Man on a VanVan Without a Plan

Suzuki VanVan
The Suzuki VanVan 200 evolved from the similarly fat-tired VanVan 125 introduced in 2003 in other countries. Clearly inspired by the 2WD Rokon, the lightweight runabout’s name sounds similar to a Japanese word that means “keep on going.” This scenic overlook on San Marcos Pass is normally an hour from my house. It took me twice that on the VanVan. Photo by the author.

Life begins at 70 mpg…

Sitting at the end of my driveway, the VanVan’s headlight jiggling in time to the gentle thumping of the bike’s elfin 199cc single, a line from Bob Segar’s “Roll Me Away” popped into my head: “I could go east, or I could go west, it was all up to me to decide.” This could be called the Indecisive Tour—something about setting out on a VanVan 200 discourages planning. Moments before, I had completely changed packing strategies, since my minimal camping gear looked like a bear carcass on the back of the little bike. No worries, I would find suitably funky accommodations, a yurt perhaps, or maybe a log cabin. But I still had no idea where I was going—a man on a VanVan without a plan.

What the heck is a VanVan anyway? Suzuki has actually produced this retro tiddler in 125cc caliber for other countries since 2003, but never brought it to the U.S. Recently, as the market for larger bikes has softened here and cool kids like the Honda Grom have taken off, Suzuki decided to upgrade the VanVan with the air-cooled, SOHC 2-valve single from the DR200S and unleash it on America. With its balloonish 130/80-18 and 180/80-14 tires, huge botox-injected banana seat, skinny tank and high handlebar, the VanVan is a Japanese funkadelic cult creation (the name means “keep on going,” sort of), a retro mashup of minibikes from the ’60s, the 2WD Rokon and every scoot you’ve seen on the back of a motorhome since 1970. Everything about the VanVan is throwback except the electronic fuel injection and the price—at $4,599 it costs the same as the TU250X and DR200S. But it fires right up, runs well even when cold and is ready to let loose all 15 horsepower for trips to the store or work, around the campground or campus. And since the VanVan 200 is more comfortable than a lot of bikes half again its size, it inspired me to actually ride it someplace for this story. Fill my tank with adventure, as it were—all 1.7 gallons.

Suzuki VanVan
There’s lots of fun to be had on the VanVan in corners…particularly when you’re riding downhill! Photo by Kevin Wing.

Mark’s Gear
Helmet: Shoei GT-Air
Jacket: Joe Rocket Ballistic Adventure
Pants: Olympia Airglide
Boots: Tour Master Epic Air

Not knowing just how far those 6.8 quarts of regular were going to take me, I mounted a 1-gallon Rotopax fuel cell on top of Nelson-Rigg’s biggest tail pack and strapped it on the back, and there was still a Gold Wing’s worth of seat left for my butt. Ready to go I knew not where, at the end of the driveway I turned right, rode 100 yards, turned around and rode the other way. I had it! Smoked fish tacos had popped into my head (as they often do). Ruddell’s Smokehouse in Cayucos here I come.

Suzuki VanVan
Ruddell’s Smokehouse in Cayucos is just steps from the Pacific and the fish comes straight from the water. Photo by the author.
Suzuki VanVan
I’m partial to the smoked albacore tacos. Photo by the author.
Suzuki VanVan
Rotopax fuel cells are leakproof, extremely durable and have a unique mounting system that can be adapted to just about anything. Photo by the author.
Suzuki VanVan
Santa Maria wine country. Photo by the author.

I spent the next several hours avoiding the Interstate, constantly trying to grab a non-existent sixth gear in the VanVan’s slick-shifting 5-speed box with the throttle pinned to the stop, good reason not to trust my average fuel economy figures. I’m certain the little VanVan-that-could can top 75 mpg with a less aggressive wrist. Surprisingly smooth for a little single wrung out at top speed, I found that I could safely ride California’s two-lane highways because there is almost always someone going slower than the bike’s 65-mph top speed. Multi-laners, no way—hills and headwinds instantly knock off 20 mph, and you could end up a bug splat on the windshield of some idiot passing on the right at warp speed. Getaway power just isn’t standard equipment. The key to touring on VanX2 is maintaining momentum and getting into a smell-the-roses mindset. Nothing goes by at blur, more like slightly fuzzy, and you see things you would otherwise miss, like a squirrel giving you the hairy eyeball as he sucks his butt out from under your front tire at the last second. There’s nothing to futz with or distract you either. We’re talking speedometer, odometer, old-school rollover tripmeter and three lights (fuel, turn signal and neutral), plus a small tool pouch—that’s it for amenities. Miraculously, the lever for the hydraulic front disc brake is adjustable, and both it and the little drum brake in back work really well. Suspension is non-adjustable, not even preload in back, but the seat and those clown-car tires absorb a lot of shock. Springs and damping are also stiff enough to tackle moderately rough dirt roads and keep the VanVan planted in corners.

Suzuki VanVan
Beachside towns like Morro Bay and the funky VanVan share a similar laid-back vibe that encourages putting around, popping into gift shops and cafés and enjoying the view of Morro Rock, a tied island that has been a landmark for mariners for centuries. Photo by the author.

Of course, at these speeds there isn’t much demand on the brakes or boingers until you’re flying downhill through the curves, laughing like a hyena. I had not one, but two fish tacos at Ruddell’s, arriving well before closing, then VanVanned around Cayucos and Morro Bay before parking it for the night alongside Motel 6’s finest cabin. Next day I took the long way home, including all of dirt Pozo Road to State Route 58, the oilfields around Taft and then over Pine Mountain on State Route 33, about 450 miles total for both days. I never needed the Rotopax—at the end of the longest 101.4-mile stretch (tucking in is good for 5-7 mph) the bike took 1.73 gallons of regular. Never missed a beat.

