Long Termer: V-Strom 650 – Dirty Conclusions

It’s been a couple of years since we started the Wee Strom Adventure Touring project with the aim to adapt Suzuki’s redesigned 650 Strom into a more capable adventure touring machine. But the end is nigh! And now it’s time to wrap the whole thing up having used 2013 as a testing period for the modifications.

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As the Adventure Touring name suggests, the project was split into two areas to adapt to; Adventure and, well, Touring.

The Adventure part meant making the Strom more capable in off-road conditions. The V-Strom is no svelte dirt bike, and no after market accessories will change that, but you can make it more dirt-capable, which is what we tried to do.

The Touring aspect meant making the Strom more comfortable for the long haul (including adaptations to accommodate my lanky frame) but also to tackle the recurring buffeting issue, adding more lighting, grip warmers (it is Canada after all) and some much-needed luggage.

The first year was spent sourcing and fitting all these parts; we spent the second year riding it on the road and in the trails to see how everything faired. We hope we’ve ended up with a valuable guide for any Wee Strom owner out there thinking of doing the same.

In these wrap-up pieces, we’re going to give our thoughts on how each adaptation worked and whether or not we think it’s good value for money, so read on.

Suzuki advertises the V-Strom as an adventure bike, but it needs a lot of improvement if you plan to use it for anything serious.
Suzuki advertises the V-Strom as an adventure bike, but it needs a lot of improvement if you plan to use it for anything serious.

PHASE ONE – ADVENTURE

Suzuki brands the Strom as an adventure bike, but aside from tall suspension, a slightly larger 19” front wheel and some styling cues, there’s not a whole lot to back up the claim. What the Strom is lacking in stock form is the all-important protection to save it from flying rocks, crankcase-cracking boulders and the inevitable tip over/dumping.

We also wanted to take it one more step, replace the stock cast wheels that are prone to denting in contact with rocks (surprisingly easy to do, even on a seemingly smooth gravel road), with a set of wire wheels, so that’s where we’ll start.

The wire wheels were a lot of hassle, but a necessary upgrade. Photo: Rob Harris
The wire wheels were a lot of hassle, but a necessary upgrade. Here, Norm is pressed into relacing the rear wheel. Photo: Rob Harris

A) Wire wheels, brakes and knobby tires

This was perhaps the most ambitious of mods that we embarked upon, as no one company offered a set of wire wheels off the shelf, which meant a lot of trail and error on our behalf. The vital ingredient to even contemplate such an effort is sourcing the wheel hubs, which are specific to the bike design (axle size, wheel alignment, brake mounting, etc) and came courtesy of RAD Manufacturing.

The trouble was that they were designed for the pre-ABS Strom, so we had to source a set of front brake discs from that period too, as the new ABS model had a tweaked hub to make room for the ABS sensor ring. Those came courtesy of EBC Brakes, which had the added bonus of a wavy design for added bling appeal.

An added bonus: Now that you've got knobbies mounted for the dirt, you can put sticky rubber on your cast wheels.
An added bonus: Now that you’ve got knobbies mounted for the dirt, you can put sticky rubber on your cast wheels for pavement duty.

The rims and spokes were supplied by Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim; we opted for a set of heavy duty spokes and some tough Excel rims. When building a wheel from scratch, you have the option to make it any size you want, and we were tempted to go for the more off-road friendly 21” front (bigger = better at rolling over things) but then we would have had to replace the fender.

Also, there was a chance the bigger wheel could contact the radiator under full fork compression — variables we didn’t want to tackle — so we stuck to the standard sizing of 19” front and 17” rear.

Tut tut! That low front fender means rocks and gravel can get stuck and cause problems. Photo: Rob Harris
Tut tut! That low front fender means rocks and gravel can get stuck and break the fender (zip-ties worked as a good trail side fix). Photo: Rob Harris

One weak spot we found while testing was that rocks would get pulled up in the front tire and scrape around under the close-fitting fender. Eventually the fender cracked, so we recommend a higher-mounted fender, which we’ll see if we can find for 2014.

Despite some mix-ups that meant we had to relace the rear wheel again, looks alone make the wire wheel option something special – the bike just pops out at you. However, the wheels with matching discs and brake pads came to a rather hefty US$2,660 and a lot of hassle to boot.

The wire wheels are a very pricy upgrade, but if you want to ride hard off-road, you'll need them.
The wire wheels are a very pricy upgrade, but if you want to ride hard off-road, you’ll need them.

