Road Test Review
Because we test so many different bikes, Rider staffers are often asked, “What’s the best motorcycle?” That’s not an easy question to answer, in part because it depends on how the motorcycle will be used and what the rider’s priorities are. What began as a simple question soon turns into a drawn-out discussion about style, performance, handling, comfort, versatility, reliability, price and anything else that influences what types of motorcycles appeal to different people. “Best” really depends on your point of view.
One motorcycle that checks many of the boxes that are important to touring riders is the Suzuki V-Strom 650. With its liquid-cooled, 645cc, 90-degree V-twin lifted from the popular, budget-friendly SV650 sport standard, the V-Strom 650—affectionately known as the Wee Strom in deference to its big brother, the V-Strom 1000—is a light, affordable adventure tourer that’s been a top-seller in Suzuki’s lineup since it debuted for 2004. In our last full test of the V-Strom 650, back in February 2012 after the bike got its first major overhaul, we said it was “the ideal do-it-all middleweight—peppy motor, rugged chassis, effortless handling, comfortable seating, 250-mile range, reasonable price.” Those are admirable traits, and they still apply to the updated-for-2017 V-Strom 650. But there’s something about the bike that’s particularly endearing, that allows it to punch far above its weight, yet isn’t easy to pin down. You won’t find it in the specs or dyno chart. The V-Strom 650 is built to a price and, on Jett Tuning’s dyno, the new bike made a modest 68.7 horsepower and 44.2 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheel.
The V-Strom 650 got a significant makeover this year. For much of their history, the V-Strom 650 and V-Strom 1000 were hard to tell apart visually, but the 650’s update for 2012 and the 1000’s update for 2014 gave them distinct styling, allowing each to stand on its own. Suzuki decided to return to kindred styling for both models, with the 650 adopting the 1000’s rally-style fairing with a prominent beak, vertically stacked headlights and a luggage rack with integrated passenger grab handles. Suzuki has further harmonized the V-Strom lineup in terms of available colors and accessories, and there are XT versions of the 650 and 1000 that feature tubeless spoked wheels and other adventure-ready components.
The V-Strom 650 has received the same engine updates as the 2017 SV650, with more than 60 changes including new camshafts to boost power, resin-coated pistons to reduce friction, dual spark plugs for better combustion and Suzuki’s Low RPM Assist and Easy Start System. Both horsepower and torque have increased compared to the previous model, and peak torque now arrives at 6,500 rpm instead of 7,500. Also new are a traction control system, instrumentation and handlebar switchgear adopted from the V-Strom 1000, as well as a new exhaust and lighter, 10-spoke cast aluminum wheels. Traction control offers two intervention modes or it can be turned off, but the standard ABS isn’t switchable.
Riding the V-Strom 650 again after a few years was like catching up with an old friend—picking up where we left off and never skipping a beat. Suzuki’s press launch for the new V-Strom 650 and 1000 was held in Lake Arrowhead, California. After logging miles on the 1000 during the press ride (read our first ride report on ridermagazine.com), I rode home on the 650, taking Angeles Crest Highway up and over the San Gabriel Mountains, crossing Dawson Saddle at 7,900 feet and savoring the curves and scenery on one of America’s truly magnificent motorcycling roads. I slalomed back and forth, around bend after bend and between rocks that had tumbled into the road, with an ease and grace that few other motorcycles can match. Even though the V-Strom has budget-spec suspension, brakes that aren’t especially powerful and Bridgestone Trail Wing 90/10 adventure-touring tires that aren’t especially grippy, it has a preternatural ability to communicate to the rider exactly what is happening. Riding near the V-Strom’s limit (or the rider’s) feels perfectly natural because the bike never feels skittish or unpredictable.
Soon after my solo ride home from the intro, Managing Editor Jenny Smith and I embarked on a two-day, 500-mile comparison ride on the V-Strom 650 and Kawasaki Versys 650 LT. We headed into the southern Sierra Nevada, to the river-rafting town of Kernville and around Lake Isabella, a reservoir that went from nearly bone-dry to full after one winter of heavy rain and snow. For photos and testing, we spent a fair amount of time riding up and down Caliente-Bodfish Road, a rural two-laner that’s one of the steepest and curviest roads in California. I’ve probably ridden Caliente-Bodfish a couple dozen times on all sorts of motorcycles, and I don’t think I’ve ever gone faster with so little effort than I did on the V-Strom 650. Even with the throttle twisted wide open and slammed closed countless times, diving deep into corners hard on the brakes and stutter-stepping the rear tire over rough pavement coming out of corners, the Wee Strom never threw in the towel. It absolutely refused to give up.
Of course, most V-Strom 650 owners don’t treat their bikes like that. There are legions of “Stromtroopers” out there using their DL650s as daily commuters, grocery getters, weekend escapers and long-distance tourers, not as sportbikes in ADV clothing. But part of what makes the V-Strom 650 so special is that it’s the ultimate two-wheeled chameleon—it can be whatever you want it to be, within reason. It will never be a sit-low, feet-forward cruiser, and its 32.9-inch seat height, while average among adventure tourers, still puts it out of reach for many riders with short inseams (the 0.9-inch lower accessory seat should help). And given its modest power output, the V-Strom 650 isn’t the best choice for fully loaded, two-up touring, but it will get the job done.
No, the V-Strom 650 isn’t perfect. Its seat could provide better support for all-day riding, its windscreen’s three-way height adjustment shouldn’t require a hex wrench (though the new one is 0.35-inch taller and provides good protection) and hand guards should be standard equipment. But let’s not forget, this is an $8,799 motorcycle. For that price, it can be customized to your liking and still not crack five figures. And for that price you’d be hard-pressed to find a motorcycle that clutches and shifts so effortlessly, that so dutifully obeys every steering input (even with its 19-inch front wheel) and allows the rider to sit so naturally in a comfortable, upright position. Sure, lots of bikes are more powerful and sophisticated (and more expensive), but few are as well balanced and user-friendly as the V-Strom 650.
Having been on the Rider staff for nearly a decade, I’ve had the good fortune of riding and testing most of the street-legal motorcycles made by every major manufacturer, and I’ve found something to love about every single one of them. That experience—riding hundreds of different motorcycles on countless roads over roughly 250,000 miles—doesn’t make answering the “best motorcycle” question any easier. But if you asked me, “If you could own only one motorcycle and you had to spend your own money to buy and maintain it, what would it be?”, the Suzuki V-Strom 650 would be near the top of my list.