The V-Strom 650 Expedition is the natural evolution of a beloved best seller, and change has brought a more focused job description for the middleweight Suzuki. Is the middleweight up to the task though?
Packed and Loaded
It takes a long time for a bike to reach the state of being iconic and the list of bikes truly in that category is short. But it doesn’t take nearly as long for a bike to gain a loyal, occasionally rabid, following of enthusiasts. The original V-Strom was such a bike. It landed perfectly 10 years ago. It was soft adventure touring before many riders discovered that soft adventure touring was exactly what they wanted. Many cruiser riders will comment about the desire to get up a gravel road when they see a V-Strom as happened during our time with this bike.
The original V-Strom looked like nothing else on the road but it gave the impression of being a bike capable of getting you “out there.” Offered initially in 2002 as a 1000cc model and two years later as a 650cc middleweight something unusual happened when the 650 turned out to be the more popular of the two models.
In a motorcycle world where bigger is almost always considered better, this time riders acknowledged that smaller, lighter and more affordable can sometimes be the better way to go. Because it was such a well-rounded performer, the V-Strom became one of Suzuki’s perennial best sellers.
As the years progressed and the bike remained relatively unchanged, aftermarket suppliers began to create accessories specifically for the bike and particularly accessories that had an adventure touring practicality—the kind of stuff that looks utilitarian and gains points for its utility rather than aesthetics. Hard bags, engine guards, bulky, welded skid plates could be attached. Driving lights, more aggressive rubber and mounting plates soon followed, and the aftermarket offered all. A bike that was intended for “sport enduro touring” was now being outfitted for the long haul or perhaps you might say the “long way around.” And why not? The V-Strom was extremely comfortable, featured excellent fuel economy, a large tank and from a price point it was certainly accessible. This year Suzuki decided to embrace the V-Strom as an expedition bike and has outfitted the new aptly named 2012
V-Strom 650 Expedition to fit the bill. There was previously a touring equipped V-Strom 650 but it didn’t look quite fit for the Dempster Highway. This one does.
THE BASE 2012 V-STROM WAS ITSELF an evolution from the original and the first visible change to the 10-year-old bike. For the most part the updated 650 gained its advantages from many small improvements rather than anything dramatic. Beyond the looks of the bike the changes have been incremental, which should keep both past and future owners happy—an exemplary case of don’t fix what isn’t broken. A good example is that while the overall length of the bike has remained the same, every other dimension varies by only fractions of an inch. Those who appreciated the original 650 will be glad to know that the new bike is 5.89 kg (13 lbs.) lighter than the old model. A good weight advantage to start with when you plan to add a whole lot of accessories that will be available from the factory.
With the Expedition version of the V-Strom, the name pretty much says it all: beefy side and top cases, tubular engine guards, and something that looks like a skid plate. The result is what Charlie and Ewan might have ridden to South Africa had they had been on a tighter budget.
As a clue about not getting too off-road enthusiastic, the Expedition is called a “comfortable Adventure Tourer.” This means, don’t challenge the Rubicon. Suzuki calls what appear to be crash bars, “accessory engine bars.” Here’s a good place to mount PIAA lights but don’t expect bulletproof engine protection on a boulder tip over.
The skid plate falls into the same category. It’s a piece of plastic under the engine, and definitely not something to bash boulders. Nor will it protect the exhaust from jagged rocks. Perhaps the Expedition is a closer step toward adventure touring with the acknowledgment that even GSAs spend most of their time on the pavement. While the V-Strom 650 has the looks it might need a little help to nudge it over the top.
AS SUZUKI SEEMS TO HAVE LEARNED from both the aftermarket and the success of bikes like BMW’s R1200GSA and outfitted the bike to play the part, we thought it would be interesting to outfit a base V-Strom in an Expedition form from an aftermarket supplier.
We chose three well-known outfits to do so. First, Happy Trails—which specializes in adventure touring gear. Not all of it is pretty but it gets the job done. Given the list of side mounting racks, aluminum saddlebags and top case, a windscreen, tail plate, hand and engine guards the total was $1,960 US which is close to but slightly more than the $1,800 premium that Suzuki charges for the Expedition version over the standard V-Strom. For good measure and peace of mind on either package we would throw in a $170 steel skid plate. If you want to go with Touratech (the company that made adventure accessories famous with its line of BMW equipment) the price of the same list of goodies heads to about $2,300 and that is with a base set of cases.
