2012 Suzuki V-Strom Review
As we carved through the beautiful mountain roads of western North Carolina, Mother Nature burning the surrounding countryside a blaze of fall colors, I worked out how I’d vote if anyone asked me to pick my favorite motorcycle ridden in 2011. With no traction control, sophisticated suspension, mind-bending, head-straight-to-jail levels of acceleration, or MotoGP-spec brakes, how could a simple 650cc V-twin, with conventional suspension and two-piston caliper brakes be my top choice? Well, while riding with friends on some of the most beautiful roads in America, as fast as I’ll ever want to travel on a public highway, I realized that in this ever-complicated world we live in, it was truly apparent that with the new Suzuki V-Strom 650, less is actually more. It’s hard to accept it’s already been a decade since the first V-Strom hit the showroom floor, but in that time thousands of them have rolled out onto the highway, and over the years very little has been changed, for good reason. Displacing 645cc and producing what seems like a modest 65-70 horsepower, in the real world of speed limits, stop signs, and large semi-conscious four-wheeled road users, it’s actually plenty enough. So for 2012 Suzuki has made some refinements to the venerable V-Strom, but not revolutionary changes, and I for one whole-heartedly applaud their approach. Leaving out of Charlotte, North Carolina, my hometown, and headed for two days of riding in the nearby mountains it didn’t take a moment to get settled in and feeling comfortable. The sensible riding position, new seat, and wide, up-right bars keep your back straight and your feet low enough to remove any strain from the knees. Quickly hopping onto the interstate to get us out of town, we settled on a law-abiding 70 mph, which put the analog tachometer needle on or around the 5,000rpm mark. With peak power not arriving until 8,800 rpm, and redline a little past this at 10,000 rpm, the V-Strom had plenty in reserve if needed for passing duties. The short highway blast was perfect for feeling the effects of the new windshield. Suzuki has spent considerable time refining this area of the V-Strom experience for new owners, and by moving the windshield back 30mm they have eliminated a lot of wind noise while also making it fully adjustable. Adjustable up and down, as well as forward and back, you can tailor it to your own preference. There are some additional accessory windshield pieces to further improve this performance, and I experienced this on the Adventure model much to my approval. The ride took us on some beautiful secondary roads, and by the time we stopped for a coffee break, we had been riding long enough for me to know this is one seriously comfortable motorcycle. The new seat has been reduced in width to make it easier to place your feet flat on the ground, and it is the right mix of firm, but not too firm. Standard seat height is 32.9 inches, or you can purchase a higher 33.6 incher or a lower 32.1-inch version. I rode all three versions, and at around five foot eleven with a 30-inch inseam, the standard or the tall worked best for me. Whichever option you choose, the combination of size and padding are going to be perfect for long days on the road. For 2012, the engine has been updated with the use of the power plant found in the slightly funky Gladius. It’s still essentially an SV 650/V-Strom power plant, with a 81mm bore and 62.6 mm stroke, but it’s been worked over to give it more bottom end grunt. New pistons and rings run in new cylinders, and there is an updated intake camshaft, which is largely responsible for this boost lower down the rpm range. Clean-up work in the combustion chambers adds efficiency, and mechanical loss is reduced by use of single valve springs instead of the previous doubles. There have also been some minor changes to the crankshaft, and it’s really a sum of the parts here adding up to an even sweeter, harder-pulling motor. Everything the old V-Strom was and more, to be precise. These changes also allow the bike to be more fuel efficient, so the gas tank has been reduced to 5.3 gallons from the previous 5.8 gallons. Long-distance riders will still get the same mileage between fill ups due the improved fueling, and with 50 mpg easily achieved, this will give you close to 250 miles without having to look for a gas station. Suzuki has installed a mileage indicator on the dash, so you can see what your average consumption is on the fly, which will be very helpful when planning fuel and rest stops on tour. Speaking of touring, one of the first things that sprang to mind for me when I pulled away on the Adventure model was let’s load up and head out across country. It