Road test: Suzuki DR650SE vs BMW G 650 GS-News & Reviews-Motorcycle Trader

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BMW G 650 GS

16 Jul 2013 | Adventure-bike comparo: similar but very different

Words: Rod Chapman  Pics: Ellen Dewar

They’re both 650 adventure singles, but Rod Chapman says Suzuki’s DR650SE and BMW G 650 GS tackle the category from very different directions.

TOUGH OPPOSITION

Adventure touring is a growth category these days with just about every manufacturer offering at least one model that fits the bill. Why the interest? In my opinion it’s largely down to the dominant ‘Baby Boomer’ demographic.

With the kids finally fending for themselves, the house paid off, some cash to spend and more time on their hands, ‘mature’ riders are lusting after a little adventure, with images of Long Way Round still fresh in their minds.

I can understand the attraction. Bikes have always struck me as the perfect form of transport for exploration, opening up access to rough country and totally immersing the rider in the surrounding environment.

As a result, manufacturers have come up with a variety of offerings to suit ‘adventurers’ of all persuasions. There’s a heap of choice, that’s for sure, but anyone diving in for the first time can find the options bewildering. So, for this adventure-bike comparo, MT has grabbed two bikes from the category that, while similar on paper, represent very different takes on the theme – Suzuki’s DR650SE and BMW’s G 650 GS.

DIFFERENT STROKES

While both are 650cc singles, in other respects they’re worlds apart. Together they give a snapshot of the diversity found within this burgeoning class, and so rather than a direct head-to-head shootout this review is more a ‘taster’ of two rather different slices of the one pie.

Suzuki’s venerable DR650SE almost needs no introduction. Released just a few centuries before internal combustion engines (okay, it was 1995), it’s based on a model that was born a decade before that and it’s a basic, bare-bones traillie with enough oomph for highway speeds and some luggage. Remarkably little has changed on this bike over the years and yet it’s still a strong seller – Suzuki Australia moved 727 of these things last year.

In comparison, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries credits Kawasaki’s $7999 (plus ORC) KLR650 – a bike with which the $7990 (plus ORC) DR650SE is often compared – with 446 sales in 2012, although it puts the Suzuki in the ‘Trail’ category and the Kawasaki in the ‘Adventure Tourer’ category.

In the Bavarian corner we have BMW’s $9990 (plus ORC) G 650 GS. Also an adventure tourer (the ‘GS’ suffix stands for Gelände Straße . translating as off-road/road), it’s the more road-focused of a pair, sitting alongside the more dirt-oriented G 650 GS Sertão. Had this been a direct comparo we would have pitched the Sertão at the DR650SE, but, as I’ve said, we wanted to examine offerings from different ends of the middleweight adventure-bike spectrum.

With alloy rims (a 19in front for the BMW, versus a spoked 21-incher for the Suzuki), less suspension travel (170/165mm versus 260/260mm), less aggressive rubber (Metzeler Tourance EXP versus Bridgestone Trail Wing) and more weight (192kg wet versus 166kg wet), it’s clear the BMW enjoys its ‘adventure’ in bite-sized portions. That’s okay, however, because while it can still handle a bit of dirt, its strengths come to the fore on the blacktop.

DEFINING ADVENTURE

So, how do you define ‘adventure’? Are you about to set off on a transglobal overland expedition, or is a little exploration of Australia’s better dirt roads adventurous enough? There’s no shame in either paradigm – it’s all about choosing the best bike for any given job.

To get a flavour for the two bikes Spannerman and I headed to Wombat State Forest to Melbourne’s northwest, the route taking in dirt roads, fire trails and a bit of single-track, plus plenty of tar. We would have loved to have set off on an around-the-world epic but MT’s bean counters weren’t so keen – more’s the pity.

It’s clear these are two different beasts, despite sharing the same basic engine configuration. The Suzuki stands tall and rugged, like the bigbore dirt bike it is. The BMW looks stylish and more technical, with sculpted components and more bodywork – bodywork any owner would wince to see tumbling down the track.

The Suzuki is, however, showing its age. The instrumentation is basic – just a single analogue speedo with inset trip meter and odometer, plus a few idiot lights – while you also get a screw-on fuel cap, a fuel tap, a steel tank, a carburettor, and dated-looking switchgear. It’s old school – but that won’t concern anyone heading for the boonies.

On the contrary, in this instance ‘old school’ also means ‘easy to fix’ – handy in the back of beyond.

The features list underlines the Suzuki’s no-frills approach. You get a highly functional bike, a toolkit (stored in a neat little dedicated storage tube under the sub-frame), plastic handguards and a helmet lock. That’s it.

