Road Test Review
If you’ve been around motorcycling for a few years, you no doubt recall the heyday of the Suzuki Katanas. Introduced in the early ’80s these bikes (in various displacement sizes) were named for a type of Japanese Samurai sword and were good all-rounders with a sporty touch and full bodywork. They were powered by detuned versions of GSX-R sportbike motors, and were utilized as sport tourers…with the accent on sport. They last appeared for the 2006 model year.
Suzuki has introduced a new sword, the 2009 Suzuki Gladius 650, and it’s a worthy successor to the Katanas though somewhat differently focused. In historic terms, a gladius was a sword said to have been used by the gladiators of ancient Rome, shorter and lighter than those used by soldiers in battle. In motorcycle terms, the Gladius will soon come to be known as a simpler, lighter midsized Suzuki with one heck of a fun factor.
In researching the market, Suzuki determined that with the influx of young people the average age of motorcycle buyers was no longer increasing. They further determined that the younger buyers entering the market desired practical and economical transportation, and thus the Gladius was born. The intent was for it to be more versatile than the Katanas by making it a naked bike with an upright seating position. It was originally targeted for the European market so they wanted something that was hip, urban and modern. Suzuki even sent Japanese designers to Europe for several months to study its fashion, architecture and motorcycle culture. The result is the flowing shapes and forward thrust, what Suzuki calls “style meets technology.”
The Gladius is based upon the very successful Suzuki SV650, which was introduced for 1999 and has been available in two models. Last year, Suzuki offered it as the SV650SF
The throttle-body injectors utilize dual throttle valves for a smoother response, and the airbox funnels are of staggered length for heightened midrange torque. The injectors now have 10 holes for more complete atomization in the interest of easier starting and a more stable idle; two iridium-tipped spark plugs per cylinder guarantee more complete burning. Transmission gearing is the same as with the SV650, but with a slight difference in final reduction ratios. Anti-lock brakes, however, will not be available on the 2009 Gladius.
We rode our Gladius over to Jett Tuning‘s dynamometer in Camarillo, California, where this little engine was induced to crank out 69 horsepower at 8,500 rpm, and 45 lb-ft of torque at 7,800, which certainly helps it get down the road. The original SV650 we tested in 1999 generated 68.1 horses and 44.2 lb-ft of torque, but the SV650S we tested two years later was down a bunch, offering just 64.8 horses and 42.4 lb-ft of torque. Most telling, the Gladius offers very impressive torque figures that start in the high 30s at 3,500 rpm, and stay above 40 lb-ft from 5,900 to 8,900 rpm.
The ultimate test of performance is the seat-of-the-pants dyno, so we took our Gladius on the road. Seat height is 30.9 inches, so the bike is on the tall side. The key is very conveniently placed right up there by the gauges. Because the bike is fuel injected, no choke or fast-idle fiddling is required. Once it’s idling along happily, place it in gear to find a moderate pull from the cable-actuated clutch, and an easy friction zone. You can ride it away and the cold engine presents no bucking or cold-running problems.
Out on the road the six-speed transmission shifts with extreme ease and precision-it’s darn-near effortless-and the 90-degree V-twin engine is remarkably smooth and quiet. Though it revs to a 10,500-rpm redline very little vibration is even noticed, let alone intrusive, anywhere on the bike. Power is more than adequate, with a steady pull from 3,500 rpm to redline.
After a few minutes aboard the Gladius I became aware that the flat seat is very narrow at the front, with very little padding, and has a definite edge. The seat is also tipped slightly forward, giving the rider the feeling that he or she is sliding into the tank; this soon becomes uncomfortable and tiresome. Suzuki offers an optional high seat that is 2 inches taller, but it is also firmly padded and has that same bothersome edge you can feel with your gluteus.
Suzuki is proud of its new instrumentation, and rightly so. It consists of a pod with a large analog tachometer in the center, digital speedometer to the right and gear indicator between. Other niceties include the usual warning lights, and a low-fuel warning light that blinks, then glows steadily as supply diminishes; a reserve tripmeter counts down the mileage.
