2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650 Test
When it comes time to select an adventure touring motorcycle, there is a temptation to yield to the compulsion to go big. There are a good number of liter-plus choices in the genre, though considerably fewer in the mid-size range.
Even though the Suzuki V-Strom 650 is a stalwart mid-size adventure tourer, save for optional ABS in 2006, the bike has not been updated since its introduction in 2003. While that stagnation has not prevented the bike from doing well on the showroom floor, some new competition over the last few years meant a modernization was happily inevitable.
The process began in 2008, with the goal of making what Suzuki describes as “The Comfortable Adventure Tourer.” To realize this goal, Suzuki engineers started virtually from scratch in redesigning the V-Strom 650.
Retiring the previous powerplant, Suzuki took the Gladius 650 V-twin and reworked it for the V-Strom. Changing the cam profile, the new V-Strom motor has more aggressive valve timing than the previous edition, though not as sporting as the Gladius. The objective was to pump up the midrange and increase fuel consumption efficiency.
We don’t have mpg numbers on the old V-Strom 650, though I extracted about 44 miles out of each gallon of fuel on the new V-Strom in a very wide variety of conditions‚Äîurban to rural, interstate to dirt road. Suzuki claims a fuel efficiency increase of 10-percent for the new bike, which enabled the engineers to shrink the tank capacity to a bit over five gallons. That, in turn, allowed for a narrower tank profile, offering opportunities for ergonomic improvements‚ the dominos fall. It’s time to ride.
Beating the standard V-Strom off the production line is the all-new V-Strom 650 ABS Adventure, which is an accessorized version of the standard machine. There is no better place to test the capabilities of the new 650 Adventure than the diverse roads around North Carolina’s Little Switzerland in the Blue Ridge Mountain range of the Appalachians.
As a bonus, I had the comfortable 101-year-old Little Switzerland Inn as a centralized base near the southern end of the legendary Blue Ridge Parkway in the Pisgah National Forest. If that isn’t tantalizing enough, Bill Kniegge of highly regarded Blue Strada Tours (reviewed in our June/July 2009 issue) provided the indispensable local knowledge needed to make sure I was able to put the V-Strom through every possible challenge.
Many riders may know the Blue Ridge Parkway as a haven for RVs, minivans, blue hairs, and overly eager beaver Blue Ridge Parkway Law Enforcement Rangers. That, of course, is on-season. Riding the Blue Ridge Parkway in early November is a revelation.
Virtually devoid of anything other than the very occasional local, the Parkway is left to you, your motorcycle, and countless falling leaves fluttering across the high-quality pavement as autumn takes dead aim at winter. With no cross traffic and few transition roads, I was able to set my own pace on the V-Strom 650 Adventure with Kniegge leading the way‚Äîa finer personal guide you will not find.
As a street bike, the V-Strom 650 Adventure is a perfectly capable machine, as long as you work with the understanding that it is a 645cc V-twin pushing over 500 pounds, plus rider and cargo. Fast, it is not, though the V-Strom is remarkably friendly to ride.
Straightaways are few and far between on the Blue Ridge Parkway. This sort of road puts a premium on cornering capabilities and easy transitions, and the new V-Strom 650 shines in these conditions. Even with the 19″/17″ Bridgestone Trail Wing tire combination, the bike is willing to rock the twisties.
Cornering clearance is generous, and the Bridgestones will accommodate your desire for whatever lean angle you choose. Handling is impeccably neutral and predictable, and the six-inch travel suspension‚Äîwhich has been tightened up a bit and only adjustable for preload‚Äîrejects wallowing and uncertainty.
For a motorcycle marketed as an adventure machine, it is highly confident on pavement. Slaloming between corners, the V-Strom 650 has no resistance to changing direction. Nothing happens quickly or slowly; the bike reacts instinctively to your input.
When coming too hot into the corner, the ABS works flawlessly, though not transparently. Still too fast? Just lean a bit more; the V-Strom always seems to hold a little bit of handling in reserve.
To be sure, the tame motor helps make this possible. It is easier to make a bike with less horsepower handle well. Having said that, the liquid-cooled DOHC mill is not a dog. The power is in the midrange, so shifting the six-speed transmission is often optional. The V-Strom’s motor does not rev quickly, though it pushes incessantly. It is ideal for its intended use; exclusive sport riders can choose a Gladius instead.
The silky power delivery is achieved through smoothing out the combustion process. Ten-hole fuel injectors and twin iridium spark plugs per cylinder further the goal.
I have always liked the feel of the Suzuki Dual Throttle Valve system, which smooths out the throttle response, and it is welcome on the V-Strom 650. As is often the case, the success of the motor is the result of many small, individually indistinct efforts.
Out on the open road, the V-Strom 650 Adventure can certainly hold its own. Trying to make-up some time as darkness was falling, I was cruising at 90 mph without stressing the motor. No, there is not a lot of power in reserve at that speed, though the overdrive sixth gear keeps revs low.
In general, the V-Strom‚Äôs short-stroke 90-degree V-twin motor is remarkably free of vibration or steps in the power delivery. The sun did set before returning to the Little Switzerland Inn, however, and the new headlights show the way admirably on moonless unlit roads.
