2008 Suzuki DR-Z400S Bike Test

MotorcycleUSA Staff | December 24, 2008
2008 Suzuki DR-Z400S
The 2008 Suzuki DR-Z400S is one of the most popular middle-weight dual-sports and one of the main reaons Suzuki sponsored the AMA National Dual Sport Trail Ride Series. 

King of the Understated. 

Suzuki is one of those companies where conforming to the latest hype isn’t necessarily held in top priority. At least that’s the case with the DR-Z400S. We had plenty of time to evaluate the mid-size dual-sport before our riding season ran out, and if there’s one thing we discovered, the 2008 DR-Z is completely comfortable in its own skin.

Suzuki has been selling the DR-Z400 since 2000, and since then has developed a huge network of loyal customers. With the ultra-popular DR350 as a predecessor, the 400 has built on that success and continues to this day as a simple, effective dual-sport machine. The last time we tested a DR-Z400 was back in 2003, and the company was still offering a kickstart-only model. These days, Suzuki only offers the 400S (dual-sport) and 400SM (motard/DS), neither of which come with a foot-operated starter.

However, in this day and age of high-po/high-maintenance 450cc dual-sports, Suzuki has stuck with its winning formula of care-free DS fun in a manageable dirt-oriented package. We were glad to find that the Z400S is undeniably geared toward riders who spend more time off-road. For those that want to spend their time pounding pavement, that’s what the SM model is for.

Our 400S test bike came equipped with Dunlop 606 tires, which aren’t standard from the factory. But, since we fully intended to beat this thing on the trails, Suzuki was kind enough to mount up a set of the more aggressive DOT-legal knobbies. The 606s weren’t ideal for our first voyage which wound up including far more pavement than we anticipated.

2008 Suzuki DR-Z400S
The DR-Z isn’t meant for long road trips along the highway, and the Dunlop 606 tires we spooned on aren’t either. However, the 400S can handle it if you can.

“On the street the knobbies were unsettling during quick cornering maneuvers, but that’s a tire issue,” confirms MotoUSA Managing Editor, Bart Madson. “As far as the bike handling, let’s just say I’m really Jonesing to sample the DR-Z400 supermoto!”

After having suffering numb rear ends for the entire trip, we all agree that the Z400 suffers from an ailment we call the Yellow Seat Syndrome. Most Suzuki off-road bikes are uncomfortably hard in the saddle, including the Z’s bigger dual-sport brother, the DR650. From a street rider’s perspective, the DR-Z is miserable. “The seat is awful, truly awful,” sobs Madson.

But from a dirt vantage, the seat is actually very good; hard enough for aggressive riding but softer than a motocross platform, and the tank junction is fairly flat. Suzuki does offer a gel-seat ($175), but the purpose is to lower the standard 36.8-inch seat height, not make it easier on the cheeks. The beauty of a tall and hard saddle is that it forces a rider to stand up, and to ultimately look for terrain that requires more time on the pegs. The long reach to the ground makes in-town commuting difficult for shorter riders, but the benefits on the trail are marked along with the 11.8 inches of ground clearance. Ultimately this is a trail bike that can legally connect OHV systems.

“Tapping into reserve after 80 miles really limits the adventure,” cautions Madson. “It’s hard to enjoy the ride when you’re doing math in your head thinking, can I make it back, or will I be that guy. You know, the moron who gets stranded out in the woods and his family members are crying on the 6 o’clock news because search and rescue is still looking for him.”

2008 Suzuki DR-Z400S
Bear Camp Road is a blast, but we constantly wanted to leave the pavement and go exploring on the network of surrounding logging roads.

That was definitely on our mind during the first long stint on the DR-Z. We took it alongside our 650 machines on a trip to the coast via the infamous Bear Camp Road. We tried to stretch the 2.6-gallon tank further than intended on two occasions, and even though we had a throttle-happy lunatic in one instance and a reserved, eco-minded fuel Nazi in the other, they both had the engine cut out at exactly 81 miles. Switching to reserve, we only stretched our luck as far as 92 total miles before filling up. Throughout our testing we averaged 49 mpg, compared to the EPA-rated 65 mpg.

As long as we treated the DR-Z appropriately, there’s nothing we really didn’t like. At 317 pounds ready to go, it’s not a featherweight, but the bike handles itself well in any situation so long as it isn’t being run at race pace. The steel backbone frame uses an aluminum subframe and is supported by adjustable suspension. The fork offers increments for rebound and compression while the shock can dial in preload and high/low-speed compression.

