I have literally no reason to like the Suzuki DR-Z400SM. Nothing gets me going more than fancy tech, shiny toys, and riding whatever is the latest and greatest. Why should I or anyone else care about a little, 15-year-old thumper?
Yet, with a garage full of test bikes I find myself searching for excuses why this little single is the best choice for the day. The BMW S 1000 RR, Suzuki GSX-S750, Indian Scout, Yamaha SR400, and Honda CBR600RR sit in a row, glaring at me like students in class with their hands up waiting to be called on. There's one simple reason for that: fun.
Recently, I told you about how Socal Supermoto was the most fun you could have on two wheels for $200. Part of that is Brian Murray's beautifully designed class, but the other part is a wonderful little bike called the DR-Z400SM.
The DR-Z is powered by a 398 cc single-cylinder, liquid-cooled, four-stroke engine, which makes a paltry 32 horsepower at 7,850 rpm and 24 foot-pounds of torque at 6,750 rpm. I know, I know — it's not a lot to work with.
The DR-Z400 in its various forms (here in the United States, you mostly only see the S dual-sport model and SM supermoto) has gone unchanged save for graphics and wheel color since it replaced the DR350 in 2000. This means it still has a carburetor (Mikuni BSR36) and petcock, and comes without fancy bells and whistles like an indicator light to let you know you're about to run out of gas.
Suzuki actually dropped the SM model from its lineup in 2009, but brought it back in 2013 as a 2014 model. The SM replaces the dual-sport's right-side-up telescopic front fork with a 47 mm inverted Showa one (borrowed from Suzuki's dirt-only RMZ lineup), gets 17-inch wheels, compared to the S's 18-inch rear and 21-inch front, and gets the rear swingarm from the RMZ, as well. Both front and rear suspension are adjustable for rebound and compression damping, with the rear also adjustable for preload.
The SM gets some much-needed help in the braking department. The DR-Z400S has a single 250 mm front disc and a single 220 mm rear, which do a decent job for off-road duties, but are downright terrifying on the street. The SM gets a 300 mm disc with a two-piston caliper at the front and 240 mm disc at the back. While not quite race-ready, this little change goes a long way toward making the Supermoto more capable on the street.
For reasons unbeknownst to me, Suzuki decided to give the DR-Z a decent display (relatively), complete with the speed, time, dual trip meters, and a timer. Those trip meters come in handy when trying to determine how much gas you have left in the DR-Z's little 2.5-gallon tank, which gets me only about 80 miles before forcing me into a panic as I search for the reserve setting on the petcock. For the record, Fuelly reports an average fuel economy of 54 mpg, and I ride it like I'm on a track (more on that later).
The DR-Z400SM has a seat height of 35 inches (down slightly from the S's 36.8, due to the wheels) and, full of fuel, weighs 321 pounds.
Testing the DR-Z400SM
Now to the fun part — riding the thing. The DR-Z makes a game out of every ride and turns every road into a track. With its low-ish weight, upright seating, and dirt-bike-like handling and power delivery, it's literally the most nimble thing on the road.
First, there's the whole "it's more fun to ride a slow bike fast" thing. The DR-Z sort of forces you to be on the gas and makes you click through its short gears to keep up with traffic, which pulls you from the mindset of meandering your way up to cruising speed. And, since you're halfway there already, you might as well just go all out and try and set personal best 0-60 times, right?
Riding this DR-Z through town is more of an exercise in self control that anything else. Weaving through cars as I filter to the front of a stopped line is not just a possibility, it's now a game that I tackle with glee. The suspension eats up road noise and allows my mind to turn to more important tasks, like hitting apexes or breaking the rear loose (again, this is just normal street riding we're talking about here).
I rode the DR-Z on the Aether Urban Adventure a few weeks back, and the little sumo danced and shimmied around the bigger bikes participating in the day. With such a large number of riders, filtering through the group seemed unwise, since changing positions a bunch tends to end in people bumping into each other. The slower pace wasn't enough to really keep me interested, since I couldn't really attack the twists as I would like. Instead, I made it a game to see if I could keep from touching the ground (only touched twice in 50 miles) and to keep just inches off my buddy Chris's rear turn signals. As the turns tightened, I noticed how the guys on the big bikes actually began to have to work to get through the corners, all while I darted through them with ease and plenty of attention left over to focus on staying within inches of Chris's bike.
Taking the DR-Z400SM to the canyons is an entirely different experience than it is with almost any other motorcycle that frequents those sorts of roads. Riders on 600 and 1,000 cc sport bikes and nakeds look at you bemused when you pull into the local gas station/meet-up spots, wondering why you'd bring something so small and underpowered to play with the big boys. It starts to make more sense to them as they fail to shake you up the mountain or, even worse, lose sight of you as they try to follow you up tighter sections like the Snake or Decker Canyon.
While I was riding in Malibu last week, I was struck by something I'd never really put into words before. Not only was the bike better for the job at hand, but I was also having exponentially more fun. Sport bikes are a) expensive and b) made for race tracks, which means it's a huge bummer if you drop it and they don't necessarily transition quickest in tight, lower speed corners. Hustling even something smaller like the Honda CBR600RR or Kawasaki ZX-6R we recently reviewed through these roads makes for a day stuck in first and second gears. On the DR-Z, it's all just a big game, and I find that I'm actually enjoying myself so much more.
The only issue here is that, unless you live next to one of these great roads, getting there is probably going to involve the freeway. Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, the freeway reveals the little thumper's shortcomings. The ratios in the five-speed gearbox are fairly closely spaced, which means the DR-Z lets you know it's happy at or below 70-ish miles per hour. The brakes and suspension also start to show their limitations at higher speeds, and 80 mph panic braking situations can get pretty scary. Again, I realize that this is a 15-year-old little thumper and I wouldn't expect more — I just want you to know what you're in for.