The new instrument panel is easily read, day or night. The large tach is analog, with your speed and transmission position reported by a large LCD. New and welcome is an ambient thermometer, and a small light that warns you when the temperature hits freezing.
Considering it is a 650, it can be called upon as a straight tourer. The aluminum panniers are high capacity, particularly the left box, which doesn’t have to make room for the muffler. Despite the fact that Suzuki moved the muffler in, the panniers are mounted quite wide. They aren’t custom made for the 650 Adventure, and require a Rube Goldberg mounting frame for attachment.
From behind you can see that they are mounted at an unappealing angle, so there is no styling advantage that comes with an integrated look. The latches lock securely, though you can’t leave them unlocked‚ a bit of an inconvenience. Consider them practical, though a bit of an eyesore on a bike that looks quite nice unadorned. Many will probably opt for the standard V-Strom and add Suzuki’s accessory resin sidebags, which fit much better.
A top box with a passenger backrest can also be easily installed onto the integrated luggage platform for maximum carrying capacity. While a passenger would be comfortable, and there are nice molded handholds, we would be looking at the V-Strom 1000 if we were routinely riding two-up.
Suzuki redesigned the V-Strom’s seat, and it is a winner. High-end in appearance‚Äîred stitching and an appealing V-Strom logo‚Äîthe seat treats your rear end with respect thanks to it being 25-percent thicker than the previous version. The taller seat gives your legs a bit more room, which is welcome for touring.
Narrow in the front to make it easy to touch down at a stop, the seat is wide in the back for great support, plus there is a rise for the passenger that gives you something to push back against. It is a sit-and-stay perch, rather than one you move around on. There are two accessory seats – one taller, one shorter – that allow ergonomic personalization.
Attention was also paid to air management, from top to bottom. The fairing and windshield have been redesigned for more protection. The amount of wind that gets through is just right for an adventure tourer. The windshield is three-way adjustable, though a tool is required to accomplish this. A mini-deflector on the top of the windscreen is hand-adjustable and allows you to fine-tune the airflow effectively.
Suzuki fielded complaints about engine heat on the earlier V-Strom 650 and has done some serious redirecting. The stylish faux-carbon fiber front fender directs air to the radiator, which now has vents to move the air away from the rider’s feet. Behind that, the oil cooler has been replaced by a liquid cooled heat exchanger at the exposed oil filter’s base.
The heat deflection is effective, and I found myself wishing for a bit of warm air flowing over my Sidi Cobra boots, which are more sport than adventure. The fairing did its job, so even when the early morning ride temps were in the 40s, the AGV Sport Telluride jacket, pants and gloves kept me warm in conjunction with GatorSkins thermal top, pants, glove liners and neck gaiter. Next time I’ll have to try some GatorSkins boot liners. The Vemar Jiano EVO TC helmet’s integrated visor was perfect for changing light conditions. Proper apparel makes all the difference.
Back at the Little Switzerland Inn, enjoyment can be had at the Fowl Play Pub, and dinner at the Chalet Restaurant. Though the restaurant’s menu is lacking in local flavor, the Cajun prime rib I consumed was tender and tasty. The Main Lodge room I stayed in was very clean, though appeared a bit rustic at first sight. However, it had a modern bathroom and speedy Wi-Fi is free, a nice lifeline in a rural setting.
Groups of motorcyclists can look into the Diamondback Lodge at the Switzerland Inn. An eight-bedroom, eight-bath cabin (all en suite), it has a common room with a fireplace. Outside, season permitting, there are hot tubs and a swimming pool. Another motorcyclist-friendly feature is covered parking for the motorcycles right outside the Diamondback Lodge.
Blue Strada Tours offers pre-planned itineraries, or Kniegge can cook up a delicious custom ride of his own. As the Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS Adventure has pretensions of off-pavement performance, a ride on a dirt road was in order. Curtis Creek Road, which joins the Blue Ridge Parkway with US Route 70, showed the Adventure to be reasonably adventurous.
The primary limitations to the V-Strom 650 on dirt are the street-focused tires and the always-on lightweight Bosch ABS. Careful application of the throttle is mandatory, and the smooth V-twin obliges if given thoughtful input.
In a straight line, feel free to throw a little roost in gravely areas, and take it easy through corners. If gravel roads are likely to be a common occurrence, Suzuki’s accessory under cowling would be a good idea to protect the vulnerable oil filter.
Even with the standard steel engine guards, you do not want to drop the bike. The taut suspension evens out rough spots in the road, though not enough to keep one of the right pannier latches from exhibiting a chronic rattle.
As enjoyable as the V-Strom 650 was before, the 2012 version is a significant upgrade. The Adventure version is a highly adaptable machine that works quite well within its wide limits. The motor pulls better than it screams, and that is as it should be. The handling is all about predictability and nothing about pushing envelopes.
Long distances can be travelled, either through scenic twisting mountain roads or on a droning interstate. The V-Strom plays well in traffic, yet is happy to fling itself through corners in rural locales. It is a primarily solo sporting tourer that will gracefully accept the introduction of gentle dirt roads to the ride itinerary.
Enjoying a rich diet of single-purpose motorcycles that excel nonpareil at one particular skill makes it easy to forget the simple pleasure of a motorcycle with few boundaries. Putting some saddle time in on the 2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS Adventure reminds us that flexibility can be a wonderful thing.