Suzuki’s funky VanVan

I’ve made a name for hating small motorcycles. Sure, smaller displacements are cheaper and often more versatile in the city, but I still find 300cc difficult to live with on a daily basis. I don’t ride much in town and highways don’t suit pocket-size bikes, but I like to be proven wrong and I may have found the model that’s done just that.

The 2017 Suzuki VanVan 200 is the smallest motorcycle I’ve ever been on, both physically and mechanically. So how did I finally see the light? It’s because the VanVan doesn’t take itself seriously. It hasn’t been designed to look like a smaller version of a bigger motorcycle or a wallet-friendly alternative to a bigger displacement. It’s cute and at $4,599, it’s cheap enough to maybe be a guilt-free second bike to take out on joy rides rather than commute. And that’s why it works.

The Suzuki VanVan 200 seen in fully-loaded touring mode. Magnetic tank bag is extra.

Granted, riding on the highway capped at 100 km/h — maybe 110 if you’re going downhill with the wind on your tail — isn’t my definition of fun. And considering the motorcycle is about the size of a suitcase fitted with a handlebar, pretty much every other vehicle on the road becomes intimidating.

But chances are that customers won’t buy a VanVan as their main ride: it is fun enough to deserve a spot in the garage and modest enough to be a second bike. And unless you’re a terrible driver with a record that makes your insurer want to buy you out, it is also cheap to buy and own — arguments easy to sell to your joint account co-owner when trying to justify your want, no, your need for this little quirky model.

People were fascinated with the VanVan and it served as a great conversation piece. Many asked how original it is (read: how old). I also got snubbed a few times by other riders who ignored the usual communal wave, but I didn’t care much for that. I was probably having a whole lot more fun than they were and, like the bike, I was definitely not taking myself very seriously. Had there been a microphone installed in my helmet when I first pulled away on the little Suzuki tester, all you would have heard was the sound of wind mixed with a dumb giggle.

And seen again in its natural habitat, off the road but not really “off-road.”
Riding dawn to dusk

It is incredibly sturdy. I picked the VanVan as my ride for the 2017 edition of the Dawn2Dusk small motorcycle rally and the bike became quite the little star. The event alone added more than 600 kilometres to the odometer. Twelve hours of hard work could have been a challenge for the 199 cc, air-cooled, one-cylinder engine, but it laboured through the day with no indication of slowing down.

Twelve hours on the baby Suzuki could have been physically demanding, but thanks to the massive, cushiony leather seat, comfort was not an issue. With a seat height of 770 mm, some cramping was to be expected, but the frame of the motorcycle was surprisingly bigger than you might think. The upright position and easy-to-reach handles (thanks to the minuscule 6.5-litre gas tank, which was good for about 140 km) turned out to be easy to live with. The arms are free and bent at a comfortable angle that provides plenty of flexibility to manoeuvre the vehicle, and they’re just high enough to not elbow yourself in the thighs.

Sorry, but that lack of symmetry really bothers Editor Mark. His whole world would be out of balance.

The VanVan is extremely primitive. Its electric wiring is exposed and held to the handlebar with a set of black ties, the rear brake is a drum, the tool cluster is an analog display with a set of light indicators for the blinkers, the neutral and the fuel level; the trip odometer is mechanical and can be reset with a small rod located on the side of the speedometer dial. No wonder I kept being asked how “original” it was; it’s barely evolved from its ancestor, the RV125 of the 1970s.

There is no technological fluff whatsoever on this frozen-in-time bike. Everything is extremely straightforward, basic and easy to figure out, which is great for maintenance if you plan on taking care of it yourself.

Despite its qualities, such a basic motorcycle is bound to have some flaws. The massive rear tire is street-bias. It is relatively well behaved off the beaten paths, but it felt a little unsteady in the bends, both on and off the asphalt. In addition, the drum brake proved far too easy to lock, which then sent the rear wheel into a skidding tango. Some people like that, of course. There’s no fancy ABS or traction control on a bike this simple and cheap, of course. On the bright side, should you drop it, at 128 kg, even your grandma will be able to lift it back up.

The VanVan mantra: Keep It Simple, Stupid. Life needs an escape sometimes from being overly complicated.

The 2017 Suzuki VanVan soldiered through a day-long rally and even through a commute on Toronto’s Hwy. 401, Canada’s busiest highway. For a minimalist, primal and fun experience, the valiant VanVan is a good pick, but it will serve you better as a second ride than as a main one.

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