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ADV BikesMaking the Suzuki V-Strom 650 Off-Road Ready?

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.

Published on 08.25.2016
Suzuki V-Strom Off-Road Testing in the Desert

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.

Suzuki v-strom 650 skid plate
The exposed underbelly and lightly-built stock crash bars both needed to be addressed to get our V-Strom 650 XT test bike ready for 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.

Continental TKC 80 Tires

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.

Barkbuster Storm hand guards  for the V-Strom

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.

AltRider Skid Plate for the V-Strom

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.

AltRider Crash Bars for the V-Strom

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.

Suzuki V-Strom 650 Mods
The V-Strom 650 XT outfitted with Barkbuster hand guards, AltRider skid plate and crash bars, and Continental TKC 80 dual sport knobbies.

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).

KTM 990 Adventure R vs. Suzuki V-Strom 650 XT
We tested the V-Strom 650 XT on the same course with the KTM 990 Adventure R to get a better picture of where the V-Strom sits in the spectrum of off-road capability.

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.

suzuki v-strom 650 off roadtest

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.

V-Strom 650 Off-Road Test

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.

KTM 990 Adventure R off-road test

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.

Kawasaki KLR650 vs. Suzuki V-Strom off-road comparison
The 37 HP Kawasaki KLR650 struggled on some of the steep hill sections of the course.

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.

Goal Achieved?

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.

resting after the off-road test of the v-strom 650 xt

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.

Photos by Bill Lieras

Author: Rob Dabney

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26 thoughts on “Making the Suzuki V-Strom 650 Off-Road Ready?

  1. Pingback: 2015 Suzuki V-Strom 650 XT Review - ADV Pulse

  2. There are vastly better ADV bikes for going off-road than the V-Strom, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t. I have a 2012 V-Strom 650 (and a DR650 too). The biggest change to the new models are the spoked wheels — and I wish I could get them affordably, but $2000 for a set is more than I’m gonna spend.

    I upgraded my 2012 with crash bars and bash plate, hand guards (Barkbusters) and also raised the bars enough to make standing comfortable. It works well, but yet you do have to take it easy. Even with stiffer fork springs and Racetech Gold Valves, the front end is still a little unsure of itself. A fork brace helps, but it’s still not as precise as I’d like. I haven’t been willing to spend money on the rear suspension, mainly because I’m worried if I do, I’ll push it hard enough to damage the cast wheels.

    Two weekends ago, I rode it on Oregon’s NF-370, my favorite trail in the center of the state. There was a point where I did push it a bit, and after that ride, I was certain I had destroyed my front wheel. Much to my surprise, I hadn’t. It’s still straight, round, and holds air just fine.

    The moral? Yes, it’ll go off-road, and it’ll do a pretty decent job at it. BUT, you do have to take it easy. It’s not a bike you ride aggressively in that situation. New for new, I’d suggest the Tiger 800 XCx, but since you can buy these used at very reasonable prices, they’re worth considering if you can budget in the skid plate, crash bars and other mods.

    • Hey Rob. The bike has a special charm that makes you just want to ride it, even though it’s not great off-road. Might be better to just buy an XT on the used market then transfer over some of your upgrades. Then you get the wheels and a newer bike. The XT wheels are some of the strongest I’ve seen on any adventure bike. What the bike really needs though is more suspension travel, especially in the rear. That would help bring up the ground clearance too. Just hoping Suzuki decides to put that sweet motor in a more off-road-oriented chassis some time soon!

  3. Pingback: ADV Pulse Upgrades an XT - Stromtrooper Forum : Suzuki V-Strom Motorcycle Forums

  4. I have taken my 05 wee-strom across the entire continent, including Dalton to Deadhorse… loaded. Front Springs, fork brace and knobby tires are a must but the greatest thing you can do for your Vstrom is to add a Scots steering damper. Period.

    • Hey Bro.
      It’s our secret testing grounds out in the desert. Not an official track. 🙂 We carved a course out of natural terrain and trails. It’s an OHV area in Southern California called Baldy Mesa. It’s open to anyone, but the bad news is that there was a fire there just last week, so the entire area may be closed down now due to forest recovery.

