by Kevin Duke

The Beauty Within the Beast

Despite having a face only a mother could love, Yoko Ono was able to score one of the late-’60s most desirable bachelors, Beatle John Lennon. Obviously, there was more to her than meets the offended eye.

And so it is with the new 2004 Suzuki DL650 V-Strom, a wonderfully competent bike that might be overlooked because of an appearance that might be diplomatically termed as “funky.” So we ask you to overlook the superficial, as Lennon did, and give this piece a chance.

Emotions were mixed as I set off across the SoCal desert toward Indian Wells for the press introduction of the baby V-Strom. We were already converts to the sweetness of the SV650’s 645cc 90-degree V-Twin, the powerplant loaned to the new DL, so we expected good things there. But, we wondered, how could this pseudo dirt bike possibly be as good a package as the SV, a perennial winner in the smile-per-mile category?

As we set off on a clear but cool desert morning, I wasn’t the only one among the moto press to be grateful for the extra wind protection afforded by the effective fairing as we streaked down I-10 toward the east entrance to Joshua Tree National Park. New to the DL line in ’04 (yes, the 1000, too) is a three-position windscreen. Airflow was directed just barely over the helmet on my 5’8″ body with the screen in its center position. Taller riders were bothered by buffeting, but had their complaints addressed by moving the screen to its tallest position, a process that takes about five minutes and puts the screen in a more upright angle. At lower speeds, oncoming air gets deflected up and around a rider’s helmet, resulting in faceshield-open riding becoming a viable option.

What was expected to be a miserable ride in the cold turned out to be entirely tolerable on the DL. Surrounded by a cocoon of fairly still air that almost makes ear plugs optional, the caffeine-addled mind could chill out and switch to other thoughts. Hey, did they pave the road overnight? This thing is smooth, both the willing engine between the legs and the supple suspension that seems to zap bumps from its path. With an additional 0.8-inch of travel up front and 0.3-inch extra out back as compared to the SV, the DL soaked up uneven roads that would make a rider wince on most other mounts, aided by tall-profile, semi-dual-purpose Bridgestones.

An indicated 80-mph cruise saw the tach spinning up at 5,900 rpm, a reminder that Suzuki added three teeth to the DL’s rear sprocket to give it the added snap necessary to compare with the 41-pound lighter SV650S. Suzuki says the DL has about 5% more midrange power than the SV thanks to a smaller airbox, different cams and muffler, though they didn’t mention how peak power was affected. The changes all seems to work well together and, despite the lower gearing, the V-Strom is able to top 125 mph with the speedo needle still rising… or so we heard.

In addition to the adjustable windscreen, the V-Strom 650 brings along a new instrument panel to the DL line. Simple dual analog dials serve up easily assimilated speed and rev information, while a center LCD panel has the info desirable to the adventure-touring rider, such as dual tripmeters, a clock, and fuel and coolant temperature gauges. A healthy 5.8-gallon tank will take you 200 miles between fill-ups.

Joshua Tree, for those who haven’t been there, isn’t your typical National Park. Bizarre-looking rock formations sprouting out of the ground are as prevalent as the sparse vegetation, and the park road takes a meandering path through the arid desolation.

In this environment, it becomes clearer that the DL is no SV. Less aggressive steering geometry and a tall 19-inch front wheel slows steering responses somewhat. Turn-in takes more muscle than the standard SV and, initially at least, the bike feels too tall to be a serious corner carver. But once acclimated, the DL proves to be fun to toss around, aided by the leverage offered by the tall and wide handlebar that puts a rider in a perfectly neutral riding position to enable tankful draining before needing a rest.

Ergos are nearly identical to the bigger DL, just about perfect for the V-Strom’s mission, with wrists only taking a small amount of pressure. It’s all-day comfy. The only change from the big DL is a different seat. At a reasonable 32.3 inches, the seat is 20mm lower and has diagonal cutaways at its side edges that allow shorter legs to have a straighter shot at the ground, giving newbs and the vertically challenged more confidence during low-speed maneuvering. Even so, the six-plus-footers on our trip reported there is ample legroom.

Although the DL650 isn’t as nimble as the high and wide bars suggest, it can be hustled through twisties at a quick rate. It steers slower than the SV in part because of the tall front wheel/tire, but also because it shares the frame, fork, wheels and brakes with the 996cc DL. Still, the little V-Strom is said to be 40 pounds lighter, due mostly to the smaller engine and to a less robust swingarm.

