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Long term test September 03: Suzuki DR-Z400

Published: 28 October 2003

Updated: 19 November 2014

Daniel Thornton:

Returning after a week’s break from riding has given me the chance to become reacquainted with the DR-Z, and take stock of how well the standard bike has performed – before I mod it to the max.

So far, any modifications have been for practical reasons, not for performance. Anything further requires a serious financial outlay and takes the bike a long way from standard. And seeing as it’s due for its second service, now is a good time to see how well it has performed without any help.

The Suzuki fired up second or third time, despite receiving no special attention before or after my week’s holiday. My first ride also reaffirmed how good the engine is. In town it’s ideal, with plenty of low-down pull, even when I’d selected too high a gear, and on dual carriageways it’ll pull strongly up to 80 or 90mph, depending on the wind, with an indicated triple figure speed just about possible. A few long distance trips have shown that 75-80mph is about the comfortable cruising speed, leaving a bit of breathing room for overtaking.

Maintenance has been minimal, with hardly any oil needed. And the electric start has proved its worth time and time again after low speed spills off-road. I’ll happily swap a bit of extra weight to be able to thumb the bike into life, and not spend ten minutes trying to kick it when I’m already exhausted.

The suspension has also done well, coping with some fairly heavy landings. And that’s despite having the pre-load pretty much backed right off to make up for my short legs. Now that a lowering kit (£50 from Taylor Racing, 01249-657575) has made the bike even more manageable, I’m confident that the bike’s limitations lie far beyond the point that my own sense of fear kicks in.

The Bridgestone Trailwing tyres have coped adequately, although their dual-purpose nature means they are a jack-of-all-trades. As a result, I’ve plumped for some Metzeler MC5 motocross tyres for off-road use only. They’re designed for all-round terrain, and mean that I can’t blame my tyres for any off-road slip-ups. It’s the equivalent of going from smooth-soled Dr Martens to hiking boots.

The main practical additions to the bike, recommended for anyone, are the Acerbis brushguards (£55) and aluminium Renthal bars (£29). The bars are essential for the off-road novice, as the standard steel ones are easily bent, and the idea of snapping your bars in the middle of nowhere is never appealing.

Brushguards stop your hands getting whipped by branches, protect your levers, and to be honest, make the bike look much tougher on or off-road. Despite requiring the removal of the bar-end damper weights, there weren’t enough vibrations to bother me on a four-hour round trip to Brands Hatch for World Superbikes last month.

One problem that long trips have highlighted is the lack of comfort. Standing off-road is fine, but after an hour on the firm Suzuki seat I find myself doing a John Wayne walk to the till at the petrol station. A gel seat should solve this, but it hasn’t arrived yet, so I’m relying on the fact that the tank runs dry about the same time as my lower body goes numb. And with higher speeds making a sharp dent in the fuel economy, motorway travel can empty the tank in 70 or 80 miles.

Now it’s time to take things further. The first step is some road wheels and tyres. Although I’ve tried to avoid this, preferring to stick with one set of wheels out of laziness, it’s time to admit that there’s no hope of me ever keeping up with mates on sport bikes. What I can do, however, is get in some supermoto fun on the local kart track, without losing my licence. With Talon hubs and Excel rims weighing in at £766, plus tyres, it’s not cheap but I’ll get more confidence on Tarmac, and the chance to see how far I can lean the bike over. It also means that I can keep my Metzeler dirt tyres on the standard wheels and just switch them at the weekend.

Plus it means I can change to a different braking system. For road use, the stock brakes aren’t very reassuring. They’re reliable and progressive, but they don’t seem to have much bite. Fine for off-roading, but if I’m going to push my speeds on Tarmac, I’d like something a little more effective.

The other step will be to get a new front sprocket, with one less tooth. This will lose me maybe 5mph from the top speed, but it will make the bike accelerate much quicker.

Adding a performance exhaust will also help. Both Yoshimura and CRD produce systems for the DR-Z, but neither are road legal. They’ll both give a slight bhp increase, but the main improvement will be in torque and a claimed improvement in engine pick-up. The CRD Absolute Performance is the quieter of the two, but even that produces 90dB.

Any other additions will be purely cosmetic, with an Acerbis rear tail-light and plate hanger improving the rear end. And maybe some stickers. After all, one of the joys of this bike is the attention it gets in town. I’ve never seen a bike attract so many teenagers, asking to sit on it and asking the usual questions. That’s why I’ll also be fitting an alarm in the very near future.

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