photography by John Howell & Enrico Pavia
Western North Carolina, home to all-consuming kudzu vines, fertile fields full of King Cotton and roads that wind their way through Appalachian hollows, coves and gaps, is a picture-perfect place to test the 2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS, especially in late autumn when crayon-colored leaves cover everything the kudzu doesn’t. Led by Bill Kniegge of Blue Strada Tours (www.bluestradatours.com), our two-day route began and ended in Charlotte, with an overnight in the cozy hamlet of Little Switzerland. We rode hundreds of miles on highways, on the 190-curves-in-12-miles Diamondback (NC 226A), on the incomparable Blue Ridge Parkway, and on topsy-turvy roads that only a local would know, like switchback-clogged Green River Cove Road and backwoods-graveled Curtis Creek Road. We spooked wild turkeys and deer, fortified ourselves with sweet tea and passed through Bat Cave, Gooch Gap and Suck Creek.
Since its debut in 2004, two years after Rider named the then-all-new V-Strom 1000 its Motorcycle of the Year, the V-Strom 650 has proven itself to be a popular middleweight adventure tourer. A peppy 645cc V-twin engine adapted from the beloved SV650, a rugged chassis borrowed from the V-Strom 1000 and effortless handling have made it the ideal do-it-all middleweight, even more so when you factor in its comfortable seating, 250-mile range and reasonable price. What’s not to love?
Ah, but time and tide wait for no man, nor motorcycle. Updates over time included dual spark plugs, a longer wheelbase, optional ABS and a higher-output generator, but styling and everything else stayed the same. In the last few years, BMW and Triumph released more modern and capable mid-sized adventure bikes, leaving the V-Strom 650 looking and feeling a bit tired (which is why we picked the Triumph Tiger 800 over the V-Strom 650 in our last comparison, from which the BMW F 650 GS was notably absent; see Rider, June 2011). According to Derek Schoeberle, Product Marketing Manager at American Suzuki, after years of being the V-Strom 1000’s kid brother, aka the Wee Strom, “The time had come for the V-Strom 650 to stand on its own, to have its own personality.” Thus its long-overdue overhaul for 2012.
Development of the new model began with a survey of the European market, which revealed that the vast majority of V-Strom owners do not take their bikes off-road. No need, then, to spend time and money adding capability in that arena. Tireless engineers and project leaders also did extensive comparison testing of motorcycles in the Alps. Poor guys. From all of this back-breaking, nose-to-grindstone work, Suzuki settled on “the comfortable adventure tourer” as a concept to guide development, with the specific goals of improving running performance, versatility, comfort, wind protection and styling.
The 2012 V-Strom 650’s new look is sporty yet tough, with less painted plastic and more impact-resistant black resin body panels, less visual mass around the front fairing and tank, and a new front fender that hugs the tire and directs air flow to the radiator, which itself has wind-directing plates for better cooling and to channel engine heat away from the rider. Black wheels now match the frame and swingarm, and the engine was cleaned up by replacing the unsightly oil cooler with a compact, liquid-cooled heat exchanger behind the oil filter. The dual cat-eye headlights are smaller but just as bright as before, while the front-end and tail were pulled inward and the muffler overhang reduced to centralize mass. Suzuki says the new V-Strom is 13 pounds lighter than before, weighing 472 pounds fully fueled.
Adapted from the now-defunct Suzuki Gladius, successor to the SV650, the engine has the same dimensions and configuration as before: liquid-cooled, 645cc, 90-degree V-twin, 81.0 x 62.6mm bore/stroke, four-valve DOHC heads. Enhancements over the previous V-Strom include SCEM-plated cylinders for better heat dissipation and durability while reducing friction, and single rather than double valve springs to reduce weight and mechanical losses. Dual iridium spark plugs, a new ECU with a 32-bit processor, revised fuel injection and ignition maps, Suzuki Dual Throttle Valve fuel-injection system and a new, patented Throttle-body Integrated Idle Speed Control (TI-ISC) improve operating and combustion efficiency, while revised intake cam profiles give the engine a small bump in low-to-midrange torque. Compared to the previous model, Suzuki’s dyno charts show a modest increase in torque throughout the rev range and a boost in top-end horsepower. Other changes were made to improve sound and feel. A redesigned crankshaft enhances the V-twin beat, a scissors-type primary gear reduces mechanical noise at idle, and a double-layer clutch cover quiets things down during shifts.
What we have, then, is a long-running engine that has been refined over time, its rough edges polished and its essential character retained. When we put a 2011 V-Strom 650 on the dyno, it made 63.5 horsepower and 41.2 lb-ft of torque, numbers which should be slightly higher on the current model. The new engine runs more smoothly and quietly, with good throttle response and rarely feeling overworked (though the power-to-weight ratio lends itself more to solo riding than two-up touring).
Hold your applause for a moment. One change is disappointing: the reduction in fuel capacity from 5.8 to 5.3 gallons. Sure, this change allowed a slimmer fuel tank design and a 3-pound reduction in curb weight. Also, conveniently enough, the 9-percent fuel capacity loss is offset by Suzuki’s claim that the engine is now 10-percent more fuel efficient, but we have our doubts. In our June comparison test, we recorded 45.9 mpg on the 2011 V-Strom (range: 266 miles). After confirming that the 2012 V-Strom’s new fuel consumption gauge is slightly optimistic (at the first fuel stop, I calculated 43.4 mpg and the computer read 44.3 mpg), at the end of our 400-plus mile ride, bikes swapped among throttle-happy journalists posted 47-49 mpg (range: 244-260 miles). A wash or a loss, but definitely not an improvement.
The sturdy frame and swingarm are unchanged, but front spring preload has been increased and the rear shock now has a heavier spring and an extra 0.4-inch of travel (6.3 inches). Suspension compliance is noticeably better, with the added benefit of an additional 0.4-inch of ground clearance and more cornering clearance. The V-Strom’s triple-disc brake setup is also unchanged, but its standard Bosch ABS unit is 1.5 pounds lighter, works faster and has improved feel at the lever. There’s plenty of easily modulated braking power, but a firm pull at the lever is required to get the most out of it. ABS pulsing was noticeable at the rear pedal, but not at the lever.
Adventure bikes’ long-travel suspension, wide handlebars and narrow tires make them much more nimble than their size and weight would lead you to believe, yet the V-Strom 650 seems particularly blessed with balance and agility. At the end of the first day, we rode to the hotel in the dark on a tight, steep, switchbacked road (NC 80, if you’re wondering). We were a swift-moving train of headlights and taillights on an unfamiliar road, something that would normally be a nerve-wracking experience. But even as the temperature dropped and my hands got numbingly cold, I dipped in and out of every corner with ease, feeling more joy than anxiety. Sure, the suspension can become overwhelmed if you hammer it too hard, but it’s easy to stay within reasonable limits and still have loads of fun. And the Bridgestone Trail Wing tires provide plenty of grip on the street and on dirt/gravel.
The V-Strom’s seating position is mostly the same, which is a good thing. Handlebars are at a sensible height, the pegs strike a nice compromise between leg room and cornering clearance and the seat is broad and flat with plenty of room to move around. The standard seat now has 25 percent more padding, which, along with the rear suspension changes, has increased seat height from 32.3 to 32.9 inches. But the front of the seat was narrowed to make it just as easy to put your feet down. And as many other OEMs are doing these days, Suzuki will offer optional low (32.1 inches) and high (33.7 inches) seats. The standard and high seats were comfortable after hours in the saddle. As with the previous model, the windscreen is three-position adjustable (Allen wrench required), but its shape was revised to reduce wind noise and buffeting.
Instrumentation is greatly improved, with more functionality and the gauge panel positioned higher for better visibility. An analog tach remains, but the analog speedo was replaced with a digital readout on the multi-function, brightness-adjustable LCD display. In addition to speed, the display includes engine temp, fuel level, clock/ambient temp and dual trip/dual fuel consumption/odometer, and a button on the left handlebar toggles through functions. Also, there’s a new LED freeze-warning indicator. As before, there are generous passenger accommodations and a standard luggage rack with integrated grab handles. The rack is now made of resin instead of aluminum to save weight, and it has a rubber cover that can be removed to install the accessory top box. A full catalog of accessories will be available.
The 2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS will be available in Metallic Fox Orange for $8,299 ($200 more than last year), and it should be in dealers in January or February. Exclusive to the U.S. market is the Suzuki V-Strom 650 ABS Adventure that adds a touring windscreen, crash bars and aluminum side cases with mounts made by SW-Motech. The Adventure will come in Glass Sparkle Black for $9,799 (an $800 savings over the a la carte accessory pricing), and should be in dealers in November or December.
Riding the Suzuki V-Strom 650 has always been a fun, low-stress experience. As a happy-medium middleweight, it isn’t too heavy or too powerful, nor excessively complicated or expensive. It’s most at home on the road but is more than capable for fire road forays (we recommend adding a skid plate, though). The new model is a step forward in many ways, with sharper styling, a smoother engine, better suspension compliance, less weight, more comfort and improved wind protection. Perfect for exploring the blue highways of the Deep South, or New England, or the Great Plains, Rockies, Desert Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Last Frontier, north or south of the border, and beyond.
Base Price: $8,299
Type: Liquid-cooled, transverse, DOHC V-twin, 4 valves per cyl.
Bore x Stroke: 81.0 x 62.6mm
Transmission: 6-speed, cable-actuated wet clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Wheelbase: 61.4 in.
Rake/Trail: 26 degrees/4.3 in.
Seat Height: 32.9 in.
Claimed Wet Weight: 472 lbs.
Fuel Capacity: 5.3 gals.
Average mpg: 48.0