Well, it’s been a while since I posted anything new. And to be honest, that’s good news for Suzuki. You see, back in February I finally followed my own advice and bought myself another motorcycle – a lightly used 2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650. Since then I’ve ridden it more than 10,000 miles, filled her up 56 times, tested the limits of the tyres, the suspension and the brakes, and even made some attempts to improve on Suzuki’s original design…
Long-time readers of the site will note that I post more when I’m shopping, and that’s because I’ve got a reason to go out and ride new bikes, which I can then write about. Suzuki’s diminutive 654cc v-twin adventure-sport bike impressed the hell out of me when I rode it last year, and when my local dealer took a 3-year, 7,000-mile one-owner example in trade with full 3-box Suzuki luggage, crash bars, heated grips, hand guards and touring screen they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.
The bike had a full history from the same dealer, so I knew it’d had it’s oil changed on schedule, but sadly one of the criticisms levelled at Suzuki is that their weather resistance leave something to be desired. My Bandit was still immaculate up to the point it was murdered by a passing Peugeot, proving that care, attention and ACF-50 are more than a match for cheap paint and platings. But this bike had clearly been parked up wet, with a tired-looking chain and crud-covered suspension linkage. Paint was flaking from the swingarm and engine casings in a couple of spots, but the low mileage and price made these minor blemishes worth ignoring.
After riding the bike to work and back the first thing I did was tear the rear suspension linkage apart, clean everything and re-pack all the bearings with grease. I’m told this is worth doing even on many brand-new bikes, due to manufacturers getting stingy at the factory. I just consider it a good starting point when evaluating a chassis and suspension setup for upgrades – no point trying to adjust the damping if the shock is seized! Fortunately the damage was purely cosmetic, and I was even able to mostly revive the chain with a heavy round of scrubbing and oiling.
Next up, wiring up a Twisty Ride iPhone mount and charging cable, along with a Denali PowerHub switched fuse box. I knew this would be the first of many mods, and didn’t want to attach everything directly to the battery. It turned out the dealer had done a very careless job of wiring in the heated grips, so I re-plumbed those as well. I also connected mine and Rosa’s Keis heated gear cables, mounting my new wireless controller on the handlebars. The only thing worse than sitting on the motorway freezing to death because you set the temperature too low is sitting in stationary traffic with third-degree burns due to setting it too high!
Finally I replaced the stock headlights with Philips X-Treme Vision bulbs on both sides, and swapped the faded yellow side-lights with cree LED items. The headlight design was already excellent as stock, now they’re positively the best I’ve used on a bike.
Leaving electronics for the moment I quickly realised that as good as the standard exhaust sounded, it wasn’t quite what I wanted. I don’t really want to go waking the neighbours when I leave for work, and if I were chasing horsepower then quite frankly I’ve bought the wrong bike. But motorcycles are a subjective, emotional experience for many people, and I want to enjoy the mechanical roar of the internal combustion engine before all the petrol runs out. Having been impressed with Scorpion’s customer service, design and build quality on the end-can I installed on my Street Triple, I gave them a call.
The “slip-on” they offer for the V-Strom 650 isn’t so much an end-can as practically a full stainless system. The only remaining parts of the original are two stubby little header pipes, one from each cylinder. Removal of the old system and installation of the new took some time – much jiggling and swearing was involved, and I had to loosen the header bolts to get the old single-piece python off the engine. Installation was easier, as it comes in multiple parts held together by tension springs. According to Scorpion‘s own website I should be enjoying a full 2 extra horsepower, but more important to me is that the new system looks better, sounds better, and weighs several kilograms less than the stock pipes.
The Suzuki touring windshield had a neat little adjustable wind deflector on top that allowed for minor adjustment, but I honestly never detected too much of a difference. It did a damn good job, especially with the whole windshield assembly remounted in the higher of the three positions allowed by the fairing. Unfortunately, it seems no-one tested the screen with a pillion, and Rosa was getting nasty headaches from the buffeting at anything about 55-60mph. With a trip to the Lake District planned I looked online and found that the Givi Airflow screens came highly recommended. Sure enough, a five minute install and massive range of on-the-fly adjustment made for a happy pillion and amazing wind protection for yours truly. Bring on winter!
A trip to Freiburg had me nervous about repeating the rectifier-related shenanigans of last year, so I fitted a voltmeter to the dashboard to keep an eye on the charging system, and installed a 12v PowerLet socket to run my portable air compressor in the event of punctures. Storing all these tools was made easier by discovering a guy on Etsy who made custom mini-panniers that strap to the stock Suzuki crash-bars, which I further augmented by mounting a bicycle water-bottle holder. Now all I need is a flip-front helmet and I could drink on-the-go!
