It’s about 9pm and I’m sitting in a bar in Buckingham, Quebec with a pint of the best tasting ice-cold beer that I’ve had in a long time. The previous 3 hours have been spent riding Suzuki’s DL650 V-Strom through the mass of woods to the north, navigating what must be the nastiest of all ATV tracks, daylight fading fast.
I hadn’t planned it this way. It all started innocently enough, with the idea to just take a gravel road short cut – a diversion off the paved highway and a good opportunity to see just how comfortable this bike is off-road. It was the wide, smooth and fast type of gravel road – relatively hard-packed, almost highway-like, but with a coating of gravel instead of asphalt.
The DL was lapping it up, the torquey v-twin motor providing just the right balance of power for this type of road – not so much so that you have to be cautious not to spin the rear wheel all the time (like it’s bigger brother the DL1000), but not too shy either. It was too easy – the DL wanted more of a challenge.
Not one to deny the demands of a motorcycle, I started to randomly take interesting options as junctions came my way. This was proving to be fun, and the DL remained unfazed as the gravel highways gave way to more challenging trails.
Although I’d thought that I was cutting a roughly easterly route over the last hour and a bit, I was dismayed to come to a junction with the option to head back to where I’d started (a mere 5km away), or take the mystery route to Buckingham – distance unknown.
I don’t know why, but there’s something in me that refuses to retreat, especially when there’s a mystery option available, and only a couple of hours of daylight left. Besides, the mystery option was actually signposted, so how bad could it be?
At this point it certainly looked to be pretty good. A tad narrow and rough maybe, but maintained. Hey, and who am I to deny the DL a chance to get a little dirtier – after it had done everything with ease so far?
I paused, checked the sun for how much light remained and sallied forth. It was wondrous and a perfect trail for the DL – slightly rough, winding its way up and down hill, past lake and over river via the most rickety of bridges.
As the trail unfolded it got progressively gnarly, and although the DL wasn’t really designed for this turn of events, it was feeling as comfortable as the R1200GS long-termer, if not a little more thanks to feeling significantly lighter. However, I was painfully aware that not only does this bike comes sans bash-plate, but it raises the stakes even further by having a very exposed oil cooler and filter right up front. Then there’s that exhaust pipe – looping low under the motor, exposed to any big rock or unexpected hump.
No problem, I thought, I’ll take it slow and easy, navigate it around any danger. I knew what I was doing, didn’t I? Besides, it was all so gorgeous. The evening light lit up each scene perfectly. This was true Canadiana and I was in heaven.
Unfortunately the track ahead had different plans, and mile-by-mile it got progressively rougher and rockier with steep climbs and loose descents.
An hour later and I was navigating the DL through large rocks and small boulders. My progress was down to a walking pace as I tried to balance a growing fear that the light was about to abandon me altogether, with the real danger that a moment’s lack of concentration could punch one of these large rocks into the heart of my stead. A slight panic was starting to creep in and I instinctively quickened the pace in an attempt to get as many daylight miles under my wheels as possible.
Poor light and large rocks immediately took their toll, as the sound of stone against exhaust pipe metal filled the forest. Oh dear. With each thwack I’d stop and check that the oil-cooler and filter were not part of the carnage, each time noting another scar or dent in the increasingly pummeled pipe.
The light was almost gone by now and being able to scan the route ahead for danger was proving almost impossible. Not only was a night in the woods starting to look like a distinct possibility, but also if I killed the DL, I’d be in the impossible position of trying to get the carcass out of this forest. No truck could get down here!
By now I was at a good running pace and as I bounced up yet another rocky hill climb, I heard a loud “thwack” as I glanced off a rock on my left. The DL stalled out. Oh dear lord, is this it? I looked down to the left and saw the cable to the side-stand cut-out switch, dangling, severed.
Okay, don’t panic Harris – this is simple electrical shit. I leapt off, bit into the sheath with my pearly whites and then into the cables to expose the copper wires inside. Quickly wrapped the two ends together, pulled the sheath back over, fired it up and slapped it into first – go, go, go!
Then, in almost complete dark, I came across a junction and decided to dump my posted route and take the smooth looking one off to the right.
Twenty minutes later I was in the bar in Buckingham sipping on that fine tasting beer. The DL had shown that it could be a very capable dual-sport bike … but with some extra protection – the mashed pipe and severed cut-out cable testament to the merits of installing a simple bash-plate.