2008 Suzuki DR-Z400S
It’s possible to man-handle the Suzuki, but at 317 pounds it takes some effort at times.

We had a series of testers rotating across the seat, and for the most part it was comfortable with stock settings. We did increase compression on both ends a bit for heavier off-road, but absorption of pavement obstacles was better in softer form. Our dirt specialist had no problem with that, but the pavement-loving dual-sporters in our group admitted that they might prefer a bigger, more comfortable machine. That was a justifiable argument for our outing to the coast, but when we signed up with OMA-KTM for one of their guided tours, the Suzuki was finally in its element.

Our local area is riddled with logging and access roads that range from level of maintenance. Our guides know the ins and outs of the terrain and our three days saw about 50 miles of pavement. We would be camping for this three-day trip and so a set of Diamond Back Dual Sport saddlebags was bolted on and packed to the gills. The steel-plated hard cases and mounting bracket added 21 pounds alone, plus all our clothes, supplies and camera equipment. We quickly found that some extra preload was necessary to get the bike back into normal handling characteristics. Obviously the extra weight and width slowed us down on the trail, but the Suzuki plodded along without complaint.

2008 Suzuki DR-Z400S
The DOHC motor keeps things interesting but aftermarket companies have developed tons of product to boost performance.

We abused the clutch much more with the additional weight and finesse required in tight sections, but it showed little fade and the pull is reasonable. Gearing is pretty short which is helpful for technical riding and comforting for novice riders. However, we felt bad wringing out the DOHC, dry sump motor in long fifth-gear stints. Without sixth gear and any fairing or wind protection, we rarely pushed the bike past 75 mph even though it’s capable of more. Zipping through town was easy but requires a fair amount of shifting. The motor is strong enough to pull second-gear launches and we easily holeshot autos, busting moves in and out of traffic with confidence.

The motor is a little cold blooded. Carburetion from the 36mm Mikuni suffers a burble off the bottom which is exacerbated if not allowed to warm up fully. However, starting is simple with a key, ignition switch and thumb starter. When we did stall, the electric system was flawless and got us moving instantly.

Suzuki technicians told us that the 2008 model got a stronger spring for the automatic cam adjuster, but we still heard plenty of rattle as the chain stretched over time. As the amount of slack builds, so does the intensity of noise before the auto adjust does its job and finally kicks in. That was actually the biggest issue we had with the DR-Z. We were concerned, but never noticed any ill effects. Manual adjustment is an aftermarket option, but who wants to deal with that?

2008 Suzuki DR-Z400S
Eight years of refinement have created a solid DS platform.

Aside from that the motor was excellent. As accustomed as we are to rip-snorting motocross and enduro bikes, and even some wicked middle-weight dual-sports, the DR-Z still provides enough to be effective and evoke grins. With 31 horsepower and 23 lb-ft of torque, the liquid-cooled mill puts its 90mm bore and 62.6mm stroke to good use. As much as the motor and gearing can dish out, the brakes can give right back. A 250mm disc up front uses a dual-piston caliper for grip and the 220mm out back is pinched by a single-piston.

Suzuki has done a good job of rounding this bike out for its intended uses. The dual mirrors are usable but inoffensive on the trail, signals and lights offer safe amounts of visibility and all the controls are simple to use. The DR-Z comes with one of the better computer displays in that it’s simple to navigate the options, easily read and has all the necessary functions (speedometer, odometer, twin-trip meters with addition/subtraction capability, clock, timer and stopwatch functions). It also features lightweight engine protection on both sides, underneath and a rear disc guard, and has a quick-access airbox. The only thing we’d like to see are rim locks for the 18- and 21-inch aluminum. We think it’s capable of some pretty serious off-roading with a willing rider, so we would like to see them included.

2008 Suzuki DR-Z400S
This could just as easily be a curb at the local shopping center. The DR-Z is popular for lots of reasons.

With demand for affordable, versatile transportation at a premium, Suzuki has done well to leave the DR-Z400S alone. There’s really no reason to start changing things around when the current model is so well-liked and suitable to a huge demographic of riders. So it isn’t the most powerful bike on the planet, but who cares? There’s something even more enjoyable in riding a bike to its limits which is entirely possible with the 400S. It’s been nearly a decade since the first 400 was introduced and the aftermarket industry hasn’t been lollygagging. Cult followings of enthusiasts and a strong support network give even more intrinsic value to an already attractive machine. At the same time, for only $5599, Suzuki delivers a package that can blend, meld and hold its own in more situations than most.

Check out Genuine Suzuki Accessories to see a list of factory-available options for the 2008 DR-Z400S.

MotorcycleUSA Staff