The BMW, however, comes with fuel injection, ABS brakes, a centrestand – even heated handlebar grips. There’s also a choice of seat heights – beyond the standard 800mm perch there’s an 820mm accessory seat or BMW dealers can deliver a loweredsuspension version with a 770mm seat height. No such luck on the Suzuki, whose 885mm seat will be enough to put off anyone of below-average height.

At 188cm (6ft 2in) I didn’t find the Suzuki’s seat a struggle and its narrow width and plush suspension meant I could get both feet flat to the ground. I did find the BMW’s standard 800mm seat too low, however – I simply didn’t have enough legroom to get comfortable. While the BMW’s saddle is far broader than the Suzuki’s plank, it’s still not particularly compliant – factor an Airhawk seat into the budget if big miles are on the agenda.

As for the Suzuki’s seat, while dirt bike folk wouldn’t be put off my roadie-centred backside found it rock hard – I was shifting from cheek to cheek inside 30 minutes.

TAKING FLIGHT

Escaping the city via the freeway gave a good impression of the bikes’ longhaul potential. You sit ‘on’ the Suzuki but ‘in’ the BMW, and I have to say I loved the commanding view from the former. I loved the Suzuki’s legroom too – sort that seat out and it’d be a capable mile muncher.

It proved a handy traffic buster in peak-hour going as it’s light and manageable and has a generous steering range; waggling the ’bars past higher car mirrors was easy. There’s no tacho on the DR but in fifth gear at 100km/h it felt relaxed. It sat happily on 120km/h too, where it still had some useable grunt in reserve for overtakes.

The squishy suspension saw the front end diving under hard brakes – no surprises there – while I was surprised by how smooth the big single was. The vibrations are there, but they don’t annoy. The Suzuki’s Nissin brake package, meanwhile, offers decent power and adequate feel.

On the blacktop the BMW was in its element, especially once off the freeway and some bends had swung into view. You don’t notice the extra weight on the road but you do notice the firmer suspension, the lower ride height, the slicker gearbox and, as a general observation, the refinement. The BMW’s finish is in a different league and considering the extra niceties that $2000 premium looks like money well spent.

The BMW’s fuel-injected motor is a torquey, flexible unit – a Rotax design which these days is made under licence in China. At 100km/h in fifth gear the BMW is pulling 4000rpm, which – like the Suzuki – means it’s well up to the task of covering big distances. In fact, I thought both these big singles felt remarkably similar on the road. They both display grunty bottom ends and they pull hard through the mid-range.

Both are breathless up top, too, but that’s hardly a front-page headline. Both appreciate a short warm-up from a cold start but in terms of throttle response they were difficult to split – the Suzuki’s 40mm Mikuni seemed to do just as good a job as the BMW’s EFI. The BMW’s Brembo set-up was a winner for me, offering a little more power and feel and – with the firmer springs – more composure under hard brakes.

The ABS is a big bonus and, importantly, you can switch it off on dirt.

During roll-on tests from third, fourth and then fifth gear, the results were the same: the bikes were dead level through the bottom end and most of the mid-range, but the BMW slowly began to pull ahead as the revs climbed higher. Really, there’s nothing in it. BMW claims slightly higher horsepower and torque for the G 650 GS, but it’s heavier with it.

Despite their modest outputs and dual-purpose nature, both machines are thoroughly capable of delivering plenty of smiles on a winding road. Clearly the BMW is the winner here, its stiffer  suspension and road-oriented rubber putting it out in front. But the Suzuki can swoop through the corners too: its Bridgestone Trail Wings hang on well and, like the BMW, there’s a heap of cornering clearance.

The upright ride positions and broad, flat handlebars of each bike afford a degree of confidence and control should a back tyre break traction.

WOMBAT BASHING

Of course, ‘scratching’ is well down these bikes’ priority list – far higher up is hitting the dirt, so that’s what we did. Wombat State Forest is a sizeable expanse of bush popular with trail riders and 4WDers. Conditions were hot, dry and dusty but in typical Wombat fashion there were still plenty of bog holes full to the brim with gelatinous, stinking mud.

The 4WD guys chew the hell out of the tracks with their souped-up rigs and mud-terrain tyres, adding an extra challenge for the bikes.

From the get-go, the tables had turned in the Suzuki’s favour. Its larger 21in front rim, longer-travel suspension and chunkier rubber saw it right at home on the rough, although the BMW was taking the better dirt roads in its stride. After all, it still had more suspension travel than a standard roadie and its 19in front rim instilled more confidence than a 17.