It had been close, and would require some good diplomacy with Suzuki, but had graphically illustrated to me the potential of this amazing all-round machine. Over the two weeks that I’d had the DL we’d put it through a myriad of tests, from a 12-hour endurance ride, to a session on the racetrack, to this torturous dirt ride.
It had not only survived all we’d thrown at it, but excelled at it too. Only two questions remained:
1) Why hadn’t Suzuki finished the job and fitted a bash-plate as standard?
2) Why didn’t everyone ride one of these?
At initial glance, the DL650 is identical to its bigger brother, the DL1000. And it is actually pretty much the same, except for shorter suspension (by 10mms), a lower seat (again, by 10mms), slightly modified fairing, no hand-guards, and a two into one (as opposed to a two into two) exhaust. Oh, and the motor’s a 650 instead of a 1000 … and the 650 didn’t get the belly-pan.
It would seem that the 650 should be a lesser bike than the 1000, but what the initial inspection doesn’t tell you is that the 650 not only loses an all important 18 Kg, but is three grand cheaper to boot (a steal at $8,899.00).
And now here’s the real news – it’s a better bike too. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, what do you actually get for that money?
The 650 v-twin motor is taken from the venerable SV650, and gets the usual ‘retuned for low-end power’ routine (new cams), losing a peak 7 horsepower, but gaining a usable boost between 4,000 and 6,500 rpm.
Okay, so it’s not rocket-power, and it starts to flatten out shortly after 7,000 rpm, but it’s a perfect match to the bike. Redline is at a hopeful 10,500, but it’ll also happily pull away from as little 2,500 in top gear.
It’s a winning combination: the (very) smooth, linear power making it a bike that you can ride all day and spend more time concentrating on what’s ahead of you rather than what the motor’s doing.
The crank’s also heavier, and the final gearing has been dropped by including an extra two teeth on the rear sprocket, making it more ploddable. It’s still happy to cruise at a steady 140 km/h +, although at these speeds there is enough wind pushing on your head to lead to some neck pain after a few hours. There’s also a chunk of noise, so don’t forget to pop in the earplugs. Oh, and my throttle hand did eventually go numb at these speeds, although the vibrations are seemingly slight.
Talking of the screen, it’s adjustable for three positions, although it requires an Allen wrench to disassemble it so that it can be moved up or down. Even though this can be done in 5 to 10 minutes, I don’t see why they couldn’t have come up with something a bit easier to do on the fly.
Fuel injection uses a dual-butterfly set-up and is perfectly mapped and glitch-free. Even the cold start system meant that the DL fired up immediately, idled happily and ran without hesitation.
The gearbox is pretty smooth (like the clutch, which is also extremely light) although I did find an occasional false neutral between 3rd and 4th. Also, it would be nice to have a 6th gear/OD indicator as I often found myself cruising along in fifth as it felt quite happy, only realizing that there was another gear about an hour later.
Suspension is almost identical to the thou, but a cheaper internal springing has been used in the 41mm front forks (the DL1000 gets cartridge), which are adjustable for preload only. The Showa rear shock also gets preload adjustability via a knob, as well as some rebound damping adjustability.
Although the suspension is generally on the soft side, it’s a good compromise for 95% of your average riding, but it can get overwhelmed over the rough stuff. Still, it only did it when I expected it to, otherwise it was perfectly composed.
Twin 310 mm discs up front are clasped by twin-piston sliding calipers, with a single 260 mm disc at the back. These are the same set-up as the 1000 and have an easier job with the 650’s reduced mass. Still, I did find that there was a slight lack of initial response at the front, although you’d quite quickly adapt to this. Otherwise, they are very linear and predictable.
The DL’s rider comfort hits the mark. There’s enough wind protection for normal cruising speeds, and the upright position means that both your wrists and your spine will thank you for it. The bars are also well positioned to allow the rider to stand up. This not only helps greatly for off-road riding, but also allows for a good stretch while eating up the miles.
While the seat height is more friendly to average height riders, the 10 mm loss over the 1000 comes thanks to a reduction in padding. Personally I didn’t find this to be much of a compromise, but I understand there’s an active market out there for small 1000 owners wanting to swap seats with tall 650 owners. The seat’s also narrower at the front, which again helps the vertically-challenged to get their feet to the ground.
