If you think about it, apart from lifting the spirit, motorcycles can be really frustrating. It’s true, and deep down you know it, don’t you?
There just never seems to be a single “right” bike for all occasions. A litre-class sportsbike is out of its depth crossing the Tanami. And US-built cruiser iron is only really comfortable when it’s… well… cruisin’. You get the idea. What we need in the shed, parked next to our favourite bike, as an all-rounder. Or if just one bike is the order of the day, then there’s a lot to be said for it being an all-rounder.
This is why Suzuki’s trusted V-Strom range has been so amazingly successful over the past decade-and-a-half. In simple terms, V-Stroms are class leading all-rounders, built to an extremely high standard, and costing way less than much of the competition. The smaller capacity of the two models, the DL-650 “Wee Strom” has always been the stronger seller. And for good reason. It’s a cost-effective and relatively lightweight motorcycle that is capable and comfortable in a diverse range of situations: traffic on your daily commute, cruising the freeway on the weekend, scratching in the mountains with your mates, navigating broad stretches of inland gravel looking for the perfect camping spot, and yes, even tackling the occasional snotty 4WD track with a confident rider at the controls. There’s no doubt the DL-650 V-Strom has earned a solid reputation, and for very good reason. Let’s take a closer look at this latest offering from Hamamatsu.
Since my last review of the DL-650 (See Riding On Issue 114) the engineers at Suzuki have extensively re-designed the bike. Cosmetically it is now almost a clone of its big brother, the DL-1000. In fact, they are difficult to tell apart. The giveaway is the USD fork on the bigger bike, compared to the conventional fork on the Wee Strom. Other than that, at first glance they are indistinguishable.
All the detailed specs are available on Suzuki’s website, so no need to waste too much valuable ink here. Suffice to say the bike is a 650cc v-twin, rolling on 19” front and 17” rear wheels, both of which are tubeless courtesy of an interesting spoke arrangement.
The 650 is now offered in four versions: The standard alloy-wheeled DL-650 in both full power and LAMS variants, as well as the wire-wheeled DL-650XT, again in full power and LAMS variants. The bike sent to Riding On for review was the full power XT version, which gives a nod to slightly more rugged usage by the owner. Apart from the wire wheels, for your extra dollars you get plastic hand guards and a plastic engine guard. More on these later.
A brief word on the hardware though. It’s immediately obvious, at a glance, that this new bike is a radical departure from the model it supersedes. I think it would be fair to say that V-Stroms have always had, shall we say, debatable appearance. The design of the bodywork has been subject to personal opinion, and not everyone has agreed. This new bike continues the tradition! It will be, for some, an ugly duckling, but for others it will be a muscular and purposeful shape. I must admit I fall into the latter category. For me this model has replaced the rather nondescript cosmetics with a far more aggressive design as befits the bike’s extreme capabilities. A tick for Hamamatsu in my eyes at least.
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All the detailed specs are available on Suzuki’s website, so no need to waste too much valuable ink here. Suffice to say the bike is a 650cc v-twin, rolling on 19” front and 17” rear wheels, both of which are tubeless courtesy of an interesting spoke arrangement. See photos. Brakes are Nissins at both ends, and work exceptionally well, even if the front does feel a little wooden at first touch. They are ABS of course, and are non-switchable, which for me was never an issue, even on very loose gravel surfaces. The brakes really are first class. Seat height is an almost too-low 835 mm, at least for someone of 180 cm or more, as in my case. Wheelbase is a rewarding 1560 mm, which I’m sure partly accounts for the bike’s excellent stability and tracking. Fuel capacity is a valuable 20 litres, giving excellent range considering the bike’s miserly consumption. Lastly, it weighs in at 216 kg’s ready to roll, which isn’t a featherweight, but nor is it a porker. Just about average.
There is however, one other spec of significance to talk about: for the first time, the smaller V-Strom comes fitted with Suzuki Traction Control System, or STCS. Since reviewing its big brother fitted with STCS (see Riding On issue 125), and being totally gobsmacked as to this blisteringly good feature, I have been waiting with bated breath for the release of the 650 fitted with it. And at last it’s here. I was keen, to say the least, to get out and try it. See my opinion below.
OK, so now for what matters. How does the bike perform on sealed roads? Well, V-Stroms have always been sweet ‘n’ easy, at least if ridden mildly. As well, though, they’ve also been very quick indeed, if push comes to shove. And I’m pleased to say that this 2017 DL-650 continues the tradition. The bike is as mild mannered as you could wish for if you feel like pottering along. It is comfortable, quiet, torquey, and has the slickest gear-shift of just about any motorcycle. You only have to think about changing gear and it seems to respond. All bikes should have transmissions this good. The adjustable windscreen works beautifully, with no untoward buffeting, and the dash gives you all the info you would wish for at a glance. All very nice indeed. Those flowers do smell good, don’t they?