Speaking of luggage, the 3-box resin-construction setup turned out to be german-made Hepco & Becker boxes with SW-Motech frames, all Suzuki-branded. This is good, because my experience with Givi’s pannier frames, specifically the quality of their rust-proofing, is decidedly unimpressive. SW-Motech’s frames, on the contrary, have held up extremely well, and even have the welcome feature of quick-release frames for the panniers, allowing me to run the bike without the usual scaffolding when I don’t need the side cases.
The locking mechanisms are also more substantial than Givi’s – it would take a serious incident to dislodge either the top box or the panniers, and the matching inner-bags make packing and unloading a snap. Unfortunately the panniers do stick out a long way from the bike – half a day with a grinder and a welder and I reckon I could take an inch or more off both sides, so I don’t know why SW-Motech didn’t go for a tighter design.
I toured for almost two weeks in Germany with just a top box and a small bag strapped to the pillion seat, and two-up the three boxes worked ok as long as you both pack light and don’t need to take anything like hiking boots with you. Camping would be a no-go, not least of which because the curved design of the boxes leaves no opportunity for strapping anything else to the top; I guess this is where the stereotypical adventure-style steel cases win…
The original Bridgestone Trailwings lasted almost 11,000 miles before they were retired, and despite the poor reputation seemed to provide plenty of grip both wet and dry. I replaced them with my favourite tyres, Michelin Pilot Road 4‘s, but 6,000 miles later those are looking somewhat squared off already. I’m not sure if they’ll last the same number of miles, but fully-loaded two-up touring does seem to put a dent in them, something the tyres never had to do on my Street Triple. The Pilot Roads certainly grip hard enough to scrape the pegs in the Black Forest, so I don’t think I have any real complaints.
Fuel economy has been exceptional. Admittedly the engine is only making around 70bhp at peak, regardless of what K&N or Scorpion tell me, so good mileage should have been expected. I figured the extra 30kg the bike carries compared to my Triumph would cancel that out, but over 6 months of commuting, touring, motorway riding and bouncing off the rev limiter through southern Germany I’ve averaged a genuine 66MPG UK. A 1,000 mile two-up trip to the Lakes, including first-gear climbs through 33% grade passes in Cumbria returned 62MPG for the trip, and a more sedate 1,700 mile trip to the Black Forest and back following my parents’ Triumph Bonneville averaged 73MPG all on it’s own. Coupled with a 20l tank, a little bit of restraint on a daily basis sees 300-mile tanks become an easy reality.
Servicing has been cheap so far, because changing the oil on a Suzuki is easy, if somewhat frequent every 3,500 miles. My local mechanic Roy Read helped me keep costs down when the original, neglected chain was retired at 14,500 miles and replaced with a larger, heavy-duty DID item. The valves were checked at the same time, and all found perfectly in-spec. We both agreed that following Suzuki’s 7,500-mile spark plug replacement schedule was madness, given that there are four of them for the twin-spark heads, and that Suzuki equip the bike from new with Irridium plugs, which many owners have managed 60,000 miles on without signs of wear.
The design of the fairing means that there’s a fair bit of fiddly plastic to remove before you can get to the airbox and other pieces, but a helpful forum post showed me the way, and with the help of an electric screwdriver I can now be in and out in twenty minutes. The stock seat is actually pretty good, but then I have a high tolerance for poor seats and have never fitted an aftermarket item. What I have noticed is that the bars are just a little far forward for really long days, but then I have slightly shorter arms than the average rider – a set of risers is currently being investigated. I’d also like a set of spotlights for dark nights, especially as summer begins to draw to a close and winter and autumn loom large.
Curiously, you’ll notice that I’ve barely mentioned the suspension, brakes or engine, and that’s because they’re all pretty good. I miss the one-finger-stoppie brakes from my Street Triple, but EBC HH-Sintered pads front and rear sharpened things up considerably, and I’ve got my eye on a set of 4-pot GSXR calipers that will bolt on with help of some simple brackets, and are a popular mod in the SV650 community. The suspension is the most impressive stock setup I’ve ever used, and the only thing I’ve touched is the preload, winding to the lowest setting for solo riding and the highest setting when carrying a pillion. This allows me to keep the headlight aimed approximately level regardless, something a lot of riders forget!
