Supreme Trail Machine
One might think the latest crop of high performance 4-stroke motocross bikes might render older, enduro-style thumpers obsolete. However, while power and speed are always at a premium, there is something to be said for a motorcycle that can take you anywhere you want to go, and do it while providing a pleasantly comfortable ride. Versatility never really goes out of style.
The Suzuki DR-Z400E is one such machine that has been a favorite of off-road enthusiasts since its 2000 introduction. The DR-Z still holds its own despite the arrival of 4-strokes-on-steroids in the last few years. In fact, after a solid month on the plush seat of the DR-Z400E, the yellow enduro has gained the respect of all those who twisted the throttle during the evaluation process on the advanced trails of John’s Peak in Southern Oregon.
Today, the DR-Z remains similar in concept as its forefathers: a bike for the real world. The DR is what it is, and what it’s not is a bike designed for the track. Suzuki’s 4-stroke remains a trail bike for the masses, leaving racing duty to the YZs and CRF450s of the world. But take the Suzi off the track and onto a favorite trail system and you will appreciate its many virtues.
The DR-Z’s powerplant is not only sufficient in the woods but makes more power than one would think.
The DR-Z’s humble roots lie in the successful DR350 lineage first introduced in 1990. The DR line sold well initially but other manufacturers began to gradually steal potential buyers in the mid and late ’90s. Suzuki was eventually forced to revamp the DR in 2000. The all-new model featured a bigger and more powerful liquid-cooled engine, stiffer suspension, and a redesigned chrome-moly chassis wrapped in bright yellow plastic.
Suzuki implemented sportbike technology in its enduro by utilizing the Twin Swirl Combustion Chamber design, shim-under-bucket valve lash adjustment and a similarly narrow valve angle of its GSX-R series. The result is a potent and compact engine that is just as happy plodding along a trail as it is ripping down a fire road in top gear.
The 398cc single-cylinder engine is the heart of the DR-Z400. The liquid-cooled, dual-overhead-cam unit makes good power that is capable of handling most any type of terrain. Despite the sewing-machine-like exhaust note that quietly muffles potential ponies hiding in the engine, the oversquare powerplant (90 x 62.2mm bore/stroke) provides ample muscle while exhibiting little vibration.
The engine is fed by a 39mm Keihin FCR-series carburetor. An accelerator pump helps alleviate the low-rpm stumble that can happen in some 4-strokes. Further, the carb also has a throttle position sensor that is linked with the digital ignition system, which helps determine the best spark timing for any given rpm and throttle input. The system works excellent in practice, as the throttle response is silky smooth and spot-on. Once it is started, the DR is barely audible, especially when idling next to a 450cc high-po thug. The whisper of an exhaust note is a welcome change from the ear-splitting din of some bikes, and it is appreciated when riding in multiple-use areas where not everyone enjoys the bark of a derestricted thumper.
The DR-Z doesn’t elicit WR450F like power but it’s more than enough to get you up and over anything in your path.
We were pleasantly surprised by the performance of the DR-Z’s engine, as it produced plenty of power across the mile-wide powerband. A twist of the throttle doesn’t elicit WR450F like power, but it is more than enough to get up and over anything in its path. Power is accessible shortly above idle speed, and a quick stab of the clutch lever is enough to wheelie over short ditches and obstacles.
The five-speed transmission is well suited for the variety of trails an enduro rider encounters. Ratios are spread fairly wide, so there’s always a gear appropriate for the speed of the terrain. The DR-Z’s engine feels best when exploiting its strong midrange, but is quite capable giving the rider usable power at just about any rpm. We abused the bike through a battery of tests including nasty hill climbs, deep mud, loamy sand and the always popular fire roads. In every case, the yellow thumper motored its way through with ease.
One of our favorite features of the DR-Z400E is that tiny red button. Putting the “E” in the bike’s nomenclature is the electric starter, which requires a paltry $100 increase in price over the $5349 kick-only version. It is well worth its weight. The convenience of the DR’s keyed electric starter spoils a rider, and I personally refuse to kick ever again. Yes, there is a weight penalty (13 pounds, according to Suzuki), but for anyone who happens to stall the engine on the side of a hill in an awkward position, the extra weight is a small price to pay for the convenience of no-hassle ignition.
We were impressed by the endurance of the 12-volt, 6.5-amp battery in the DR, as it never seemed to run down despite constant use. Some other electric start enduros we’ve tested don’t even fire-up on the first try, but the DR-Z’s 150 watts of power quickly and consistently bring the big Suzi to life.
While the electric starter was the favorite feature of many in our test group, the pessimists in the group didn’t entirely appreciate the deletion of the kick starter. After all, a dead battery on a long-out-of-the-way ride would force a rider to push-start the DR-Z. Keep an eye on the key because just hitting the kill switch doesn’t turn off the power, and forgetful riders would sometimes leave the ignition on during breaks in the ride. A kick starter kit is available from Suzuki for $200 for those who demand the extra piece of mind.
