Road Test Review
Remember the SV650? When it debuted in 1999, Suzuki’s small-fry naked bike wowed the press and public alike despite having modest power, budget components and no wind protection. Why? The SV650 had that special something not all bikes have. It can’t be bolted on and it doesn’t show up in spec charts. Character, soul, mojo, whatever you call it, the SV650 had it. Fun and rowdy, easy to ride but never boring, affordable and stone reliable, it was like that good friend who always has your favorite beer in his fridge, a comfy couch you can crash on and tools you can borrow.
The SV650’s good-times magic was buried deep within its 645cc 90-degree V-twin, and it survived a heart transplant into the V-Strom 1000’s chassis, giving life to the V-Strom 650 in 2004. Like the SV, the V-Strom 650 developed a cult following and outsold its big brother by a healthy margin. It was the ideal do-it-all middleweight—peppy motor, rugged chassis, effortless handling, comfortable seating, 250-mile range, reasonable price. What’s not to love? To wit, a husband-wife team rode a pair of Wee Stroms around the world on the eight-month, 40,000-mile Edelweiss Discover Our Earth expedition. Rider contributor Jerry Smith has one, and so does one of our ad guys. And even though the Triumph Tiger 800 edged out the V-Strom 650 in our head-to-head comparison (Rider, June 2011), the Suzuki’s charms proved hard to resist; Senior Managing Editor Donya Carlson refused to give back our test bike and ended up buying it.
All gushing aside, after an eight-year run with few changes, the V-Strom 650 was looking a bit tired. Suzuki has given it a refresh for 2012, with tougher styling, more torque, less weight, revised suspension and better instrumentation while raising its price by just two Ben Franklins, to $8,299. And exclusive to the U.S. market is a new Adventure model ($9,799) that adds aluminum panniers, crash guards and a touring windscreen. After romping through the hills of Western North Carolina for two days at the V-Strom’s U.S. press launch, we procured a test bike to rack up more miles, hit the dyno and verify wet weight. Carlson recused herself from this evaluation, but we wrestled the keys away from her long enough to ride the 2011 and 2012 models back to back.
According to Product Marketing Manager, Derek Schoeberle at American Suzuki, the 2012 V-Strom 650 was restyled for both aesthetic and practical reasons: “The time had come for the V-Strom 650 to stand on its own, to have its own personality.” New black resin body panels not only look cool, they’re more durable than the painted plastic they replace. The front fender was redesigned to direct more airflow to the radiator, which has wind-directing plates for more efficient cooling and heat management. The engine was tidied up by replacing the unsightly oil cooler with a smaller, more efficient liquid-cooled heat exchanger behind the oil filter. And pushing in the front-end, clipping the tail and reducing muffler overhang made the V-Strom look more compact while centralizing mass. Sensible changes all, and with just a few splashes of Metallic Fox Orange amid a sea of black, the new V-Strom not only looks mean and lean, it weighs 18 pounds less than last year’s model.
Unfortunately, part of that weight loss came from a 0.5-gallon reduction in fuel capacity, from 5.8 to 5.3 gallons. Suzuki says the tank and front of the seat were made slimmer so more riders could plant both feet on terra firma since seat height was raised by 0.6 inch, from 32.3 to 32.9 inches. From the saddle the new V-Strom feels more svelte, but it didn’t feel too big before, and reducing the fuel capacity on a V-Strom is as sacrilegious as reducing the luggage capacity on a Gold Wing. Suzuki claims the new bike is 10 percent more fuel efficient, but our real-world fuel economy figures didn’t bear that out. In our June comparison test, we recorded 45.9 mpg on the 2011 model (range: 266 miles); on our 2012 test bike, we recorded 45.1 mpg (range: 239 miles).