Finally, there's the track. Unfortunately, while Suzuki's RMZ line really is race-inspired and fairly race-ready, the DR-Z400SM is more supermoto in name than in purpose. The changes made from the dual-sport S model make it much better on the street and muuuuch better in the twisty stuff, but the brakes, weight, lower power and slightly lazy power delivery make the DR-Z400SM in stock form kind of a dog on the track. Brian from Socal Supermoto uses DR-Z400SMs, but mods them up a bit to make them handle better, stop better, and get up and go out of the corners better.
The good news
The good news is that the DR-Z400SM is a 15-year-old thumper that's fairly simple and I'm not the only person who has realized what a gem of a bike it is. In fact, its cheap price, reliable reputation, and high fun factor have made it incredibly popular. That means that there is a massive library of knowledge and an extensive parts list for ways to take the DR-Z from fairly bland to quite awesome, extremely easily.
Thumpertalk is one of the largest online motorcycle forum communities and I spoke with its creator, Bryan, who told me that the DR-Z is the most talked about, and most upgraded, bike on the site. In about an hour of browsing, I'd found threads comparing the exhausts, jetting, carbs, brakes, and something called a "3x3" mod that is apparently the first thing DR-Z owners do.
Having ridden the Socal Supermoto bikes, I can tell you that they feel much better than the stock unit in my garage. Brian's Socal Supermoto site also has a page listing the common upgrades and fixes he does to make the craigslist bikes he buys race-ready.
Despite being completely and utterly unimpressive on paper, the DR-Z ranks with the best of the best when it comes to fun factor. The engine is mellow enough that it gives even the most novice of riders the confidence to push it a bit and chase speed like the rest of us addicts. It's also powerful enough that a decent rider can squeeze enough juice out of it to stave off boredom in the twisty stuff and even catch an ill-equipped squid or two.
The brakes and suspension are ample for most street riding, which is actually more than can be said of a lot of stock bikes these days. Those with exceptional skill, or who want to ride like an idiot (of which I am one) will want to make some upgrades, but in stock form, most people will be plenty happy.
The DR-Z is cheap to buy ($7,189 MSRP with decent Craigslist buys at half that), cheap to run, cheap to insure, and cheap to maintain. Most importantly, or at least more fun, it's cheap to upgrade.
The list of bikes I've wanted to buy since I started reviewing motorcycles for a living has evolved over the years, but I think I've finally settled on the DR-Z as something I need to have in my garage. Sure, there are sexier options, like the KTM and Husqvarna dual-sports that could be converted, or even the upcoming Husky 701 Supermoto, but the DR-Z's low price and low maintenance just might be worth sacrificing some performance for. After all, riding a slow bike fast is fun, right?
My only real knock against the DR-Z400SM is the seat. It's well shaped for faster riding and easy to move around on, but the thing is like sitting on a two-by-four and pretty miserable when riding in a straight line for any amount of time. Something from the guys over at Seat Concepts would be one of the first things I would upgrade to help make the DR-Z's cockpit a little more user-friendly.
While there are a ton of other things I would upgrade other than the seat, none of them are really things I can find fault with the bike for. Hard to blame Suzuki for not including a top-spec, lightweight exhaust or including steel braided brake lines on a bike this old at this price point. A sixth gear would be incredible, as would a fuel light, but the fault with those lies in the fact that the DR-Z is so good, Suzuki hasn't needed to upgrade it to sell them.
At this point, there really isn't any direct competition for the DR-Z400SM. Sure, you could go with the KTM 350 EXC-F or Husqvarna FE 350 S, but then you're spending $10,000 on the bike and then figuring out 17-inch wheels, street suspension, and street brakes — not to mention dramatically increased service intervals (100 hours vs. the Suzuki's 15,000 miles for valves) and far more expensive services.
There are some smaller brands that could be considered competition, like the Cleveland Cyclewerks Hooligun R, their 450 cc supermoto, but there have been a ton of conflicting reports regarding CCW's reliability. Then there's SWM's SM 450 R, another 450 cc supermoto, but we have no clue whether that will make it stateside, let alone whether it will be any good.
The other common and fairly easy option is the Yamaha WR250R, which has a smaller displacement but the butt dyno says its further lack of weight combined with its modest power make it a prime candidate for some supermoto action. Just keep in mind this will need supermoto wheels, suspension, and brakes as well, after you spent its $6,690 MSRP. (Yamaha did all this work for you with its WR250X, but it no longer sells the supermoto version in the U.S. market.)
The best, and most common, competitor is a used Yamaha WR450 or Honda CRF450X, once you've figured out how to get the thing plated. Either of these options will run circles around the DR-Z, but both approach KTM and Husky levels of service requirements. In California, it has become nearly impossible to find these and ones that have already been plated sell like ecstasy at Coachella, but if you can find one you're in for the treat of a lifetime.
The Suzuki DR-Z400SM is off the charts on the fun per dollar scale. Despite its low power and budget everything, it constantly pushes me to ride better, harder, and to have more fun, which is more than I can say for a lot of bikes. Its small tank, lack of consideration for your comfort and poor freeway performance mean it will not be right for a lot of people, but if it suits your riding life and riding style, it's one of the best additions to any stable.
Suzuki has been kind enough to let me keep the DR-Z a while longer and we'll be turning it into a project bike. I've spent a ton of time in the owners forums, pestered Brian from Socal Supermoto and Bryan from Thumpertalk, and have a host of upgrades planned. The goal is to reach the little thumper's true potential and draw a road map to get there.
For you DR-Z owners out there, any tips for me?