The Incredible V-Strom 650 – A Review

Okay, maybe I’m a bit late to the party. The V-Strom 650 and 1000 variants already have a large cult following. Entire websites and forums are dedicated to this one single Suzuki model, which remained largely unchanged for 8 years from 2004 to 2011. Home-shop fabricators and big corporations across the world make a living by creating mods to fully farkle and bulletproof the already solid foundation of a bike.

But why? It’s such a weird looking bike, you might say. Yeah, I say that too. At first glance, it doesn’t appeal to me; it doesn’t spark anything special inside me. It’s kinda plain looking. You can tell it’s a budget bike instantly – form follows function. Many times, function follows cost, as is evident with the number of plain steel fasteners that rust rather quickly. Anyway, a bit about me. Who’s this shmuck and why does he think he’s entitled to write a motorcycle review?

I’ve been riding motorcycles for about 18 years now, primarily dirt, and the last 3 primarily on the street. It’s better that way I think, since street riding is technically easier than dirt riding, and much less physically demanding. During this time, I’ve ridden a fair amount of bikes- dirt bikes including 50’s to 450’s both 2-and 4-strokes; street bikes including motards, sprotbikes, cruisers, sport touring, and adventure bikes, all the way from 1 to 4 cylinders. In reality, it’s not THAT many bikes, but enough to have a decent reference list in my memory banks for assessing future bikes. Aside from riding, I’m a mechanical engineer by education, trade, and hobby. Me gusta mechanical things. Motorcycles are one of the most attainable, complex, customizable, rewarding devices normal people can get their hands on.

How did the V-Strom 650 happen? Well, until the V-Strom, my primary bike was a Ducati Hypermotard SP. My dream bike. The bike is incredible. So much peaky power! The suspension is communicative and sharp. The list goes on. And therein lies the rub. That is all good and fun if you’re going out for a blast on the twisties with your buds, hooning around like a crazy person, but on a day-to-day basis, it’s CIA interrogation technique #27, just after blasting you with Britney Spears 24 hours a day and Chinese water torture.

Despite loving hooligan times, I also love my physical well being. To be honest, the Hyper actually took away my love and desire to ride. For once, I wasn’t sold false advertising. The bike is actually hyper. Yet, most of the time I just want to go for a relaxing ride to unwind – to feel that visceral sensation of wind in my face, a magic carpet ride of suspension, and smooth clean power.

So I started the hunt. I wanted another bike to supplement the crazy Italian thing I spent way too much money on. Something that would be a decent commuter, tourer, and all-around utilitarian bike for around 3 grand used. I tossed around a few ideas. KLR650… meh, I’m over singles on the street, too much vibration. Versys 650… sorry, I just can’t, the word fugly is generous. By the suggestion of a good friend, I started looking at the V-Stroms. To the internet! It was evident rather quickly that the 650 was the drug of choice for most of these so-called stromtroopers. Yeah, the 1000 has more power, but the 650 is no slouch. Plus, it’s smoother, more efficient, cheaper to buy, cheaper to maintain, cheaper to insure, the list goes on. Despite being offered a decent 1000 for just $1500, I passed and found a perfect 650 on teh barfs. Yeah, it had been down before. It had 44,000 smiles. Overall, not bad. Considering it needed a little work right off the bat and had no farkles to speak of, we settled on a fair price of $3000 which seems to be just under average market value. The test ride was simple – I had very low expectations honestly. Does it run? Do the brakes work? Does it turn? Yes, yes, yes. I did a few WFO runs with my friend to check for burning oil and it all checked out just fine. The ride home was bliss. But I know better. Honeymoon periods are the devil.

First things first – new tires. Gotta get those Shitko tires off ASAP. I don’t want to high-side my new bike that quickly alright? I went with the Bridgestone T30. Seemed like a good fit for this bike, plus they were on sale. I cleaned, lubed, and adjusted the chain. Added a big ugly Givi top case because practical korea is best korea. Cleaned the bike up real nicely. Sorted out some of the previous owner’s wiring shenanigans, added LED auxiliary lights, and off we went.

