In an era of 200-horsepower production sportbikes, replete with traction control and other sophisticated electronic wizardry, the practical everyday motorcycle doesn’t often get its due. Not everyone wants, needs, can afford, or handle the pinnacle of motorcycling performance. Slash 2/3 of the horsepower and mate it with cheaper but effective components, and riders more often than not are presented with a competent and fun mount to get along with on the street. One such ride is the new 2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650.
The V-Strom models have generated cult followings since their debuts, with the Wee-Strom carving out a niche as a versatile middleweight. This year’s V-Strom 650 represents a welcome infusion of new blood in the Suzuki lineup (the larger V-Strom also returns to the U.S. lineup after a two-year absence). Suzuki teased its update of the little V-Strom this summer, with initial impressions somewhat underwhelming as many expected, or at least wanted, a wholesale adventure-touring redesign. It didn’t look like much more than a cosmetic upgrade at the time, but then our man in Europe, Mr. Frank Melling, submitted a glowing first ride evaluation of the little Zook. Sure, Frank’s a V-Strom 1000 owner himself but his partisan praise whetted the appetite for our own appraisal. Lucky for us Suzuki obliged, inviting MotoUSA to the U.S. press launch for a two-day tour in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North and South Carolina.
Compared back to back with the previous model and it’s clear the 2012 V-Strom 650 got a significant facelift. The U.S. market also gets the special Adventure model, which comes with the tour and windscreen, crash guards and panniers.
Press photos often don’t do justice to a new model release. This is definitely true for the new V-Strom. One look back-to-back with the previous model and it’s clear this bike got a significant facelift. The front end is slimmer, and both the front and rear sections of the bike have been pushed in for a more compact look. New bodywork is everywhere, including liberal use of clean-looking black resin components throughout the design. Other obvious changes from the bulky predecessor include a new windscreen, which offers three position adjustments (albeit requiring riders to break out the tools). Designers also cleaned up the messy oil cooler on the previous model, though the oil filter remains precariously exposed. All told the 2012 model marks a dramatic improvement when it comes to styling.
Get behind the controls and the 32.9-inch seat still delivers an easy reach to the ground with its slim contours. This is despite the raised seat height of 15mm (owing to suspension adjustments). A high and low seat option are also available, which further raise or lower seat height 20mm. We prefer the high seat option, which provides as skosh more room to the pegs. Reach to the bars feels natural, and while the 650 isn’t a tiny bike, it remains a good match for the smaller statured. At 6’1” our legs splayed out from the tank, but we felt comfortable nonetheless rolling out of Charlotte headed up to the mountains.
The new instrument console delivers all essential information and in our favorite format (top). The latest V-Strom 650 sources its V-Twin from the Gladius, rather than the predecessor’s SV650 mill.
The brisk morning temperature was confirmed on the V-Strom’s redesigned instrument console. The new control panel displays all the essential riding information in our favorite format – a left-side analog tach and right-side digital speedometer. Below the speedo are digital engine temperature and fuel gauges, as well as dual trip meters, clock and that useful ambient air temperature reading. Riders can toggle through the information with a convenient button on the left switchgear. When temperature drops to freezing an idiot light fires up on the dash, giving riders an extra reminder of caution for icy conditions.
Thankfully, the freeze warning light never came on as we climbed into the Blue Ridge Mountains. We were a bit chagrined, however, that the engine heat didn’t offer any relief in the morning hours. Excessive heat was a major complaint from owners regarding the previous Strom, so Suzuki redesigned the airflow. The stylish side exhaust vents flanking the radiator serve a practical purpose, channeling hot air away from the rider legs quite effectively. The whole system has been optimized with the redesigned front fender also channeling air more efficiently onto the radiator.
While spec sheet may look almost identical to the 2011 model, the Wee-Strom engine is new as well. Instead of using the SV650 Twin, this bike sources the Gladius engine. The 645cc V-Twin maintains the same 81mm bore and 62.6mm stroke, but features new pistons, cylinders, valve springs and cams. This gives the new Wee-Strom more torque down low, with Suzuki touting particular improvement between 4000 and 6000 rpm. The new engine also promises some extra oomph up top. As a rule Suzuki doesn’t claim power numbers, but the last time we tested the Gladius it turned our dyno up to 67.12 rear wheel horsepower and 42.9 lb-ft of torque.
The Suzuki V-Strom 650 engine delivers pleasing street-friendly power, the mellow bottom end picking up in the mid-range and allowing for more spirited pace up top.
On the road, engine performance isn’t overpowering, but more than effective. The Wee-Strom feels quite mellow off the bottom, with more meat coming on as promised around four grand. As the revs rise some vibes do come up through the tank, but that’s when the 650 spools up for more the good stuff up top. That top-end can provide some thrill, and once wound out the Wee-Strom can manage a triple-digit pace, should the need ever arise…
Fueling is smooth with a completely forgiving throttle. The ham-fisted rider need not fear, making the V-Strom ideal for beginner or intermediate riders. The same can be said of the six-speed transmission. The low first gear allows for creeping starts and easy launches. Sixth gear overdrive hums along at 70 mph with the tach holding steady at five grand. Clutch engagement is seamless, Suzuki having changed clutch release mechanism in the new model. We occasionally had to stomp when shifting from neutral to first gear, but once in motion the gearbox is well sorted and shuffles up and down without trouble. We also praise the prominent gear position indicator on the instrument panel – another personal favorite on bike interfaces.
