Here’s the problem: You need an all-purpose street motorcycle and you only have $3000. It has to be dependable and economical (because you’re obviously broke), but it also has to be fun to ride and fast enough to be interesting. There are few choices.
Sure, you can get a KLR650, or a Ninja 250, or a list of aging sportbikes. But the KLR (and other dual-sports) have limiting factors—they run out of breath at high freeway speeds and lack pavement-oriented suspension and brakes, for instance. The venerable Ninja 250 is a fine ride, and the pre-2008 models can be picked up very cheaply, but though they are certainly fun to ride, they have their limits, especially when the pace is over 80 mph. Aging sportbikes have their issues, too; in my experience, if they’re older than 10 years they’ve been beaten almost to death. Finding a nice one under that three-grand mark is a challenge.
And then there’s the Suzuki SV650. To say it’s been popular with the motorcycle press is like saying Kim Kardashian likes publicity. “If you’re looking for the most bike for the least dough, do yourself a favor and buy an SV,” wrote customizer Roland Sands in a Motorcycle.com story. Editor Edge told us “to say that I am impressed would be an understatement,” and the lovely Kimberly Edge (who went and bought a second-generation SV after riding MD’s test bike) said the SV gave her the “confidence to push myself to new limits.” And in my moto-journalistic debut, comparing a 2004 model against three other bargain-priced standards, I declared it “just about perfect for me.” Prophetic words.
I’ve always thought of Suzuki as the quirkiest of Japanese factories. Some of the company’s products are hideous styling and mechanical disasters—I’ll spare Dirck the hate mail by not saying which models—and then some are incredible technological marvels, leaving the competition behind by years. The original GSX-R750 set the bar for the modern superbike in 1985—and then raised it again with the SRAD model in 1996.
V-Twins seemed to be the thing in the late ’90s. The attention went to the big ones—Honda’s VTR1000F Superhawk and Suzuki’s TL1000S. So when the smaller 647cc SV650 rolled into bike-show display booths in 1998, the assumption was that it was a sleeved-down TL1000S, a cheaper, slower version for budget buyers. Yawn. A reasonable assumption to make, given Suzuki’s reputation for parts-bin engineering and making smaller versions of bigger bikes like the Katana, GSX-R and Bandit, but nothing could be further from the truth.
In fact, I’d argue the SV is the improved TL. The big Twin was hampered by the 1000cc V’s height, requiring an unusual rotary-damper design to get a sportbike-ish wheelbase. The TL’s aluminum-truss frame (Suzuki’s first) looks industrial and awkward, and the powerplant was complex, with a hybrid gear/chain timing drive and fuel-injection that was less than satisfactory, according to contemporary accounts. The TL weighs in at something like 485 pounds gassed up, which takes some of the edge off the 113-horsepower motor. And we can’t forget the whole European tank-slapping controversy, which resulted in a worldwide recall to install steering dampers.
No such drama with the little SV, a perfect example of how less can often be more. The oval-section aluminum trellis frame is as pretty a thing as ever came from the Suzuki factory—I’ve heard a rumor that it was inspired by Over Racing’s Suzuka-winning frames from the ’90s, and though I can’t confirm that, there is a family resemblance. In fact, our own Editor Edge told us England’s Harris Racing—chassis builder to the stars—gave up trying to improve on the stock frame, it’s that good.
The liquid-cooled, carbureted dohc 645cc 90-degree V-Twin, sending an honest 68 horsepower to the rear wheel, is still, after 15 years, unmatched in its class. Front suspension uses stout 41mm conventional fork tubes (state of the art for contemporary middleweight sportbikes), and the rear shock, though adjustable only for preload, works through a linkage—extra complexity and expense on a commuter, de riguer on a serious sportbike. The rear swingarm, like the frame, is aluminum, and is equipped with lugs for swingarm spools. The front brakes are big 290mm discs.
The racers out there are nodding their heads. This is a serious racing platform disguised as a cute beginner-friendly budget commuter. If you’re a racer, you’ll swap out or modify most of the cheap-o stock stuff on whatever bike you’re running—suspension, brakes, exhaust—so the SV, for the discerning, yet cheap, enthusiast, is a bargain.
