range. One reward for the lower quoted output is my recorded figure of 60mpg during mixed riding, and others online have returned far, far higher with little trouble, some even claiming 300 miles from the 20 litre tank!
Those expecting to throw their pillion off the back at just half-throttle will of course be disappointed, but Rosa and I were still a little surprised with the smooth yet surprisingly potent twin-cylinder’s output. Progressive overtakes were no problem, even two-up, and rather than remind me of the F700GS‘s 70bhp parallel twin, the V-Strom‘s powerplant reminded me far more of the Street Triple‘s 105bhp 3-pot. Ridden in a similar manner I never wanted for acceleration throughout the entire test ride, yet was able to tick along quite comfortably at lower speeds with far less snatchyness than my Triumph.
First gear idle will tug the bike along easily at just 6mph, and it’s the only bike I’ve ridden (besides my parent’s heavily-modified Bonneville) where Rosa felt that a top box might not be necessary as a backrest to keep her comfortable. The grab handles are reportedly excellent, and the stock exhaust was perfectly acceptable for both rider feedback and aural enjoyment. It’s true that Scorpion might be getting a call from me after not too long should I buy a V-Strom myself, but it wouldn’t be a day one requirement like it is on some bikes. Even the mirrors are good – sensible, rectangular items with zero shoulder giving a clear, vibration-free view, and the built-in luggage rack makes fitting a top box a cheap, easy matter.
It’s true that while the finish looks good now, Suzuki isn’t known for using the most durable paint and plating on its bikes. But recently I’ve even seen Victory‘s that look like they’ve been through hell and back after just a few thousand miles, so I strongly believe that how well a bike lasts has just as much to do with how it’s looked after. They don’t make ’em like they used to – everyone is using water-based paints and more environmentally-friendly manufacturing processes mean stainless steel fasteners don’t last as well. But my Bandit lasted through 30,000 miles of horrible winters with nothing but some flaky wheels, so I’m confident that regular cleaning and a winter coating of ACF50 would keep a V-Strom looking good for many thousands of miles.
There are a few other things I don’t like. 3500-mile oil changes? When every Triumph/BMW manages at least 6k, most Honda‘s 8k, and the 1200 Explorer happy to wait a full 10,000 miles between services? Sure, it’s an easy 5-minute job (especially given where Suzuki have mounted the oil filter) but during the warranty period that’s £300 a go at a dealer. I ride 1400 miles a month, so I’d have to think long and hard about how much that warranty was worth. At least self-servicing will be cheap.
I also wish that there was a real-time fuel economy readout, and believe that ransoming the centrestand as a £200 dealer-fit option instead of standard fitment should be a hanging offence on any bike with a chain to oil and adjust. I find the seat a bit tall, but lower, higher and even gel-filled versions are available. And with Suzuki offering the V-Strom up at just over £6k on the road, it’s really very difficult to find much more to complain about. Suzuki offer every imaginable accessory, and even though this most recent revision of the bike is only two years old the aftermarket is full of options from every manufacturer.
And so, after all is said and done, we’re left with a motorcycle that should be very cheap to run, is extremely cheap to buy, all-day comfortable for two, will carry luggage with ease for up to 300 miles on a tank, can carve up the corners with the best while keeping the rider from being blown around on the motorway, and could easily be upgraded or modified to suit the needs of almost anyone.
I think I’m starting to understand what makes adventure bikes so popular – take away all the “I’m going around the world, honest!” posturing and you’re left with motorcycling as it used to be. Sensible, comfortable, fun, with the minimum of toys and the maximum of options for adding them to suit your specific needs. They’re bikes for real life – that still look good when you scrape them on the garage wall, that can take a dirt track or occasional car-park drop without suffering expensive damage. They squeeze through the traffic en route to work and back every day, or even cross the continent without breaking your back or wrists.
Luggage racks used to be standard on every motorcycle because they’re practical and useful – now only adventure bikes include them in the spec. Stripping these bikes of excess fairing, speaker systems and electric screens means that they’re light and easy to manage, resulting in bikes that are easy to live with, and can keep up with anything else on the road, even when the going gets twisty.
So if you, like me, were put off by all the “me-too!” adventure bikes that sacrifice practicality and performance in the pursuit of making a 250kg touring bike capable of surviving a gravel driveway, that add needless styling baggage in the name of fashion, go have a look at a V-Strom 650. I was extremely impressed. I think you might be too.