Obviously this is not cheap, but vital if you really want to ride in rougher stuff. If I hit a hidden rock on a gravel road (which I did quite often), I had absolute zero worry about the rim getting dinged. After one year of testing, there’s not a single sign of damage to be found. Well, apart from the gouge from a ham-fisted tire change …

With the stock cast wheels, the Strom suffered from a slight shimmy at certain speeds. Not so with the wire wheels. Photo: Rob Harris
With the stock cast wheels, the Strom suffered from a slight shimmy at certain speeds. Not so with the wire wheels. They look smart too! Photo: Rob Harris

The new front wheel also got rid of a slight shimmy in the front end (the stock cast wheel would shudder between 60-80 km/h). Not sure why it does that, but taking your hands off the bars at certain speeds would allow the bars to wiggle quite aggressively.

Still, I find these hard to justify, as they add enough cost to the project to make an already set up (and more dirt-friendly) bike like BMW’s F800GS a more realistic option. However, if you want the blingest and most dirt-friendly Strom in the neighbourhood, then this is a good way to do it.

I almost forgot to add, the wire wheels also gives you a spare set of stock items which can be shod with road biased rubber and quickly switched over if you’re about to embark on a long paved tour – very handy.

By keeping to the standard 17”/19” wheel sizes (which are now pretty universal on adventure bikes), it meant we had a good choice of tires too and I opted for a pair of Heidenau Scouts for Project Strom.

Overall, I was very impressed, the tires wearing very well after extended periods on- and off-road. The trade-off is loss of traction in loose gravel and mud, where the ungrooved centreline of the rear (which I assume gives it its longevity on pavement due to less flexing) loses its ability to bite, making the Strom slide around under any amount of power in those conditions.

I did get used to it though, but whether this is a price worth paying for longevity is up to each rider. Personally, since I have a good stretch of highway to ride before any trails, it’s one I would pay.

The EBC brakes were a little disappointing though. I was expecting a boost over stock, but they were about the same if not a little worse in the wet, when they would suffer from a little slip while wiping the water off. They looked smart though!

The aftermarket Hindle exhaust made it tricky to fit a bash plate. Eventually, Rob ended up creating a hybrid exhaust system to work around the issue. Photo: Rob Harris
The aftermarket Hindle exhaust made it tricky to fit a bash plate. Eventually, Rob ended up creating a hybrid exhaust system to work around the issue. Photo: Rob Harris

B) The bash protection

The next area to require attention was to protect the Strom’s vulnerable parts from debris, rocks and ham fisted riding. We achieved this by fitting SW Motech crash bars and bash plate, Barkbuster handguards, Ventura headlight guards, an Enduro Guardian radiator guard and a set of Pro Taper SE handlebars.

The Suzuki crash bars (silver) will do the trick, but Rob went with the beefier SW-Motech crash bars (black). Photo: Rob Haris
The Suzuki crash bars (silver) will do the trick, but Rob went with the beefier SW-Motech crash bars (black). Photo: Rob Haris

The SW Motech crash bars are heavy-duty steel loops that mount to the frame and loop up and out to stop the Strom’s plastics, tank and mechanicals from touching down in the event of a topple. Thankfully I have yet to crash the Strom (I came very close to junking it thanks to a spectacular high speed endo), though I did drop it once at walking pace and the bars did as advertised.

The bashplate is constructed of three separate aluminum plates, riveted together and hung from the Strom’s motor and lower frame. The biggest issue with the Strom when it comes to going into the dirt environment is ground clearance. Adding a bashplate reduces that even more but it’s not optional as you will hit rocks and it’s much better to dent the plate than poke a hole in your engine’s sump.

Of course, I endured some mounting issues thanks to an aftermarket pipe getting in the way and so I had to make some new mounts and bring it forward to make it fit. An inevitable run in with a exposed drainage pipe on one trail brought the Strom to a sudden stop – leaving it standing on the pipe!

The SW-Motech bash plate eventually fitted on, but Rob thrashed it soundly through a summer's off-roading use. Photo: Rob Harris
The SW-Motech bash plate eventually fitted with some modification, but Rob thrashed it soundly through a summer’s off-roading use. Photo: Rob Harris

Not surprisingly, the bashplate was well and truly destroyed by end of the season (the rivets popped and it started to come apart), but because it was not fitted as instructed I cannot fairly draw any conclusions. I have since adapted the pipe (using the original Strom headers) and fitted another plate on as per instructions, so we’ll see how it works now.

The Barkbusters work well for protection, but also keep your hands warm on the paved stretches between trails. Photo: Rob Harris
The Barkbusters work well for bash protection, but also help to keep your hands warm on the paved stretches between trails. Photo: Rob Harris

I continue to be impressed by the Barkbuster handguards – easy to fit, strong and with good weather protection. The Pro Taper SE bars offered more strength than standard bars, but fitting any bars is a fiddly operation, so I’ll leave that for the reader to decide if it’s a worthy change.