With rake/trail figures of 25 degrees/4.17 inches, and a wheelbase of 56.9 inches, this little sword cuts a quick and agile swath. Take the Gladius along a tight, twisty road and words come to mind such as “eager,” “sprightly” and “agile.” Steering is easy, quick, yet stable. With the rider sitting relatively upright behind that wide handlebar, there’s plenty of leverage available to get the Gladius carving quickly and precisely on tight, technical roads.
Another important performance factor is braking, and the Gladius offers paired 290mm rotors squeezed by two-piston Tokicocalipers up front, and a single-piston caliper jammin’ with a rear 240mm disc. Braking is strong, especially on the front, limited only by the fork’s soft springing and damping. We dialed in more spring preload to lessen fork dive.
For tires, Suzuki fitted the Gladius with a pair of high-quality Dunlop Qualifiers, a 120/70-ZR17 front and a 160/60-ZR17 rear, both wider than what’s on the SV650SF. They add to the bike’s stable feel, and the confidence-inspiring way it rolls into turns.
Both the fork and the link-type shock are by Showa, and both could use a little help. It is said that golf is a fine walk spoiled by a little white ball, and my observation is that the Gladius is a fine motorcycle somewhat compromised by a lackluster suspension. Any type of harsh bump, pavement edge or pothole smacks the rider hard and sends the suspension (especially the rear) oscillating. During our photo shoot I had to repeatedly roll through a right-hander at about 50 mph in third gear, leaned over, then haul it down immediately just short of a narrow, blind corner. The pavement through this section was composed of a series of dips, and I vividly recall coming into them time after time, hard on the brakes, the suspension heaving and kicking back at both ends.
Both the shock and fork offer only spring preload adjustments, and you have to wonder why Suzuki would go to all the trouble of offering such a sweet little package but then fail to take it that final step by providing a better suspension. After all, with the SV650SF selling for $7,499 and the ABS version at $7,999, there’s some wiggle room in terms of price to improve the $6,899 Gladius.
While the tank itself is steel, the white side panels are plastic and they limit the usefulness of a magnetic tankbag. However, the trellis frame offers plenty of anchor points for a strap-on bag. Under the seat is a pair of helmet holders, and a unique feature on the bottom of the seat itself is a pair of textile loops, each 3.5 inches long, that can be flipped out to the sides and used for attaching luggage. The seatbag we were using, however, had a loop that attached under the seat, and its shock cords were long enough that we were able to attach them near the passenger pegs. Finally, there’s a 12.5-inch-long metal rod with a loop in one end stored under the seat that is designed for use as a prop to support the fuel tank when it’s tilted upward during servicing. The Gladius has only a sidestand, and no centerstand.
After a day of whacking the Gladius through one of our photo shoots (which consists of endless passes in front of the camera, hard braking, turning around and accelerating through the gears and doing it all again) I was concerned whether the 3.8-gallon tank held enough fuel to get me home. However, when I pulled into a station with the low-fuel light winking, it took just 2.9 gallons after 145 miles…that’s 50 mpg, which is unheard-of mileage for photo shoots!
During a more conventional freeway ride combined with an aggressive sprint through some tight Southern California canyons, the Gladius turned a remarkable 54.8 mpg, an impressive figure any way you slice it. In easy commuting use, 60 mpg or more should be possible.
Colors for the U.S. market will include the blue/white model shown, or all black, your choice for just $6,899. A limited number of accessories will include a flyscreen, padded tank cover, a slip-on muffler by Yoshimura, various carbon fiber bits and the aforementioned higher seat.
Other than the overly firm seat (“Gladius nixes gluteus”?), my only complaint with the Gladius is that its suspension is not up to the quality of the engine and the chassis’ capabilities. Overall it’s a very easy bike to ride, to shift, easy on gas and not buzzy despite the high revs it turns. In short, it should be very attractive to its intended youth market, though this old guy really enjoyed it, too.
I recommended the original SV650s to a number of people, and am happy to do the same for the Gladius. Dare I say that, despite its few shortcomings, the Gladius kicks gluteus!