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Memorable Motorcycle: Suzuki SV1000

Thursday, March 28, 2013
For a motorcycling historian, the Suzuki SV1000 is one of the most interesting bikes ever made. This is a bold statement to make, but the SV proves three things. First, even a company with Suzuki’s uncanny skill of being in touch with their customer base can get things wrong – and badly too. Next, compromises always lead to failure where motorcycles are concerned. Finally, and perhaps most interesting of all, it is possible to fail even with a fine package of individual parts.

At the SV’s launch perhaps the problem which weighed most heavily on Suzuki’s corporate mind was the TL1000 – the SV’s totally evil sibling. The TL was a hairy-chested, hyper sportbike aimed right at the center of the Ducati 916’s target audience. With the TL making 135 horsepower – 20 hp more than the 916 – at a near identical weight to the Ducati and with all the reliability of Japanese engineering, Suzuki should have stomped all over the Bologna bikes but didn’t.

The “but” in this case was a chassis which was simply too ambitious – or, contra intuitively, maybe not ambitious enough. Instead of a World Superbike winning chassis, the TL’s cycle parts guaranteed, at the very least, an absence of constipation in the rider and, often, personal meetings with nice nursing staff and sympathetic doctors.

The Suzuki SV1000's 996cc V-Twin promises a real rider
experience when it rumbles to life, but on the road remains
inoffensive and lifeless through the rev range.
So when the SV was launched the warning lights were well and truly lit on Suzuki’s instrument panel. Gone was the frenetic rush of the eight-valve, dual overhead cam V-Twin which powered the TL. Instead, Sensible San in Hamamatsu re-cammed and re-mapped the same motor, so that it allegedly produced 120 hp – but felt about 20 hp less.

The capacity remained at 996cc and the six-speed gearbox was retained from the TL but now the powerplant was a sportbike engine which the Health and Safety lobby would have us all ride.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with the motor. Rather, it gave the impression of a dilatory teenager: you wondered when it was ever going to wake up, get out of bed and start mowing the lawn!

Ironically, the situation was made worse by Suzuki’s cute little SV650 which was introduced at the same time as the SV1000. The free revving little 645cc motor was full of character and fun, being both easy for beginners to use whilst remaining highly satisfying for experienced riders.

The chassis continued the theme of getting back to sensible basics. Where the TL had a short wheelbase, and stood on its rear wheel with the slightest encouragement, the SV was nearly two inches longer – and with a shallower steering head angle. The TL’s ineffective, but ground breaking, rotary damped rear shock was replaced by an utterly conventional unit and the front forks were inoffensively efficient. The result was ultra-safe, ultra stable handling which would bring tears of joy to any safety obsessed bureaucrat.

The same applied to the SV’s ergonomics. Everything is in the right place, and nothing is uncomfortable, but there is no sense of involvement in the riding experience. Riding an SV is more akin to driving a mid-range family hatchback car than riding a motorcycle.

The Suzuki SV1000 binnacle looks good  but is uninspiring.
Suzuki took care with the finish on the SV1000  creating graceful lines on the fuel tank and sporting excellent paintwork.
The instrument binnacle looks good, but is infinitely uninspiring. Suzuki achieve styling success in other areas though, particularly in the graceful lines of the fuel tank.
The sad thing is that Suzuki did take care with the finish on the SV. At first glance the bike does look the part, with a graceful, curving fuel tank and an impeccably finished alloy beam frame. The paintwork was excellent too and even the detail of the instrument binnacle looked good. What was missing? Nothing in practical terms, but everything when it came to design flair – the quirkiness which shows that a designer has put something of his soul into the bike rather than it being the product of a committee.

On the road, the SV was one the strangest motorcycles I have ever ridden. Suzuki had not over-silenced the bike so the big V-Twin burbled away at tick over, promising a real rider experience at the top end of the rev range. Instead, nothing really happened. The revs rose and the engine note remained as inoffensive as ever.

The SV was incredibly, almost embarrassingly, forgiving and this was perhaps its biggest fault. Forgive me for saying this, but I am more than passingly competent when it comes to riding a motorcycle. Therefore, I want a bike that will criticize my riding errors and smile with me when I get something right. The SV did neither. No matter how well, or badly, the bike is ridden it will remain solid, inoffensive and biddable.

If riding a 916 on the road is like making love with a motorcycle then the same journey on an SV is also like an afternoon of passion – but this time wearing 10 prophylactics simultaneously. Somewhere, a long way distant, you know that you are doing something really exciting – but you are so far from the act that you wondered why you bothered.

