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MD Ride Review: 2003 Suzuki DR-Z400S

This is a fun, and very capable motorcycle. End of test. Just kidding!

A good number of MD readers have expressed a strong interest in dual sport motorcycles. MD has been riding, and testing, the most modern dual sport design offered by a Japanese manufacturer, the DR-Z400S from Suzuki. Although Dirck is a big fan, I wasn’t really into the single-cylinder dual sport fan club myself, but the DR-Z changed that. This bike really surprised me with what it does, which is everything you ask of it, really. I have only two complaints about the bike, and they are easily addressed (more about this later) . . . call me a whiner if you want, but I gotta complain about something.

Anyway, as the model designation indicates, the frame holds a 400cc engine. It’s a four-stroke, single cylinder, dry-sump engine with dual overhead cams, 4 valves and liquid cooling. It’s a revvy, strong motor that vibrates very little and is happy plonking along at walking pace in first gear, climbing steep, hilly terrain or screaming down the road (not gonna tell ya where) at a ludicrous, triple digit speed. This motor can also be found in the frame of Suzuki’s quadsport, and will likely make an appearance on the factory Suzuki team in the AMA dirt track series . . . possibly short track and TT with Kevin Varnes and Danny Eslick riding. With Yoshimura doing the tuning, Mike Kiedrowski has taken a version of this machine to an off-road championship, as well.

This amazing flexibility is accessed through the 5-speed transmission, which shifts with Suzuki’s typical slickness. Short, precise throws slot the next higher or lower gear with little thought or effort. Use of the clutch was largely optional, but should you decide to use it, engagement is wide and no matter how you may abuse it, it will not complain.

The motor’s performance can be attributed to a strict and precisely metered diet of liquified dinosaurs, mixed with oxygen, delivered by a 36 mm Mikuni BSR carburetor. Nary a hiccup or hesitation was to be found anywhere in the rev range, and warmup from cold was quick, using the carb-mounted “choke” (fuel enrichment circuit, actually). Fuel mileage was very good, despite the constant thrashing of the motor whenever there was a spark bridging the gap of the spark plug. Numbers in the 50s were common, and with a full 2.6 gallon steel gas tank, you can go quite a distance.

Electric start makes getting the show started much easier than swinging out a kick start lever and performing a balancing act while manually coaxing the engine into life. This balancing act is a little more precarious on this bike than some others in it’s category, since the seat sits up rather high. We recently made note of the high seat height of the Kawasaki KLR-650. The seat of the DR-ZS is higher yet. My stumpy little legs can’t reach the ground on both sides at the same time, so coming to a stop means I have to decide which side of the bike I’m going to shift to so I can touch the ground.

Once underway, though, the lightness of the bike is very evident. Although not as light as its dirt only sibling, the DR-Z400, its claimed 291 lb. dry weight won’t have you out of breath while making good time on the trail. The bike’s steering manners on the road are quick, but stable. The frame is made of tubular chromoly-steel that also happens to hold the oil for the engine.

Suspension was plush, but well controlled and able to handle a multitude of terrain scenarios without adjustment. This is not to say that you’ll never need to change settings, however. To accommodate the inevitable twiddling, adjustment of the suspension is widely variable and effective, with two-way (compression and rebound damping) adjustment available at the front, and four-way (preload, rebound and high-low compressing damping) adjustment available from the rear. Suspension travel is 11.3 in. up front, and 11.6 in., working through a linkage, out back. Adjusting the preload between dirt and street riding may be necessary, since stiffer settings to absorb jumps may make the bike a little too twitchy at street speeds.

Putting the “whoa” on all this forward momentum are a couple of disc brakes, one up front and one out back. They do their magic, turning kinetic energy into heat with great feel and controllability. We never experienced any fade, even while I chased Mike Metzger around an empty parking lot while he practiced for a super motard race he organized. Going into the corners you use a technique called “hacking” to carry maximum speed and to help square off the turn to get back on the throttle as early as possible.

Hacking it into a corner means you are using both engine braking and the rear brake to keep the rear wheel sliding enough to square off the corner. The tightness of the course, combined with the DR-Z’s performance, kept Metzger from running away (yeah, he was just learning the course), although I was not able to close on him, either. I showed Mike, and the DR-Z’s brakes no mercy. Neither were fazed by my all-or-nothing approach………

The tires that worked well in my parking lot grand prix also work well in loamy dirt conditions, but come up short in silty and hard-packed terrain. Could be because we didn’t lower tire pressures for the hard-pack, but we needed to get back on the street right after. Those tires wrap around a 21 in. front rim, and an 18 in. rear.

All the typical street bike instruments are there and thoroughly modern, with the LCD instrument panel telling you about your speed, two tripmeters, a clock, timer and stopwatch. The handlebar switchgear gives a positive, tactile feel.

I’ve only complained about one thing so far. What’s the second complaint? The seat. Although it works well enough off-road, it is too narrow for street cruising . . . your pants/jersey eventually end up as butt floss. Lose weight you say? I’ll search the aftermarket for a wider seat instead – I love pizza and beer.

Like I said at the start, this is a fun and capable motorcycle. From city street blasting to very serious trail riding, and even freeway flying, the DR-Z400S does it. You can have one in your garage for $5,449.00 from your Suzuki dealer.