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2003 Suzuki SV650: MD Ride Review

We recently attended the United States press introduction of the 2003 Suzuki SV650 in Temecula, California (right in our backyard, as a matter of fact). We tested the original SV650 model a few years ago — in fact, we wrote about the SV650 both from an experienced rider’s viewpoint, and from a beginner/novice’s viewpoint. I have attended a number of press introductions, and they always include experienced, enthusiastic riders (which generally describes the Southern California press corp). This introduction was no different.

Needless to say, the 2003 SV650 (both the standard, unfaired model tested by MD, and the 650S, with its bikini fairing) was ridden very aggressively by very experienced riders on this day. The route followed included an ample amount of tight, twisty mountain roads, as well as high-speed straights. The bike performed superbly, but we will save those details for a bit later in this article.

Let’s focus on the history of this model, and the major changes to the 2003 iteration, first. When it was introduced in 1999, the SV650 was unique here in the U.S. market. Combining a high-performance v-twin displacing 645cc in a light-weight, stiff and sporty chassis, in some ways the SV650 was the spiritual successor to the Honda Hawk 650 — a model Honda stopped selling in the United States market in the early 1990′s.

The original SV650 surprised journalists and owners, alike. The motor had a broad, smooth and torquey powerband, and the chassis was stiff and flickable, yet stable. The bike received rave reviews, and sold far better than many had initially expected.

The SV650 even spawned a new road racing experience, with several people buying the bike to race in a “lightweight twins” category in local and regional events. Modifications for racing never overwhelmed the stock frame, which proved stiff and stout enough to handle upside-down forks, for instance.

We even noted that Harris of England, a renowned chassis designer (involved in the current WCM MotoGP project), gave up on its efforts to build a chassis for the SV650 motor that surpassed the stock chassis for racing purposes — the stock chassis was that good.

Although still without any real competition in the category, Suzuki significantly redesigned the SV650 for 2003. Of course, both the naked SV650 and SV650S (with half-fairing) are now in the line-up, and both received technical and styling updates for 2003.

Although there are lots of detail changes in both bikes, the principal changes include the addition of fuel injection (the old model was carbureted) featuring secondary throttle valves (a Suzuki method for providing smooth throttle transitions), a new cam profile, and increased muffler and air box capacity for improved engine performance and fuel economy.

Now with an oil cooler (in addition to the traditional radiator), and lighter engine internals, the overall engine performance of the SV650 is noticeably improved over the prior model (which ran pretty darn well, already). The same basic engine design is employed, including vertically stacked engine shafts, contributing to the smaller, lighter engine layout, four valve cylinder heads, and 11.5-to-1 compression ratio.

The frame is also entirely new, and formed with a high-vacuum die cast technology. Essentially, this method allows Suzuki to control wall thickness more precisely, and tune the flex of the frame. Overall, the frame is 5% stiffer than the already-stout frame on the prior model.

The instruments and lights (including LED tail light) are also new for 2003. The instrument panel is compact, lightweight and very legible. The main instrument pod provides plenty of information, including analog tach, digital speedometer, clock, water temperature gauge, odometer, trip meter, and several other warning lights (including low-fuel warning). The naked SV650 saves a pound and a half with the redesigned instrument panel pod.

Suspension consists of a 41mm front fork with preload adjustability. Fork offset also differs between the standard model (26.5mm) and the 650S (28mm). In general, the standard model was designed to be a bit more stable.

The rear suspension features a progressive linkage design, and the shock absorber has 7-way adjustable spring preload. Significantly, the wheel stroke was increased by 30% for 2003, providing more supple, controlled rear suspension action.

The front brakes are dual 290mm discs squeezed by two piston calipers, while the rear brake features a 220mm disc and a single piston caliper. Several convenient features were added to the 2003 model, including hazard light and passing light switches, luggage tie-down hooks found on the passenger foot peg brackets, as well as the passenger grab bar. The passenger seat can be removed for a reasonable amount of storage (including room for a u-lock).

Our test unit featured Dunlop D220 sport touring radials, sized 120/60/17 in front and 160/60/17 in the rear.

Aside from the half fairing on the 650S model (with its dual headlights), the main differences between the naked and the 650S involve riding position and swingarm length. The naked model has a 6mm longer swingarm than the 650S, and the 650S has a more aggressive riding position (see the adjacent diagram).

Our naked model features an upright, almost dirt bike-style seating position. As you can see from the riding position chart, the naked model features higher, closer handle bars, and lower, more forward foot pegs. Overall, the seating position is very comfortable, but the bike is small, and tall riders may feel a bit cramped. The ergonomics of the naked version seem to work a bit better for taller riders.

The engine performance on the 2003 SV650 is simply outstanding. Throttle response and power delivery are improved over the carbureted model in every way. The bike pulls smoothly and strongly from as low as 4500 rpm all the way to its 11,000 rpm redline. Torque is plentiful, and the bike always feels responsive (unless lugged to very low rpm’s).