The 43mm fork is outwardly identical to the big V-Strom, but it doesn’t have the DL1000’s more advanced cartridge internals. Laid at a 26-degree rake (26.5 for the 1000; 25.0 on the SV650), the Showa fork has provisions only for preload adjustment. Preload on the rear shock can be dialed in hydraulically with a handy knurled knob below the seat, just like a BMW; rebound damping is also adjustable.

While the supple suspension does an admirable job of eliminating bumps, virtually making Botts Dots disappear, it does show its price-point limits with its harshness when hitting sharp bumps. Scrubbing speed over small, repetitive bumps induce a chatter condition, and the soft fork springs allow a fair bit of front-end dive when braking.

But if you wanted a GSX-R, or an SV for that matter, you wouldn’t be considering a DL. Not only is the V-Strom way more comfortable, but it also has the capability to take you places where the others would fear to tread. Although Suzuki says the V-Strom isn’t really meant to go off road, we couldn’t resist testing its capabilities and that of its Trail Wing ‘Stones.

With a 417-pound claimed dry weight and road-biased rubber, the 650 isn’t gonna win many enduros, but it actually takes to loose conditions fairly well. Venturing off the beaten path and into a couple of unpaved campground areas proved the V-Strom can be slid and tossed around in ways that would make a Ducati 999 rider spill his bladder inside his Daineses. A bountiful 40 degrees of steering lock lets the DL maneuver in tight spaces, whether piloting a course around a boulder or an Escalade. Later on we were forced to ride several miles on a gravel road that was under construction, and here the relaxed fork angle and a fairly generous 110mm of trail kept the Swiss Army Bike on its intended path even if the feedback from the soft surface indicated otherwise.

Aiding the V-Strom’s low-traction performance is its ultra-smooth throttle take-up, with none of the abruptness endemic to many injected bikes. Suzuki’s Dual Throttle Valve (SDTV) uses a computer to control the throttle body’s upper butterfly in relation to engine speed and throttle position, giving just the responses a rider expects. Also helping the DL mete out power is a heavier starter clutch that adds weight to the engine’s rotational mass. The V-Twin engine, as all 90-degree Twins, has perfect primary balance, although a DL rider can feel a hint of secondary vibes at 6,000 rpm. Otherwise, this engine is super-smooth, even more so than its big brother.

The V-Twin, like in the SV, is a real gem, but adrenaline-hungry pilots might become bored with it. There is no real hit in its powerband, meaning there’s power whenever it needs to be summoned, which is good. But step off an SV and onto a DL, and you’ll notice a less enthusiastic rush to the 10,500-rpm redline. On the plus side, Suzuki has once again done a magnificent job with a gearbox, with smooth but positive cog swapping and easily accomplished downshifts. We liked the high-mount muffler that tucks in nicely, though we were less impressed with the flaccid exhaust note for a V-Twin (although easily preferable to Yoko’s singing). California bikes receive a catalyzer to reduce emissions, and that attractive, aluminum-looking exhaust shield is actually plastic.

An adjustable brake lever lets even small hands get good purchase to aid the 2-piston, pin-slide calipers and 310mm front rotors in hauling the DL down from speed. They are not supersport-spec, but are plenty powerful for the V-Strom’s mission. Out back, a single piston caliper bites on a large 260mm disc, but it feels numb and weak. If the brakes didn’t get you slowed in time, the effective rear-view mirrors will offer a good view of the Highway Patrol coming up behind you.

Suzuki’s concept for the DL line was to create a “Sport Enduro Tourer,” and the V-Strom 650 gets top marks for living up to the monicker. In combining the SV650 motor with the DL1000 chassis, Suzuki has built its parts bin special into a bike that defines a new market segment.

It has the power and smoothness to dust a BMW F650, and it offers more comfort and wind protection than the SV650/S, Honda 599 and Triumph Speed Four. Its closest competitor is likely Yamaha’s buzzier but faster FZ6, which shares a similar riding position, fairing coverage and price tag. The FZ is definitely faster in a straight line, but its R6-based engine isn’t as adept as the smooth and torquey DL’s Twin. And with its standard luggage rack and optional hard luggage, the V-Strom is much more the SUV as opposed to the FZ’s sports coupe. In a way, the DL650 is the Honda VFR of the adventure-touring segment, offering versatility, a sporting nature and Lexus smoothness.

As the day’s light faded into the horizon on the way back to the hotel and the subtly attractive orange glow of the instruments matched the color of the setting sun, it was hard to imagine another machine with a competitive versatility-per-dollar ratio. At $6,599 in blue or black, the new V-Strom is sure to attract the type of guys who prefer smart and loving, if a bit homely, women over more attractive but temperamental ones.

You can’t tell what the DL looks like from on top, and perhaps John felt the same about Yoko.