But then your mates catch up with you, overtake you, and the red mist descends. You know exactly what I mean, don’t you? How is the “little” Strom going to respond? Well, drop down two gears, hit the throttle and find out. That lovely V-twin motor, just a minute ago delivering lazy torque, will now respond by delivering impressive power – killer watts of it! Once the plot reaches 5,000 RPM the bike just urges itself onwards. No holds barred, at least for a 650. And the handling of the carefully thought-out chassis is more than good enough for the task. You’ll find yourself achieving amazing precision through the twisties on this bike, and no matter what your mates are riding, the forceful power characteristics, coupled with sweet handling and brakes, will see you pulling in behind them in no time. Maybe even overtaking them? This bike is excellent at speed on the tar. Make no mistake about it.
Having said that, the bike is touted as an all-rounder, so how does it handle the world of gravel? Let’s face it, if you live in Australia there’s almost no way you can adequately explore this land of ours without encountering at least a modicum of unsealed road. What can I say? Here the little V-Strom excels. So long as the road is smooth(ish) the bike will lap it up, reverting to short-shifting torquey behaviour. It points well, stops well, handles unstable surfaces with aplomb, and delivers a confidence-inspiring ride. And I was right about the traction control: it’s transformed what was an already competent bike on dirt, to what is now a wonderfully capable machine delivering extraordinary confidence to the rider. The STCS differs slightly from the DL-1000 in that the bigger bike has a ride-by-wire throttle, which allows the bike’s ECU to intervene between your right wrist and the rear wheel, delivering what is, in my view, a sublime result exiting big sweeping gravel corners!
Sadly, the Wee Strom’s throttle is a traditional cable operated number. It still works incredibly well managing rear-wheel slip, but if I am really picky it just lacks that little bit of extra finesse that the RBW throttle is capable of. A small criticism, for in reality the cable system still works amazingly well. Set in position 1, which allows a little slip, but not too much, the bike delivers scintillating performance on gravel corners. It will hook up with whatever traction it can find, and propel the bike forward with nary a hesitation, particularly when short-shifted. Nothing but confident acceleration with no untoward fishtailing. None. Very satisfying, and of course a significant contributor to safety as it virtually eliminates the possibility of the back end coming around to greet you as a result of overly ambitious throttle! In this area, I am amazed at how brand Green and brand Yellow from Japan have really nailed the electronics of traction control. IMHO the Europeans aren’t even on the same page in this area. All their systems, at least that I have ridden, fare very poorly indeed when compared to the exquisite sophistication of the Japanese. IMHO…
So, it’s an excellent motorcycle, this little V-Strom 650XT. Right? Well yes, but it’s not perfect. There are a few little brickbats to talk about.
Firstly, on sealed roads. Here the bike performs flawlessly, remembering always that it is a 650 cc all-rounder; it’s not a sportsbike, or a continent-busting adventure bike. After spending some time out on the highway I found nothing of note to complain about. It is sweet when the mood takes, it has a fire in its tail when required, and it achieves all this with stability and grace. Excellent.
Secondly though, is of course unsealed roads. Here there are one or two little issues to speak about. As I mentioned, the bike loves smooth gravel, but once the surface turns to potholes and whoops, the 150 mm of suspension travel quickly finds its limit. The bike is more than capable of traversing this type of road, but it does require a more measured riding style, if only to preserve the poise of the bike as it absorbs the bigger hits. Also, I wasn’t able to switch between STCS settings – Off, 1 or 2 – with the bike travelling more than walking speed. Not sure if it was me or the programming of the system, but this is obviously a drawback. A rider needs to be able to easily switch between modes on the fly, thus enabling immediate response to changing conditions.
And finally, the XT sports the plastic handguards and engine guard as mentioned above. In my view these are close to useless, and Suzuki would benefit from spending a little extra at the factory and fitting aluminium engine guard and handguards. These would then do what they should do: protect the engine casings and exhaust header from severe rock damage and protect the control levers from damage in the event of a spill. I think most potential owners would be happy to pay a little extra for this improved protection.
So, there it is; the 2017 Suzuki DL-650XT V-Strom. If you want to ease that frustration and get a hold of a versatile motorcycle that will enable you to spread your wings a little, then the Wee Strom is worth a look. It will easily and sweetly tackle just about anything you can throw at it, and for a very reasonable outlay of hard-earned dollars to boot.
Words and Photographs: John Baker #40633