The odd couple - BMW F800R and Suzuki 650 V-Strom
By: Web Editor
Suzuki’s DL650 V-Strom and BMW’s F800R are two very different bikes for very sensible money. Which might explain why MCM rates them both so much...
WE’RE 140 miles into a 460 mile day before it starts to matter that this is a naked bike. And that I think is a huge compliment to BMW’s F800R. A breakfast appointment in Cumbria might seem a little ambitious when you live in East Anglia, but here we are, at 8am, two hours after leaving home and only 100 miles to go. I’m meeting a couple of mates at Hartside Top cafe near Penrith at 10am and, right now, I might even be early.
And this is where it all goes wrong. The moment there might be an option to take the longer route, my body does its best to make the decision for me. In a matter of miles, my neck starts to ache, shoulders tense and the connection between hands and brain seem duller than they were a few minutes back. Up until now, the BMW’s teeny flyscreen, low bars and sporty-but-not-uncomfy riding position have been doing a grand job. But with the turn-off to Ripon and the magnificent A6108 in sight, suddenly I can take no more motorway. Instinct flicks the winker switch and five minutes later me and the funky Beemer are laughing out loud.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of the F800’s gutsy parallel twin motor, then put this paper down, ring your local BMW dealer and book yourself a test ride because you don’t know what you’re missing. Anyone who thinks Triumph’s Street Triple has the king of middleweight motors almost certainly hasn’t ridden one either. The Trumpet might win hands down on paper, but not on Tarmac where the F800’s short-shifting, barking (literally – this is possibly the most evocative exhaust note on any modern motorcycle), bags of torquey acceleration and quick-steering, but still-composed chassis make it a very emotional motorcycle.
And this one, the F800R, is my favourite of the bunch. Which is all the more surprising because this is the forgotten bike in Munich’s catalogue. Dealers tell me that they are almost invisible in showrooms, a bit like the equally talented R1200R.
With the A1M long forgotten we get on with the job of maintaining a motorway average speed on the cracked and crippled sinuous grey-top masquerading as a north Yorkshire A-road. Up, down, left right – choose your type of corner and camber – they’re all here in the space of a few miles, every few miles. Which is why I love this road so much. Every section is challenging, but equally rewarding. And it’s a great place to test a bike... to really test a bike. And now there’s something to think about, the numb neck and aches are long gone. Replaced by stalk-eyes, all manner of happy hormones and a multi-tasking focus on throttle, gears, braking, steering and survival. Last week I rode round here on my NC700X. That was a day of lazy lolloping. Rolling into corners, maintaining momentum, easy riding and enjoying the view. Last week I wasn’t late. Today, for all the fun and excitement, there’s a chance that I might be. Time is slipping away despite riding in a much more aggressive manner, attacking the road, maximising every turn, wringing as much as I can from my meagre talents and a very capable motorcycle.
It’s funny. At low speeds, the F800R feels clumsy, like the rear tyre is a size too big. Maybe it’s the steering damper, maybe the rear tyre is a size too big. But at medium speeds and above, it steers accurately and confidently, although the suspension feels a little soft and bouncy on these bumpy roads. I’ll give it a tweak at the next fuel stop. Which comes with just 75 miles on the trip. Not because it needs fuel, but part of the test is to measure consumption under different types of use. On the motorway, averaging 80-ish mph I was getting 59.5mpg. Between Wetherby and Kirkby Stephen, almost all on tight and twisty A- and B-roads the F800 has done 58.7mpg, and that is astonishing for this kind of riding.
It’s 9am and there’s roughly 35 miles to go. I’m going to be early and I still feel fresh after 200 miles on a naked sports bike. That’s impressive. Onto the A66 and a different kind of riding. This busy cross-Pennine route could be an amazing road, but with so many heavy trucks and so much solid white paint between lanes, it becomes an overtaking challenge. Perfect then to test the fifth and top gear midrange, picking out the passes in an instant, making the most of every opportunity the moment it arrives; one more area where the F800R excels. It’s a funny engine.
With a redline at 8500rpm it should be a lot revvier and sportier than my NC700X. But the reality is that your instinctive change-up point is still only around 6500rpm, which is where the torque runs just past peak and starts to tail off. But what makes this engine so good is the flexibility below that number. Cruising at 70mph, a little over 4000rpm in top, there’s enough kick and rapid acceleration to get past most things without changing down. Try that on the Honda and you’ve got time to read the health and safety data on the truck as you amble alongside.
Okay, nobody said the NC700 and F800 are in direct competition, but my memory is that Triumph’s Street Triple doesn’t pull this strongly in top gear either, even if it does make a lot more power (eventually). And the more miles I do, the more I’m comparing the Bee-Em with the Triumph. In many ways they are similar. Full of personality, more than quick enough for any road and easier to ride than almost anything else. But in so many other ways, they are very different. The BMW’s suspension is a long way ahead of the Street Triple’s on ride quality and bump management, but the Triumph has styling that ordinary humans with ordinary eyesight can understand. The F800R is as fast over ground as the Triumph despite giving away 20-or-so bhp and it does almost 50% more miles on every gallon of fuel. It also has a list of useful options, where the Triumph’s are mostly baubles and it sounds much, much better in standard trim.
But the Street Triple is slightly cheaper (and nobody leaves a BMW showroom without spending at least £1000 on options), looks like a proper street bike should and will win the admiration of your mates. Where the F800R’s styling (to me, at least) is trying too hard – it’s not naturally beautiful, or aggressive enough.
And talking of aggressive, this wonderful breakfast run is coming to a glorious climax. