Review: Suzuki's SV650 squeezes big fun into a small, compact, naked roadster

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Suzuki SV650: small bike, big fun in a package that just about any rider will be able to make the most of(Credit: Scott Collie/Gizmag.com)

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Light, quick bikes... They rule. When Suzuki decided to re-launch its hugely popular SV650 mid-range v-twin sportsbike, it took a look in the rear view mirror to get back to the classic, trellis-framed styling that made it such a hit in the first place. Its low seat height and narrow waist make it super-accessible for newbies and those of shorter stature without feeling cramped or insubstantial, and its punchy power curve and lightweight handling are brilliant for confidence building. The same things make it a lightweight riot of a thing for more experienced riders. Gizmag's Loz Blain spent a week with a resurrected legend.

Suzuki's original SV650 popped up in 1999, some six years after the Ducati Monster that clearly inspired it. The natty trellis frame, free from Italian electrics, moved a lot of units, as did the low seat height and light weight. It was sporty enough to be proper fun, but practical enough for commuting and touring, and its key advantage was that it was approachable enough for inexperienced riders and shorter riders. It sold by the bucketload.

It was replaced by a more angular update in 2003, then by the weird and bulbous Gladius in 2009, but nobody seemed to like those as much. Still, the basic 645cc v-twin engine platform was always a winner, seeing duty in all these bikes plus the venerable but fugly V-Strom 650. All told, Suzuki has sold more than 400,000 bikes based on this mid-size v-twin.

The idea with the 2016 Suzuki SV650 is to get back to basics with a style overhaul that takes the SV back toward that original tube trellis frame, with an engine refresh thrown in for more power, torque and efficiency. You can judge for yourself how Suzuki did with the styling; I think it looks fine, if a little anonymous, with a very comprehensive digital dash being the standout feature to my eye.

Hop on board though, and I'm genuinely shocked to discover this bike weighs 197 kg (395 lb) wet. It feels incredibly light and compact, and preposterously slim – something like a Honda VTR250 on steroids. That's high praise as the VTR has been my go-to recommendation for learner bikes for something like the last 10 years, because it's so easy to ride that it builds confidence quicker than just about anything I've ever seen.

That leads me to how I test learner bikes these days, because it's been many years since I was able to look at a motorcycle through proper beginner's eyes. What I do now is pay attention to how quickly the bike makes me confident enough to start being stupid on it, because that same confidence is what encourages learners to get out there and start enjoying themselves. With the SV I start feeling devilish within about 100 meters of Suzuki's driveway. Pop a tick in that box, then.

The ride

The one we're riding is the Australian SV650L, which is the LAMS (Learner Approved Motorcycle Scheme) power restricted version that doesn't benefit much from the engine updates. Instead of the full-fat 75 horsepower and 64 Nm (47 lb-ft), it's been ECU-tuned down to 47 horses and 56.5 Nm (42 lb-ft).

The result is a completely non-threatening throttle mapping that delivers solid, grunty drive with no surprises. It's a thoroughly learner-friendly experience, but frankly a little dangerous with yours truly on board, because when there's no fear wide open at the throttle stop, that's where I tend to stay.

I stay there with no fear that I'm being cruel to it, because it's an understressed version of a pretty much faultlessly reliable donk. The gearbox is light and positive, which fits with Suzuki's reputation for making brilliant cogs, and the clutch is feather-light.

The riding position is fairly roomy, encouraging you to climb around on the bike in the twisties. It's also pretty comfy, save for the bars that feel an inch or two narrow for a big boofer like me. Mind you, you appreciate the narrow bars when you're filtering between lanes. And on the opposite side, the mirrors are fantastic for looking in, but sit out just wide enough to get in the way when you're in between four-wheel drives. A nice low seat height of 785 mm (30.9 in), combined with a super slim tank and body, make this one of the most accessible sportsbikes on the market for shortypantses.

The suspension feels a bit old-school, in that it's quite soft and lightly damped, but I don't actually have a problem with this setup given the target market. As a big bloke I'd want to be putting heavier oil in the forks and maybe getting the shock revalved for more control and less bounce in quicker bumpy corners. There's not much adjustment – just preload on the shock – but smaller folk will probably find the standard setup very useable.

The brakes, Tokico 2-piston calipers on twin 290mm front discs, are adequate without being exciting and are perfect for the brief. Suzuki has gone with a Nissin ABS system, and after a few quick tests on gravel and oily tarmac, I can't fault it.

As for the handling… well, it's so damn light on its feet that the SV corners on a dime. Feet up U-turns are a breeze, and in tight, twisty bends it feels like a cheat code. It comes from the factory with sticky Dunlop Qualifier tires on and a slimmish 160/60/17 on the back makes it track and change lines beautifully. Mind you, such sticky rubber strikes me as an odd choice for learners because although the tires grip beautifully, they do need some time to warm up.

Still, once you're there the SV is well and truly up for a sporty ride, turning in quick and powering out nicely on the gas. It does get a little wallowy in quicker sweepers due to that soft suspension.

The real key here for a beginner is whether it's easy to handle at slow speeds, getting around in traffic. And here the SV absolutely shines. A low RPM assist system gives it a little squirt of fuel when you go to let the clutch out, making it very difficult to stall, and it's supremely maneuverable at all times.

Another happy little nugget is that Suzuki has finally decided to let you start the bike without the clutch in – and on a one-touch ignition button that cranks the starter until the bike fires over without you having to hold your thumb down. Perhaps a carryover from the car world, but why not, eh?

I absolutely love this little bike. I think it's a superb starter bike or commute killer, and I'll be recommending it to well-off beginners that can come at the AU$9,990 pricetag (it's US$6,999 derestricted in the US, or US$7,499 with ABS). I sure hope Suzuki opts to bring the unrestricted version out to Australia as well, because the extra power would make it a sensational all-rounder or mid-size twins racebike with some suspension tweaks.

The competition

In the SV650's category are a pair of excellent (and more modern and distinctive looking) parallel twins from Kawasaki and Yamaha: the ER-6N and MT-07/FZ07. There's also the lovely but expensive Ducati Monster 696, which offers the only other V-twin engine in the class, although the 659 LAMS restricted version has apparently been discontinued in Australia.

I think the SV will appeal to learners on its classic style, on its ability to be tricked up with a few bolt-on additions, and on its v-twin engine, which hammers away in a muted fashion with the standard exhaust but can be made to sound properly butch and bassy like a v-twin should with pretty much any aftermarket pipe. Seriously, these things sound house-shakingly huge when you open them up.

Most importantly, though, it's low, it's narrow, and it's light, making it highly accessible and fantastic for building confidence on. It's the size of a 300 with the grunt of a 650. It's got my missus hunting through the cupboard for her leathers, and it's got me giggling like a lunatic as I take it through the back streets. Welcome back, SV650, we've missed you.

Product page: Suzuki SV650

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