Hiding underneath the innocuous veneer of the Suzuki DR350 is a truly memorable mount – a versatile ride that can get its smiling pilot virtually anywhere.
Whether you are a passionate fan, or loathe the brand, there is no argument that Suzuki understands what makes its customers tick. Time after time Suzuki has hit the dead center of the marketing target with bikes which in themselves have not been particularly clever, innovative or exciting – but which bike buyers love.
This history goes all the way back to the 250cc T20 Twin, which was far from technically ground breaking but which riders adored for its near 100 mph performance and svelte looks. Then followed the mighty GS1000; the GSX-R series of superbikes and the iconic Bandit. None of the machines are at the cutting edge but they sell in bulk because Suzuki understands what makes riders go into the dealer’s showroom and part with their money.
Riders bought, and buy, Suzukis because the bikes are honest and produce what they claim – and at a good price too. Just look at the latest baby V-Strom. Well behind the pace in terms of technology and engineering excellence but selling like waterproof clothing in an English summer.
So it is with the Suzuki DR350. On the surface, this is a most unremarkable little motorcycle. It has a very simple, air-cooled, four-valve, single-cylinder engine and an equally basic steel frame. The suspension is well intentioned rather than effective. Individually, none of these elements point to an iconic motorcycle.
Yet, you can’t ride a DR and not come back smiling. The motor is turbine smooth and as willing as a spaniel gun dog. The chassis is unbreakable and that soggy suspension is so forgiving. Rarely in the history of motorcycling has the total of such a collection of low point items produced such a high final score.
With a 2.3 gallon tank and less than half a gallon reserve, the DR350 requires frequent gas stops. The path less traveled better have a fuel station nearby…
Let’s go back to the start and see what was on Suzuki’s mind in 1990 when the DR was launched. The big story at the time was that dual sport two-strokes were at the end of their era. This was no doubt a cause of some sadness to Suzuki who had an enviable record throughout the 1970s and early 1980s with their enduro focused PE range and the more road orientated TS models. It also produced one of the finest dual sport motorcycles ever in the TS250X – a single cylinder two-stroke which was a joy on and off the road.
The RM motocross machines were still going to be two-strokes, for the moment, but for the mass market four-stroke was the way to go.
I have praised Suzuki for understanding what its customers wanted but the Hamamatsu company’s first stab at four-stroke dual sport machines was well wide of the mark. The SP370 was a dull, sensible, middle-aged bike at birth – and looked it.
The second attempt wasn’t much better. It wasn’t that the DR600 range was composed of bad motorcycles but simply that they weren’t what the customers wanted. Big, heavy, 600cc machines – especially when they had kick starts – were never going to have mass market appeal.
What Suzuki needed was a user friendly, dual sport machine which worked well around town, on the trail and highway. If you couldn’t cut a fast lap at the ISDE so what? The all-new DR 350 would give you whole day’s pleasurable trail riding with your buddies and at minimal cost.
Almost from the outset, the DR came in two flavors – but both were extremely closely related. The DR was more off-road orientated with a plastic fuel tank, full on knobby tires and, allegedly, better suspension than its “S” sibling which had a metal fuel tank, indicators, road tires and was biased towards highway use.
In practical terms, there was very little to choose between the bikes. Off-road DRs became commuter bikes and “S” models competed in club enduros quite successfully.
As I have already intimated, the DRs are very much a case of the sum total being vastly greater than the individual value of the parts, yet some of the DR’s components are a delight.
The DR350 was so user-friendly that even beginners would be encouraged to push their performance envelope.
The best thing about the bike is the super-sweet 349cc, single overhead cam engine. There has never been a happier, more willing motorcycle engine than the DR’s and it is a thing of utter delight. On paper, the powerplant is nothing special – even for the 1990s. The single overhead cam engine means that valve adjustment can be done by any home mechanic without special tools, and changing the engine oil is equally simple.
Producing only 30 horsepower at 7600 rpm, the results ought to be dull but Suzuki gearbox engineers really earned their money and the ratios are chosen to perfection. This means that every one of the 30 available horses can be used all the time.
