2004 Suzuki V-Strom DL 650 – The Seductive Whiff of Adventure

2004 Suzuki V-Strom DL 650The smell of pine and mud hangs in the warm late summer evening air, south of Manning Park on Highway 3.  It’s a perfect motorcycling moment… that falters the moment you realize the smell of mud is the result of bridge construction, that the road has veered suddenly, and that the temporary Bailey bridge’s surface is coated with slick muck.  The moment looks around a little stunned and then regains itself with the realization I’m on Suzuki’s Adventure-Tourer-Lite, the V-Strom DL 650.

The Wee-Strom’s Bridgestone Trailwings bite in and do what road tires with off-road pretensions should – get you through it all with a minimum of new grey hairs and a maximum of fun.  The dual headlights, clear lens units with multi-segment reflectors, cut through the mud splatter being kicked up by a semi in front of us, providing ample illumination.  Risking the piss-off factor of the highbeams, ample jumps to confidence-inspiring at the flick of a switch, allowing me to choose a slightly better line.  Brilliant – literally and figuratively.

Bridge done, the semi is left behind in an opportune pass; the tweaked SV 650 engine responds promptly, and surprisingly smoothly.  On the technical side, weight has been added to the starter clutch, increasing flywheel inertia and making for a smoother feel to the powerplant over the V-Strom 650’s sportier sister.  Peak power is down seven hp from the SV650 according to spec, but there’s more power where it counts, the midrange between 3400 and 6700 RPM.  The power is laid down with predictable linearity, but the engine spins up faster than bigger twins.  In a more sporting ride be prepared to be repeatedly kissing the 10,000 RMP redline.

In the straights, a Subaru WRX driver does his worst and leaves me aware that this is a 650.  In the back of my mind I’m vaguely aware that this is a “budget bike”, but that doesn’t really seem to matter much as the corner play begins.  The WRX is a faint glimmer in the capacious, and nearly vibration-free, mirrors.  As with most traillies it’s a counter steering affair that sees me pushing on the wide, high-mounted bars.  Taking the bike to the edge of the envelope I try hanging off a bit.  The act helps counter some of the bike’s flex and suspension wallow, but really feels more like an act of showmanship for the wildlife in the dark.  I slide back into the seat and settle for shifting my shoulder weight and pressing peg and bar.  Idly, I wonder where the Trailwings end and slippage begins, when pushing I’m not feeling the same confidence-inspiring grip of sport rubber.

Bumps, wallows, potholes, ridges, ripples and all manner of other road anomalies and variances that trip up pure sport-bikes are eaten up by the soft and compliant suspension, giving you a wider range of possible lines and greater confidence on dicey roads.  There is no jarring, juddering, sportbike harshness here, and in a province that has seen the ongoing degradation of its infrastructure, and consequently its favorite sport bike roads, this is a definite perk.  The forks are damper-rod style and only have adjustment for pre-load.  In back the shock offers knob-adjustable preload, handy for hitting the dirt and taking a pillion, and harder to reach screw-adjusted rebound damping.  Under hard braking the suspension reveals itself to be a bit budget, and takes a bit of a dive.

Other than that bit of dive, the brakes themselves feel well matched to the bike and don’t overpower the chassis or tires, but by no means over-perform under hard “Was that Bambi?” braking conditions.  The twin 310mm rotors with twin piston calipers up front give adequate feel.  In the back a single 260mm rotor with single piston keeps things sedately under control.

In the parking lot of the Princeton Chevron I forgo filling the 22-litre (including reserve) tank.  The pairing of this fuel capacity and a 650 engine that sips gasoline like a precious and fine Vintage Chardonnay, means you can get good bang for the buck at the pumps.  Even after a WFO throttle thrashing of the DL 650 we managed 390 kms out of a tank without running through the entirety of the reserve.   So, instead of filling the V-Strom, I took a moment to contemplate its looks under the filling station’s florescent glow.

The V-Strom 650 defies categorization and pooh-poohs convention; from one angle it looks ruggedly handsome, from another ungainly and awkward, from a third just plain goofy, from another like an assemblage of pieces from other bikes, and from the back… Well, from the back it’s just lopsided, with the right exit exhaust looking aesthetically and symmetrically impaired.  In the end it’s best to just accept that as a design this bike fell out of the ugly tree, hitting all the branches in the process.  Then the designers, feeling it wasn’t quite distinctive enough, then pushed it down the ugly stairwell for good measure.  If the characters from Monsters Inc. were to ride a bike, the Suzuki V-Strom would be it.  It’s all function, but the form is questionable – except at times the function is called into question.

