Suzuki’s forgotten dual-sport

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If the zombie apocalypse were upon us, the Suzuki DR650 is the kind of thing I’d steal to ride off into the hills. Its old-school steel frame construction and air-cooled single mean it’ll run forever, even if you beat it into the ground. And, at $6,000 for a brand-new one, the DR650 is pretty attractive even if you’re not fleeing a blood-thirsty hoard.

Photos: Grant Ray

There’s three bikes in this category: Honda XR650L, Kawasaki KLR 650 and this Suzuki. KTM makes some really nice bikes with about the same displacement and off-road ability, but that’s where the similarities end. The Kawasaki has a radiator and fairing, and weighs nearly 70 pounds more than the DR, makes less power (37bhp vs 43) and costs $300 more. The Honda makes about the power, weighs a little less and stands a lot taller. It’s got better suspension and costs $700 more. If you’re over 6’3″, the XR is the obvious choice; its 37″ seat height is really, really tall. The DR, aside from being the cheapest of the bunch, lands right in the Goldilocks zone of not-too-aggressive and not-too-tame. The seat is tallish, but not dirt bike tall. It makes enough power, but the under-stressed motor will last forever. The suspension isn’t top-shelf, but it gets the job done.

My experience with the DR650 took place a few months ago with Grant on the way down to KTM to pick up a 350 EXC-F. Per normal HFL procedure, we rode two-up on the way down. I knew when I fell off the back just trying to get up the ramp leading out of my garage that it was going to be a rough trip. A half hour later, my ass was numb and we still had 60 miles to go.

So maybe it’s not the best bike for two-up riding (still better than an R1 though). I made the best of a shitty situation and got a good workout. Using the steel grab rails, I’d alternate between lifting my ass off the seat/fender and sitting down, hugging Grant. When we stopped for gas, it was decided that by combining packs, Grant could possibly recover some arm strength (constant 30mph headwinds are brutal) and I could gain some cuddle room. It didn’t make things any better, but our enthusiasm for a new solution helped dull the pain.

Every time a gust blew us sideways or knocked 10mph off our top speed, I was reminded that the DR motor is, in fact, an air-cooled 650 single. Think about that for a second. We were being propelled by what is essentially 1970s technology with a teensy bit of help from modern metallurgy. And it was getting the job done. Not fast mind you, but if shit hit the fan, and Grant and I needed to bug out, we could do it on this bike.

No words were exchanged after we got off the bike at KTM. It was brutal and punishing for both of us and now what we needed was a a break. That and we had a shiny new 350 to play with.

I consulted the GPS over lunch and found what I thought was a legit dirt road. Get on the freeway, get off the freeway. Fuck. Housing development. Hmm… After a few minutes riding around in a sea of townhouses, we spotted dirt. Scary signs warning would-be trespassers and Korean bible retreats didn’t scare us off. Indian Truck Trail winds up through the Santa Ana range for what feels like an impossibly long distance. I was convinced that urban sprawl had made its way this far but, after 30 minutes, all we could see in any direction were mountains and green wilderness. If you ever find yourself on knobbies near Lake Elsinore, this is the place to go.

On the way up, I rode the KTM and Grant handled the DR. I’m convinced that there is no better vehicle for traversing dirt than the 350 EXC-F, but Grant did an admirable job keeping up on the DR. It didn’t help that it was shod with more road oriented tires and 120 extra pounds, but it also costs less than half what the KTM does and happily putts down the freeway where the Austrian bike is just freaking scary on super slab.

Grant’s leading, to stay out of the dust, when he loses the back end leaving a sandy switchback. Fuck. He’s going down with his Leica M8 and a bunch of lenses on his back. But then somehow, the crash never happens. Obviously using black magic, he pulls off a complete 360 as I pass him safely around the outside. The DR650 is more capable than I thought.

We stop to shoot hooligan shots and stills of the KTM and switch bikes. The two are by no means competitors, but it’s not often you get to ride an old-school dual-sport back to back with the absolute latest-and-greatest enduro so I’ll share what I learned:

- The KTM is definitely a lot faster; it weighs 240 pounds and make 46bhp. That’s 126 pounds less and 3bhp more. On fire roads, hardcore “D.O.T.” knobbies are just as good as the real thing.

- The handling is really different. The less rear traction the KTM has, the better it feels. When you lose the front, you just yank the bars around and hold it up with your boot. You can do power-slide wheelies, effortlessly. You can go into a corner way too fast, and easily modulate the front brake, with both wheels loose, laughing the entire time. It almost makes you feel invincible, which is definitely dangerous. And it helps that I’m 148 pounds, 23 years old, and enjoy riding aggressively. Oh, and it costs $9,499, and has the maintenance plan to match its awesomeness.

- The DR feels a lot slower but is actually only slightly slower. The way its slow-reving motor puts down power helps it hook up and pull like a tractor, which is good because 366lbs and road biased tires don’t really inspire reckless shenanigans. You also sit a lot lower and further back. Instead of getting on top of the tank, you can sit down and put a boot on the ground speedway style when it slides. You don’t really have to work to make it do this, just sit on top and operate the controls. Proper dirt tires would go a long way to inspire confidence and, since the bike costs $6,000, you’ll probably be able to afford them. There’s not a whole lot of awesome stuff on the DR. The wheels, pipe, frame and tank are all made of steel, and man do you feel it.

Grant and I swapped bikes for the ride back down the mountain, but when we stopped for gas before getting on the 15 to head home, he made me swap back. He looked perfectly comfortable and even relaxed from my vantage point aboard the skittish, buzzing 350. And, after a half hour, my ass was numb again.