The V-Strom’s aluminum twin spar frame and swingarm returns. But this year’s chassis can better handle a faster pace thanks to revised suspension. The Showa components now feature firmer settings as engineers increased the rear shock’s spring rate and stiffened up baseline settings of the conventional front fork. This addresses complaints from previous owners, many of whom ratcheted up preload all the way on the rear suspension. The new settings keep more weight on the front end, and it’s also the main reason why seat height increased.
Stiffening up the Showa suspension components improves the V-Strom’s handling capabilities. Overall the Wee-Strom proves an easy to ride mount, one that will tap out to ground clearance issues before suspension woes.
Riding down the famed Blue Ridge Parkway, the V-Strom proves a neutral handler and quite reactive to rider input. While we are unfamiliar with the previous model, our colleagues all concur the suspension is much improved. The revised settings hold up to an aggressive pace and transmit good feel from the road. The feedback can be jarring on rough pavement, but it’s a welcome trade-off for a too-soft setup. The front and rear are still both adjustable for preload, with the rear shock featuring a remote knob for easy adjustment.
Overall, the bike is surprisingly competent when the road starts to bend. It encourages spirited cornering, enough for even laid back riders to appreciate the relatively low peg feelers. That’s doubly true on the Adventure model, with its extended feelers keeping the wide bags from scraping on the asphalt.
Not that the V-Strom needs to stay on the asphalt all the time… While the precariously placed engine components, particularly the exposed oil filter, keep gnarly dirt excursions ill advised, the Wee-Strom proved a playful companion on the novice-level dirt roads we sampled branching off the Parkway. The Bridgestone Trail Wing tires perform far better on loose surfaces than our confidence gave them credit for, the 19-inch front rolling over modest obstacles (it mates with a 17-inch rear). We couldn’t bring ourselves to place full trust in the brakes on the dirt, as the new, lighter Bosch ABS can’t be switched off. Even still, the Wee-Strom can hustle along and play dirty.
A dirt bike it is not, but the V-Strom 650 comports itself well and graded dirt byways – dirty enough for most Wee-Strom riders, few of whom take their rides off road.
In no way is the V-Strom a true dirt bike, but it doesn’t claim to be. Suzuki research indicates just small amount of V-Strom riders actually take their bikes off-road, so this Wee-Strom delivers just the right amount of Adventure for its street-biased clientele. Can it get you up a graded Forest Service road? Sure. Gnarly ruts, and rocks, and roots… Better invest in engine guards and heavy duty skid plate!
On the street the Bosch ABS is a welcome safety aid. Riders might as well get used the idea, as standard ABS will be making its way into all production street bikes before too long. The system works well enough, without too harsh of a cut in. Overall braking performance, like engine performance, isn’t overwhelming or spectacular but gets the job done. The non-radial-mount Tokico calipers bring things to a halt with a firm squeeze the lever.
One interjection regarding headlights: Suzuki pared down the headlight assembly when it reshaped the front end of the bike. The high beams are great at night, but the low beams didn’t impress when we got caught out in the dark on the curvy Blue Ridge Parkway. However, the backlit instrument panel is easy to read at night.
After two days and 400-plus miles, we observed a steady 45-50 mpg efficiency from our test bike. Even considering the half-gallon smaller fuel load in the 2012 model, its 5.3-gallon tank still equates into well over 200 miles of range. That is a welcome trait for a bike with touring pretensions.
And the Wee-Strom makes for a fine middleweight touring platform. The base model can be accessorized with numerous touring amenities. One nice touch, for example, is the rear luggage carrier already fitted to mount a top case – one of the most common upgrades of V-Strom owners. Two different types of saddlebags can be mounted as well. The U.S. market will also get a special Adventure model which includes a touring windscreen, protective crash guards and aluminum side cases as standard kit.
We utilized an Adventure model as our mule during the two-day tour. We found the aluminum cases intuitive to work, their ammo can aesthetics reminding us somewhat of the KTM Adventure bags during our 2011 Adventure-Touring Shootout. While roomy, the bags do prove frustrating to open with a cheap key and locking mechanism. The touring windscreen features a second adjustable screen piggybacked on the top, which can then be moved up and down to redirect airflow. The adjustments make a difference, and overall the Wee-Strom screen avoids buffeting while still allowing some air to flow through.
The standard V-Strom 650 ABS is available in Metallic Fox Orange for $8299. We reckon it’s most comparable rival to be the Kawasaki Versys, which retails for $7899 (expect a comparison in the future, as we continue our Kawasaki Versys project). The Adventure version retails for $9799 and is only available in black.
During our Blue Ridge tour, we got to know the Wee-Strom pretty well. We deem the revised V-Strom an eminently practical mount. With its willing engine, more adept suspension and updated look, the V-Strom 650 is a pleasingly versatile middleweight. It represents a strong new entry from Suzuki, and intriguing option in the growing AT segment.