By Frank Melling, Contributing Editor

A surprisingly safe but boring bike

For a motorcycling historian, the Suzuki SV1000 is one of the most interesting bikes ever made. This is a bold statement to make, but the SV proves three things. First, even a company with Suzuki’s uncanny skill of being in touch with their customer base can get things wrong – and badly too. Next, compromises always lead to failure where motorcycles are concerned. Finally, and perhaps most interesting of all, it is possible to fail even with a fine package of individual parts.

At the SV’s launch, perhaps the problem that weighed most heavily on Suzuki’s corporate mind was the TL1000 – the SV’s totally evil sibling. The TL was a hairy-chested, hyper sportbike aimed right at the center of the Ducati 916’s target audience. With the TL making 135 horsepower – 20 hp more than the 916 – at a near identical weight to the Ducati, and with all the reliability of Japanese engineering, Suzuki should have stomped all over the Bologna bikes. But it didn’t.

The “but” in this case was a chassis that was simply too ambitious – or, counter-intuitively, maybe not ambitious enough. Instead of a World Superbike winning chassis, the TL’s cycle parts guaranteed, at the very least, an absence of constipation in the rider and, often, personal meetings with nice nursing staff and sympathetic doctors.

So when the SV was launched, the warning lights were well and truly lit on Suzuki’s instrument panel. Gone was the frenetic rush of the eight-valve, dual-overhead cam V-Twin that powered the TL. Instead, Sensible San in Hamamatsu re-cammed and re-mapped the same motor, so that it allegedly produced 120 hp – but felt about 20 hp less.

The capacity remained at 996cc, and the six-speed gearbox was retained from the TL, but now the powerplant was a sportbike engine the Health and Safety lobby would have us all ride.

There was absolutely nothing wrong with the motor. Rather, it gave the impression of a dilatory teenager: You wondered when it was ever going to wake up, get out of bed and start mowing the lawn!

Ironically, the situation was made worse by Suzuki’s cute little SV650, which was introduced at the same time as the SV1000. The free revving little 645cc motor was full of character and fun, being both easy for beginners to use whilst remaining highly satisfying for experienced riders.

The chassis continued the theme of getting back to sensible basics. Where the TL had a short wheelbase and stood on its rear wheel with the slightest encouragement, the SV was nearly two inches longer – and with a shallower steering head angle. The TL’s ineffective but ground-breaking rotary-damped rear shock was replaced by an utterly conventional unit, and the front forks were inoffensively efficient. The result was ultra-safe, ultra-stable handling that would bring tears of joy to any safety obsessed bureaucrat.

The same applied to the SV’s ergonomics. Everything is in the right place, and nothing is uncomfortable, but there is no sense of involvement in the riding experience. Riding an SV is more akin to driving a mid-range family hatchback car than riding a motorcycle.

The sad thing is that Suzuki did take care with the finish on the SV. At first glance the bike does look the part, with a graceful, curving fuel tank and an impeccably finished alloy beam frame. The paintwork was excellent too, and even the detail of the instrument binnacle looked good. What was missing? Nothing in practical terms, but everything when it came to design flair – the quirkiness which shows that a designer has put something of his soul into the bike rather than it being the product of a committee.

On the road, the SV was one the strangest motorcycles I have ever ridden. Suzuki had not over-silenced the bike, so the big V-Twin burbled away at tick over, promising a real rider experience at the top end of the rev range. Instead, nothing really happened. The revs rose and the engine note remained as inoffensive as ever.

The SV was incredibly, almost embarrassingly, forgiving and this was perhaps its biggest fault. Forgive me for saying this, but I am more than passingly competent when it comes to riding a motorcycle. Therefore, I want a bike that will criticize my riding errors and smile with me when I get something right. The SV did neither. No matter how well or badly the bike is ridden, it will remain solid, inoffensive and biddable.

If riding a 916 on the road is like making love with a motorcycle, then the same journey on an SV is also like an afternoon of passion – but this time wearing 10 prophylactics simultaneously. Somewhere, a long way distant, you know that you are doing something really exciting – but you are so far from the act that you wondered why you bothered.

At the end of each Memorable Motorcycles piece, I normally make a prediction as to the bike’s future. In this case, the analysis is clear. The SV1000 will disappear quietly into the afterlife, neither loved nor reviled, nor respected, nor resented, but quite simply ignored – and that’s a sad epitaph for any bike.