It was about this time last year when I was handed the keys to our long-term Suzuki V-Strom 1000. That bike proved to be a bit of a surprise and performed better than we expected within a wide range of applications. When the opportunity presented itself to test the newly redesigned little brother to the 1000, the 650XT ABS, we naturally jumped at the chance.
Not one to shy away from a good motorcycle evaluation, I have now ridden this motorcycle through the sweltering heat of the Mojave desert, the winds of the Colorado Plateau, and into the snow capped mountains of Northern Colorado. There is no better way to get to know a motorcycle than to load it up and put a couple thousand miles on it, so that’s precisely what I’ve done. Before I get into the ride qualities of the new V-Strom, we should probably take a closer look at what makes this bike different from its predecessor.
For 2015 the V-Strom 650 underwent its third comprehensive redesign, but one executed with a significant amount of thoughtful restraint as to not upset the popular recipe. The already superb 645cc 90º V-twin engine was retuned to improve torque values with a new 32-bit ECU added to bolster low rpm performance with enhanced fuel delivery. The cam profiles, new dual-spark ignition, and engine timing have been altered slightly to improve fuel efficiency and to offer smoother throttle control.
The chassis received a few adjustments as well with the XT ABS variant of the 650 now wearing tubeless-ready wire wheels. The rear swingarm is constructed of extruded aluminum and the completely revamped bodywork features the prerequisite beak that all adventure bikes seem to need. In fact, the headlights and front fender so resemble Woody Woodpecker it’s borderline embarrassing to swing a leg over it. The XT also comes with aluminum hard cases, crash bars to protect the upper aspect of the tank and radiator cowlings, and a machined aluminum luggage rack aft of the pillion seat.
The instrumentation is packaged in a rather small cluster, but remains easy to read and toggling through the various display options is readily achieved with a single button at the left index finger.
The overall build quality and features remain impressive for a motorcycle priced well below the competition. The wire wheels, crash bars and hard cases add considerably to the price of the XT ABS model but it just barely breaks the $10,000 threshold. All things considered, and with some bikes pushing well beyond $25,000, that’s an impressive feat.
Anytime I throw a leg over a new motorcycle, it’s the little peccadilloes that I notice first. The toy-like handlebars were immediately obvious and are not only scrawny in diameter, they’re too narrow and have a depressing droop. If anything is going to instantly limit the off-road chops of the little ‘Strom it will be the uninspired bars.
Although it will be good news to many, the relatively short 32.8-inch seat height feels a bit low slung for my 34-inch inseam. It makes the seated to standing transition a bit extreme, once again limiting the off-road prowess of the platform. On the flip side, it provides a lowered center of gravity that feels appropriate in tight turns.
As I have come to expect from Suzuki, the clutch is light and the transmission delivers accurate transitions which are superior to those of machines doubled in price. The engine is smooth and not buzzy at any given rpm, even at freeway speeds with the revs in the upper reaches. As a highway ride, it devours miles with excellent wind protection afforded by the well positioned windscreen and shape of the flared fuel tank.
In the twisties the little V-Strom feels playful and handles with crisp predictability. With revs kept high, exiting tight turns at speed belies the V-Strom’s intended purpose as a more utilitarian steed. If there is one minor performance niggle on the pavement, it might be with the somewhat average power and modulation of the front brakes. Whereas I felt the V-Strom 1000’s brakes were excellent, the new Wee Strom’s stoppers are underwhelming, if just slightly so.
I am a bit torn on my evaluation of the hard cases. They are if anything, impressively designed and fabricated. With no sharp and unfinished elements, they are of the highest quality. They lock easily, open and close with precision, and are befitting of a motorcycle worth far more than this. My only quip would be with the gigantic span between the outside edges of the cases. Hard as it is to believe, the 47-inch wide side to side width is only 19-inches narrower than that of a Mercedes G-Wagen. So much for splitting lanes.
On a final note, the 500 mile run I completed from LA to Prescott, Arizona by way of the San Bernardino Mountains produced a lean burn of just 51.2 miles per gallon. The 5.3 gallon tank gave me a comfortable 250 mile range before the low fuel indicator began flashing. Under full load from Prescott to Denver, Colorado the mileage dropped just a tad, but even with a heavy grip on the throttle through the high Rockies I still managed to eek out a respectable 48.5 mpg.
Rocky Mountain High
Because my ride into the Rockies of Colorado intersected with the last winter storms of spring, I unfortunately had to eliminate some of the unpaved routes I had planned to travel. I did wiggle in a few dirt roads here and there, the major limitation was the rather modest off-road design of the dual-sport tires, which are decidedly more pavement biased than I would prefer. The other concern, one we’ve had with every iteration of the ‘Strom we’ve tested, is the unprotected oil filter suspended precariously behind the front wheel. Without a proper aftermarket skid plate, my off-road shenanigans were best kept to a minimum.
All in all, the first 1,200 miles of riding from LA to Denver have proven this platform is a formidable road warrior, but I’ll need more time on it to fully validate its claims as a dual sport touring machine. Before it sees any serious dirt time, it will need bar risers, proper pegs, better tires and above all––a skid plate.
The V-Strom 650XT ABS versus the competition:
Kawasaki KLR: When positioned against the KLR, the V-Strom is considerably more refined on the road. With more power, a smoother engine with double the cylinders, the ‘Strom is a far superior touring platform if dirt is not a consideration. If dirt does play into the comparison, the KLR’s 21-inch front wheel tips the scales in its favor. The KLR is also several thousands of dollars cheaper.
BMW G650GS and F700GS: The most direct competitor to the 650 ‘Strom is clearly BMW’s twin-powered F700GS. Although the BMW comes with a more sophisticated electronics package with ABS as well as ESC, it does not come packaged with the extra luggage and crash bars that are part of the full XT ABS V-Strom kit. The wire wheels of the Suzuki are also a nice improvement over the BMW’s cast hoops.