Lying on my back next to the downed DL1000 in the city of Capetown, South Africa, all I could think of was the scene from Black Hawk Down, where the first helicopter plunges to earth and the locals begin to converge. I'd not seen the diesel fuel on the road, but I did notice the African citizens advancing on my position after the bike and I had stopped sliding down the road. Clutching the walkie-talkie we were given in case of trouble, I gave the command I never thought I'd have to give, "Bald Eagle to Rising Sun, we have a V-Strom down. Repeat. We have a V-Strom down." Thankfully, the Suzuki folks were right behind us, and like a military extraction team they descended upon my location in seconds, spiriting away the fallen DL1000 before the enemy could capture it and replacing it with a brand-new bike.
The DL1000 V-Strom is, of course, Suzuki's newest weapon in the war against Aprilia, BMW and Triumph (and Honda in Europe) in the do-it-all SUV adventure-tourer class. Some call them "trailies," others say "off-road sport," but Suzuki calls it "Sport Enduro Tourer." And in case you were wondering what "Strom" means, it's not a reference to a certain senator but the German word for "stream of wind." Alrighty, then.
Giving credence to the word "sport" in Suzuki's V-Strom marketing material is the use of the notorious TL1000S engine, a 996cc motor renowned for its ability to send tremendous power to the rear tire, resulting in longer life for the front tire-if you catch our drift. In V-Strom guise, the 90-degree motor has received a raft of improvements: Intake-valve diameter and lift have been reduced for improved midrange, and the TL's cast-aluminum pistons were jettisoned in favor of forged units similar to the GSX-R1000's. The connecting rods have lost some weight, and the throttle bodies have been shrunk to 45mm from the 52mm units on the TL, while Suzuki's patented Dual Throttle Valve (SDTV) system has been added to help ensure a perfect fuel/air mixture and, thusly, power delivery regardless of throttle position or gear selection. TLs were a touch abrupt, doncha know.
Everything else on the V-Strom is brand, spankin' new. The twin-spar aluminum frame helps keep claimed dry weight down to a slim 455 pounds, which, for reference, is 110 pounds lighter than BMW's R1150GS. A nonadjustable 43mm fork resides up front, with the rear shock offering preload and rebound adjustability. Now-du jour underseat exhausts poke out nicely below the factory luggage rack, and Suzuki says Givi will produce aftermarket hard bags for the bike-a necessity when taking on the big players in this category.
Plop down in the saddle and the immediate feeling is that you are large and in charge. The V-Strom's seat is soft and, for the class, at least, fairly low at 33.1 inches. I'm five-foot-nine and am able to touch the balls of my feet on the ground, putting me in total control at stoplights. The bars are tall and the pegs are low, creating a comfortable seating position. Up front lies an instrument panel with dual analog gauges with idiot lights in between, a clock and dual tripmeters. The medium-height windscreen rises up to approximately midhelmet, though Suzuki says an even taller screen will be available for windophobes. Aboard, the bike definitely felt smaller than photos would have you believe.
As our convoy pulled out of the Capetown resort, the V-Strom felt perfectly adapted to city work. Unlike other bikes in the class, the Suzuki seems lithe and sporty, offering steering that's quick and neutral along with ample torque for squirting in and out of traffic. In South Africa it's legal to pass cars on either side (though most cars simply move over to let you go by), and the V-Strom had no trouble passing anything, even at lower revs. The wide-set mirrors offered a perfectly clear view of the scenery behind, and only got buzzy when we were forced to rev the motor up to its 9500-rpm redline, which wasn't often. Speaking of buzz, the entire bike gets a little fuzzy at the top of the tach dial, just like the TL1000S, and though the bike makes good power up top, there's so much available down low that it's usually not necessary to rev it unless you're really in a jam. There's surprising power even as low as 3000 rpm; it'll pull wheelies at 1500 rpm in first gear just like-you guessed it-the TL1000S. Keep the bike between 5000 and 7000 rpm in the higher gears and you're really moving, and like any recent Suzuki, the fuel injection is flawless-no surging or hiccups were experienced at any time.
The two-piston-based front brakes worked as you'd expect, though my first chance to really test them was during something I'd never have expected: ostrich evasion. We were riding along the coast toward the Cape of Good Hope and suddenly there were five ostriches running next to us. "Pretty cool," I thought-until two of them veered into the road right in front of us. The brakes did their job just fine, and offer Rottweiler bite with heaps of linear power. The dual-piston rear brake works well, too.
From the coast we headed inland for some of South Africa's best curvy roads-think California's Highway 1 from Cambria to Monterey, but with no police or traffic-and here is where performance was somewhat of a letdown, at least compared with my expectations. The bike felt planted being tipped into corners, but after the first several degrees of lean it gave off a sense of instability that forced me to back off a bit. The "problem," which is really more of a "category tradeoff," is the bike's basic set-up specification, which includes semiknobby, dual-sport tires, a 19-inch front wheel/tire up front and its comparatively tall stature. Still, ridden with smooth throttle- and braking-hands, the V-Strom can be a hoot in the twisties.
Suspension action was first-rate, the fork and shock soaking up small and medium-sized bumps without ever getting out of control or bottoming. Spring rates seem well-suited for the bike's basic mission; the bike never feels too soft or too stiff, and seems to have that sometimes- elusive combination of compliance and control. The rear shock features a handy remote adjustment knob for preload, but we never felt the need to crank on it throughout our two-day test ride.
Heading home from the coast (and the ostriches), we hit the freeway to save time. Flying past the shanty towns and cars that kept moving out of our way, the V-Strom was definitely in its element. This is a highly comfortable bike with excellent wind protection, even though some of the Europeans complained about wind buffeting due to the medium-sized windscreen. (Then again, they drink tea.) The Americans, however, loved it on the freeway. The V-Strom has a tall sixth gear that puts the tach around 4000 rpm at approximately 90 mph. There's also very little vibration coming through the bars at speed. Fuel mileage was hard to judge because the Suzuki engineers kept refueling our bikes every time we stopped for a bit of Crocodile sausage or Monkey Gland soup, but for one stretch I rode 65 miles and only one of the five fuel bars disappeared from the digital gauge. With its 5.8-gallon tank and comfortable perch, the V-Strom is arguably the best sport-touring bike in Suzuki's lineup. (Sorry, Bandit fans.)
Suzuki wasn't interested in letting us try the bike in an off-road situation, so we'll have to presume it's like the others in the genre; not great in the dirt, but certainly capable enough on fire roads and wide trails where the surface is smooth.
Aside from the nasty getoff (my first ever), riding the V-Strom was an enlightening experience. I have to learn to put aside my preconceived notions about nonsportbikes, because the manufacturers keep making me look foolish by making bikes that aren't hardcore sportbikes, but are still light, powerful and, most of all, way-fun to ride. This thing definitely fits that bill.