At the end of each Memorable Motorcycles piece I normally make a prediction as to the bike’s future. In this case, the analysis is clear. The SV 1000 will disappear quietly into the afterlife neither loved, nor reviled, nor respected, nor resented but quite simply ignored – and that’s a sad epithet for any bike.
Memorable Motorcycle: Suzuki SV1000
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Cuencanolenny   May 16, 2015 04:57 PM
Ran across this today, curious about how history treats my last bike. I retired in 2012 to South America after 44 years of riding, the last 21 full time in Seattle where you can ride year round. The last new bike I bought was a 2005 SV1000S. I opted for the optional bodywork, chain hugger, rear seat cover, etc. As I had seen in Cycle World. I'm not sure what this author is on about but the bike, I've owned over 80, was far and away my favorite bike. I put 68,000 trouble free miles on that bike between January 1, 2006 and Spring of 2011 when I sold it in preparation for retirement. That bike was so much fun riding the Cascade mountain highways of Washington and Oregon. No frantic gear shifting to stay in the power band, just twist the throttle and hang on. Oh, and I never once checked the valve lash and never once had a problem with it. I could get 20K out of the chain and sprocket and 12K on the tires and while I tried a few brands, Michelin is simply the best. Awesome bike.
dwfree   April 29, 2014 02:06 PM
Well, I'm glad I read this article of Melling's, now I know not to read anymore of them. Based upon his prose here, he is definitely no current motorcycle expert. His heavy involvement with vintage British bikes obviously colors his evaluation of the SV1000. Compared to vintage British iron, the SV, or any other modern Japanese sport bike, has no character. All of them fit the soul lacking character he dribbles about, and they don't have the design, engine, or handling quirks he romanticizes - "I want a bike that will criticize my riding errors and smile with me when I get something right". No, they work very, very well so that the rider can enjoy riding vs fixing all the quirks. Now for an accurate evaluation of the SV1000. It looks like a sport bike, and fits like a sport bike, but it really isn't. It's really a UJM with the ergonomics all screwed up. The N has better ergonomics, but no fairing. Why Suzuki did this is beyond my comprehension. The S version, converted to reasonable ergonomics with a handlebar transplant, lower pegs, and raised seat, is the twin version of the 1200 Bandit. With the engine tuned more for midrange vs the TL (and w/o the funky rotary rear shock), the SV has a wonderful street motor. The fork springs are ridiculously weak. Replacement of them with the proper springs for rider weight and a fork fluid change gets the bike ready for most people. The rear shock is fairly competent for most folks once properly set up. The brakes are well up to the task of street or track days. More aggressive riders will want to replace the shock, add some slip-ons, power commander, etc., and have a wonderful street bike that will carve corners as well as full on sport bikes without the wrist and back aches, and without the high purchase price and insurance rates. And do it all day, because you get to ride that big midrange punch vs 8k rpm and up to make power on sport bikes. That high rpm stuff gets old quick on 400-500 mile days. Why was the bike not that successful in the marketplace? I think it was a marketing error. It was compared to sport bikes (RC51, TL, Ducati's), and it was down a bit on power and suspension - the deat knell in sport bike world. It should have been designed with better ergos and marketed as the twin version of the Bandit. Keep in mind this engine has been very successful in the V-Strom, where the bike was properly marketed. So, if you want an all out sport bike, look elsewhere. If you want a highly capable street bike, more in the "GT" niche, and your capable and want to modify to your liking, the big SV is an excellent choice. I routinely embarrass "sport bikes" in the twisties on both the Bandit and the SV. It's all in the correct preparation of the bike and the rider. Join me and don't read any more of Melling's BS.
mpeugeot   October 6, 2013 08:43 PM
As an SV1000s owner, I must disagree with this article, it is partly true as others have noted (if you must run a stock, untuned, unadjusted motorcycle). However Frank Melling misses some HUGE points. First as others have noted, while in stock configuration the motorcycle is "uninspired" with regards to the engine performance. Mine sounded like a sewing machine with the stock exhaust. However, add a power commander, do the TRE mod, open up the exhaust, down one tooth in front and the bike wakes up significantly. Spanking 600cc GXSR's is too easy... yet this bike is a "wearing 10 prophylactics simultaneously" compared to the 916? Seriously? Sure, modern liter bikes are making way more power, but the 112 WHP along with the 70+ ft/lbs of torque my bike makes results in an all around great ride on the street. However let's compare it with the above referenced and beloved Ducati 916. The Ducati 916 - 95 HP, 58 ft/lbs torque, and 470# wet. The SV-1000s - 111 HP, 70 ft/lbs torque, weighing 479# wet. Seriously? You want to compare these two bikes? I'll concede that the Suzuki SV1000 was rated as being slower 1/4 mile bike, and