To protect from flying rocks I fitted a set of clear plastic Ventura headlight guards that kept the glass lights in one piece and were dead easy to fit. The Enduro Guardian rad guard was a similar experience and offers peace of mind from flying rocks for a minimal price. Both no-brainers, in my opinion.

C) The other bits

One thing I have discovered in my many forays into the dirt is just how much difference good suspension makes. It doesn’t just change a bike’s behavior in the rough, but it lets you know what it’s doing. That way, you can adjust accordingly, instead of being taken by surprise and finding yourself sucking mud.

Leaving no stone unturned, 'Arris added headlight guards from Ventura, to protect his headlamps from those unturned stones.
Leaving no stone unturned, ‘Arris added headlight guards from Ventura, to protect his headlamps from those unturned stones.

The stock Strom suspension is built to a price; although it’s capable for mild off-road adventures in gravel-land, I thought I’d see if I could bring up the front relatively cheaply (you can spend a fortune on suspension if you want to) by putting in some springs specifically designed for my weight.

Suspension mods changed Rob's KLR dramatically; the V-Strom, well, not so much. Photo: Rob Harris
Suspension mods changed Rob’s KLR dramatically; the V-Strom, well, not so much. Photo: Rob Harris

These came courtesy of Sonic Springs who offer various spring types to match your heft. Although it’s quite a cheap and relatively easy job to do, I must confess that any gains offered were minor so I don’t think that they were worth it. Serious modifiers may want to look at adding modulators to the front with a bit more preload (longer spacer) and maybe a new shock at the rear, but then how far is it worth going on a bike that is still too heavy and lacks the all important ground clearance?

A couple of other important and thoroughly recommended dirt-friendly mods is a set of clawed pegs and a bigger sidestand foot. The pegs I got were SW Motech On road/Off road units and gave a wider area with the option for bare metal (gives you grip when they get muddy) or to add a rubber insert for road use, although I found them comfy enough without the rubber in all cases. The foot was also from SW Motech and a simple bolt-on which stopped the stand from sinking into soggy ground on the trails. Simple and very effective!

CONCLUSIONS

After doing all these mods I pressed the Strom into service as scout for a planned dual sport rally I’d like to try out east here around the Bay of Fundy. The idea of the rally is to have a base loop that is suitable for all dual-sport and many so-called adventure bikes (we’d be on gravel roads), with optional excursions for those who want a tougher challenge. This allowed me to try the Strom in the easier stuff and then push it somewhat down some rougher stuff to see how she coped.

Ground clearance was still an issue, but otherwise, the bike mostly worked very well.
Ground clearance was a big issue, but otherwise, the bike mostly worked very well.

As expected, the bike took simple gravel and fire roads in stride, with the wire wheels absorbing the whack of any hidden rocks pocking up and the bolt-on protection keeping projectiles from making holes where holes are not wanted. In short, the mods did exactly what I wanted them to do.

The limitations soon became apparent when going into even mildly gnarly stuff. Terrain that my KLR would laugh at provided some serious challenges to the Strom and brought home the biggest limitation of the Strom – ground clearance. It was just too low to tackle anything remotely rocky. At best there would be the occasional bang as it bounced off a rock, but if the trail had any rocky shelving (effectively creating steps), or you came around a corner to find an exposed drainage pipe, then it would hook up and stop dead.

Still, you could mostly navigate through this stuff at slow speeds, but since that is against my nature I’ll use the KLR for the more adventurous stuff and keep the Strom as the perfect bike to tackle Labrador or maybe even one day visit Tierra Del Fuego!

THANKS TO

As you probably know, magazines are cheap by nature. There’s not a lot of money to be made in this game, so in order to do projects like these we need suppliers to see the value of what we do and hopefully not get too pissy with us if we find fault.

As seen on the show circuit ...
As seen on the show circuit …

For this project a big thanks you goes to the folk at Twisted Throttle who supplied us with the majority of what we needed to make it happen. Also to Suzuki Canada for providing the (very) long termer Strom and offering us anything from their accessory catalogue that we wanted to try.

See you on the trails!
See you on the trails!

Also to RAD Manufacturing for the hubs and Buchanan’s Spoke & Rim for the deal on the parts and the patient help while we messed it all up. And to EBC Brakes who saved us at very short notice when we realized that we needed a set of pre-ABS brakes to go with the new wheels.

And then all the one-offs courtesy of Enduro Guardian, Ventura, Sonic Springs and Heidenau Tires. Thanks.

THE COST OF ADVENTURE

So what’s the damage? Costing below does not include cost, shipping or labour to fit them, but it should give you a good idea of where you may want to spend your hard earned cash.

