Half-forgotten, and largely off-the-radar, the Kapaira Harbour and Suzuki’s V-Strom have some things in common. But for the Suzuki, at least, change is in the air.
The last V-Strom appeared in 2002 and was, from the outset, hard to categorise. It looked a bit like an Adventure or ‘Dual-Sport’ machine yet it was firmly a road bike. It was big and tall, bouncy and easy-going. It was neither fast nor exciting, but it was comfy and practical. It found its niche as an affordable, reliable long distance touring machine, and a 650 version joined in 2004. But throughout its life it was compared unfavourably to characterful, all-round-capable Adventure machines like the BMW GS.
As the Adventure market sky-rocketed, and leading lights like BMW and KTM started an engineering and technology arms race, the V-Strom sat around like an unwanted pudding after a dinner party. With next to no development, it was quietly withdrawn from most markets in 2009. Meanwhile, big Adventure bike sales continued to climb, dominating the sales charts in rich western markets.
It’s easy to imagine Suzuki’s eagerness to re-enter the category but they took their time with the new DL1000 V-Strom. The 2014 model is claimed to be pretty much entirely new, so how big a leap does it represent?
We got our hands on one and took it on the sort of trip an Adventure bike should be up for: exploring on and off the tarmac around the back roads of the Kaipara.
Suzuki downplays the new DL1000’s off-road role, aiming it squarely at the on-road rider. Which is fair enough, given the vast majority of these tough, gnarly-looking beasts never dirty their tyres off tarmac. But the V-Strom has all the hallmarks of the Adventure category–more suspension travel, 19” front wheel, ‘dual-purpose’ tyres, etc.–and one huge advantage: light weight. It’s 8kg lighter than the outgoing model at 228kg fully fueled. That’s 10kg lighter than the BMW GS and still 2kg less than KTM’s dirt-demon 1190 Adventure.
It took a while to fathom Suzuki’s diffidence about the new machine’s off-road credentials but the answer surely lies in the specifics of two of the bike’s most valuable features: ABS and Traction Control.
Perhaps surprisingly, this is the first Suzuki to be fitted with Traction Control. It’s a simple three-stage system: full, partial and off. The ability to switch it off will be welcome for a lot of off-road use. But some competitors went beyond this some time ago. The complex sensor clusters on BMW’s DTC/ASC set-up, for example, make the R1200 GS’s ‘Enduro’ and ‘Enduro Pro’ riding modes a real boon off road.
It’s actually the (none-the-less welcome) ABS that limits the V-Strom’s potential in the dirt. It cannot be switched off, nor does it have an off-road mode.
Now, while this might be a limitation when trying to skid down rutted inclines or clambering logs, the reality is that very few Adventure bikes ever see this kind of treatment. Venturing off tarmac at all might just extend to some gravel roads and, on these, the Suzuki turned out to be a faithful companion.
The reality, then, is that the new V-Strom is potentially as capable as most in the class, given the sort of ‘Dual Sport’ role most riders have in mind.
Easy going nature
Some things Suzuki always does well, like slick gearboxes, silky controls and generally making their bikes easy to get on with. And the new DL1000 is no different. Everything is where you’d expect to find it and adjusting the ergos is a cinch. As is adjusting the suspension: a turn of the rear shock’s preload knob crisped up the turn-in and improved front-end feel, while the ride stayed supple and compliant.
One or two things did jar, however. The footpeg position, while fine when riding, means you catch your legs on them when you put them down. And there was a slight ‘two-stage’ feel to the clutch at first, but which you do get used to.
After a week or so of riding, the big V-Strom endeared itself as a competent, easy-going motorcycle. It revealed some highly welcome characteristics, such as quick steering combined with wonderful mid-corner stability. And one that was less welcome: huge wind noise at highway speeds. Even though the screen is hand-adjustable for angle, and can be raised or lowered with an allen key through three positions, there was no getting rid of the buffeting roar. It just isn’t high enough for a 6ft rider. Apparently there is an optional bigger screen and it’s a must for taller types.
The Kaipara is the largest natural harbour in the southern hemisphere. In the 19th century Kauri poured out from here like nowhere else. Settlements, sawmills and factories lined its shores, with bustling ferry traffic crisscrossing the waters.
It’s a different place now. Quiet and largely passed-by. Though its southern shores are little more than half an hour from the city, it’s 50 years away from the present. If you value peace, quiet, beautiful open space and friendly locals over an omnipresent cellphone signal, there’s plenty to enjoy about the Kaipara. But it doesn’t reveal its charms easily.