The windscreen, for example, completely defies any kind of design principles – it’s adjustable through a 5 cm range of equally ineffective positions.  This will keep you occupied during all that time you’re not filling the bike, as it takes the removal of 10 screws and the use of a screwdriver and an allen key to change its stance.  From the low, gale-force front-on air stream attack, to highest position “why is there a person repeatedly whacking the back of my helmet with a day old baguette?” buffeting there is no joy.  In the end we conceded defeat and the screen was left in its lowest position as this produced the quietest airflow – we recommend earplugs.

Other than this one gaff, the V-Strom 650 is an amazingly comfortable bike to ride.  Legroom is ample (thought taller folks will probably prefer the 1000), the fairing provides adequate weather and mud protection, the wide bars are a comfortable reach, and the saddle is built for long days.  It’s comfy, wide, offers one of the best vantage points from which to see the world, and is curiously narrower towards the front.  This configuration proves a boon should you choose to do anything that requires standing up on the pegs.

The official line is that the V-Strom 650 is not a dual sport, but an adventure-sport, Suzuki’s marketing materials place it firmly on the pavement and leave it there.  But it’s gaining popularity amongst the adventure-touring aficionados.  The good news is that even in the hands of a complete neophyte this bike is more than capable of taking fire roads at a solid clip, even handling some fairly rough terrain.

While handing the bike over, Suzuki Western Canada Rep. Vic Johnston suggested, “Ride it hard.”  We’re not sure that whipping along fire roads and through fields of wildflowers were what he had in mind – so we made sure to wash all the posies out of the undercarriage.  Still, the DL 650 felt confident enough over local trails, and only really felt too street in loose sand and deep gravel.

Rousting such environs leaves one with two feelings.  The first feeling is one full of the adventure possibility of the V-Strom – images of simply “jacking it all” and taking off for parts unknown come on unbidden.  The second is a feeling of imminent financial peril as you mentally tally how much damage bashing the moderately unprotected underbelly, or scraping up the fairings will cost. Still, the draw to the dirt is almost undeniable.  Once there though, the throttle’s twitchy onset makes tough terrain a bit of a handful, and we found the first gear of the slick-shifting box a bit on the tall side for any really rough work.

Back on the roads, highways speeds are easy and relaxing to maintain, 140-160kph in sixth is a pleasant lope – beyond that the V-Strom 650’s engine becomes strained and throbs.  Swooping in and out of traffic becomes something far more enjoyable than mere freeway survival as you pilot from a commanding view.  Freeway stoppages, well, let’s just say there are none, with a little bending of legalities.  Shoulder gravel and debris are a lesser threat and the relatively narrow fairing makes lane splitting an “option” even when not in California.

On the asphalt the V-Strom 650 doesn’t come up short while competing with four-wheeled pylons but it does feel a bit dogged when riding with the big boys.  In a stomp with some big twins, the VTR 1000, the Ducati 998, and the venerable TL-R 1000, the meaty little 650 seriously needed to be caned, and the slick gearbox subjected to some serious lever dancing.  Keeping up in this crowd can be done, but the DL 650 doesn’t have the stomp required to it in style – this is not the Wee-Strom’s element.  Though one of our associates was shocked at how well it did, “I saw the Suzuki in the rearview and thought it was the TL-R from the headlights, then I did a double-take, it was the V-Strom!” – high praise from a group of seasoned and suitably disreputable road riders.

So the V-Strom DL 650 isn’t likely to have you thinking Paris-Dakar anytime soon, but in a way for us mere mortals this bike is much better.   It’s the perfect weekender’s tool, you can take it out for a roadway thrashing, on your way out to do a bit of camping or hanging out at the cabin. As a bonus the V-Strom will take on the fire roads and open up a whole new world of riding possibilities.  Better, yet it does it all with the scent of pine and mud hanging in the air…  and something else, inhale deeply, did you catch that?  It’s the subtle fragrance of fresh adventure.

M.S.R.P. 8,899.00 $CDN

Test Bike Provided By Suzuki Canada


One Comment Add yours

  1. Walter Wilkins says:

    Time for another article on the DL650? I am a recovering BMW rider who bought a 2009 DL last year and love it so much that I changed most of it to make it better. (My wife puts a similar effort on me.)

    Still, after over 35+ years of riding,and 30 years of marriage, I think that the DL650-ABS is an amazing value – it just plan works. How about another review with a new bike + Twisted Throttle parts + better brakes – suspension – and seat? It really is about time . . .


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