if you're racing the Ducati is the better bike. A lightly modded SV1000s with the correct gearing will nearly run side by side with just about every 600 super sport bike on the market and I don't recall anyone calling these engines "a powerplant ... which the Health and Safety lobby would have us all ride". As far as the handling goes, that's all easily addressed too, thanks in part to the fully adjustable suspension. Add some real tires (I have Battleax S20's on now), tune the suspension some, and you'll have a bike that has considerably sharper handling than stock. Granted, it is forgiving still, but far more apt to criticize you when you make mistakes. I respect Mr. Melling's overall analysis. I agree this motorcycle will likely be forgotten, however, I never get tired of everyone who admires my bike. Many, if not most, seem unaware that Suzuki even made this bike. Strange how it always seems to get positive attention for a number of reasons (the sound, the looks, the speed). I will never forget the absolutely amazing bike I got for a fraction of the cost that the alternatives were going for. I picked up my 2006 SV-1000s for $6800 OTD in 2008 with just around 1 mile on the odometer. Still 5 years later, I love riding this bike everyday.
wbpo   April 11, 2013 05:50 AM
The truth can be painful. The 2003 SV1000N was my first bike to get back into riding after about a 5 year absence. And it was a good choice for all the reasons mentioned in the article. My last bike was a big v-twin cruiser and I knew I wanted the same sound and power deliver but in a sport bike style this time. The SV fit the bill and was in my budget and maintenance needs. I found a pristine example with only 12k miles. The bike had been meticulously maintained and had most upgrades a typical naked SV owner does; Sargent seat, Buell pegs, Yoshi pipes, K&N air filter, Renthal bars, Givi windscreen...Since then, I have put 30k miles on the bike myself and continued to maintain the bike in pristine condition, changing oil with Amzoil every 3k miles. I also updated the mirrors choosing to remove the wind vanes it came with opting for bar ends and replacing the huge levers with smaller more modern fully adjustable ones which all really made the bike look more modern. Cosmetically I added a Suzuiki tank bra to aid in tank grip, keep that great tank paint job in good shape, and improve (I think anyway) the looks. I also replaced the Yoshis with more free flowing pipes and added a Power Commander which all really woke up the bike and it sounds like an exotic Italian sportbike. It now produces over 114hp at the rear wheel. Recently I had the bike gone completely over, all fluids replaced (fork oils etc.), bearings replaced, valves adjusted,...everything. The bike rides like new now. All that said and done, when I pull into the parking lot of our areas weekly "Bike Nights" get togethers or attend one of our areas large biking events, the bike hardly gets noticed. It certainly is not one of the bikes that ever attracts a gaggle of people to stand beside and discuss (even though on regular "spirited" group rides the old girl stays right there with the GSXRs and Triples). And like the article states, that is no life for any sportbike...not to be noticed.
jayninja   April 10, 2013 08:19 AM
I disagree with your view. I love the SV and have struggled to find anything for a similar price to replace it. This is perfectly illustrated in my last few years of motorcycle ownership. Ive always loved big V-Twins and in 2010 I picked up a mint condition SV1000N with the attraction of a modified GSXR1000 front end that included USD forks and radial brakes. I loved it, great power, improved handling and all for a bargain £2.5K. But mid last year I got the itch for change and caught the adventure bike syndrome ! In August I sold the SV in favour of the more practical Versys 650 - a great bike, but I never really made the connection like I did with my SV. I couldn't help thinking on every ride 'this bike has cost me more and isn't as much fun' - I hankered for my SV, sitting at my laptop looking longingly at old photos of it. Earlier this year I bit the bullet and sold the Versys opting instead for a 2008 Triumph Street Triple. Now the Triumph is truly a great bike there is no denying that, but it had cost me much more money and still I just kept thinking of my SV. Sod it, what have I got too lose I thought so, I thumbed a text to the SV's new owner who lived locally to me in Devon. "Any chance you fancy selling me back the bike ?" I wrote. Imagine my surprise when I received back a text saying "Actually I was thinking of selling - give me a call" That same afternoon when I arrived at the owners house there in the garage sat my old friend looking at me as if to say "okay, I forgive you" ! A deal was done and today I take back ownership of a bike that I should never have let go in the first place !
GAJ   April 1, 2013 02:45 PM
I owned a '97 TL1000S for 13 years. Half the fun was the three recalls, (one of them for a new fuel tank...the old one evidently had rendered some bikes smoldering ruins from fire...the ECU "fix" which didn't "fix" the horrific fueling at all...and the steering damper to keep you out of the landscaping). The other part of the fun was fixing the horrific suspension, (thank you Lindemann and Ohlins), and goddawful light switch fueling, (thank you Power Commander). When all those things were done the hairy chested "dear lord why did I buy this bike" TL was transformed into a compliant corner carver with brutal, (for its day), acceleration out of a corner. None of that "fun" existed with the SV but with some tweaks I'm sure it would approximate the excellence of a "fixed" TLS but for far less cash...but the SV would still not have the cache of the TLS which made the British Motopress cower!