Suzuki VanVan
Scenic Pozo Road was a good test of the VanVan’s off-road ability. It’s 16 miles of relatively good dirt with a few ruts and rocks in places that climbs well up into the mountains from Santa Margarita before spitting you out on State Highway 58. Photo by the author.

Overall the VanVan 200 is FunFun. Not fast, but fun and funky, like the original Big Wheel or Flexi Flyer. It would make a terrific second or third bike for simply fartin’ around or making the occasional unhurried fish taco run.

SaveSaveSaveSave

SaveSave

14 COMMENTS

  1. That Story, That Experience, That Funky Little Motorcycle, Needs To Be Shared, Far and Wide. Share this autonomous experience with a Non Motorcycle person, with the enthusiasm you wrote this article with, and that will be enough for their Wheels to Start Turning in their heads. ALL of Motorcyledom Needs to start the small motorcycle movement AGAIN! That’s how 90% us the Boomers got started and the formula Will Work Again. Motorcycling IS Empowering!! Good Luck, should you decide to accept the mission.

  2. Thinking about a new small bike in my retirement. Will look at the Van Van. Only nit pics are why not get rid of the part of the seat that is over the gas tank. You would probably have 2.5 gal. now and a 150+ mile range and really does anybody sit there? My old DR650 had a seat like that and even it could have used the extra gas. Second, a little rack behind the seat would have been nice.

  3. Wow what a great little bike! But it’s Screamin for at least 400cc in that frame, with better rear shock at least. Maybe an inverted fork with more dampened control and travel. I’d actually pay over 5 k for a low seat fat tired bike like that! Maybe even 6k, for a 400-450 V Twin or parallel twin!! Just keep the seat low!

  4. Last Christmas I bought the new VanVan 200 for my wife as her first motorcycle. Even though I already owned several larger displacement bikes, the VanVan was so cool and fun, I knew I’d end up riding her bike (possibly more than she would). So I ended up buying an identical VanVan for me! Hers was wrapped under the Christmas tree and boy was she surprised. Mine came in a couple weeks later. A matched pair in blue and white.

    We’ve had fantastic weekend rides together exploring the backroads of northern California on these little bikes. I ended up adding a rear rack to mine (Suzuki included factory rack the year before, and was easy enough to order online), so I can carry a little extra gear for the both of us. She wanted to leave hers completely stock.

    We get around 78mpg on average, and with no fuel gage we just fill up when we take a mid day break. The VanVan is extremely comfortable with the big seat and low height. And since we’re on the same bike, it’s not a problem keeping up with each other (although she’s lighter than me and tends to go faster uphill !).

    We really enjoy watching people in the parking lot circle around our matching bikes, ogling them and we are constantly asked if they are truly “old” bikes that we restored. They have that classic clean 60’s and 70’s look.

    Like the author, I too constantly search for that 6th gear. Interestingly when they were just 125cc in Europe, I understand they actually had 6 gears. Seems strange Suzuki would take it down to 5-speed when upping the engine displacement. Perhaps they felt people would go too fast with a 6th gear.

    We only have little over 1K miles on each so far, but we love these little bikes. Can’t recommend them enough.

    My next step this summer will be to try the VanVan truly off-road and see how it stacks up to my other normal dual sport machines for fun. To me it’s like a modern version of the little Honda Trail 90 that I grew up with, only much more style and standard motorcycle looks.

  5. I don’t know about Suzuki getting their styling from Rokon as they have produced similar motor bikes since the early 1970s. Back in the mid-70’s Suzuki had a fat tire 2-stroke bike that was street legal. It may also have been a 200cc bike, but not available in the USA. Honda’s old Fat Cat and Yamaha’s BW series are two other like bikes.

  6. Great story! I lived on the Central Coast for years and know Cayucous and Morro Bay well. My partner and I just bought matching VanVans for towing behind our FourWheel camper and plan to extend our hiking opportunities in the Utah back country. We are both older and kinda too short for the massive “adventure bikes” out there. But the VV fits the bill for a quiet, manageable ride to that canyon that we just don’t have the daylight to hike to.

  7. Have owned 40 motorcycles since 1968.Currently own 7.Queen of my fleet is my 2015 Indian Chief Vintage but the most fun I have on two wheels is my 2016 Vespa GTS 300.Most of us long term Motorcyclist start out small and work our way up to the largest and heaviest bikes forgetting how much fun our small and light two wheel conveyances were.Have two vintage 2 stroke Vespa shifties that are an absolute hoot to ride.I am acquiring a new found love of riding with these smaller mounts.Try it guys.You won’t be sorry.They will put a huge smile on your face!!

  8. Great views ! I bought a vv 200 last year and really is the greatest fun ever ! I live in Newcastle upon Tyne and use it for commuting and touring Scotland. Yea there are larger faster machines but the vv gives you everything you need, plus the interest and amazement from other people is fascinating. Love the 70’s look, the comfort and rediculous cheap to run, you would be crazy to consider any other if it’s fun riding you seek. Great site guys and Best Wishes to all Andy

    • Hi Andy. No idea if you’ll get a notification of this reply to your comment or not but I have a question for you. I’m UK based too, looking to get back into biking after a couple of years off. I used to have a VanVan 125 years ago before I traded it in for a 400cc Honda. But I really fancy a VanVan 200 now. How do you find it on the UK motorways and A-roads on the way up to Scotland etc? The 125 was pretty much a no-no on the ‘big’ roads. Does the 200 instil a little more confidence in that regard do you think?

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here