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2004 Suzuki V-Strom 650: MD Ride Review

I grew up hearing the phrase “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”, more than a few times. It was this phrase that echoed through my mind when Dirck asked if I wanted a more comfortable bike to commute on. I have never found Suzuki’s V-Strom models particularly pleasing to the eye. But at the time, I was commuting ridiculous distances to work – like 120-250 miles one way – and the sport bike crouch was not optimal for this scenario. Also, I had suffered a rather severe rear impact on my own motorcycle, courtesy of a cell phone dialing car driver about two years earlier and was still suffering lingering effects in the neck and back. I found myself willing to shelve my vanity for the purpose of testing and fact finding for you, our faithful readers – ahem, *cough* . . . (By the way, don’t forget to read Dirck’s first ride report of the V-Strom 650 here).

I had ridden the 1000cc version V-Strom before, and while its utility could not be denied, I found it to be rather weighty and ungainly. Based on my experience with the 1000, I was skeptical, but accepted the offer. Heck, it was something I hadn’t ridden before, so maybe I’d learn something. The 650 V-Strom proved to be a revelation.

While essentially the same physical size of the 1000, it is much more manageable, due to a 20mm lower seat height and 38 fewer pounds. Getting both feet on the ground was not a problem like it was for me on the 1000. Control layout is familiar, but instrumentation is new. The presentation of vital information through a combination of analog (speedo & tach) and digital readouts is both clear and tasteful, enabling the rider to gain pertinent information with a quick glance.

Ergonomics are spacious and well proportioned, with the rider coddled by the thick seat and a wide, tubular handlebar providing a natural positioning of the hands. The handguards of the 1000 are missing, but this is easily fixed. Lane splitting, legal in California, is a little more challenging than on a sport bike, due to the width of the handlebar, but is still possible. Out front, a half-fairing with an adjustable three-position windscreen provides an impressively sized still-air pocket that does not create the back pressure we have found with some of the larger, more expensive sport tourers. My one gripe is that the rider’s footpegs intrude where your calves want to be when putting your feet down during a stop.

Suspension is a carryover from the 1000, but the forks do without the cartridge design. Still, the forks work well, as does the rear shock. Front and rear spring rates feel a bit soft, but are coupled with reasonable damping rates that allow full use of the long travel suspension without bottoming. Also carried over from the 1000 are the brakes, but they work much better, feeling more powerful and linear, thanks to the weight loss previously mentioned.

Out back, the well designed luggage rack from the 1000 provides what seems like an acre of real estate to strap all manner of cargo to. I did just that, and it carried everything I needed to carry with just a few bungee cords to secure the cargo, and did so without infringing on the passenger portion of the seat. The weight I carried (30 lb. duffle bag with a week’s worth of clothes and stuff) did not seem to upset the bike’s balance or create any handling quirks. A top box bolted to the rack would provide a mobile, secure, and waterproof way to carry parcels, but would restrict the option of carrying larger, awkwardly shaped items.

So far, things aren’t that much different from the 1000, except for the engine. Ahh, this piece of the equation is what makes the magic happen for this bike, much as it does the SV series in the Suzuki lineup. Of course, it lacks the outright grunt of the 1000, but after 10 minutes, you won’t care. Suzuki seemingly has achieved alchemy with this 650cc v-twin. The way it metes out the power, with a broad, flat torque curve that always generates brisk acceleration, never fails to impress. Although it has been retuned for more midrange, peak horsepower does not seem to have suffered much, if at all. The smaller power pulses don’t produce the low-rpm shudder felt through the 1000, and the lighter crankshaft allows the engine to spin up quicker, with the side benefit of less gyroscopic effect, which contributes to making the 650 more flickable. Rev it or short shift, the engine is eager to do either with equal ability.

Transmission is typical Suzuki, smooth and precise with no missed shifts. Fuel injection from the SV is perfect, providing precise response without being abrupt and improving drivability over the older, carbureted SVs. Fuel mileage was also very good, with a low of 46 mpg and a high of 51 mpg, all while not really trying to go the speed limit. With the 5.8 gallon gas tank, you’ll likely be needing to stop and stretch long before you need to refuel. Refreshing, after climbing off of 35 mpg sportbikes with 4.5 gallon tanks.

Early mornings and late nights gave me plenty of opportunity to test the worth of the transplanted headlights, and they work well indeed, providing a wide swath of daylight before the bike. Thankfully, this model is not afflicted with the one headlight ‘black eye’ like most of the current sportbikes. More light is better.

The bike’s appearance implies off-road capability, and indeed the DL650 is perfectly capable of handling the occasional hard-packed fire road. Attempt anything more serious, and you may find yourself struggling a bit. On the road, the 650 acquits itself very well, handling the superslab and twisty back roads with equal aplomb.

We raised the fork tubes in the clamps about 15mm and increased preload on the rear shock to quicken the steering and put more weight on the front end to help increase feedback. You won’t be leading a group of sportbikes through the twisties, but you’ll catch up before they have a chance to regain circulation in their hands at the next stop. This sort of activity would have the 1000 twisting and wallowing like a cat trying to get out of its collar. You won’t likely out-tour a Gold Wing either, but you’re probably going to be having more fun while with either group.

And that’s what this bike brings to the table, more than competence in multiple disciplines – fun. It is fun as much for its ability to perform many duties as it is for asking nothing of its rider other than climb aboard to go somewhere, comfortably and mentally relaxed, but still aware. At an MSRP of $6599, you get a lot bike for the money. When it becomes possible, my bike stable will grow by one more with one of these.