2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650 First Ride

October 18, 2011
Frank Melling
Frank Melling
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Our Memorable Motorcycles expert, Frank Melling also is the organizer of the British vintage motorcycle extravaganza known as Thundersprint. Melling began riding five decades ago and remains as much in love with motorcycles as when he drove his first bike into a cow shed wall aged ten. In the last 50 years, Melling has competed in every form of motorcycle sport and now declares himself to be too old to grow up and be sensible.

Motorcycle USA will have an opportunity to test the all-new 2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS early next month, but our Memorable Motorcycles correspondent beat us to the punch. Our man Melling sampled the new and improved baby V-Strom from a dealer test ride in his native England. An enthusiastic owner of a V-Strom 1000, here’s Frank’s first ride take on its revitalized smaller sibling – MCUSA Ed

2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650
Our man Melling got first dibs on Suzuki’s 2012 V-Strom 650 – the wee-strom a significant redesign of its predecessor.

If ever Suzuki had a difficult job to do in convincing a potential customer, it would be selling the DL650 to me. First, I did not rate the earlier incarnation of the baby V-Strom which I thought was bland, dull and overtly budget specification. Second, I didn’t believe that the now aged 650cc V-Twin engine could be successfully modernized and finally, I am the world’s biggest fan of the Suzuki DL1000 – the one true V-Strom.
But I hold up my hands and plead guilty. I badly misjudged Suzuki’s latest Adventure bike and I was in for a real shock when I rode Crooks-Suzuki’s demonstrator.
Start with first impressions. Even for hardcore V-Strom junkies like me there is no arguing that the V-Strom thou, and its baby sister were, and are, stunningly ugly bikes. You might want to get off a V-Strom thou and give it a cuddle for carrying you all day with sublime elegance but you never went into the garage to admire the bike’s beauty. Functional, effective and loyal – definitely yes. An object of lust – no, unless you fantasize about making love to a Marine Corps drill instructor with a broken nose.
By contrast, the new V-Strom really is a looker – and no argument. It is much slimmer and generally more svelte than either the Versys or Triumph Tiger 800 and has the appearance of a running back, compared with the offensive lineman’s bulk of BMW’s GS1200. Adventure bikes don’t come any more appealing.
The finish is also much better than previous Suzukis with the pearlescent white of our test bike being particularly pleasing. I doubt whether Suzuki has reformed in terms of their consistently low standards of corrosion protection, so you will still have to hose the bike down regularly, but at least there will be the incentive to do so.

2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650
2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650
The ’12 V-Strom 650 tantilizes the eyes better than its utilitarian predecessor and current 1000cc sibling.

The overall fit and finish is much better, too. A fault with the budget Suzukis has always been the accountants’ department trying to shave cents off every part on the bike but the baby V-Strom looks, and feels, very fair value for money. Who would have imagined the latest V-Strom’s genuine, fake carbon fiber appearing on its utilitarian predecessor?
Martin Crooks, owner of the legendary Crooks-Suzuki dealership, had fitted the optional lower saddle to our test bike and this too is interesting. With its anorexically thin waist, and low saddle, there is, at last, an Adventure bike which can be credibly sold to female customers. Anyone over 65 inches in height will get on fine with the V-Strom.
Allied with super model slim hips is a beautiful centralization of mass. This is worth an explanation. Take a bag of sugar and hold it next to your chest. Now, take the same bag and hold it out at arm’s length. It’s the same weight of sugar but it will appear to be much heavier when held a long way from your body.
The same holds true for a motorcycle. The nearer the bike’s mass is to the center line of the motorcycle, the lighter the bike will feel. In this respect a single-cylinder engine, or a V-Twin, is the best of all the engine configurations.
Suzuki also put the V-Strom on a diet and the new bike is 11 pounds lighter than its ancestor, now weighing in at very creditable 472 pounds – plus 40 something pounds for a full tank of fuel. This weight needs putting into perspective. Yamaha’s Super Tenere is a full 100 pounds heavier – that’s almost two full sacks of potatoes in extra weight, as us country living hillbillies will tell you.
In fact, the DL is only 59 pounds heavier than Yamaha’s outstanding XT660 Tenere Single (which us sad Americans do not get to see) – the Suzuki is that good!
Combine the new, light weight with the inherent advantages of the bike’s V-Twin layout and the outcome is a bike which is starting to feel much more like a big, single-cylinder trail bike than a middleweight Adventure motorcycle.

2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650
With a new claimed dry weight of 472 pounds the V-Strom is 11 pounds lighter.

The chassis is a case of good news and bad news. In some respects, the V-Strom is a class leader with an aluminum twin spar frame and swingarm which is, arguably, lighter and stronger than its competitors.
The brakes too are state of the art for a bike in this class, featuring the latest Bosch ABS system. At 310mm front and 260mm rear, they are seriously good anchors too. I am positive that they would have no problem in handling two-up, fully loaded riding even when dropping down off mountain passes.
Only the suspension shows that the bean counters still have active desks at Suzuki. Both the front and rear are less than they should be – not bad but just about adequate when the bike deserves better.
The ancillary bits and pieces really are on the pace. The fuel tank is well protected by panels which will save the V-Strom owner a lot of money in the case of a fall and the electronic dash is fun, effective and modern.
With gas costing over $9 a gallon in Britain, the fuel economy read out is now becoming an essential item of information for touring riders but I also liked the ambient temperature information. Here in Britain we’re getting to the time of the year when early evening frosts are possible and keeping an eye on falling temperatures is a sensible safety aid.
The fuel consumption read out also leads to an unconscionably smug feeling as you cruise past sports bike riders and car drivers. 50 mpg is no problem and it is possible to coax over 55 mpg – and more – with a bit of care. This means that the V-Strom will manage an easy 200 miles between re-fills of the 5.2 gallon tank – and that is top end performance for any motorcycle.

