Suzuki’s DR650 turned out to be a competent dirt machine. We would rather spend time riding trails on the ‘Zook than pounding pavement – the opposite of the Kawasaki.
Suzuki makes the extremely popular dirt-biased DR-Z400 and the street-savvy 650 V-Strom. The DR650SE fits somewhere in between, but having spent lots of time on the KLR and other big DS Singles, we were expecting it to be fairly tame in the dirt. That definitely isn’t the case. Our first outing was at the two-day AMA National DS event in Bend, Oregon which was 95% off-road. Right out of the gate the DR not only competed with the KLR, but distanced itself from it by a large margin of dirt performance.
Of the single-cylinder DS steeds we’ve tested in the past year, Honda’s XR650L is the only other multi-purpose bike that actually looks like a dirt bike. The rest are so street-biased in design that you can get a pretty good idea what they’re about simply by looking at them, the KLR included. The Suzuki proved to be more willing than even the Honda to do serious work in the dirt. Both days of testing at the East Fork Rock OHV area were filled with dirt and gravel roads, quad track, whoops and rocks. Where the Kawi was a handful in the tighter sections and through technical terrain, all we really wanted was a set of aggressive DOT knobbies for the Suzuki so we could pick up the pace. None of our testers thought new meats would have raised the fun factor on the KLR because it was the suspension and chassis that were lacking, but the DR is capable of more if traction can be found.
Part of what makes the 650SE so competent off-road is its single overhead cam motor. Fed by a 40mm Mikuni carburetor, the 100 x 82mm bore/stroke engine puts out good power with more snap than the Kawasaki. Hustling through whooped-out roads is easiest on the DR because the motor can lift the front wheel on demand, though the slick Bridgestones left us hanging more than a few times. We did find that the throttle application is a little abrupt, however, which makes the DR lurch on the pavement if you’re not mindful.
The Suzuki also won every single impromptu roll-on drag race throughout our testing. The air-cooled motor spins up faster than the KLR and with more punch everywhere in the rev range. There is a small radiator on the front of the bike, but oil flows through it rather than water to aid in cooling. The lack of a water-cooling system is part of a 66-lb weight advantage which definitely helps acceleration and torque off the bottom. Peak numbers are in the DR’s favor as well. It has two extra lb-ft of torque (34 lb-ft) and horsepower (37 hp) against the Kawasaki.
Twisty roads were the Suzuki’s domain so long as the speeds were lower. Once the pace picked up the Kawi makes up ground with its stability and smoothness.
In the tight twisties, the DR whips through turns more quickly than the KLR, but the faster you go, the more effort it takes to push the bike over. Moving across town is a blast on the Suzuki where its punchy motor and low-speed mobility lead to smiles. Meanwhile, the Kawasaki feels like a pig in parking lots and urban settings, but shines on the open road and through fast sweepers.
At 366 lbstopped off, the DR certainly isn’t a lightweight, but compared to the Kawi’s fearsome 432 lbs it seems much lighter. The Kawi holds almost twice as much fuel, but even without gas there’s still an additional 50 lbs. It makes the biggest difference in the dirt. It’s like having a sack of dog food strapped to the luggage rack (which you couldn’t do on the DR since it doesn’t have one) and makes dealing with inconsistent terrain and traction a chore. It’s no surprise that our testers with less off-road experience favored the ‘Zook. Seat heights are comparable at 35 inches, but the Kawi feels lower because the seat and suspension settle more with a rider aboard.
Both bikes have five-speed transmissions and comparing shifting is a wash. Each moves through the cogs fairly cleanly and without hassle, but fast gear pounding isn’t appreciated. Finding neutral is simple on both. The only thing we noticed was that the Suzuki had a little better feel at the clutch lever.
There is no wind protection whatsoever on the DR. Go fast, get blown around; it’s that simple. That might be fun if we weren’t talking about motorcycles here, but longer stints on the highway had us looking for a reason to stop and switch bikes. Not only does the Kawi have plenty of bodywork to run interference, but the DR carries on Suzuki’s tradition of rock-hard seats.
The last time B. Madson tested a Suzuki dual-sport he crashed the beans out of a DR200. He was still willing to take the 650 into more off-road than he was with Kawasaki’s beast.
It has more zip to it, handles better in tight situations and isn’t comfortable for long rides. The DR is definitely a better ride for in-town use. Standing up on either bike isn’t much fun, but the DR is narrower between the knees and gives more reason to get up on the rubber-mounted pegs with its off-road potential. Cheap steel handlebars are the norm on both bikes, and both are placed too low for comfortable standing. The DR is more compact between the bars and pegs which put the rider in an aggressive position on their feet.
Braking performance is another area where the two machines are close. A 290mm front disc and two-piston caliper made the Suzuki a definite favorite for one of our testers, but the rest of us were pretty noncommittal. The weight of the Kawasaki and its softer suspension settings lead to more pitching than on the DR. As individual components, the brakes are relatively equal, but the Suzuki stops faster due to its lighter weight.
One of the things we like so much about the Kawasaki is how cheap it is, but the Suzuki costs even less! It probably should considering there are fewer amenities, but the $5099 price tag is something we love to see. That’s about 250 bucks less than the KLR. Cheap or not, the Suzuki is a pretty darn good dual-sport bike. It definitely comes in with more dirt credentials than the Kawasaki, but that really isn’t too hard to do. As far as where it stands in the Suzuki lineup, it’s more like riding an oversized DR-Z400 than comparing to the V-Strom, and that’s something we consider a positive.
Comfort and protection
Oil sight window is helpful
Passenger handholds have multiple uses
Great electric starter
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2008 Suzuki DR650SE Comparison