pavster   March 29, 2013 07:52 AM
I had a first-gen SV650 (my first bike), followed by a TL1000R (my dream bike), followed by an Aprilia Tuono - which I still own. The 650 was an awesome bike to learn on, and served me well until it started to literally fall apart (oil leaks, no spark on front cylinder, seized calipers, bad carbs). Sold and eventually bought the TLR that I always wanted. Great bike, but not particularly reliable either, and way too uncomfortable for commuter duty. Looked at the SV1000 but could not get past the boring looks and lack of riding excitement. So instead, picked up a used Tuono and never looked back. Amazing machine.
CTK   March 29, 2013 04:58 AM
The beast still lurks, methinks. This thing is basically a TL1000S with a normal shock. You get some TLR heads (for the cams and bigger throttle bodies) and the 1088cc big bore kit, you get that old bark back. Get some suspenders to keep it all together, you're pretty much set. Easy to do since everything from the forks to the rearsets swap over from GSX-Rs. The SV platform is a gift. Japanese Ducati. My next street bike WILL be an SV.
RecoilRob   March 28, 2013 03:52 PM
If someone is condemned to riding a totally STOCK motorcycle, then yes...I agree with most of the authors impressions. Suzuki wanted to make a 'Friendly Motorcycle' out of the SV1K...and they pretty much hit that mark. But making it 'Friendly' took the fangs out of it...but they are still in there if you want them! The SV heads flow very nicely, and the K5+ cams can be re-timed to achieve power levels that rival the vaunted 'hairy-chested' TL's. Remember the SV also has STV's that restrict the power delivery too, and if you want more power modifying them can and will improve things. Modded SV1K's will exist as cult favorites for years to come. It is so.
wwiddy   March 28, 2013 11:36 AM
My 2nd bike was an SV650, and when I got my '03 SV1000 in 2005 brand new from a dealer for cheaper than some used SV650's I was ecstatic. I had expected a bigger brother to the SV650, but it turned out to be just a different motorcycle. I think your article hits it on the head for the most part, but you don't mention how crazy cheap it is to own and maintain this bike. It's truly the cheapest alternative to a Ducati. You can buy the most expensive after-market parts and still come out with dollars to spare compared to owning a standard Duc. So, yes you are right about the SV's historical legacy - the SV1000 was a dud to all except those who dared to buy one for next to nothing, and don't mind to live with compromise.
MarkH   March 28, 2013 09:19 AM
I own my second SV1000N, the first one having been stolen from the parking garage at work. As delivered, the wimp suspension does little to provide sporting character or to foster spirited riding as the feedback coming through the suspension is bland at best. But with the addition of a 2009 GSX-R1000 front end (including brakes) and GSX-R1000 wheels of the same vintage (the rear is 6" compared to the standard 5.5"), it becomes a much nicer machine. Best of all, this stuff is a straight bolt-on with the exception of modifying the top GSX-R1000 triple clamp to accept the standard SV handlebar clamp and fabricating a steering damper mounting bracket and modifying the standard headlamp mounts to fit over the larger diameter of the upper fork tubes. I also switched the fork springs to the lightest available GSX-R1000 aftermarket fork spring available (I can't remember which company who I got them from). My SV100 now rewards crisp, tidy riding with an amazingly quick trip down the twisties that go by with a minimum of fuss. The steering is now precise with the added rigidity and more appropriate damping rates, and the brakes are more powerful. Where I thought the wider rear rim might make the transitions a little slower and heavier, I can discern no difference over the narrower stock rim--and in fact prefer the feel of it with the wider rear hoop. While the power delivery may not inspire you, it is very effective in early corner acceleration, allowing one to substantial generate drive very early on the exit, which handily makes up for any brute force that is lacking once you get it up off the side of the tire can really jump on the gas. The only piece of the puzzle left is a proper rear shock, and I am scouring eBay regularly for a used Ohlins. Best of all, I bought the bike from the ad agency I was working at where it was my "company car" for $just 2000, after being the only rider of it since new. The wheels and front end plus mods only set me back an additional $600 thanks to the bargains on eBay. While it might be uninspiring in standard form, I now have a very comfortable, taught and precise machine that can be ridden very quickly for hundreds of miles of back roads without wearing me out. In its current form, my SV has to be the bargain of the century, and I think we'll be together for many years. Mark Homchick
mugwump   March 28, 2013 05:04 AM
Go ahead Suzuki, try again.