Although we hadn’t originally planned to put the DL650 on the track, we nevertheless found ourselves with a track day and a DL and SV650 at our disposal, so why not? The idea was to see what the SV could do, and if you wanted a break, then the DL was on hand to have a few leisurely laps and a bit of a giggle.
And was it ever.
With the preload at the rear wound right up (the DL’s suspension is on the soft side) and the front left as is, I hit Shannonville’s Nelson track ready for a leisurely few laps.
Although the position is high up and upright, it proved to be a very comfortable one for my lanky frame, and meant that I could do longer stints before the body started to demand a trip to the pits.
The wide bars make the DL a breeze in tight turns (just line it up and hold your position) and as I slowly found myself keeping up with carefully ridden Ducatis, I thought it about time to wind it up a bit and see just how comfortable this machine was out here.
Within a lap I was ridding balls-out and the DL was loving it, with just the occasional rear slip on the bumpier sections – albeit slight and predictable. Within a couple of laps I was scraping pegs with ease and out-braking the occasional Ducati into the corners. Okay, so maybe the Ducati pilots weren’t going balls-out, but there’s a certain evil pleasure to be gained from such things, regardless of opponent skill.
In fact, so comfortable was the DL that I even tried doing a lap with only my throttle hand on the bars – I ended up doing three (although passing Ducatis wasn’t part of them). It’s just so easy to ride – holding lines perfectly, any corrections achieved with minor throttle adjustments.
The super-nice linearity of the power and good spread meant that you could focus on your line and not on keeping the motor up in the power band. In fact, keeping the revs high proved more problematic, as you would quickly find the power dropping off and hitting the rev limiter before you were out of the corner and ready to change up a gear.
The road-biased Bridgestone Trail Wing tires were excellent on the track, never slipping out unless the rear suspension had become overloaded and the wheel had started to chatter. A quick check at the end of the day revealed that we’d used the whole of the rear and to within a cm of the edge at the front, with none of the wrinkled wear associated with sportier, softer compounds.
Unlike braking in general road usage, I didn’t really notice any of the initial delay, maybe because I was using the Freddie Spencer technique of coming into and through the corner with the brakes still slightly on.
Needles to say, I was very impressed with the DL’s track abilities.
Our figures seemed to vary quite significantly. The best consumption we got was 20.7 Km/l, with the worst being 15.1 Km/l. Overall, the average was 18.1 Km/l or 5.53 L/100Km. If these are correct, that would give an average range with a full 22 litres of gas of 398 Km (although in a worst case scenario, you should allow for as little as 332 Km!).
It’s probably a good time to note that the fuel gauge (using a total of 5 bars) was a tad unreliable, with the last bar flashing while there was still a chunk of fuel left in the tank.
Suzuki offer the hard bags off the DL1000, although I wasn’t particularly impressed with them when we tested it a few years back. There’s also the option of a centre stand and the 1000’s hand-guards.
Probably of more interest is some serious off-road stuff from German company SW-Motech (available through TwistedThrottle.com) who make an impressive bash-plate and some serious engine & fairing guards.
SOMETIMES SMALLER REALLY IS BETTER!
As you might have gathered by now, I was mighty impressed by the DL650. In fact, I don’t think I’ve gushed this much about anything since Alice Taylor put her hand down my pants back in the 9th grade.
Okay, so that memory will stay with me for longer, but the little DL650 certainly made a pretty big impact. It’s a truly all-round machine, with great ergos, lovely motor and a chassis to match. Although it’s off-road pretensions are somewhat limited by lack of under-carriage protection, there are some aftermarket mods available that should massively improve this situation.
The only real downside to it is that the styling is a tad ... err, ugly. But that edge does soften after you've got to know the bike better. Its ability to do so much means that you eventually don't see it for its looks, but more for what it can do. Also, Suzuki have tried to give it an aggressive edge, but it just doesn't work. It's a fun and friendly bike, so why attempt to make it look aggressive?
Thankfully Alice had the looks to boot, so maybe that's another reason she'll top the DL in my memory banks.
Hmhh, I sense a 2005 long-term test bike coming on. Slap on a bash-plate and guards and the dirt roads of southern Quebec are ready for another year of exploration.
Flair Photo – for the track photography.
Comfort Inn in Belleville for the accommodation during the Shannonville track session.