I wind the throttle wide open as I round the corner, leaning my shoulders off for all I’m worth. The bike bucks and wallows a bit under me as I catch a compression bump, but the grip holds. The execution is near perfect, I slingshot around my prey in a questionably legal pass and rejoin the lead group of riders. The thing is, the lead riders are all on sportbikes, the prey was an uncooperative minivan, and the bike I’m on? Well it’s not quite a motorcycle…
It’s the 2004 Suzuki Burgman 400. And I’m out to make a point.
The point I’m hoping to prove is this, in traffic the Suzuki Burgman 400 will keep pace with most sportbikes out there – provided they play by the rules of the road… and you don’t. In fact it may actually do better, despite developing a mere 33 hp at the crank resulting in about 19hp at the rear wheel after being pumped through the Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) and belt final drive. The low center of gravity, the CVT, the complete lack of clutch or even shifting, give the Burgman 400 an ease of use and maneuverability at traffic speeds that many sportbikes would dream of. Which translates to the fact that with a proper amount of hooliganism the scooter might get there first. Better yet, you’ll get there less hated than the sportbike.
If there is a vehicle on which to be an innocuous disturber of the peace, the Burgman 400 is it. For one it’s one of the friendliest looking rides around; it’s a big scooter with a front end that looks like and escapee from a Hello Kitty cartoon. It’s nigh impossible to be offensive on the Burgman 400, even while lane-splitting, filtering to the front of the line, or sliding in and out of barely available gaps between vehicles. Wave a little and you get away with the most audacious maneuvers while the Burgman is in its chosen element – traffic.
Off the line the CVT lets you take full advantage of the Burgman’s “mighty” 400cc single cylinder engine. It’s been tuned for smooth, and at an idle you feel the mildest of thumps. Twist the throttle and you don’t move at anything under 2000RPM, and between 2700 RPM you only creep forward – just barely walking speed. Above 2700 the Burgman is finally convinced that you want to move, the CVT does its thing, and there is smooth electric pull up to speed. The cost of freedom from the tyranny of shifting is a limited range of pull for low speed parking lot antics; a more linear implementation of the CVT would make the big scoot easier to manage in the under 15kph range. We periodically found ourselves going from crawling pace to accelerating solidly while hunting for some parking lot happy middle ground. Under different circumstances though this can be really good fun!
Like when the light turns green and you crack open the throttle all the way, and suddenly you’re away from the cages and up to in-town speeds – even two up. The mechanism of your great escape is the lack of clutch and shifting; there’s no fiddling about to get off the line. It’s surprisingly fun and carefree – and more than a little shocking to the traffic as a 405lbs/184 kg scooter shows them rear tire.
The CVT is designed to hold the Burgman’s engine in it’s optimum power and torque generating range, around 5600 RPM, and it works. The sad reality though is the little 400cc doesn’t have a lot to offer in way of speed. To misquote James Bond, “My dear, I’m afraid we are woefully under-horsepowered.” Once up to 90kph there’s not a lot more get up and go, so accelerating out of trouble isn’t really an option. You learn to employ other strategies, like carrying your momentum and sliding through developing openings or braking.
Sliding through the openings takes full advantage of the Burgman’s maneuverability in motion. Everything heavy, the engine, the fuel, transmission and drive train, sits low on the Burgman, making for a center of gravity that hovers only vaguely above the pavement. All that means is that you can really flick this Jetsons mobile about in traffic. Just whip the bars about in a bit of counter steer and the tiny tires change direction at a moment’s notice.
Braking is a bit of a mind bender at first for the classically trained motorcyclist. The right hand lever is front brake, as on a traditional bike, and it’s weak – it has the stopping power of a Mazola-covered Sumo wrestler on a slip and slide. The left lever, where traditionally one expects the clutch, is a combined front and rear brake. This is the real stopper, pulling you down from speed like youve just run into a padded wall. Its shockingly effective, shocking being the operative term if youve just made the switch to the 400 and happen to forget that theres no clutch. Theres not a lot of brake feel here, but its user-friendly and effective so unlikely to receive complaints from the Burgmans target audience.
The target audience is also going to love the Burgman’s practicality with its capacious under-seat stowage. The trunk will handily swallow a laptop case, a light jacket and a full-face helmet with a bit of engineering, and opens remotely by key via the ignition. The locking under-dash glove compartment is, by bike standards, huge and comes complete with a power outlet for charging your cell-phone while scooting about town either a brilliant option for the business rider or a misguided marketing exercise. Just in case the Burgman wasnt mule enough, there are the left and right dash-side compartments, featuring happy-flappy-doggy-ear lids, which are on the flimsy side of build quality. They have great comedic value however, because with a bit of work you can convince others that these are deployable high-speed aerodynamic stabilizers – provided you can hold a straight face.
It’s running around town doing errands and meetings that the Burgman throws into sharp contrast how massively impractical even a motorcycle with bags can be in comparison. The joy and simplicity of opening the trunk (complete with vanity light), pulling out your laptop, throwing in your helmet, closing the seat and walking away is seductive in its convenience. Add to the handiness the fact that the Burgman is truly comfortable and its practicality draws you in further.
The seat is deep, wide and plush and comes complete with adjustable backrest. The rest is suitable for use by the shorter set, but for the taller among us it will likely remain in the backmost position. The pillion position is well appointed with a backrest and grab handles to keep your passenger in place. The windscreen is high and the airflow around it is well engineered and begs you to complete the scooter experience by wearing an open-faced helmet. In comparison to other bikes we’ve tested or even owned there is simply no other two-wheeler that I would prefer to own for errands around town.
Back to the open road and riding with other bikes, what happens when you take the Burgman 400 outside the traffic-congested arteries of the city? In the strangest of ways a lot of good fun! It’s underpowered, so once you get it up to speed you need to hold it there. Riding with sportbikes you may as well just keep the throttle locked wide open, this is a game that requires you maintain momentum. A sad commentary on the quality of local drivers on the Sea-to-Sky highway is that the 400 can still pass them, generally on the uphill and in the right-hand lane, as they mistakenly consider their mini-van the fastest thing on the road. The happy part is by using the traffic to your advantage you’ll likely be able to keep up with the sportbikes ‘ if they play nice and choose only to execute legal passes. But it will take everything the Burgman has, so if you’re going to be out and riding with other bikes you’ll need to consider more competitive fare ‘ the Honda Silverwing or the Suzuki Burgman 650 perhaps.
The tiny tires don’t deal well with ruts, bumps or potholes and tend to bounce around more than is comfortable while ‘at speed’. The suspension is soft, compliant and wallowing ‘ so again ‘at speed’ you’ll need to be on your game. The fact that most major elements of the driveline, engine, transmission and final drive, are attached to the rear swingarm doesn’t exactly make for a performance vehicle from the suspension’s perspective. Oh and ‘at speed’ the Burgman gets caught in crosswinds easily. Which brings us to the real question’ what is ‘at speed’? We managed to get the single potter up to 120kph though a series of 60 marked corners, and one run on a long downhill the Burgman 400 pogo’d and bounced to an indicated 160kph. This can’t be recommend as a normal operation; the Burgman isn’t built for it’ which is what makes it so damn fun.
You wind it up, you keep it wound up and you ride it for everything it’s worth. The sheer incongruity of the Burgman hoofing thought the corners at these speeds is worth every bit of risk, bounce and wallow. Worth even more is to hear snapper Kevin exclaiming, ‘I REFUSE to get a ticket chasing down a scooter!’ All told though, if you’re going to keep up on the highways you really need to whip the big scoot’ and you need to wave’ a lot’ and very flamboyantly.
Being in the habit of waving to bikes I’ve come to expect that the courtesy be returned. On the Burgman most often it wasn’t. So I developed a strategy, if you don’t wave back, I’ll wave all the harder. I find myself arm straight up waving like a madman at a Harley Davidson rider who has just passed me on the roadway in the opposite direction. A few minutes later I’m doing the same to a rider on GSX-R 1000. Next, I’m passing a Harley Davidson rider who’s all attitude on the freeway; you can feel the crushed manhood as you whir by, ‘Hello Kitty’ ornaments strung off the mirrors flapping.
It’s outlandish behavior, but the Burgman can be outlandishly fun ride and deserves not to be ignored. Of course, all this likely guarantees that you’ll have a few less friends swinging by to talk to you at the local bike hangout, especially if you’ve been dogging them the entire way there. Finishing the ride by loudly exclaiming how much fun the usually odious traffic was, or that you really wish the Burgman had a sound system so you could play the Jetsons theme song in loop to complement it’s engine note, won’t help much either. That’s ok, you’ll get new friends – the Burgman attracts them.
The demographic is wide, house DJ’s to octogenarians stop to ask about the Burgman. ‘What is it?’ ‘How fast is it?’ ‘How much can it hold?’ ‘What’s it like to ride?’ ‘Why do you have Hello-Kitty decorations hanging off the mirrors?’ Regarding the decorations; they are a distraction tactic. The Burgman 400’s mirrors are hideous chrome bar-mounted monstrosities tacked on out of the parts bin and completely out of line with the rest of the scooter’s look. Mirrors aside, the Burgman’s visage is so friendly and approachable that it attracts riders and non-riders alike; to ride this scooter is to be transformed into a goodwill ambassador for Suzuki, so prepare to answer a lot of questions.
So it’s a freakishly underpowered hoot to ride, it will torque off the local sportbikers in traffic, it’s practical for running errands, has more than enough stomp for around town, handles exceptionally well through traffic, is comfortable and user-friendly and can even go for the occasional highway stomp. All this adds up to being the near perfect city commuter doesn’t it? Well, yes, except for one thing ‘ the price. At $7,999.00 CDN MSRP the Burgman 400 is not the cheapest around town transport, costing only marginally less than entry-level bikes like the Suzuki SV-650 and the Honda 599.
If you’re looking for a practical two-wheeled way of beating out the rising cost of gas, and out-maneuver roadway-clogging SUVs, the Suzuki Burgman 400 is an exceptional choice. As a way to enter the world of two wheels you’re likely to quickly outgrow it and be looking for more as soon as you hit the twisties.
Craving more Burgman? Try the BurgmanUSA.com forums.