 
Post-initial impressions were still too good to be true. The engine is so smooth! It has a super flat, super dull power curve. So consistent that it’s hard not to love. 3000RPM doesn’t feel much different than 8000, and it revs all the way to 10,500. Not bad! I had the lowest of low expectations for the suspension, and yet, despite being soft as hell, it’s actually quite good and predictable. The bike is surprisingly nimble, and soaks up even the goatiest of roads. It’s a real hoot to just blast down the nastiest goat road you can find and let it soak it all up. Here’s what I love – despite not having razor sharp throttle response and handling, you can still haul ass and it’s super easy. Your inputs can be lazy. The bike just flexes, wallows, and squirms while eventually doing what you command it to do. Wide open throttle, sure, why not. You won’t break the tires loose with your whopping 62hp. Too hard on the brakes while revmatch downshifting? Big deal, the brakes are very progressive. No stoppie action here. In fact it’s hard to mess up your line once in a turn, because the bikes inherent stability, inertia, and compliance overcomes any sloppy steering inputs and abrupt body positioning. Seriously, you can be a complete hack and still ride at quite the pace. The riding position is great, too. The peg-to-seat distance is a bit short for my 34″ inseam, so a taller seat will help there. The bars angle inwards a bit too much. It feels like riding a big funky scooter sometimes, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Overall, the ergonomics are fantastic. I love how you feel like you’re inside the bike, not on top of it.

Well darn… I’ve been riding for over 150 miles now, and the fuel still shows half a tank? That’s funny, most other bikes would be running on fumes by now. I should fill up anyway just to see what kind of mileage we’re getting here. It took 3 gallons. Yep. Despite all the hard riding and go-or-blow new bike riding technique, she still managed to deliver over 50mpg. What. The. Awesome? That means this bike has a usable range north of 250 miles!

Okay okay, downsides? Well, yeah, you aren’t going to win any races on this thing (against a competent rider). It scrapes peg far too early to rail that hard in the twisties, but that’s okay. The T30’s give up around that point too. It’s a bit top-heavy, so changing direction quickly on a super tight road can be a good workout. It’s sorta weird looking. Who cares, still way prettier than a GS.

Speaking of the GS… boy, those are sure nice bikes. Amazing electronic suspension. Powerful motor with gobs of torque. Great electronic aid features. The KTM 1290 Super Adventure is a feat of engineering too. Which brings me to an interesting point. Do you even adventure bro? There is something to be said for having a cheap, common, easy to repair bike. Parts are more universal and more available on fleabay. I think it actually makes adventuring and riding more fun, because you spend less time worrying about putting a rock chip in your $1,200 side fairing, and more time enjoying the ride, while romping the hell out of your bike without a care in the world. If you have the cash, sure, go for the top of the line bike, but for mere mortals like me, the old adage surely applies: it’s more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow, and it’s more fun to adventure on a shit bike than a have your bike shit on an adventure. Note: this does not apply to riders who carry a GS911 diagnostic computer with them on their rides. Moving on…

The V-Strom 650 is the best all around bike I’ve ever ridden. After putting over 2,000 miles on it in less than three weeks, I can still honestly say it’s the best thing since carbide tooling. Capable of being ridden hard in the twisties – schooling sprotbikes left and right with topcase waving bye bye as the wee snakes through the esses. And capable of doing 500 miles of twisties in a single day without killing a normal human. I can’t imagine how many slab miles that would be equivalent to. Any slab is too much slab. Yes, sporty hooligan bikes still have their place, which is why I’m going to keep one for the 15% hooligan riding I still want to do. But I have to admit that I am slightly saddened that on any given day, I will likely choose the trusty v-strom to get myself somewhere, giggling comfortably the entire way. Don’t underestimate the fun that can be had from a budget adventure touring bike.

 

Updates to come.