In the real world the DR will tackle really tough trails – certainly anything in the recreational trail rider’s handbook – and yet will cruise along the freeway at a genuine 70 mph with another ten or so mph left for overtaking.
In between the two extremes, the motor is lively and so, so user friendly that even the neophyte motorcyclist is constantly encouraged to push his or her performance envelope.
There is one downside. Since the motor tends to spend a lot of its life flat out, fuel consumption is not brilliant. Anything above 45 mpg is a good day – and a bad trip is less than this. With a tiny 2.3 gallon (9 liter) fuel tank, and less than half a gallon reserve, gas stops need some thought and pre-planning.
The first DRs had a kick start and, although this device is now considered to be Satan’s tool by younger riders in the case of the little Suzuki it is not really a problem. The kick start engages an automatic engine decompressor and this works fine in conjunction with electronic ignition. The last of the DRs had electric boots and this is a pleasant, if not strictly essential, luxury.
If the motor is exemplary the DR’s chassis shows that, in typical Suzuki fashion, the accountants had a big input into this element of the bike. The frame is steel which makes for a porcine bike at a shade over 290 pounds ready for action, but the plus side is that it is unbreakable and if any severe damage is done it is repairable by the hobbiest welder.
It is also cleverer than it first seems. The frame is oil bearing and this makes for cool running and also a compact motor. Yes, there are better frames but this is a good piece of kit for the price and the wide range of jobs it was designed to do.
Serious dirt bike riders criticize the soggy suspension – and with validity. But the DR is not a KTM or even an RM Suzuki. On the contrary, it is what it says on the tin: a recreational trail bike. This means that it soaks up bumps and ruts in a way which flatters the amateur rider. And the 56 inch wheelbase and almost classic 62.5 degree steering head angle works just as well on the freeway exit, canyon road or down a buttock crunching descent in the forest. Once again, it is a perfect example of Suzuki engineers really understanding the art of compromise.
Another compromise is the riding position and comfort levels. The saddle is far too soft for aggressive off-roading but a delight for a day out or zipping down to the supermarket. Similarly, the DR’s riding position is a disaster for attacking anything Supercross style but wonderful on the freeway.
The brakes are also wrong – while being right. They work fine for trail riding but it’s better not to put them to the test on the road, where they soon reach the limits of their performance. The 6-inch front disc in particular becomes really stressed with emergency braking maneuvers.
At this point, note the length of the positive list. Superb motor; perfect gearbox; easy to ride; works well in a vast range of conditions – and the good points go on and on.
And there’s more. Martin Crooks is owner of one of the world’s longest established suppliers of Suzuki parts and a specialist in DR350s. He said: “The DR350s are one of the most reliable Suzukis – or any other bike for that matter. They really don’t have a weakness and will run forever without a fault.
The paint job on the DR350 was the main detriment to an otherwise solid bike – a true do-it-all dual sport.
“We occasionally sell a cam chain to a customer who hasn’t changed the oil regularly or rear shock linkages to riders who go off road regularly but never grease the links.
“Other than that, you would have to throw one over a cliff to damage it – and then it would probably bounce down and be waiting at the bottom for you to ride it away.
“In fact, I prefer the DR350 to the DRZ400 which replaced it and I keep asking Suzuki to bring the old DR back – it’s that good!”
There is one weakness with the DR – and it’s a common theme with all Suzukis: the paintwork is dreadful. Suzuki believes that if the paint stays on the bike long enough to entice the buyer in the showroom then what else counts? Cheap paint means that the bike has to be meticulously maintained to avoid it looking as if it has just returned from a tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Now to an interesting shift in the DR paradigm. Three years ago, DRs were slightly less than scrap value. In fact, you could get a well used one almost in exchange for mowing someone’s lawn and mint condition bikes were not much better. However, the situation is changing very rapidly.
There are still tons of worn and abused DRs about for under $1000 but suddenly absolutely standard, unmolested DRs have become collectable. If you want a bike like this, then expect to pay nearer $3000 than $2000. The good news is that if ever there is a sure fire bet for further appreciation it is a mint condition DR.