That’s what I was thinking when I sold my 2010 Triumph Street Triple R to MD contributor Courtney Olive and bought a 2000-model SV650 standard from my friend Stephen. Sure, the Triumph is one of the best middleweight standards built, lighter than the SV and much faster. But I needed the dough, and besides, I never really bonded with that bike. It was fun, but the handling was too direct, too sensitive for me (the 2013 Street Triple has revised steering geometry that eliminates the nervous handling found in older models, including Gabe’s – ed.). I’m sensitive enough as it is.
Why buy such an old bike when Suzuki sold the SV naked version up to just a few years ago? Well, the price was right, and saving a few grand—I knew I’d need it for maintenance and upgrades—was important. SV’s hold their value a lot better than most entry-level and commuter machines—Kelly Blue Book’s surveys show that a dealer might fetch $1920 for a ’99 and $3895 for the standard (non-ABS) 2008 model, but here in Northern California, both shops and private parties typically get much more. I also liked the idea of being able to practice the lost art of carburetor tuning, as I have another project bike with carbs. Finally, I like the styling of the “first-gen” models, siding with many SV enthusiasts (ironic that even this community has a schism, which should be unsurprising if you read the Boss’ article on tribes) who refer to the bikes as “curvy” (first gen) or “pointy” (second gen). Don’t worry, boss: I still respect and get along with my pointy-riding brethren. I’d even let one marry my sister (you don’t have to go that far! – ed.).
My new bike needed work before I could ride it. It needed a battery, fresh fluids and a valve-clearance check. The Metzelers had good tread, but were six years old. And there was a loud clicking sound coming from the front cylinder. Uh oh. Maybe it wasn’t such a good deal. Would I get in sorted within my total (Bike plus repairs) $3000 budget?
The tune-up, fluids and battery weren’t too expensive, but the clicking was the “automatic*” cam-chain tensioner. You can replace them (and if you’re going to do the front one, you might as well do the back) for about $70 each—labor will add another $100-200—or use APE manual tensioners. I went with the stock ones, as my parts guy said the APE tensioners were back-ordered and I wanted to get it fixed right away. Installing the units was a challenge—they’re installed into the bike at the factory while the engine is out of the frame, which means you have to have little squirrel hands or a very long Allen wrench with a ball end (or both). Luckily, the Suzuki parts come with a little key you pull out after installation, which sets the tensioner—in the bad old days you had to buy a special tool, or make one yourself. Easy, as they say, if you know how.
And so I headed out on my 13-year-old SV650. My last SV was a 1999 model that I crashed (hard!) 3 times in six months, but I recall it was typically sure-footed, torquey and very fun. I sold it 10 years ago—would the intervening years and hundreds of exotic machines I’ve ridden since diminish the little blue bike?
Not at all. Sure, the motor felt slow and buzzy after the Triumph (and what wouldn’t?), but it was still fast enough to get me into trouble, with a strong drive in any gear and ample ability to cruise comfortably at very high speeds—while returning 40-plus mpg. Twist it over 7000 rpm and it pulls hard up to its 10,000 rpm redline, though you won’t mistake it for a four-cylinder sportbike (unless it’s a 1980 CB750K).
The motor is good enough, but the SV is all about handling, making it hard to avoid cliches when you describe it. A rumor that sticks with me is that CompuTrack, Australian Greg McDonald’s chain of suspension and chassis-tuning centers developed “sweet numbers,” rake, trail and other chassis-geometry measurements that would deliver optimal handling for any motorcycle—and the SV came from the factory with exactly those numbers. I don’t know if that’s true, but the SV is neutral, balanced, turns very quickly, feels lighter than its 400-ish pound wet weight and generally lacks any serious handling vices.
But this is a journalistic website, not an SV650 fanboi page, so let’s be objective. The stock SV’s suspension and brakes suck, and the stock exhaust note sounds like the aftermath of an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet. Luckily, the motorcycle aftermarket and legions of SV enthusiasts have developed solutions and work-arounds for all the bike’s shortcomings, real and imagined. Join me over the next few months as I:
- Try different suspension solutions
- Do something about the squishy, weak and wooden brakes
- Swap the exhaust and fiddle with carbs
- Ride the crap out of it! Stay tuned.
*And by “automatic,” I mean it will automatically fail at 15,000 miles.