Making the Suzuki V-Strom 650 Off-Road Ready?
We evaluate the Suzuki's V-Strom 650 XT off-road after a few strategic mods.
When we evaluated the 2015 Suzuki V-Strom 650 XT last year, we came away from the test with mixed feelings. In many ways, the then new Wee-Strom hit the mark as a practical long-distance adventure touring bike with comfortable ergonomics and seating. And its powerful 650cc V-Twin gave it a lot of character too.
A low seat height and smaller chassis make the V-Strom 650 XT maneuverable off-road compared to other big bore ADV Bikes. While a set of rugged wire-spoke wheels and quality suspension are a good foundation for any off-road capable motorcycle.
However, the V-Strom isn’t without its flaws. It falls short in key areas like ground clearance and suspension travel that are important for off-road travel, and its protruding oil filter and exhaust header are big liabilities on the trail.
Despite its limitations in the dirt, riding the new V-Strom 650 XT still put a smile on our faces. So we were curious to see ‘how’ we could address some of its limitations through the aftermarket and ‘if’ we could extend its off-road capability beyond just graded dirt roads.
Of course with enough time and money you can achieve just about anything. But getting too extreme with mods on a V-Strom can quickly turn impractical. At some point it starts to make more sense to upgrade to a more expensive bike (e.g. BMW F800GS, Honda Africa Twin, etc.). So we set out to see how well the V-Strom 650 XT would respond to a few strategic upgrades that wouldn’t break the bank.
Below we outline some of the mods we performed to make our V-Strom 650 XT test bike trail ready:
V-Strom 650 Off-Road Upgrades
After sliding around on the stock Bridgestone Trail Wing tires, we knew we would never realize the bike’s true off-road potential unless we installed a set of proper dual sport knobby tires. Tires are one of the easiest and most cost-effective ways to improve off-road performance, so we spooned on a set of Continental TKC 80s ($312) — one of the most popular 50/50 dual sport knobby tires of all time.
Next we set out to improve the off-road protection of the bike. In stock form, there are no hand guards on the V-Strom 650 XT and the factory accessory add-on hand guards are really just wind blockers that offer inadequate protection for your hands and levers. So we installed a set of Barkbuster Storm hand guards ($149). Their full wrap-around design with a steel reinforced backbone offers the ultimate protection on the trail from impacts with tree branches or the inevitable fall.
One of our biggest concerns when riding the V-Strom on rocky trails was the exposed underbelly and the potential to kick up rocks that could puncture the oil filter or dent the exhaust. Our concerns were amplified further by the bike’s low ground clearance that increases the chance of bottoming. To help us avoid getting stranded on the trail with a cracked sump or mangled exhaust, we needed good protection. We opted for an AltRider skid plate ($354), constructed of 3.2 mm anodized aluminum and precision fit to the V-Strom 650. It weighs 5.85 pounds and the design allows oil changes to be completed without its removal.
While we were at it, the thin gauge steel Suzuki crashbars were looking a bit more ‘show’ than ‘go,’ so we opted for a set of beefy AltRider crash bars ($372) as well. Since they are stainless steel, (instead of the faux aluminum painted stock crash bars) they are highly resistant to rust or tarnishing. The large one-inch TIG welded tubing is also much stronger and more resistant to bending. In addition, the unique connecting bar design helps redirect energy from an impact to the opposite-side crash bar instead of to the frame or engine mounts.
The V-Strom’s limited suspension travel (5.9″ front/6.3″ rear) was something that we couldn’t fix without throwing a lot of money at the bike. While not a complete solution, many riders overlook the potential gains of simply setting suspension sag and adjusting damping rates (FREE!). Dialing in the suspension settings as much as possible, ensures you get the most out of the available performance. We proceeded to set front and rear sag for our 215-pound test rider, then cranked up the damping on the rear shock to stiffen it up for more aggressive off-road terrain.
Off-Road Test after Upgrades
After getting the V-Strom setup with a few essential off-road improvements, we were ready for a test of the machine in the dirt. We headed out to our desert testing grounds to evaluate the performance of the bike on a timed off-road course. The course includes just about everything you can expect to encounter off-road: big whoops, steep rocky hill climbs, gnarly ruts, baby head rocks and deep sand sections. Riding an adventure bike on the 2.3-mile off-road course at full speed takes just over five minutes to complete.
