My Wife's new Bike

Suzuki SV650S-K5 Road Test

Words and pictures by Dick Henneman - Sept 2005

Since 1997, Shirley's been ploughing furrows through the tarmac on a single-cylinder BeeEmm, but for the last four or five years I've been trying to persuade her that at least one more cylinder on the engine would be a "good idea". That's not to say that the F650 hasn't done her proud. It's taken her all over the UK and to Spain, France and Switzerland, loaded up to within an inch of its suspension travel, and apart from a blown exhaust gasket in the Picos de Europa it hasn't muttered a single word of complaint.

However, just over a month ago something changed.

I don't know whether you could put it down to a mid-life crisis, but she started to get extremely interested in the SV650S. It's fair comment that this bike has been on her shopping list since Suzuki first unveiled their budget V-twin back in 1999, but apart from parking her bum on it at a couple of bike shows and smiling appreciatively, things had never progressed any further. But now she was reading specs and searching the internet for the nearest dealer and the best prices. Then she took that really important step - 'going for a test ride'. This was getting really serious! When she came back grinning like a Cheshire Cat, I knew that pretty soon there was going to be a new set of wheels in the garage.

click for a larger imageSo it was no surprise that a couple of days later we were off to a dealer in Oxfordshire to pick up a nearly-new SV650S in blue. The problem was that we were about to set off for a one week tour around the Yorkshire Dales, which didn't leave much time to sort out the alarm system, install the intercom, fit a Ventura luggage rack and a Scottoiler, and do all those little "bikey" things that could mean the difference between being stranded in the middle of nowhere and having a trouble-free trip. And there was my bike to sort out as well. Fortunately the trip was completely incident free, but all this activity meant that it wasn't until a couple of days ago that I got my first opportunity to have a ride on the new Suzuki.

Surprisingly, here at MBT we've never got around to doing a test on the SV650, in spite of it being one of the hottest selling bikes of recent years. In fact when Suzuki launched the SV nearly six years ago, they created a whole new market for middle-weight V-twins with a more sporting appearance. The original "rounded-shape" model got a major styling update, new clocks and a revised chassis in 2003 which sharpened up and narrowed its looks, but mechanically the bike is still pretty much the same as the one that rolled off the production line back in 1999. The old carburetors have been replaced with fuel injection which allows the use of camshafts with greater duration and higher lift, which in turn gives better fuel economy and more power, as well as giving greater control over emissions. At the same time Suzuki fitted a larger airbox a bigger silencer, and an oil cooler, increased the rear suspension travel, and replaced the old "wooden" MEZ4's with Dunlop D220's. The latest K5 model has also acquired a black-finished frame and swingarm to keep up with fashion trends, and a new set of paint options, but that's about the only changes from the previous K4 and K3 models.

click for a lrger imageOne of the biggest selling points of the SV650S is the way that it doesn't intimidate the rider. This makes it ideal for riders moving up to their first "big bike" after recently taking their test, or for those want a modern "sports-styled" bike but without feeling that they have to try and and scrape the pegs or get their knees down at the first opportunity. That's not to say that SV isn't capable of doing these things in the appropriate environment, but it can also give you just as much riding fun without you feeling the need to push things to the limit. Its light weight, neutral balance and easy handling means that you don't need to go on a Charles Atlas course before you ride it, and the narrow but well-padded seat means that those with shorter inside leg measurements won't have too many problems in finding the ground. Those of the "fairer sex" in particular will feel more than comfortable on the SV, which probably accounts for the high proportion of female SV-riders. Everyone, no matter what their riding style, can have a lot of fun on this 650, and the "Girly-Bike" tag that it's acquired is not really justified.

That V-twin engine is a real peach. In common with all 4-stroke twins, the power and torque is accessible from tickover to the red line, but the SV has one of the smoothest power deliveries of any V-twin around. Couple this with a light and smooth clutch action and the bike is just so easy to ride in traffic; it will even pull away from tickover in first without you losing the fillings from your teeth or the instruments trying to leap out of their housings (Italian V-twin bike manufacturers please take note!). The gearbox action is not one of Suzuki's finest, and seems a bit clunky and agricultural at low speeds. However, the changes are crisp and positive, and clutchless upchanges are a piece of cake. When Shirley first rode the bike, she reported problems in selecting first from neutral on a couple of occasions; in fact one time in Manchester in torrential rain, when I was searching for an address and the bike-to-bike radios had temporarily shut down (problems never occur singly do they), I lost her when I rode off from the lights and she had the Suzuki stuck in neutral. And before you ask, yes - I did go back and find her! But, when I rode the bike there were no missed changes and no problems in selecting any of the gears. Maybe it was just technique, or perhaps it was the fact that I've got size 11 boots and hers are only size 5!

Although the engine is a dream, the fuelling is not 100% and small movements of the right grip at low throttle openings will make the bike lurch a bit. This isn't a real problem when riding, and the Suzuki is a lot better than a number of other fuel-injected bikes that I've ridden, but it's still not as good as a well set up bank of carburetors.

