by Gary Charpentier
Mr. Respectable’s Dirty Little Secret
Suzuki has long had a reputation for building cutting-edge sportbikes. Ever since the debut of the GSXR back in the `80s, each year has seen them come out with something faster, lighter, and better. The competition between the Japanese “Big Four” is so intense, that in order to keep up they must do a complete redesign of their flagship models every other year or so. But for 1999, Suzuki Motors have really outdone themselves. My theory is that they have decided to trump the competition by introducing their special millennium models one year early. I mean, look at the Hayabusa, the fuel-injected Gixxers, and now the SV-650! Each of these bikes are a major leap forward, in style, performance, and technology. Our road test subject this month, the SV-650 is a bike that motorcycle enthusiasts have been waiting impatiently for ever since the demise of Honda’s NT-650 Hawk.
As motorcycles have become more niche-oriented it seems that the top bikes in any particular category are almost a caricature of the type. Cruisers become even bigger, heavier, and more gaudy, while sportbikes attain levels of performance all out of proportion to what should be expected of them on the street, sacrificing rider comfort at the alter of ever-increasing speed. The side effect of this, however, is that we end up with bikes that are good for Saturday night or Sunday morning, but fall short of real-world usefulness when faced with that Monday morning commute. As a result of this, the Standard motorcycle is beginning to make a comeback. Witness the success of Kawasaki’s new/old ZRX-1100, a modern take on the old Eddie Lawson Replica. The Suzuki SV-650 fits squarely in the middleweight class of this resurgent genre of fun, yet practical motorbikes. But it has the heart and soul of a hooligan!
First, let’s talk about it’s competition…er, there isn’t any, really. I mean, you could mention Ducati’s 750 Monster, but styling and price position the rowdy Duke in another market. Besides that, I am not sure how well the baby Monster would fare in a head-to-head duel with this potent Suzuki. The 2-valve, air-cooled motor cannot hope to compete with the SV’s modern liquid-cooled 4-valve design. So the SV-650 was evaluated on it’s own merits as a day-to-day street bike, and I must say it came through with flying colors.
Let’s start with that motor. This V-Twin makes prodigious torque from down around 2000 rpm all the way up to it’s 10,500 rpm redline. There are no dips, no gaps in the power curve, just a progressive increase in available thrust as the tach needle climbs with a bit of a surge just past 5000 rpm, right about the point where you go from casual cruising to formal flogging. Vibration was minimal, never to the point of annoyance. As with all modern bikes, the SV comes to these shores with the EPA-mandated Big Ugly Muffler, for that Lawn Boy Replica exhaust note. But if you listen carefully, you can hear the heart of a tiger beating in there, just waiting to be unleashed by a proper aftermarket slip-on can. I have heard this particular tiger roar through a Micron carbon-fiber unit, and the sound was glorious! Unfortunately, for this test the stock muffler was reinstalled.
One of the first visual clues that this is not your usual UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycle) is the aluminum big-tube trellis frame. Extremely light and rigid, this forms the basis for a chassis that communicates almost telepathically with the rider. The only fly in the sushi here would be the soft front fork springs and rather limp compression damping. The geometry and lightness of the entire package encourages the rider to fling it into corners with reckless abandon, but the forks bottom out if a mid-corner bump is encountered, and the rebound damping hangs up during quick full-lean angle transitions. I actually felt the front tire leave the ground during one quick series of left-right-left flicks through some S-curves. The rear suspension felt just firm enough for sporting use, while still soaking up the bumps with competence. The fact is, I never fully challenged the rear because I was distracted by those spongy forks. A Race Tech or similar spring and emulator kit would do wonders for this bike, and I think I would place that on my “stuff to buy” list even ahead of the aftermarket exhaust. But the basic ingredients of light weight, perfect geometry and rigidity are there just waiting to be exploited by some judicious chassis tuning.
Seating position on this model is very much in the sporting-standard tradition. Wide, flat bars encourage a slight forward lean, and the foot pegs are placed just far enough back to allow a balanced, athletic stance that will not fatigue the rider, but still allow abundant ground clearance for hard turns in your favorite twisties. The seat itself was very comfortable, wide and supportive. Brakes were full-on sportbike quality, stopping quickly and with authority time after time without any noticeable fade. The clutch engagement was a little more abrupt than I am used to, but I became accustomed to it quickly and didn’t notice it after the first few starts. I keep coming back to how light and agile this bike is, perfect for the urban commuter who has to deal with the increasing volume of city traffic. Unlike the Ducati mentioned earlier, the SV-650 will trickle along during rush hour with nary a lunge or hiccup. Suzuki has really gotten it right with this motor. Fit and finish are excellent, the gauges comprehensive and readable, and the whole package is quite appealing.
For a one and only motorcycle, the Suzuki SV-650 is right on target. The styling is fresh and contemporary without seeming threatening. There is an undeniable stealth-factor at work here, and minus the flashy fairing and rocket-jockey riding position you will probably suffer a lot less scrutiny from those whose job it is to prevent people from having fun in public. You can cruise, tour, commute, and with a little work even roadrace on this bike. Just ask the former kings of lightweight supersport, the FZR-400 pilots, about the SV-650. It seems that Suzuki made all the right compromises to build a bike that would suit so many missions so perfectly. If I had room in my garage, and if I could still find one in a showroom, I would buy one in a heartbeat. They are selling as fast as they get here, and I don’t think the price is going to hover around the introductory $5,699 MSRP for very long. There is a sport version available overseas and in Canada, and with a little prompting perhaps we can convince Suzuki to bring it here. Stay tuned folks, I believe 2000 is going to be a great year for motorcycling.