just looks and feels like it’s ready to take a long, adventurous ride, and with the touring windshield with seven-way adjustable spoiler, aluminum side cases, engine crash bars and top box, it has all the right equipment in place. These options add $1500 to the $8,300 price of the standard V-Strom, and you can of course buy this standard version and add whichever accessories you like as you go. The side bags come in two choices, aluminum or composite-resin, but the matching top box is an accessory item. Also available as options are heated grips, crash guards, a belly pan, center stand, and power outlet, all very useful accessory items for the hard-core adventure-touring rider. One nitpick I had was the luggage, which rattled a fair bit, and while some garage time could find ways to damp this out, when added to stiff locks and hinges, it’s something I would rather Suzuki or my dealer address before I took the V-Strom home. Another useful feature for the adventure rider is the warning light in the cockpit that lets you know when the temperature has dropped to 32 degrees by flashing at you. A digital speedometer joins an analog tachometer, and there is a switch in front of the left handlebar that allows you scroll through the bike’s functions on the digital readout. There are two trip meters and average fuel consumption on the right. If you hold the button for at least a second, you can switch between the time and the temperature. The gauge cluster has an adjustable backlight for brightness with all warnings lights located on the right-hand side. From the rider’s eye view, it’s all very clean and functional and easy to interpret on the move. One of the best parts of our two-day test was the amount of corners we went around following our guide, Bill Kniegge. Bill is a good friend and neighbor of mine, so I knew when Suzuki asked him to design a route it would be fantastic: I just hadn’t factored in how much better the V-Strom was going to make it. The wide bars make tipping the bike into turns an almost telepathic experience, even though you might think a nineteen-inch front wheel would slow things down. Mated to a more conventional seventeen-inch rim in the rear, with a modest 150/70R profile, the bike not only turns in and finishes the corners quickly, it’s extremely stable mid-corner and encourages some crazy lean angles when the mood strikes. Improved suspension helps keep the tires in contact with the road longer over bumps and is a nice balance between sport and touring, read not tooo soft and not too hard. The conventional front fork has a pre-load adjustment and this will be useful for times when the bike is heavily loaded. As ridden, with just yours truly in the saddle at around 185 pounds, there was no unwanted dive under hard braking, although the fairly generic two-piston calipers are never going to put it under too much stress. The twin disc brakes are as good as they need to be though, safely slowing the bike from speed without overwhelming the fork. There is good additional stopping power available from the rear brake, but it’s very easy to activate the anti lock brakes on the rear, so you can lose braking power on corner entrance if you are too enthusiastic with your foot, learned by experience, I’m ashamed to say. With the ABS fitted as standard this year, there is a 13-pound weight penalty, and this brings me to my one real gripe: you can’t turn the ABS off for riding in the dirt. With a portion of our ride on some fabulous, twisting Jeep-style trails, we made some fairly steep descents as we dropped off the Blue Ridge Parkway. Being cognizant that the V-Strom ABS was operational made my decent more cautious, and if we could have switched it off, it would have been a lot more fun, and, in my mind, safer. I’m not sure if you have ever seen an ABS demonstration in the dirt, but it’s shocking how much longer it takes to stop if it’s in use. The total opposite obviously of how it performs on the road. Parking the V-Strom for the last time back in Charlotte, I stood back for a few moments to collect my thoughts. Style-wise the bike has undergone a minor revamp, with sharper looks and a tighter stance, thanks to a shorter exhaust pipe and the fairing being pulled closer to the center of the bike. The changes are pleasing to the eye, but the bike has not lost its familiar look. It has gained some power where it’s appreciated most, picked up a few new functions, and lost nothing of its charms in the process. As the most affordable adventure-touring motorcycle on the road, or in base form at $8,300 a stone-reliable, comfortable commuter, the new 2012 Suzuki V-Strom is plain and simply my bike of the year for these plain, simple reasons.