With a relatively low seat height of 37.2 inches, getting a leg over the DR is still somewhat of a task for shorter riders, although that’s the price to be paid for a generous ground clearance of 12.8 inches. By comparison, the Yamaha WR450F’s seat is two inches higher.
“It was nice to have a bike that I could touch both my feet to the ground,” commented the vertically challenged Ken Hutchison. “Usually, I’m doing the side-saddle-lean with one foot on the ground, but not with the DR.”
The DR-Z test came on the heels of the 4-stroke motocross shootout, which made us suspect we might be in for a yawner of a test. However, the DR-Z didn’t flinch at the terrain we threw at it, and it was able to keep up with more powerful machines on most trails.
Prior to hitting the dirt, some of us predicted the bike would be too slow and heavy to hang with the likes of the WR450. While it is heavier (at a claimed dry weight of 262 pounds), the extra poundage rarely was an issue in the woods. It’s most noticeable during maneuvers in tight quarters or when trying to heave a wheel out of a deep rut. It is capable of doing anything these other bikes can, but it does so with plush rider accommodations that facilitate a relaxed riding experience. This is especially evident when riding it back to back with more focused bikes.
That said, the DR-Z would be well served to lose a few pounds, despite the use of expensive (we’ll go into that later â€“ ed.), lightweight magnesium engine covers and a removable aluminum subframe. With some additional strategic weight reduction the DR would close the gap on the opposition. For proof that the bike has plenty of potential, look no further than the WORCS off-road series. Former motocrosser Mike Kiedrowski has ridden a Yoshimura factory-spec DR-Z to take two championships over the last few years.
Indeed, the bike feels slim in relation to the actual weight. With 27.3 degrees of rake and 112mm of trail, the DR isn’t breaking new chassis geometry ground, but it proves to be very accommodating for all sorts of terrain. It steers without much effort, but a rider has to be careful not to have the front end wash out when pushed hard into tight corners. Adjusting the rebound and compression damping of the 49mm Showa conventional cartridge fork didn’t alleviate the condition, so a rider needs to get as much of his weight over the front tire to help it stick.
The ride quality of the DR-Z is exceedingly plush. The front suspension is smooth over trail bumps, and the aluminum-bodied, piggyback-reservoir Showa shock uses its 11.6 inches of travel to track well over braking bumps and rutted areas. Plump riders or supercross refugees might prefer a stiffer setup, especially up front, but its Cadillac-like ride is nicely dialed in for the intended usage of the bike.
After a long day on the trails, it’s usual to be complaining about a sore butt. However, the firm yet ample cushion on the Suzuki provides the necessary support to a tired rear end, something we appreciated after standing on the pegs for a long time. And the DR-Z’s kickstand, tucked up out of the way of most obstacles, proved to be really handy. A word of advice: Don’t ever let anyone make fun of you for having a kickstand. It’s very convenient out in the trails where good places to lean your bike can be few and far between.
Ergonomically, the DR-Z400 gives little to complain about. The seat/peg/handlebar relationship is quite comfortable, but we have to take issue with the placement of the shift lever. As we found out, a minor tip-over can cause the shift lever to punch through the trick but fragile magnesium flywheel/stator cover. We repositioned the shift lever to avoid any future mishaps, but this lower position made up-shifts awkward. An aftermarket cover made of stronger material might be a worthy investment considering a stock cover and gasket run in the neighborhood of $130. The stock handlebars were another malleable stock component, but Suzuki can’t really be faulted as almost all stock bars are as durable as wet clay.
The shift lever position proved to be a problem when the DR-Z tipped over and the lever pushed through the cover.
The DR-Z is truly a trail bike thanks to the headlight, taillight, and tripometer. Suzuki also threw in a tool kit located underneath the seat, and it comes in handy when minor maintenance is needed on the trails. The 2.6-gallon tank seemed to be bottomless, especially when we rode alongside 250cc 2-strokes. We routinely went all day on one tank of gas.
We have a suggestion that would improve a rider’s experience on the DR-Z. We’d like to see the addition of a grab-handle or a cutout below the seat to help man-handle the bike around obstacles or righting it after a fall. This proves to be endlessly convenient on Yamaha dirt bikes, and it won’t take much R&D work from Suzuki engineers to make it happen.
Overall the Suzuki is a phenomenal off-road machine. With plenty of power and comfortable ergonomics, the DR-Z is an excellent choice for riders that enjoy mountain trails and desert riding. While the DR would be better with less weight, it’s a fair trade for the features such as electric starting and the full regalia of enduro-spec components.
The DR-Z400 proves to be a very capable and fun motorcycle, regardless of skill level. The $5299 Honda XR400R is shorter, quicker-steering and $150 cheaper than the DR-Z. But its lower-tech, air-cooled engine can’t keep up with the up-to-date design of the Suzuki. Its engine is no match for something like the new WR450F Yamaha, but with its modest price of $5,349, the Suzuki is a whopping $1050 cheaper. No, it isn’t the loudest or most powerful machine on the market, but it will take you any where you want to go. Maybe further.