Onto a little side track the Suzuki was happy to go where I pointed it, following ruts, soaking up bumps and generally pushing on with little fuss. Anyone used to a dedicated 250 or 450 enduro would find the Suzuki heavy, soft and a little ungainly, but having a road background as I do, I got a real thrill out of where I could take the DR without fear of damaging rims or bodywork. You can be quite lazy with the DR’s workman-like gearbox, such is the engine’s poke, and it all adds up to one relaxed off-road experience.

Standing up on the Suzuki’s serrated ’pegs felt natural – although I would have appreciated some handlebar risers – and finally that pain-in-the-arse seat started to make a little sense. It was  easy to slide my weight around as conditions dictated, while getting out of the saddle gave my backside some respite.

The BMW went everywhere the Suzuki did (okay, except for the monster bog hole that near swallowed the Suzuki whole), but rougher going required a slower, more calculated approach. We didn’t want to ding those cast-alloy rims or damage that lovely yellow bodywork. The BMW’s tighter ergonomics meant standing up saw me bent forwards to grab the ’bars – again, I’d fit risers, but for the shorter folk for which it’s designed it’ll be fine.

The extra weight meant the BMW required a bit more input in tighter going, where its wider girth through its mid-section was apparent.

Spannerman’s cries of delight aboard the BMW as he followed me down the first single-track descent of any reasonable gradient turned out to have an altogether different motivation – in fact he hadn’t turned off the ABS, so the bike had effectively lost its brakes. Makes you feel alive, a little episode like that. The switchable ABS is a big plus but you do have to remember to turn it off on the dirt – its default setting is ‘on’ whenever the ignition is switched on.

Also, you have to be stationary to change settings – you can’t switch it ‘on the fly’.

I’LL HAVE THE PARMA, THANKS

We pushed on to Blackwood, an old goldmining town with a lovely old (and bikefriendly) pub. Lunch there gave us a chance to reflect on our steeds, and their respective bites of the adventure pie.

The Suzuki clearly had the broader scope of the pair, handling both the highway and the dirt with aplomb. I’d be entirely confident to take the Suzuki anywhere I’d take any other enduro bike, although I’d be tackling things at my sedate pace – I like to take in the view in the bush, rather than charge through it at warp factor 10.

The bike’s $7990 (plus ORC) price tag is tempting, but I know I’d be spending quite a bit more if I bought one. Decent handlebars, proper Barkbuster handguards, a larger long-range tank, a better seat and probably stiffer springs (especially if carrying all the luggage associated with a long-distance trip) would be on the shopping list. Then there’s the obligatory performance upgrade – a less-restrictive pipe, and a high-flow air filter and jet kit.

That little lot would push the Suzuki’s price into five-figure territory.

The BMW, alternatively, doesn’t really require any additional outlay. Because you wouldn’t take it anywhere beyond good-quality dirt roads (if you wanted to, you’d buy the G 650 GS Sertão instead), there’s really nothing more to spend (other than on a luggage system). When you consider its level of spec, its price tag makes it the value-for-money pick of these two – provided it suits your intended usage.

The BMW, with its fuel-injected engine, was the clear winner in the fuel-economy stakes. In a mix of road and off-road going it delivered an average economy of 23.9km/lt, giving a safe 300km range from its 14lt tank. The Suzuki managed 20.5km/lt, giving a safe 240km range.

Like I said, I’d whack a long-range tank.

Both bikes have a non-adjustable front fork and a rear monoshock adjustable for preload and rebound. The BMW is the far better of the two for adjustment, with a remote wheel to change rear preload (the Suzuki has a tricky-to-access threaded collar).

THE BOTTOM LINE

After all these years, the Suzuki still has plenty of appeal. Light and easy to manage, capable in the bush, cheap to run and easy to repair, it’s no wonder it sells in the numbers it does.

The BMW is classy and refined and a great option for shorter folk who like to get off the highway but who aren’t looking to tackle any single-track – it’s a ‘soft-roader’, if you like.

BMW G 650 GS

Both machines are easy, forgiving rides, and would make ideal learner bikes – both are LAMS (Learner Approved Motorcycle Scheme) compliant. Still, it’s a crowded marketplace and there are many other options. In addition to Kawasaki’s KLR650 ($7999 plus ORC) and Suzuki’s V-Strom 650 ($10,890 plus ORC), there are models like Yamaha’s XT660R ($11,499 plus ORC) and Husqvarna’s new TR 650 Terra and 650 Strada ($8995/$9695 plus ORC respectively, although bear in mind that Husqvarna was recently purchased from BMW by KTM).