WIRE WHEELS

Front ($349.95) & Rear ($449.95) wheel hubs (RAD Manufacturing) US$799.90

Heavy Duty custom spokes and nipples (Buchanan’s) US$198.00

Excel front ($260) & rear ($318) rims (Buchanan’s) US$578.00

(Labour /wheel was $97, so the total for built wheels would be US$1,769.90)

Front ($615.22 pair) and rear ($146.41) brake discs (EBC Brakes) US$761.63

V-Pad brake pads (US$42.89 per pair x 3) (EBC Brakes) – US$128.67

Sub total – $2,660.20

DUAL SPORT TIRES

110/80 B19 59T TL K60 Scout (Heidenau Tires) US$182.00

150/70 B17 69T TL K60 Scout (Heidenau Tires) US$245.00

Sub total – $427.00

PROTECTION ET AL

SW Motech Crash Bars (Twisted Throttle) US$219.99

SW Motech Bash Plate (Twisted Throttle) US$259.99

SW Motech Kick Stand Foot (Twisted Throttle) US$50.00

SW Motech On-road/off-road Footpegs (Twisted Throttle) US$158.99

Barkbusters (Twisted Throttle) US$155.00

Radiator Guard (Enduro Guardian) US$60.00

Headlight Guards (Ventura) US$49.00

Pro Taper Handlebars (Dual Sport Plus) CA$59.99

Front Springs (Sonic Springs) – US$79.95

Sub total – $1,092.91

GRAND TOTAL $4,180.11

21 thoughts on “Long Termer: V-Strom 650 – Dirty Conclusions”

  1. After 40+ years of extensive riding, I wanted to slow down and get lighter. The first new ’09 ‘Strom I got “for free” after trading in my Beemer. My expectations were low. Very low. However, after two years and more than 60 000 km’s pounding the thing from Labrador to Baja, it turned out to be a fine friend. For the fun of it, I bought a new 2012 ‘Storm and now at 44 000 km’s it’s proven to be even better. But let’s be clear, it’s got a face only a mother could love and it’s best feature is that it’s dependable and cheap . . . sorta like me. I love the fact that a pro can make the bike better, but from my point of view, spending more than $3000 on farkles would make me wonder why I wanted a ‘Strom in the first place. Then again, if I dumped some dough on plastic surgery and went into therapy . . . ya never know, eh?

    1. I would agree that spending a lot of money on a Strom kinda defeats the purpose. The idea of this exercise though was to throw a lot of accessories at it and then talk about how each performed so that other Strom owners can pick and choose the bits that suits them best.

      1. Yes, and I really appreciate that I can learn from someone else’s expertise . . . and money! I’m much more likely to buy something that’s been objectively tested than something straight from a catalog. This is a great project for us ‘Strom lovers – thanks!

  2. My VStrom 1000 waggled a bit when off the throttle, I think a combo of all elements as the perfect storm. It was a ok bike so I sold it. I expected more. I’m sure its fun to gear up the 650 but I cant help thinking how fugly that thing is. Real fugly. I just could not own one.

  3. I purchased my ’12 DL650A with no pretenses of its off road capability. I bought a KTM350 EXC for that. The DL650A is a great, somewhat boring street bike. It does daily commuting, medium range touring, and mildly spirited back road romps very well. Its 200+ mile range is one of its best features, as are its cavernous boxes. The budget suspension works just fine for its targeted use, and the remote preload adjuster is another feature that I employ often. The stock windscreen is a joke, and the seat is not as comfortable as it should be. I also found the bars to be too far forward (easily addressed with ROX risers).
    I am really enjoying my DL650A, but every now and then, I wish I had bought the KTM990SMT I was considering when I bought the little Suzuki…..

    1. I don’t disagree, and that’s why we put the pricing in so that a user can decide how far they want to go before opting for something else.

    2. Bingo!

      I have never gotten past the second paragraph of
      any magazine write-up fixing a bike for it’s original
      purpose.

      When mags get to this level of cost or work, I start
      to realize that the bike is shit. Why don’t they just
      manufacturer it properly in the first place?

  4. Any reason why the sub-total for the “PROTECTION ET AL” section is in bold and larger font? Maybe that was supposed to be the final total of all mods?

  5. “The new front wheel also got rid of a slight shimmy in the front end (the stock cast wheel would shudder between 60-80 km/h). Not sure why it does that, but taking your hands off the bars at certain speeds would allow the bars to wiggle quite aggressively.”

    Why were you taking your hands off the bars ? It sounds more like a tire issue than a wheel problem, perhaps fitting some different rubber to the stock hoops would have improved things…?

    1. I could just feel it with my hands on the bars, so i tried taking them off on deceleration and they got quite wild. It could be rubber yes, but I remember the same thing happening on our first generation Strom tester and have read about other people experiencing the same thing.

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