Choosing the right motorcycle is more of an emotional decision than a logical one. With cars, most of us would love to buy with our hearts instead of our spreadsheets, but concessions have to be made. You might need to carry passengers, to tow and haul, to get good fuel economy, or any other reason why you can’t daily-drive an Ariel Nomad. But in the bike world, there’s one choice that checks so many boxes it’s not even funny: the Suzuki SV650.
For those of you who don’t know, the SV650 is the consummate beginner track bike. Nearly ever person I’ve known who does track days had owned one or more of these little rugrats. Unlike a more traditional middle weight four-cylinder sportbike, the power is all in the midrange. That means you’ve got a nice usable powerband, without having to pummel the rev limiter. At anything less than triple digit speeds, you’ve got a suitably spunky engine. Above that, it runs out of steam. Which for me, is a good thing, because I have poor impulse control.
The thing is, it’s so much more than just a beginner track bike. For me it’s proven to be the ultimate do-everything machine on two wheels.
One of the first steps in becoming a rider is deciding what style of bike you need. Do you want a big comfy cruiser, a bigger and comfier tourer, a high tech adventurer, or a track prepped supersport? Or are you a contrarian like me, and don’t want any of those?
I’m built like Kate Moss, so cruisers and tourers seemed like a bit too much weight to muscle around. Of course I do have a tingly yet sweaty appreciation for supersports, but they always seemed out of place in traffic. At full chat, with the rider hunkered down, they are a majestic sight, but they seem a bit awkward when you’re trying to navigate through downtown at rush hour. As for the adventure bikes, they are just a little too complex for me. I’m a simple man, with a simple brain.
So that’s that, right? Time to buy a scooter, because I’m a picky bastard who hates everything. Except I did occasionally come across machines that tickled my fancy. There were two main categories that did it for me, but both were relatively small niches, at least at the time.
The first is the Universal Japanese Motorcycle, or UJM. That’s pretty self explanatory. It is just a motorcycle. That’s it. Designed for daily use, and to be practical in most situations. Not the fastest, not the most luxurious, just a simple, utilitarian machine. Think of the Honda CB750. There are not a ton of new bikes like this, but Craigslist is littered with cheap used ones, provided you can find one that wasn’t someone’s aborted cafe racer project.
The other category I kept drifting back to was the streetfighter, or naked sportbike. Basically, take a sportbike, tear all the fairings off, and give it an upright riding position with wider dirtbike style handlebars. You get performance, but with some added usability. Plus, they just look rad. Think of the Triumph Speed Triple.
So, the winter after passing my MSF course, I came across a 2006 Suzuki SV650 listed for sale at a local dealership. Zero pictures, zero price, which is not necessarily confidence-inspiring. But I went ahead and called them about it, and learned it had 2,400 miles and they wanted $3,500 for it.
I believe my exact words were, “I’ll be in tomorrow.” Yeah, it had paint the color of a traffic cone, but for that price, I could live with it.
Everyone I worked with ensured me that I would need an upgrade after less than a year. 650cc was too little to be fun, they took great joy in telling me. That was six years ago. I’m still waiting to get bored.
That neglected, secondhand bike has done everything I’ve asked and more. It’s taught me to ride, fought through gale force winds, crossed multiple states in a day, crested the continental divide, been battered by tumbleweeds, ridden through a foot and a half of running water, and ran with bikes worth ten times as much. It took all that with zero complaints, despite picking up a few scars along the way.
In that six year interim, I’ve ridden what other bikes I’ve been able to bluff or cajole my way onto. After riding everything from Kawasakis, to Yamahas, to Harleys, to Indians, I’m still smitten with my little Suzuki.
Unlike something like an R6, I can ride my SV650 through low speed traffic without feeling like a circus performer. Low-speed turns on a sportbike with clip-on style handlebars has always felt like trying to turn in a circle while doing a handstand. I’m sure it gets easier, but goddamn does it feel awkward. After swapping bikes with a a ZX6-R owner, his first comment about the SV was “man, this thing is so comfortable.” Yes, yes it is.
But just because the upright riding position of the naked SV makes it more usable in the real world, does not mean that it gives up performance. From 0-60, it will hang right near the GSX-R 750. The figures say the Gixxer is .05 seconds faster to 60, but if you’re debating margins that small, you must be a real hoot at parties. So the big boy racer with nearly double the horsepower can’t get away. But after that, the SV falls behind, running the quarter mile about a second and a half slower. That’s the low end grunt I was talking about.
You’ll hold steady off the line, but lose them up top. But while that means you’ll lose on the track, you’re faster in the real world. It’s like keeping the fine china on the top shelf. What’s the point of having the shiny, fun stuff if you can’t reach it? Gimme that Tupperware in the cupboard instead.
That being said, while my SV is more comfortable than a comparable supersport, it’s nowhere near as comfy and stable as a cruiser or touring bike. You still sit relatively high, which helps in cornering, but also raises your center of gravity. Just as with cars, a high center of gravity is less inherently stable. At speed, the gyroscopic forces negate that, but when puttering around town, a cruiser’s low ride height make it much happier to crawl along without suddenly wanting to take a nap in a hedge.
Also, upgrade the suspension on any SV you get, especially the front. A few hundred bucks for heavier springs and oil will transform the bike. I waited five years before I did that. Be smarter than me. Actually, “be smarter than Fails” is just a good life philosophy in general.
My humble little SV650 is now over a decade old, with north of 33,000 miles on it (photography work has cut into my riding the last few years, don’t judge me). Its tail is coated in road grime and chain lube. The frame sliders look like a St. Bernard has been chewing on them. On paper, it loses to a lot of other bikes in a lot of categories. But I still maintain that in the real world, there is no better urban transport.
It’s fast enough to scoot ahead of nearly anything on four wheels that costs less than six figures, but still comfortable and agile enough that you don’t need a spinal readjustment after every commute.
Plus, my neighbors once yelled down and asked if it was a Ducati. So that’s neat.