2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650
The 2012 V-Strom upgrades its powerplant from the older SV650 to the V-Twin powering the Gladius middleweight.

At first sight, the DL’s engine is back to the past. Launched in 1999 as the SV650, the motor has been used in everything from initial rider training machines to quite serious race bikes in the popular Mini-Twins series. Despite its undoubted success I have never been that keen on the mid-weight V-Twin for one simple reason: it has always been a characterless lump. Now, despite looking the same as earlier incarnations, Suzuki really have pulled off some clever engineering with the new motor.
In fact, despite being touted as an all-new engine, the DL650 isn’t. The truth is that it is largely lifted from the Gladius – Suzuki’s latest reincarnation of the venerable SV650.
In the DL650 version of the motor, this means twin plug heads and new pistons, fuel injectors and camshafts aimed at improving mid-range power. There is also a new crank and improved gas flow, linked into fresh ECU engine mapping.
The DL also has its own air box assembly and exhaust, again touted as improving mid-range power.
And the winner is…
Not only is the V-Strom the best engine in its class – and that includes the formidably good Triumph 800 – but it is also a challenger for the best motor in an Adventure bike, in any sector.

2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650
While the Suzuki’s suspension felt adequate to the task, it had our tester wishing for more performance at times.

At one end of the scale, the DL650 will pull from literally tickover all the way to 10,000 rpm – and with turbine smoothness. As an experiment, I tried riding at 25 mph, two-up and loaded with photographic gear – in sixth gear! Simply open the throttle and the V-Strom pulls away with effortless grace.
At the other end of its performance range, the motor revs on like a two-stroke Twin. In all conditions it is sweet, inoffensive and willing.
Suzuki claim 69 horsepower for the engine and, in a way, this figure does a disservice to the real life power it makes. In practical terms, think more of a 90-hp touring machine and you will get a sense of the sort of power the rider feels is available. There are 44 lb-ft of torque at 6400rpm but again this is deceptive because of the utterly linear delivery of the power.
Linked with a completely outstanding powerplant is one of the sweetest gearboxes ever fitted to a motorcycle and a clutch so light that it is an almost single finger operation.
The single dominating factor with any Adventure bike has got to be that it gets on with the job without making a fuss. It’s okay nursing an MV Agusta F4 round the parking lot because you will be blinded by the lights from camera flashes as fans want to capture the image of your mechanical god.
You can tolerate spending ten minutes persuading a British classic to burst into life because that’s part of the lifestyle you choose but an Adventure bike has got to fade into the background and just do exactly what is required almost without you noticing it is there. In this key respect, the V-Strom is the master.

2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650
A tall windscreen and comfortable riding position had our contributor ready to tackle the highway for legitimate touring.

The first job in leaving Martin’s shop in the center of Barrow-in-Furness was to thread our way through the heavy lunch-time traffic. Narrow as a scooter, but with an imperiously high riding position which gave a bird’s eye view of the queuing traffic ahead, the V-Strom had us out of town with zero fuss.

Out on to County highways, the workload was minimal. Any gear, any throttle position and the V-Strom just got on with its business.

British roads are suffering from financial cut backs and so are now invariably rough through a lack of maintenance. In these conditions, the budget nature of the suspension could be felt. It’s not that the handling was frightening, or even bad, but rather that it could have been better. I know that a high riding position and soft(ish) suspension is not made for sports riding but you do get the “if only” feeling. If only Suzuki had spent another $50, at factory prices, on the suspension the result would be a quite outstanding motorcycle.

The riding position is excellent. The big screen provides plenty of protection but it is disappointing that the near essential hand guards are optional extras. Has no-one at Suzuki heard of rain and cold?

I would have preferred the normal seat height but even so the V-Strom was clearly designed for all day in the saddle. The pillion was just as well cared for and with a large top box to lean against we would have no problem with 200-300 miles, two up, in a day.

Finally, I decided to punish the bike with a real world test which should have ruined its day. Heading out of Barrow is a long, steep climb towards Ulverston. This extended haul simply killed the old 650 V-Strom and left the rider in no doubt that the DL 1000 was the answer. Now, the situation

2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650
While a bone-stock V-Strom isn’t meant for heavy off-road use, simple additions like an engine guard could greatly increase its versatility and adventure quotient.   

is reversed. The new V-Strom flowed up, dismissing the climb as an irrelevance: really surprising and a very powerful demonstration of all that is best in Adventure bike riding.

Clearly, the DL is not aimed at the serious off-road market. It has only a 19” front wheel and the front cylinder is dangerously exposed to rocks or tree roots. Even so, there is an interesting twist to the bike’s potential. Crooks-Suzuki fit a plastic shield to all the bikes they sell which gives a lot of protection to the normally exposed oil filter and front exhaust pipe. With this shield, and a two teeth smaller gearbox sprocket – a simple job to change – the DL would easily manage routes like the Magruder Corridor which MCUSA used in its 2011 Adventure Touring Shootout – and give the rider a lot of pleasure in the process.

If European pricing is continued, the DL650 will sell at around $10,000, though US MSRP is still to be determined. But if $10K is the asking price, for this sort of money it has to be the best buy on the market. Add a crankcase shield, hand guards and a good sized top box and you will have a bike which will do everything from commuting, to a trip over the Great Divide – and everything in between.

In the final analysis, would I trade our much loved V-Strom 1000 for the new 650? Yes, quite simply because the baby V-Strom has moved Suzuki Adventure tourers on to the next level.

Our thanks to Crooks Suzuki for the loan of our test bike.