  5. Really enjoy your articles, especially the side by side comparisons. Its hard to get solid info online, especially not knowing if the person writing even has ridden a model they feel compelled to tell you about. Keep up the great work! I just replaced a KLR with an Africa Twin. I think I’ll be happy on this platform for quite a while out here in Colorado.

    • Wow, I’m sure you are enjoying the Africa Twin in Colorado. A great choice for the terrain around you. Thanks for your words of encouragement Dustin, we’ll keep doing what we’re doing! 🙂

  6. Fantastic follow up! Thanks! Your conclusions surpised me with the results against the KLR – had a DR in years past, I wonder if the weight difference would have helped the DR win? Really great to see what the big DL is capable of in expert hands. I added a comment on the WR upgrade (can’t wait for part 2) and still believe that it would be a neat comparison for a similar dollars horses for courses article with the DL. This off road follow up spurs me on even more – we ride our DL primarily 2 up and have done most of the COBDR – similar add-ons – barkbusters, skid plate, tip over guards – we run soft bags (Adventure Spec) instead of the hard bags you folks tested with here – lighter, narrower – perhaps safer(imho) for the missus legs when we tip over. As you report – pace is the key – fully loaded front end isn’t bad, and actually kind of helps in sandy conditions – we really like the big KTMs and BMWs (had 2 GSs) but with the savings on the DL we have essentially travelled for free for the last 2 years and have had zero mechanicals and minimal maintenance expense (not so with our BMWs unfortunately – suppose it was our luck – twice?) Sometimes miss the power of the BMW, but only on the road – off road the DL is the nuts for us. Keep up the good work – now I just need to justify the WR to the missus for my solo rides:)

    • Hi Michael. The DR650 is lighter, has more power and has more suspension travel than the KLR. So I’d expect the DR650 to be outperform the KLR and V-Strom on this course and be pretty close to the KTM 990 ADV R. If we get an opportunity, it would be fun to find out! Sounds like you are having a great time on your V-Strom though. Thanks for your words of support and hope you can convince the missus to let you get that WR!

  7. Interesting outcome on the comparison between the Wee Strom and the KLR. Could you run the same comparison with the Honda CB500x with the stage 3 Rally Raid kit?

      • Hello Rob, Thanks for your reply and for including the link to article comparing the 500x and the R. I currently ride a 2013 KLR. But have been thinking about purchasing a 500x to get a little more power and on road comfort. I have some friends who ride Wee Stroke but I don’t like the extra weight and limited suspension travel. Think I will shop around for a 500x and invest in the RR stage 3 kit. Great articles and awesome website! Clint

        • Yes, that RR CB500X likes to go fast in the dirt and it’s a lot of fun to ride. Plus it’s got the smooth twin-cyclinder engine. They are also economical and reliable like the KLR and V-Strom. It does require you to rev the motor a lot higher to make power, but it goes pretty good. Get a test ride on a stock CB500X and see if it works for you. Thanks for the kind words!

  8. I have had my Vstrom 2013 for about 6mths and so far I just love it , it was a easy choice for me between the Vstrom and Klr because of comfort and power, I like it on the highway ride for 250 miles go off road to a camping spot down by a gorgeous Idaho river.Set up camp.and explore. Love it.I used to have a KX 250.and that was my off road bike , I just like the comfort .at 59yrs old .yep it’s about that.

  9. Pingback: First time in the dirt in 17 years - Stromtrooper Forum : Suzuki V-Strom Motorcycle Forums

  10. Pingback: Disappointed at Wee3 - Page 21 - Stromtrooper Forum : Suzuki V-Strom Motorcycle Forums

  11. I’m getting ready to take my Vstrom on the Trans Am Trail next month. I’ve outfitted it with all the bolt on do-dads already. I’m struggling a little with suspension setup. I took it on a test run last weekend with a full load to replicate what I’ll be bringing with me. Any suggestions for suspension settings with stock parts?

    • Hi Bill. Sounds like you’ve got a great adventure ahead of you. I recommend you start by setting the front and rear preload to the recommended sag range for the bike fully loaded with the rider (look for YouTube videos on how to do this). Next set your rebound damping setting on the rear shock to stock and add more or less damping in small increments until you get a setting you like. Getting your sag set first is the most important part. Good luck!

  12. Pingback: 2017 Suzuki V-Strom 650 First Ride Review - ADV Pulse

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