Suzuki released the original SV650 in 1999 as a little brother to the monster wheelie machine known as the TL1000S. With a similar V-twin layout to the TL, and a similar curvy half-fairing, the SV provided riders on a budget with a full-sized bike built on an aluminum trellis frame, with triple-disc brakes and torque everywhere in the rev range.
Canadians were lucky to get the “S” model right off the bat, while the US only got the naked version until 2001. I was lucky enough to put several thousand kilometres on an SV650S back in 1999, and have fond memories of the tractable engine and surefooted handling. Will the 2019 Suzuki SV650 blow the first-generation version away with 20 years of technological innovation? Spoiler: No, but it’s still a brilliant bike, and still has a budget price ($7,899 including ABS for the A, or $8,299 for the X with half-fairing).
What is it?
The 1999 SV650 was carbureted and made about 64 horsepower. Fuel injection was added in 2003, bumping horsepower to 73 and bumping torque from 42 to 47 lbs.-ft. In 2007, twin spark plugs and an O2 sensor became standard to improve emissions. The latest SV features new pistons and various other mechanical bits to further increase horsepower to 75, while peak torque remains relatively unchanged. Twenty years has not yielded gigantic power gains, but the engine is cleaner, more fuel efficient, and I would wager far more durable as well. The originals were a little fragile when flogged.
Somewhere along the line, Suzuki introduced the Gladius, using the same motor as the SV but with a steel trellis frame. That short-lived, sort-of replacement for the SV is now gone, and the newest SV650 uses a similar trellis frame to the Gladius, instead of the aluminum unit the SV previously sported. The SV’s extruded steel swingarm drives a single shock through a progressive linkage, with the only available suspension adjustment being a spring preload for the rear spring. A 41 mm conventional front fork, 17-inch wheels with 120/70 front and 160/60 rear tires, and 290 mm front discs gripped by two-piston calipers, round out the chassis details.
What’s it like to ride?
Turn the key and the monochrome LCD display springs to attention with warning lights arranged vertically to the left and right. A quick stab at the start button and the Suzuki Easy Start system shocks the motor to life, settling into a thumping idle. It’s a little more lawnmower-ish than I’d like, but it wakes up a bit once under load. The bars are relatively narrow, as is the tank, and the footpegs are directly under your butt. Seat height is a commendably low 785 mm (30.9 in.), but the seat angles forward too much for my tastes, forcing your crotch forward into the tank. It’s a little uncomfortable, and not great for longer rides.
The bike slips into first gear easily enough, but upshifts require a deliberate foot when noodling along at a normal pace. More than once I attempted a lazy upshift from second to third, only to find the gearbox still in second; firmer inputs are necessary to ensure the next gear is properly engaged. At higher RPM, the box shifts better, but keeping the revs high during regular commuting duties would be tiresome. On a more positive note, downshifts seemed much easier than upshifts, and finding neutral is quite easy. The large gear position indicator nestled between the speedo and temp indicator bar graph is a great feature that should be on all motorcycles.
The motor pulls decently across the rev range, with mostly linear power delivery, but gets buzzy and falls off a bit higher up the RPM. Like the original, you can ride the midrange torque all day long, although the newer engine seems a little sanitized compared to the original, as if it was more like an electric motor than an internal combustion engine. It is undoubtedly a better powerplant, but has maybe lost a little character in the process. For commuting duties, dashing in and out of holes in traffic, and for novice riders who might have a difficult time keeping a peakier engine on the boil, the SV650 makes things easy with power all over the tach.
The handling is competent, but it’s let down by tires that lack grip. The suspension soaks up bumps as well as any budget setup can be expected to, but push the cornering speeds and the tires are too easy to let loose. Around town, the bike is light and flickable; it doesn’t get nervous unless you get closer to the traction limits. This doesn’t help inspire confidence, of course, though an easy fix is just a new set of tires away. The brakes also lack initial bite and are a little down on power.
For a novice rider, the brakes and tires are fine, but for a more experienced owner who is looking to carve some backroads, some upgrades would be a good idea. I should cut-and-paste this for all reviews of budget bikes: quality aftermarket rear shock, stiffer fork springs and heavier weight oil, better brake pads and maybe steel braided lines, stickier tires, and you’re good to go.
How is it to look at?
Styling-wise, the SV could be the picture they use in the dictionary next to the word “motorcycle”. It is a simple and attractive bike, the quintessential Universal Japanese Motorcycle, with no fairings but for a small cowl above the single round headlight, and a one-piece integrated rider and passenger seat. If you want a fairing, of course, the SV650X is available for an extra $400.
The red frame of our tester hints at early Ducati Monster, with the only superfluous detail being the extra heat shielding on top of the single muffler. The headlight is halogen, the tails are LED, and the clear-lensed turn signals are just nice enough that they might not get replaced in the first week of ownership. First month, maybe.
Is it worth the money?
The SV650’s closest competition would likely be the Yamaha MT-07 ($8,499), and the Kawasaki Z650 ABS ($7,999), both of them featuring parallel-twin engines compared to the SV’s V-twin. For $600 extra, the Yamaha features more daring styling and rebound damping in the rear shock to go with the preload adjustability, but otherwise features similar levels of engine refinement and power output. The Kawi also brings more futuristic looks compared to the SV (you can decide whether that is a good or bad thing), but is known to be a little down on power compared to the other two. As is often the case, flip a coin or roll some dice, or just pick the one that looks best to you.
Suzuki’s website puts the 2019 SV650 under the “Standard” category, grouped with its GSX-S line of bikes, and the SV could really be the standard of all standards. It is plain, simple, naked, straightforward, and easy to ride. The original was ahead of its time, offering decent performance and big-bike looks with a budget price, and at a glance, it was difficult to distinguish from the legendary TL1000S.
This latest generation may seem a little watered down in comparison, but part of that is due to the competition catching up (or simply existing when they didn’t before), while the SV has also been refined into an even more novice- and budget-friendly package. Two decades later, it is certainly a better bike on paper, while in the flesh and on the road, its focus has shifted towards the more conventional end of the motorcycle spectrum.