I don’t know if Suzuki specifically tuned the air induction noise on this v-twin, but it sounds fantastic. Coupled with the slightly lumpy, v-twin power pulses, and just the right amount of engine braking, the 2003 SV650 seems to push all the buttons v-twin fans want pushed.

If you are racing, or want instant thrust on the street, keep the revs above 7000 rpm, but otherwise you don’t need to worry too much about what gear you’re in. In sum, the SV650 features a powerful, torquey, broad power band that is easy to use and full of character. You can’t say much more than that.

The new chassis also does its job remarkably well. As we thrashed the bikes (basically, rung their necks throttle-wise and threw them into corners as hard as we could), the chassis remained virtually unflappable. This was a hallmark of the older bike and the reason it became a race bike for many owners. The new bike seems even better in this regard.

A couple of examples might drive this last point home. We had quite a bit of rain here in Southern California this winter (an unusually large amount), and some of the roads we traversed during the press intro still had a bit of dirt or sand on them. In one corner, while travelling at a pretty good pace, I started to get a bit of a slide from the rear of the bike. Feeling very confident on the bike (indeed, it almost felt like I was riding one of my dirt bikes), I simply put my inside foot down (dirt track style) to help steady the bike. The bike regained its line and drove forward without any drama.

Another example came when I took my son Evan out to shoot photos of the bike after the press intro. We went to a deserted road where I would wheelie back and forth in front of Evan for the obligatory wheelie shot. The SV650 pulls the front wheel up very easily in first gear and balances well on its rear tire (of course, don’t try this if you’re not ready for it). In any event, there was a fairly thick and still-damp patch of sand on this road, and, at first, I was dropping the wheel of the SV650 as I reached this patch, being cautious about riding the rear wheel right through it. This is the first time I had tried to wheelie the SV650, but within three or four minutes I became so confident on the bike that I simply wheelied right through the damp sand without any problem whatsoever (take a look at the two photos to the right).

Although I have plenty of experience on street bikes, I am still most comfortable in the dirt. The SV650 is one of the few street bikes (short of a dual sport) that I feel I can toss around like a dirt bike. The SV does exactly what I want it to do . . . no matter how aggressively I ride it.

Unflappable is the only way to describe the chassis of the SV650 when pushed hard by an experienced rider. I couldn’t get the SV650 to misbehave while cornering, pulling wheelies, or doing anything else. This is not the kind of performance you expect from a budget bike, needless to say.

The six-speed transmission was soon forgotten when riding the SV650 (the main way I test transmissions — if I forget about them, they are doing their job without intruding on the riding experience). I do not recall missing a shift on the bike, nor do I recall being frustrated by transmission performance at any given point. By the way, there is a slight final drive difference between the naked bike and the 650S. The naked has a slightly lower final drive ratio (and theoretically lower top speed). Nevertheless, the naked will comfortably cruise at 120 mph.

Since I am a big boy (210 pounds), I did increase the spring preload on the rear shock shortly after I began riding the SV650. I initially added too much preload (position 5) and settled on position 4 of 7 (our bike was delivered on position 2). This balanced out the handling quite well for my weight, and also seemed to work well for Kim when she road the bike (who weighs in at 138 pounds). We didn’t take precise fuel economy measurements, but I can confidently state that the bike will deliver more than 40 mpg when ridden with reasonable aggression (whatever that means).

The Dunlop D220 tires provided surprisingly good grip on the sometimes sketchy road surfaces. These are designed by Dunlop to be sport touring tires, so their wear characteristics should be fairly good when compared to sport bike rubber.

The single headlight (with low and high beam) found on the naked model is surprisingly bright. Basically, if you haven’t ridden a modern bike with computer designed, multi-reflector headlights, you will be amazed at how much better the road is illuminated. Undoubtedly, however, the SV650S, with its dual headlight design provides even better nighttime illumination.

As with all naked bikes, it can get a bit tiresome battling the wind on the freeway, and a small, fly screen would go a long way towards improving high-speed comfort. We don’t know whether Suzuki will offer one of these, but after-market companies offered them for the prior model, and will undoubtedly offer them for the 2003 model.

Frankly, this is a very difficult bike to criticize. It does so much more than you expect it to do for the MSRP of $5,899 ($6,299 for the 650S) that it is a bit of a shock. Even the stock suspension, which is only adjustable for preload (lacking the compression and rebound adjustments found on most sport bikes, for instance), does a very good job of compromising between plush freeway travel and stiff, controlled corner use.

Basically, whether you are an experienced or a novice rider, if you are looking for a do-it-all motorcycle at a bargain price, the 2003 Suzuki SV650 is probably your bike. In this price range, and in this category, it is the most modern, refined (and, at least arguably, fun) package available. It doesn’t have superbike levels of power, but it will blow your father’s 60s-era Triumph Bonneville 650 (hey, even that bike was fast enough for Marlon Brando) into the weeds, return great gas mileage and provide loads of fun in the process. Take a look at Suzuki’s web site for additional details and specifications.