There are the hordes of bigger-capacity duallies too, but these 650s are so much easier to handle on the dirt.

My personal pick? Here I’d go for the Suzuki and spend the extra on kitting it out. It suits my physical size and I’d use its off-road potential.

But the BMW has much to offer smaller, more road-oriented riders, and both represent impressive value.

TECHNICALLY SPEAKING: SUZUKI DR650SE

Suzuki’s DR650SE is one of the great stayers of the marque’s line-up, having been first released in Australia in late 1995. It was basically an updated, electric-start version of the DR650R and DR650RS that were released in 1990 (two models that essentially shared the same engine and mechanics but with different styling), which in turn were based on the DR600 of the mid-’80s.

Upping the single-cylinder donk from 589cc to 641cc was a deliberate attempt to contain Honda’s NX650 Dominator (released in Australia in 1989), but the electric-start hardware saw an extra 15kg added to the SE over the R/RS.

Since the DR650SE’s arrival the machine has changed relatively little, apart from a thorough update in 1997 that saw its engine grow in capacity to 644cc (thanks to an altered bore and stroke) and become markedly smoother. A new exhaust and oil cooler were also adopted as was a new frame, the final package being a hefty 25kg lighter than the first generation. Since then changes have mainly been restricted to new colours and graphics (plus a revised cylinder base gasket which was prone to oil weeping).

The plot sees a 40mm Mikuni carburettor feed an air/oil-cooled, 644cc, SOHC, four-valve, four-stroke, single-cylinder engine, which rests in a tubular-steel cradle frame. Its claimed output is 32kW (43hp) at 6400rpm and 54Nm (39.8ft-lb) at 4600rpm. The power is relayed via a five-speed transmission and the bike rolls on Bridgestone Trail Wing dualpurpose rubber, with a 21in spoked rim at the front and a 17in rim at the back.

The braking package comprises a twin-piston caliper at each end, with a 290mm disc at the front and a 240mm disc at the rear.

The 2013 DR650SE is available in grey or white and it’s covered by a two-year, unlimited-kilometre warranty. The bike retails for $7990 (plus ORC).

THUMBS UP

– Top value

– Rugged simplicity

– Easy to manage

THUMBS DOWN

– Finish reflects the price tag

– Firm seat

TECHNICALLY SPEAKING: BMW G 650 GS

BMW’s G 650 GS appeared in Australia in late 2010 but if its specs seem familiar, they should. The bike represents a continuation of the F650 GS and F650 GS SE that sold here from 2000 to 2008, which in turn was a progression from BMW’s first midcapacity duallie, the F650 Funduro (pictured below), which appeared in 1995.

Today BMW’s ‘G’ family of bikes denotes the series’ liquid-cooled, fuelinjected, 652cc, DOHC, four-valve, fourstroke, single-cylinder engine, which BMW says is good for 35kW (48hp) at 6500rpm and 60Nm (44.2ft-lb) at 5000rpm. That donk is also found in the G 650 GS Sertão, the more off-roadspec version launched in 2011, which represents the next generation of F650 GS Dakar (a bike that, along with the F 650 GS SE, disappeared in 2008).


The G 650 GS is obviously a more road-oriented duallie, with alloy rims (19in at the front, 17in at the rear) and significantly less suspension travel than the DR650SE (the BMW with 170mm at the front, 165mm at the rear). Still, it’s a far more modern offering, with electronic fuel injection, an LCD digital/analogue dash, ABS brakes as standard, a choice of factory accessory seats and two-position heated grips as standard. It also comes with a centrestand and a small screen.

The suspension package comprises a non-adjustable front fork and a monoshock adjustable for preload and rebound, while the ABS-equipped brakes are by Brembo – a twin-piston caliper at the front (with 300mm disc) and a single-piston unit down the back (with 240mm disc).

With a 14lt tank (slung low, under the seat – the ‘traditional’ tank is in fact merely a cover for the airbox), the G 650 GS weighs in at 192kg (wet), which is 26kg more than the Suzuki. It’s available in Sunset Yellow or Aura White with a black/red seat, and it’s covered by a two-year, unlimitedkilometre warranty. The BMW G 650 GS is priced at $9990 (plus ORC).

THUMBS UP

– Quality finish

– Classy instrumentation

– ABS brakes

THUMBS DOWN

– Cramped for taller riders

BMW G 650 GS
BMW G 650 GS
BMW G 650 GS

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