Against the odds the Suzuki V-Strom 650 has been one of the success stories of the last decade. It arrived to a muted welcome in 2003 with worries that its little 645cc V-twin would have trouble making the V-Strom 1000 chassis go along the road, but instead of fading away, gradually the baby V-Strom strengthened its place in the middleweight all-rounder sector.
By 2006, with the arrival of an ABS option to satisfy the German market in particular, it had become the best selling bike in the class. The price was keen, which always helps, but there was much more to the V-Strom than that. It had very good fuel economy and a good sized tank, lending it a 200 mile plus range to reserve, comfort was exceptionally good, it was agile enough to make sinuous roads worth hunting down, and the engine had character...
Trouble is, the little V-Strom was beginning to show its age. Kawasaki has recently updated the Versys, a bike that matches the V-Strom almost to a pound in price (the Suzuki costs £7,023) and has virtually the same size engine. So Suzuki has given the V-Strom a revamp, too. It's been a simple job because the new 2011 V-Strom comprised little more than the old one with a Gladius engine and some new clothes.
Suzuki might well have been constrained by recession-tightened development budgets but it's tweaked the V-Strom in exactly the right places while leaving the good alone, and it's all worked a treat. Letting the chassis be for example, means you get an aluminium twin spar frame instead of the steel used in many rivals, and with a 6kg (13lb) overall weight loss, the handling has perked up very usefully.
Small adjustments have been made to the damping, and the result is a deletion of the swaying sensation you could get when asking the old version to switch direction rapidly and a useful increase in front end tactility that improves confidence in corners, especially when braking into a turn. Stability is better, the bike steers more precisely and the suspension has less of a budget, choppy feel. All for shedding a few pounds and dialling in some firmness.
It's still more touring biased than the Versys so you get a plusher ride and a little less agility, but the V-Strom compromise between the two seems better suited to this class anyway. Part of its great stability comes from a longer wheelbase, and in turn that provides more room for a passenger, where a Versys pillion is pressed a little too close to the rider.
While the engine is simply a Gladius motor with revised cam profiles designed to boost lower rev torque at the expense of a few high rev horsepower, compared with V-Strom mark one there's a host of changes. 2011 V-Strom gets twin plug heads, different fuel injectors, pistons, throttle bodies, crankshaft, valve springs, internal gas flow enhancements to reduce pumping losses, and as one happy result, a claimed 10 per cent improvement in fuel consumption. That last factor is significant as the old model was always thrifty with its demand for unleaded, and sure enough on an admittedly fairly gentle section of our ride the bike rewarded me with 55mpg according to the bike's computer (something else you didn't get with the old model) confirmed by a true 55.3mpg at the pump.
That means a 240 mile range despite the fuel tank losing one litre compared with last year's bike, another confirmation of the V-Strom's touring prowess. They'll be pleasant miles too as the V-Strom seat is a comfortable place to be. Your backside is well looked after (although if the height was marginal before, note the new one is 0.6in (15mm) higher, partly because it's better padded, partly because the bike sits slightly higher on its suspension. The bars meanwhile are in much the same place as before, which means the relaxed, upright and welcoming riding position is unchanged.
Actually, the seat deserves more of a mention than that as it's one of the most comfortable you'll park your cheeks on, your passenger will find the same and with its red stitching and V-Strom logo it looks really good too.
The screen and fairing deflect a little less of the wind blast than before, but what hits you is smoother and quieter, and as this means fatigue is reduced, it's still an improvement. You can adjust the screen in fact, although only in your garage and the correct Allen key to do it isn't included in the toolkit, unforgivably, so it's a set and forget, and taller riders will find even the highest setting could be a touch higher still. But really, this is niggling, you can sit here for hours at high speed and not be bothered by buffeting or noise.
The engine is equally relaxing when it needs to be, offering enough low and mid-range thrust to make the bike a genuine top gear machine. You can leave it in sixth much of the time, which is quite a surprise given its middleweight capacity, but across the rev range it impresses with its delicious, liquid power delivery. The offbeat exhaust just about battles past the EU noise jobsworths enough to please, while none of the vibration is bothersome at any point of contact with the rider. But there's still enough zest to be exciting, even if a claim of 68bhp might not raise your blood pressure. Suzuki is good at giving you power where it matters, making for example the 97bhp GSX1250FA feel as quick on everyday roads as Honda's 170bhp VFR1200, and the Strommer is no different, punching and pulling when you most need it to.
Which leaves the looks, and while these will always be subjective, I reckon you don't need to leave them at all. In fact it's as sharp to the eyes as it is to the other senses (whichever ones detect acceleration and handing...). Given the inherent gawkiness of all the tall-rounders, its bigger visual masses are well disguised and there's a better overall balance that at its very worst is inoffensive. But I think it's pretty good looking, the only shame is the dull colour choice of white, black or a '70s orange.