The place retains an enigmatic quality because it takes effort to discover. The chains of settlements were established by sea, and the roads followed as an afterthought. Visiting today often involves venturing down twisty, gravel roads along peninsulas that don’t link up with anywhere else.
Just the sort of thing, then, for an Adventure bike.
Before you get to the gravel, however, there’s a long ride on tarmac. SH16 skirts the harbour’s eastern shore and Auckland bikers know the best way to it is via the Old North Road.
This enjoyably twisty route to Helensville branches off another favourite route at Riverhead. It’s classic North Island style riding. In places the surface is a bit patchy, and sometimes sightlines are compromised by trees and bush. But there’s a lot of fun to be had chasing vanishing points and negotiating super-tight corners in hilly terrain.
On roads like these the V-Strom shines. It’s supremely agile, flicking into corners with a push on the wide bars. Mid-corner stability is exceptional, making adjusting line and speed through a turn laughably easy. Nothing, not even hitting rutted tarmac mid-bend, so much as hints at upsetting the bike’s composure.
The engine makes life easy, too. Somewhere in the 1037cc V-twin’s casings lies the ghost of the fire-breathing TL1000R. But this motor is almost all new and tuned for torque: a strapping 103 Nm of it at just 4,000 rpm. Stick it in third and it will do pretty much anything, including lugging out of corners with 2,000 revs on the clock. Combined with great brakes and ample front-end feel, few bikes deliver this much back-road fun.
The standard ABS and traction control are a reassuring presence and neither are ‘trigger happy’. When the TC does activate it does so smoothly, the ABS modulation likewise.
Screen noise apart, the Suzuki offers all-day comfort. At least for this rider. Two straight days in the saddle generated no complaint in the posterior or knees. And it’s not as if there were frequent gas stops. The V-Strom’s tank may have shrunk to 20 litres but fuel economy was extraordinary. Tank range is well over 300km – handy in the more remote corners of the Kaipara.
Unsealed roads are common in New Zealand. On a ‘normal’ bike you wouldn’t exactly go looking for them. But even an Adventure bike has the potential be a bit of a handful, and ‘dual purpose’ tyres are not really designed for serious off-roading. So how does the V-Strom get on?
Negotiating the gravel roads around the Kaipara showed that the Suzuki can cope well enough on the loose stuff. Using a bit of ‘bike down/elbow up’, the front generated enough grip to maintain confidence, even on recently regraded sections.
If the V-Strom ranks as perfectly okay on gravel, it achieves top marks on wet roads. How much credit goes to the Bridgestone Battle Wing hoops is hard to know, but they seem to suit the Suzuki perfectly. On day one, conditions varied from damp to soaking wet and everything in between. The confidence inspired by the tyre/chassis combination was outstanding. It was the most enjoyable wet road ride I have ever had. And that noisy screen does a reasonable job of keeping the rain off.
Suzuki is inevitably playing catch-up with the new V-Strom and the result is unexpected. Given the last V-Strom’s following, they might have gone for an all-out road bike, like Kawasaki’s overseas-model Versys 1000. Or they could have spent their time out of the market to conceive a technical tour-de-force, something to eclipse the market-dominant GS or the high-tech KTM 1190.
Instead, they’ve pitched it somewhere between and off to one side. It’s a fabulous road bike, and would make a great tourer. It’s relatively light and nimble, so it’s a fine companion on dirt roads. But it’s only class-competitive in technical terms and has significant limitations for trail-bashing.
So, what’s the compelling reason to buy one? For that, you only have to look at the price list. At $19,995 +orc it’s significantly cheaper than its competitors, though there are pure road bikes that offer even more bang for your buck.
If you like the adventure style, want a capable and comfortable road bike, and fancy the odd excursion on unsealed back roads, the V-Strom will not disappoint. Sure, there are some desirable machines to be had for an extra five grand. But that money in your pocket is also a nice feeling.
Just remember to spend some of it on a bigger screen.
Model: Suzuki DL1000 V-Strom
Cost: $19,995 + on-road costs
Engine: 4-stroke, liquid-cooled, DOHC, 90° V-Twin
Fuel System: EFI
Transmission: 6-speed, chain drive
Seat Height: 850mm
Kerb weight: 228kg
Fuel capacity: 20.0 L
Light, sweet handling
Standard Traction Control & ABS
ABS non-switchable for off-road
Demonstration machine courtesy of Suzuki New Zealand