2012 Suzuki V-Strom 650 | First Ride

Small Changes, Big Difference

By Tim Carrithers, Photography by Alessio Barbanti

Some motorcycles command your attention right out of the gate. Others—Suzuki’s 2012 V-Strom 650, for instance—need more time to make a lasting impression. Scanning the press pack at 38,000 feet somewhere between Los Angeles and the bike’s international debut in Split, Croatia, the latest generation looked like a step in the right direction. At this stage of the game, our final destination was more mysterious than the bike.

Fresh bodywork and a relatively svelte, 5.3-gallon fuel tank replace the old bike’s so-called styling with a modern, functional look. Tough, fiber-reinforced, black body parts are allegedly easier to repair as well. A compact instrument cluster behind the reshaped, adjustable windscreen conveys more essential information—ambient air temperature and average fuel mileage displays are welcome additions. Anti-lock brakes are standard equipment, and Bosch’s latest 1.5-lb. ABS unit weighs less than half as much as its predecessor. Suzuki says those brakes stop a 472-lb. package: 13 lbs. lighter than the 2010 version. This 645cc V-twin is less than the 800-class version we were hoping for, but there’s more going on in there than you might think.

This latest rendering came from Suzuki’s sporty Gladius (nee SV650) naked bike, along with a list of incremental improvements, like new pistons and rings in low-friction, SCEM-plated bores. A scissors-type primary gear and double-wall clutch cover cut mechanical clatter. Cam-type clutch actuation and reshaped shift dogs in the six-speed transmission refine the driveline, while moving the first five ratios closer together makes the most of the 90-degree V-twin’s claimed 68 horsepower. V-Strom intake cams emphasize low-end and midrange power over top-end.

Since Suzuki reckons only about 3 percent of the world’s adventure riders are serious about getting dirty, the new 650 is 97 percent streetbike. Wheels are cast-aluminum. Tires are more competent on the pavement than off. The new ABS is always on, and the engine’s only protection from unfriendly terrain is in Suzuki’s accessory catalog.

A few thousand feet below, across the Adriatic from the back of Italy’s boot, Croatia takes its time forming any kind of lasting impression as well. Start with swirling clouds of Hummingbird Moths at the airport, segue into roving gangs of aspiring adolescent supermodels trolling our hotel lobby, adjourn to dinner at a harbor jammed with 100-foot mega-yachts and doze off wondering what the V-Strom would be like on those ribbons of pavement we’d flown over a few hours earlier.

After a few liters of coffee and the obligatory riders’ meeting, the new ’Strom feels slimmer and more refined than the old. It’s a bit more agile as well, rolling out of the Hotel Le Meridian into the same knots of tourist traffic blocking your escape from any European vacation destination on a perfect Saturday morning. Suzuki’s incremental enhancements add up to a more polished urban performer, turning fuel and air into seamless acceleration from 2000 rpm to the 10,000-rpm redline, but spinning it above 8800 is a waste of time. Shifting short of that number is more effective.

Maximum thrust is adequate for passing clots of slow-motion traffic without clogging the grill of an oncoming tour bus. The clutch and shift levers rarely require a second thought, which is serious praise for an unfamiliar motorcycle in an even less familiar country. The ride is comfortably taut, with enough spring at either end to accommodate two mid-sized adventurers and their gear.

Easing out onto the first stretch of Croatian four-lane, the V-Strom twin is smooth up to 6000 rpm—a comfortable, quasi-legal cruising speed in sixth—but things get increasingly buzzy above that. There’s more room for average-sized humans in the comfortably balanced 2012 ergonomic equation. Wind protection is well above average with the windscreen in its top slot, unless you shop in the Big & Tall store. In that case, Suzuki’s optional tall seat makes more of a difference than an extra .8-inch might suggest: perfect for a 35-inch inseam.

After following Route 8 up the coast for 65 miles or so to Skradin, things start to get interesting. This is the sort of deliciously twisted pavement we’ve been looking for. Thinning tourist traffic near the Krka River gives the ’Strom room to work, though imposing Travertine cliffs and Armco barriers leave little room for error. No worries: The brakes feel a big spongy scrubbing off 40 mph for the first tight left, and fade a bit after 12 more, but that new Bosch ABS never gets in the way on the pavement. Bridgestone’s all-surface radials stick well enough most of the time, but push your luck where grip is scarce and they slide just enough to say it’s time to slow down.

After 200 miles of coastal and mountain roads, two-lane, four-lane and no lane at all, this new V-Strom feels more comfortable than memorable. But when you’re 48 miles from the end of a perfect day and 6330 miles from home, that’s just fine. Bigger, faster adventure twins leave more indelible impressions—emotional as well as financial—but the V-Strom 650 always seems to leave a smile on your face and a few extra bucks in your wallet. These days, that’s an exceptionally memorable combination.

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