Our third option was the Canadian supplier for SW-Motech gear where the wish list came to a total of slightly over $2,100. Of course OEM accessories come with the bike and don’t need to be shipped which invariably adds cost to the transaction especially if the gear is coming from out of the country. There are a few other accessories that are offered by Suzuki such as the GPS mount, a centre stand which is critical to this type of motorcycle for maintenance and repairs, and a 12V power plug. But just like buying them from the aftermarket you will be paying more. The aftermarket also offers a huge array of other accessories and upgrades for the 650 including progressive springs, guards for just about every crucial component, foot pegs, bar risers, the list goes on.
With the factory side cases on, the V-Strom suddenly seems to jump into big bike territory. These are large bags. They are in no way designed for aerodynamics but, rather, maximum capacity. The rider will experience an initial period of adjustment learning to judge what relative space the cases occupy as he filters through traffic.
They are mounted to a sturdy rack and are surprisingly easy to remove from the bike—with one clamp handle they slide off the mounting points. This is a great option as the top case is an excellent around-town accessory while the side cases certainly are not.
If you are one of those riders who shy away from top cases because you have bad memories of milk crates, this top case makes your motorcycle a far more convenient method of transportation. It offers somewhere to lock your valuables whenever you are away from the bike without the hassle and width of permanent saddlebags. The cases all open from the top rather than the side, which is great for packing to an inch above the top of the case. There doesn’t appear to be liners available for the cases because when you’re on an “expedition” you aren’t packing your gear nightly into a hotel room.
On the road the V-Strom feels like a comfortable adventure touring bike. The wide bars, the narrow waist, the ability to stand comfortably on the pegs while retaining control. The tall windscreen that offers great protection from buffeting and a seat that doesn’t have you begging for mercy. The 20-litre tank is actually slightly smaller than that of the previous model but fuel economy, which was already good, is now better. Very good ergonomics allow you to ride comfortably to the limits of the fuel gauge. The bike is equipped with ABS and big dual front disc brakes that bring even a fully loaded Expedition to a tidy stop.
The engine is the tried and true 645cc V-Twin that has been with the V-Strom since its inception. While it’s as sweet as ever, it lacks the guttural feel of the version powering the very spunky little Gladius, even though it features many of the same motor changes applied to the Gladius—which we coincidentally had in our possession at the same time the V-Strom was here at the CB office The mill certainly worked best for us with one rider and gear. With two-up and the cavernous saddlebags loaded, the engine laboured. In the top sixth gear at 4,500-4,800 rpm there was a buzzy spot that had you looking for another ratio, though it can be ridden through. We found ourselves favouring the exhaust note of the Gladius over the subdued sound of the V-Strom if only because it made revving the engine that much more rewarding.
The V-Strom 650 Expedition shows so well the question many riders may be asking—especially those who prefer more torque and enough power to move both pilot and passenger and their gear up the road—is whether there is an updated V-Strom 1000 on the horizon. The decision comes down to one of cost.
At the present price, MSRP $10,899, the V-Strom 650 Expedition ABS really has no close competitors. At this price point you simply will not find much in the way of outfitted adventure touring bikes on the market. That would change if you bumped both the price and the displacement.
What should an updated version of the V-Strom 1000 bring to market? It was clear with the earlier 1000 that a bigger engine in the same platform was not enough. What the market might demand is a more fully developed and robust model that can stand its own ground against adventure bikes from BMW, Triumph and Yamaha, or even Kawasaki’s own comfortable adventure tourer, the Versys 1000—the one with the potent engine. Likely, it would fall into a similar price category as at least one of the above offerings. It would be fair to say that the V-Strom 650 Expedition is a good bike because it is so affordable in its segment. But it is a natural evolution of an established and competent platform that also gives soft-adventure riders what they want, or close to it, at a very reasonable cost. What’s not to like about that?