The long-term plan is also to fit braided steel brake lines to further sharpen the braking, and a new shock and fork rebuild will help eliminate some of the hydro-locking over severe bumps and reduce the tendency for the ABS to over-react when trying to stop on very rough surfaces. The swingarm as well as the wheels are suffering already and will want powder-coating, perhaps next time the bike needs new tyres. It’ll be fiddly, and it’ll be expensive, so that may well find itself getting put off.
The engine runs out of steam when trying to execute 60mph+ overtakes fully loaded, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t occasionally look at the V-Strom 1000 and wonder if I shouldn’t have gone for the larger engine. But I’m not sure I’d be willing to take the fuel, insurance and purchase cost hit and upgrade to something more powerful just for the very occasional high-speed overtake. I’ve timed my commute on both the Street Triple R and the V-Strom 650, and even when riding progressively, as the IAM put it, there’s almost nothing in it. I’m sure I’d thoroughly enjoy a KTM 1190 or S1000XR, but if I could afford a £15,000 bike then I wouldn’t really be worrying about running expenses.
Rosa and are are very small, light people, and we tend not to tour on european motorways, so we can get away with 70bhp. If you are a solo rider, you’ll be fine. If you and your pillion are more heavily built and/or consider 80mph the bottom end of your highway speed, then maybe take a look at the V-Strom 1000, or the Triumph Explorer 1200. I also loved BMW’s water-cooled GS, although I’m hearing unhappy things from people who’ve bought them – build quality and reliability is apparently not what it used to be. Aprilia’s Caponord is a frequently overlooked contender that I have yet to ride, and the Super Teneré pops up all over mainland Europe despite middling reviews; owners must find something to love about them. And of course if you absolutely positively have to lose your license there are 150BHP+ options from Ducati, KTM and again BMW all waiting for the well-heeled motorcyclist to charge down the Autobahn.
Overall, I’m very pleased with my choice. These days there’s very little happening in the mid-range adventure-sport space. Triumph is taking the Tiger 800’s upmarket with electronic rider aids (yet still hasn’t fixed the boring engine or lackluster brakes), KTM is bringing their 1050cc big twin downmarket by fitting a 6,000RPM rev limiter to the engine and installing cheaper suspension, but is still charging £11,000. In fact, getting under £10k with luggage and a few day-one accessories is all but impossible, even on BMW’s otherwise excellent F700GS. The Versys 650 is the closest competitor on price, with the option to buy it fully loaded with 3-box colour-matched luggage and host of accessories for £8k brand new being impossible to beat. It might be a bit cramped when carrying a passenger for long distances, but If I’d been buying new, and they’d decided to open a dealer within 100 miles of my house I’d definitely have considered it.
But what about the elephant in the room: off-road performance. Well, I have opinions about this. Manufacturer press videos are full of riders far more talented than you or I throwing 250kg behemoths around like they’re 250cc dirt-bikes, and I say more power to them. I’ve tried the ‘Strom on some gravel roads, and I fail to see how it was much different from my Bandit, except that I had a tiny bit more ground clearance. You probably could take it around the world, riding across Asia or Africa, but then people have done that on sportsbikes and scooters too, so I consider the V-Strom’s off-road “credentials” irrelevant. You want to go green-laning, buy a dirtbike. I’m going to go ride a Honda CRF250L at some point. I’ll let you know what that’s like.
Until then, to me, spoked wheels, alloy bash plates and knobbly tyres are more of a fashion statement than a statement of intent. Your mileage may vary. You may even live in Arizona. Honda clearly disagrees with the new Africa Twin, as do the sales figures of the BMW F800GS – both have 21″ front wheels that seriously compromise on-road handling. I’m afraid I don’t see the point. But for me, owning a V-Strom for half a year has confirmed that Adventure bikes are essentially the new all-rounders: sensible, every-day road bikes that can comfortably tour, commute, and even scrape pegs if the need arises.
So what we’re left with is Suzuki’s characterful yet efficient 1999 SV-650 engine and their lightweight aluminium 2004 SV-650 frame, stretched out with longer forks and suspension with an extremely effective fairing, excellent headlights, large, comfy, pillion-friendly seat and a subframe capable of holding two people and their luggage without snapping in half. It gets great fuel economy, sounds good, handles amazingly well even fully loaded, has unparalleled aftermarket and community support and can be great value as a new or used purchase. Is it any wonder that there are already two people in my family who’ve bought them?