In order to get a measurable gauge of the V-Strom’s ‘off-road’ performance, we brought along a known performer in the dirt to use as a benchmark — the KTM 990 Adventure R. Before you spit out your coffee, the purpose of testing the V-Strom against the KTM was strictly to get a point of reference; obviously these are two very different bikes. The off-road-focused KTM has a raced-tuned suspension with nearly 4 inches more suspension travel, 21″/18″ wheel combination and 45 more horsepower than the Suzuki.
While the V-Strom does have a 16-pound weight advantage over the big KTM, we never expected it to match or even come close to a motorcycle derived from a podium winning Dakar Rally Bike. The purpose for the comparison was simply to measure the off-road performance gap, so that we could better understand where the V-Strom sits in the spectrum of dirt-capable adventure bikes (capable or not).
Comparing the V-Strom 650 both before and after the upgrades wouldn’t be possible though, since the lack of protection and slippery tires on the stock bike would have made the challenge too risky on this rugged terrain. Fortunately, we had one other comparison point to look at. Having previously recorded a benchmark test between a stock Kawasaki KLR 650 and the KTM 990 Adventure R on the same course and same test rider, this gave us another point of reference to gauge the off-road capability of the V-Strom 650. We could now see which of these two bikes (KLR or V-Strom) got closer to the KTM on the time sheets. Any predictions?
Running the Timed Course
Heading out on the V-Strom for the first test run left us with question marks — not knowing how it would perform or even if it would be able to complete the course. But our first test lap left us pleasantly surprised. The suspension adjustments and grippy Continental TKC 80 tires made a solid improvement in the bike’s off-road handling, and the Suzuki soaked up the whoop sections and tough hill climbs better than we anticipated.
But after turning up the speed, we started to experience bottoming in the whoops. The V-Strom could still reach respectable speeds on the trail but it had to be ridden with significant caution. The ride is jarring through the rough stuff and the V-Strom lets you know it doesn’t like being pushed. Despite increasing the damping, the rear suspension still bottomed frequently, and the bike’s laid-back ergonomics made it hard to get completely comfortable riding in the attack position.
Of course most V-Strom owners aren’t intending to blaze around on trails at race speeds, but pushing the bike to the max allowed us to better understand its potential. So with gritted teeth and a tightened kidney belt, our test rider pushed the bike beyond the comfort zone to put in a good time on the course. We also performed back-to-back test runs on the KTM 990 Adventure R for benchmark comparison times.
Off-Road Test Results
After reviewing the results, the gap from the Suzuki to the KTM was 19 seconds — a significant margin on a 5-minute course. It was faster than we expected, but what stunned us the most was how the V-Strom 650 compared to the KLR 650 we’d previously tested on the same course with the same test rider.
The KLR 650 has a 2″ advantage in suspension travel in the front and 1″ advantage in the rear over the V-Strom, and it’s also got a larger 21″ front wheel and weighs 40 pounds less.
Most people will tell you the KLR will outperform the V-Strom in any type of technical off-road terrain, and we’d have to agree with that assumption from a ‘feeling’ perspective. But the numbers told us a different story.
During our stock KLR 650 vs KTM 990 Adventure R test, we recorded a 23-second difference between the two bikes. That makes the V-Strom four seconds faster than the KLR. Going through the test data, it appears the KLR 650 struggled on the hill climbs sections where it was underpowered. Whereas, the V-Strom had no problem accelerating up hills and was able to maintain momentum and track straight.
In this case, the V-Strom’s power advantage was able to overcome the KLR 650’s advantages in suspension and weight, even in technical off-road terrain.
It was a rough ride but the various guards we added managed to keep the V-Strom’s vitals protected over some pretty harsh terrain. We found that with suspension tuning and tires, the V-Strom is capable of outperforming a KLR 650 in the dirt. However, we wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s better off-road than the KLR. The KLR offers a more confidence inspiring ride and is generally a more pleasing bike to ride off-road. The KLR was only held back by its limited power output and a small gearing change might have changed the result.
Clearly, there are other adventure bike choices available that make more sense if playing in the dirt is your main priority, but the V-Strom fits the bill for those that want a great street bike that’s more than capable of handling the occasional stint off-road, even in rough terrain. With a few upgrades, the Wee-Strom can be made off-road-ready and it performs better in the dirt than it gets credit for.