  • moshaholic2

    I had a DR650. Loved it. Big, burly, indestructible. Only reason I got rid of it was it still is running a carburetor. I usually ride between 4000′ and 12000′. There simply wasn’t enough flexibility in jetting it to make it run right everywhere. Too much of a compromise. But, I wouldn’t have hesitated to run it from Utah to Patagonia and not worry about a thing. It was bomb proof.

  • go gonzo

    Beautiful article. I’ll be on my way to Indian truck trail Thursday!

  • Joe

    How expensive would it be to make that a supermoto?

    • moshaholic2

      the DR? If I remember correctly, the hubs are unique. But, there are conversions do exist. But, the uniqueness of the hubs adds to the expense.

      • Joe

        Yup. Basically, I’m just prepping a back up plan just in case the Duke 350 doesn’t come stateside next year.

      • Robert M
      • Wereweazle

        Why convert that to a supermoto when there’s the drz400sm?

        • moshaholic2

          because even converting a DR650 will probably cost you less than the DRZ

  • Tom Fiegener

    The KTM 350EXC will set you back $9,700. Not $12,800.

    Also no reason to rule out the 690 Enduro R:

    $10,300 vs $6000 is a lot of difference, but you get a lot more.

    23 more hp
    60 less lbs
    Fully adjustable WP Suspension
    6,000 mile services

    • Sean Smith

      Sorry, I was going off what I saw on the floor at Del Amo last week. It did seem incredibly high.

  • Robert M

    I have a DR650 and have been very impressed with it as a daily driver (27,000 mi). It runs, always starts no matter what, doesn’t go to the mechanic much at all except for new tires and is great in the rain and cold on crappy streets and fun on dry ones.
    Equally amazing are Avon Gripster tires!
    The piston is cooled from the bottom by a jet of oil and the engine has a counterbalancing shoe and simple screw-type valve adjustment.
    It will totally kill your butt on a long trip without a better saddle. Tops out at 98 / 100 and can actually cruise at 90 for hours (synthetic oil) which may be much needed to reduce butt-hurting time in the saddle. Twenty minute sessions locally are not a problem though.

  • Frosty_spl

    The DR doesn’t want to wheelie like the fast off-road bikes. So it’s a bit harder to jump logs.

    • muckluck

      Nothing a Keihin FCR-MX carb won’t change, I put one on mine and wheelies are no problem anymore, the CV carb really limits the bike. If suzuki would update the bike all they would need to do to make everyone happy is fuel injection! First new bike I ever bought and will never sell!!!

  • Andy Gregory

    My friend Daniel built a stock DR650 into the bike he felt it really should be last year. Check out his build thread:

    Especially impressive when you compare the bike on pages 7/8 with the first page. He did a 7000 mile trip in a month last summer on it and had a blast.

    • Sean Smith

      Whoa. That’s a nice bike.

    • Troy R

      So nice. That’s some serious cash to add on though. It’s probably pretty easy to double the cost building a DR :)

      • Andy Gregory

        He got the stock ’02 for under 2000 and estimates about 2500-3000 in upgrades for a total investment of under $5000. Not bad for a bad ass bombproof-take anywhere-do anything bike.

    • damien

      That is a sick bike. Great photog too!

  • mugget

    Sean Smith – the same Sean who was laid up, busted and broken earlier this year? Now sliding around on dirt? Hell to the yeah! Great to see!

    • Troy R

      I think this is a post-writeup. I hope Sean is well enough to be doing this stuff! But I’m guessing he’s not quite there yet.

    • Sean Smith

      I wish I was as well as the day these photos are shot. Still have metal sticking out of my thumb…

  • Troy R

    I just sold my DR :( Need more cash for electric motorbikes.

    I love the DR though and I completely agree with the article. It’s manageable, quick, and just the right demeanor for a dualsport. Mine had 33k, I rode it through the winter, rode it hard, and it did not have an easy life before me, when I sold it last week, and it didn’t burn a drop of oil. Really nice bike.

  • markbvt

    Nice article. There are a bunch of great DR650 ride reports on ADVrider. Properly set up, it can definitely go the distance; and so, for that matter, can the XR650L (which I’ve got; and yes, I’m 6’4″ and can’t flat-foot it). I rode my XRL on the 3000-mile Trans-Labrador/Newfoundland loop; it was awesome on the Trans-Lab, but underpowered on all the pavement getting there and coming back.

    Speaking of which, you sure about those hp numbers? The XRL and the DR are around the same, from what I’ve always heard, in the mid/high 30s; and I had always heard that the KLR was a bit higher, low 40s or so, being the only liquid-cooled one of the bunch.

    I do love the simplicity of these air-cooled 650s, but I’m constantly tempted to replace my XRL with a KTM 690 Enduro or a Husky TE610. The extra power and lower weight would be really nice for those longer hauls.

    • Groomez

      If you’re thinking about taking the plunge on a 690 Enduro, read over Luke had a 690 and nick a 800gs.

      They took them through Africa and Europe but not without tons of fuel injection problems. o_0.

      If I were to take a trip like that, a DR would be my bread and butter.

  • Filipe

    finally HFL gives the DR a little love :)

  • Ben

    The wheels aren’t steel on the DR. I put 30K mine before I sold it to upgrade to a temperamental KTM. Kinda miss it.

  • Joey

    I rode a DR from Worcester Mass to the GP race in Indy. Wide open the whole time with stock gearing. The bike would go ninety+ at best and I stretched the throttle cable on it all the way there and back. Not ONE complaint from the bike! That is saying allot for a dirt bike to be wrung out for 2000 miles on an interstate and never once a lick of trouble. God bless the DR! one tough customer

  • Phong

    Any way I can get a bigger image of that map?

    • Grant Ray

      Google is your friend.

  • Phong

    I’d like to try that trail on my KLX 300

  • Craig Wixon

    Thanks for the one page article.
    Good write-up.