Testing Suzuki’s V-Strom 1000 in the Oregon Backcountry

The new V-Strom is lighter, the engine torquier and now it has a beak.

Suzuki is in the doldrums. They have been for years. Motorcycle sales in North America have plummeted from 190,000 units in 2007 to a mere 46,000 in 2014. Because of this, research and development dollars have dried up. Innovation and advancement for their motorcycle lineup has been quite literally limited to stickers and paint. Where the GSX-R family was once the industry leader in the sportbike category, it’s been left to wither on the vine. The rest of their lineup hasn’t fared much better, either. So when the Hamamatsu-based corporation took the wraps off an all-new V-Strom 1000 ($13,999) last year, everyone took notice.

Since its introduction in 2002, the V-Strom 1000 has been Suzuki’s Swiss-Army bike. Inspired by BMW’s GS Series, the big dual-sport/adventure tourer did everything well, without excelling in any one area. It was capably sporty and could be pushed hard in the twisties, allowed for adventurous rides (it wouldn’t balk at dirt) and rode like a proper two-up tourer that could comfortably handle the long haul. It was also ugly as sin. And that remained unchanged for 12 years.

Completely redesigned for the first time in 2014, the new V-Strom 1000 has followed the trend in the ADV bike arena and festooned a beak on its front end. Aesthetics are subjective, but personally I like the look. Combined with the stacked headlights, it gives the new Strom a confident stance that doesn’t look out of place on the trail. The other, more important changes include a lighter, stiffer frame, better brakes and a switchable three-position electronic traction control module.

With a leg over, the V-Strom felt immediately familiar. The ergonomics mimic the positioning of most adventure bikes and are set almost perfectly for my six-foot frame. The bars are wide and sit just below shoulder height and the saddle is large enough to move around on without upsetting balance. As I turned the key, flicked the kill switch and thumbed the ignition, it sounds familiar too. The all-new 1,037cc V-twin engine is a milder tuned, torquier, more efficient version of the 996cc engine from previous generations. A direct descendent of the power plant that earned the TL1000R “widowmaker” status back in 1998, its the same mill that hangs in the trellis framed SV1000s sitting in my garage at home. Like having drinks with a best friend, we find our rhythm immediately.

The all-new 1,037cc V-Twin engine is a milder tuned, torquier, more efficient version of the 996cc engine from previous generations.

Hunting apexes on a deserted snake of tarmac, the V-Strom was nimble for a bike of its heft (474 lbs, dry). Corner exits are effortless thanks to the extra torque from its refined big twin. Uneven pavement, cracks and undulations don’t phase this bike at all. Even shod with the Kenda Big Block on/off-road hybrid tire, I was surprised by how confidently I could throw the bike into corners and just how well it hung on. Plunging into a sweeping left hander in the mid-sixties, the only thing that broke my concentration was seeing my colleague trounce my own pace.

We pulled over and compared notes. We were both impressed at how far you can push this bike, and how compliant it is to the rider crawling all over it. Credit an easygoing, long travel suspension that flattens corners that would easily upset a highly strung crotch rocket and a narrow waist that makes crawling from side to side a breeze. Helmets back where they belong, my colleague grabbed the lead and our game of chase continued.

Where V-Strom riders are often left wanting is where the tarmac ends and true adventure begins. A lower-than-most ground clearance (6.5-inches), inability to kill the rear ABS and an exposed, precariously perched oil filter mean the roughest of stuff should fall outside of the V-Strom’s wheelhouse. But it has “Adventure” in its name and we had miles of Oregon’s backcountry trail to explore.

I toggled to make sure the traction control is off. That may seem counterintuitive, but being able to swing the rear around tight corners is key and, well, roosting down the trail is just plain old fun. Again, the V-Strom took everything we threw at it — mud, hard-pack, loose gravel, dirt, sand, felled trees, slippery clay-lined water hazards and even snow. From a standing position (keeping our weight as low as possible) the beaked bike performed well. While I found the bars sat a little low for my liking and the tank a touch too wide for true off-road comfort and control, the V-Strom responded quickly to corrective inputs and, aside from a quick bath in a mud bog, was never beyond being reigned in. I wouldn’t recommend it for the road of bones, sure, but for getting off the beaten path to see more than just taillights and tarmac, the V-Strom performs admirably — especially at its asking price.

The V-Strom took everything we threw at it — mud, hard-pack, loose gravel, dirt, sand, felled trees, slippery clay-lined water hazards and even snow.

Sadly though, it’s not all giggles; there is some shit, too. My bike developed a very British habit with the starter relay that would render it lifeless and heavy. The remedy was usually simple — either a bump start or jiggling the wires below the seat — but simple isn’t always easy. We weren’t always pointed downhill and getting to the wires meant unpacking a week’s worth of gear from the rear deck. Eventually, miraculously, the problem disappeared, but every time we came to a stop and shut things down I’d wonder if it’d return.

The other issue I have isn’t unique to the V-Strom, or Suzuki for that matter. The manufacturer-supplied pannier system, which is roomy and easy to use, is often plastic — not just the boxes, but their connective bits too. Now, for a tarmac-only tourer this isn’t an issue. But when you market a bike with “adventure” in its name, an encounter with the ground must be expected. Even the mildest bump will often break an essential mount for these types of systems. That means you have to figure out a way to lug broken bits back to civilization or jettison your gear until you can come back and retrieve it. Until a better system gets sorted, my advice would be to skip out on the pannier option and look into a set of waterproof soft bags.

Regardless of minor quibbles there is a reason that the V-Strom has remained a perennial bestseller for Suzuki. Even in these recent less-than-stellar years, the rising tide of riders seeking roads less travelled have ensured its presence in the market, and rightfully so. Suzuki nailed the execution of an omni-capable tourer at a bargain price point when it was first introduced 13 years ago. And, while even this all-new V-Strom is certainly no KTM or BMW beater, now that it’s finally been given the refresh it so painfully needed, it presents a genuine argument for adventure motorcycle travel that leaves you with enough scratch to cover carnet fees, replace broken panniers or both.

Buy Now: $13,999

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