The V-Strom’s engine has the same dimensions and configuration as before—liquid-cooled 645cc 90-degree V-twin, 81.0 x 62.6mm bore/stroke, eight-valve DOHC head—and it utilizes the same slick-shifting six-speed transmission and chain final drive. It has inherited enhancements found on the now-defunct-SV650-successor Gladius, such as low-friction, SCEM-plated cylinders, lightweight single valve springs, dual iridium spark plugs and a Throttle-body Integrated Idle Speed Control (TI-ISC) system. Other internal changes were aimed at enhancing the V-twin pulse, reducing mechanical noise and boosting low-to-midrange torque, changes that are readily apparent. Riding the new model back-to-back with its predecessor, the 2012 V-Strom runs smoother and quieter, it revs up more easily and it pulls stronger off the line and out of corners. On Jett Tuning’s dyno, the new V-Strom cranked out 66.2 horsepower and 43.0 lb-ft of torque, compared to 63.5 horsepower and 41.2 lb-ft of torque on the previous model. Horsepower and torque are 3-10 percent higher throughout the rev range. The new V-Strom feels more refined and less buzzy than before, and power output feels just right.
Most of the chassis, including frame, swingarm, brakes and wheels are carried over from the previous model. Steering geometry is the same, but wheelbase has increased a skosh (0.2 inch). Front spring preload has been increased and there’s a heavier rear spring with 0.4-inch more travel (to 6.3 inches), which also increased ground and cornering clearance. Compared to the 2011 model, the new V-Strom feels more firm, soaks up bumps more readily and bounces around less when riding aggressively. The V-Strom 650 has always been particularly blessed with balance and agility, and these qualities remain. It still has light, intuitive handling, it still feels stable at cruising speeds, and the street-biased Bridgestone Trail Wing tires provide decent grip on- and offroad. ABS is standard—the new Bosch system is 1.5 pounds lighter and works faster, but it can’t be switched off. There’s plenty of braking power that’s easy to modulate, and ABS pulsing was noticeable only at the rear pedal.
The V-Strom’s seating position is mostly the same, which is a good thing. Wide handlebars are at a sensible height, there’s plenty of legroom and the seat is broad and flat with plenty of space to move around. The seat now has 25 percent more padding, which, along with the rear suspension changes, increased seat height from 32.3 to 32.9 inches. As many other OEMs are doing these days, Suzuki offers either a low (32.1 inches) or high (33.7 inches) accessory seat, though it will set you back an extra $215.95. The standard and high seats were comfortable even after hours in the saddle, and both offer generous passenger accommodations. As on the previous model, there’s a standard luggage rack with integrated grab handles, but it is now made of resin instead of aluminum to save weight and its rubber cover can be removed to install an accessory top box. Available accessories include hard luggage (resin cases made by Hepco & Becker or aluminum cases made by SW-Motech), hand guards, heated grips, centerstand, power outlet, lower cowling and chain guard.
As before, the windscreen is three-position adjustable (Allen wrench required), but its new shape noticeably reduces wind noise and buffeting. A more modern instrument panel has been positioned higher for better visibility. An analog tach remains, but the analog speedo was replaced with a digital readout on the easy-to-read, brightness-adjustable multi-function LCD display. New functions include gear position, ambient temperature, A/B fuel consumption and a freeze-warning indicator, and a button on the left handlebar makes it easy to toggle through functions.
The 2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS has been refined in many ways. With its engine adapted from the 2009 Gladius, the new V-Strom makes more torque, less noise and less vibration, providing a more exciting, enjoyable ride. It looks and feels more svelte, and it weighs 18 pounds less, but some of the weight savings came at the expense of less fuel capacity —a questionable tradeoff since Suzuki’s claimed fuel efficiency gains didn’t materialize during our road test. The revised suspension, thicker seat, reshaped windscreen and better instrumentation are welcome changes. As an adventure tourer with off-pavement capabilities, we have concerns about reduced clearance on the new tire-hugging fender and, as on the previous model, the exposed exhaust header and oil filter are vulnerable to impacts. Suzuki says the vast majority of V-Strom owners don’t venture offroad, and it probably prefers it that way, which may explain why the ABS can’t be switched off and there isn’t a skid plate in the accessory catalog. We wish it had higher charging output, tool-less windscreen adjustment and a 12V outlet and centerstand as standard equipment, but we understand concessions must be made to keep the price low. Mile-burning farkle freaks will need to accessorize. All in all, what was already a great bike is now better. How it will stack up against the rising tide of adventure tourers remains to be seen.