In the past, a lot of SV650 reviews have complained that the bike is let down by its soft suspension, and yes, compared to a sports-600 the suspension is soft. But to say that it's a weakness of the bike is really missing the point of what the SV is all about. It's not a race-rep track refugee with lights and a number plate that was designed first and foremost to win the World Supersport Championship on billiard table smooth tarmac, but it is a bike that works well on real roads with ordinary riders. Yes, it's built to a budget and there's been compromises to keep costs down, and the most noticeable of these is the non-adjustable suspension. But if this is issue, then companies like Maxton and Hagon can rebuild/replace the forks and monoshock to give you a more "sporty" ride at a lot less than the price difference between the SV650 and a sports 600. Alternatively, some people say that changing the fork oil for 475ml of 20W makes an amazing difference, but I haven't tried this - yet! Don't expect to keep all that smooth ride quality though.

click for a larger imageAnother area where costs appear to have been saved is in the 2-piston sliding calipers on the twin front discs. However, in use they are more than adequate for the weight and performance of the bike, and two fingers on the span-adjustable lever will quickly shed the excess speed, accompanied by a noticeable dive on the soft front forks. The rear brake is surprisingly effective and progressive, with good feel through the pedal, and you can get rid of a lot of that diving sensation by throwing away those sportsbike riding techniques and using both brakes together.

Partly due to its light weight, the bike steers well and turns easily into corners, although bumps and ripples in the tarmac can get the SV a bit edgy if you're pressing on a bit. I'm sure this is purely down to the soft suspension as the D220's seem to offer good levels of grip and warm up fairly quickly. Depending on what kind of road irregularity you find, the results can be anything from a twitch of the bars to a pogo-like sensation between the front and rear wheels, but it's nothing to really get excited about and certainly at no time does the bike get at all out of shape. It's just that it could be a little bit better. However, that V-twin engine is just the job for firing the bike out of corners, although with only 70bhp on tap you're never going to set the tarmac on fire like a Ducati 999. But there again, you also aren't going to be in agony after 150 miles and pleading to be taken to the nearest chiropractor.

The SV650S is a very comfortable ride, with the pegs and bars positioned just about right for me - almost Honda-like - and certainly a lot easier on the wrists and arms than other sports-orientated bikes. The screen also seems to do a good job a controlling the windblast, and three-figure speeds are no problem. In fact this is one of those bikes that feels like it could be ridden all day. Certainly, six hours in the saddle was no problem, apart from reminding me that every year I'm getting just a little bit older!

click for a larger imageThe instruments are straightforward and easy to read, with a central analogue rev counter and a digital multifunction display below that shows speed, coolant temperature, any error codes from the engine management system, and the time, as well as switching between the main odometer and two trips. A nice touch is the ability to change the whole lot from mph to kph, just the job for those continental excursions. There's the usual set of idiot lights around the rev counter for turn indicators, neutral, low oil pressure, high beam and low fuel level, which seems to come on when there's still 5 litres left in the tank.

Anyone who's ever owned a Ducati will know that when the neutral light comes on, the only thing you can be sure of is that the bulb's working! Consequently a Ducati rider always pulls the clutch lever in before he presses the starter button, just in case the bike's in gear. Now whether Suzuki want you to think that you've got a piece of Italian exotica in your hands instead of some Japanese mass-production, or whether they were just confused when they first witnessed the Ducati starting ritual is not clear, but the SV's starter motor will only fire up when the clutch is pulled in. A useful safety feature.

Starting is always instantaneous, and the engine quickly settles down to a steady tickover at around 1,400rpm with little or no vibration. The primary balance of a 90 deg V-twin means that you don't need a balancer shaft to keep the vibes in check, and up to around 6,500 rpm the engine just purrs along like a pussycat. Take it past this and up to the 11,000 rpm redline and the engine note gets an edge to it, as though it's trying to tell you that "now I'm really working". However, there's really no point in going past 10,000 rpm in the intermediate gears, as by this time you're well past the peak power and torque. Just change up and turn the "fun handle" again.

A final mention goes to the mirrors, which are amongst the best I've seen on any bike. They're spaced far enough apart to give a good view of what's going on behind - useful in traffic, but they're not so wide as to restrict those filtering opportunities. And they're vibration-free at all speeds, including those on the wrong side of legal.

The SV650S has often been described as a "budget first big bike", but to my mind it's much more than that. It's a very good user-friendly bike, straight out of the box, but with the potential to make it even better for a minimal outlay in time and money. As far as the finish is concerned, the plastics look OK, but only an English winter or two will tell whether the metal bits have what it takes. Japanese fasteners and plated parts have a reputation for turning to powder at the sight of a salt cellar, and I'm sceptical about the strength and durability of that black chassis finish. Only time will tell.


Author's Late Note: Changed the front fork oil to 475ml of 20W per leg last night and it really does make a difference. You no longer scrape your chin on the ground under hard braking and the bike feels much more stable and turns in better, although the front is a bit more "nervy" when you hit a bump, especially when leant over. Some of the "magic carpet" ride quality has gone, but it's still a pretty comfortable ride. Overall, I think it's an improvement, although the owner has yet to give her approval. Maybe some 15W might be a good compromise? We'll see.

Read external Suzuki SV650 reviews on ciao.


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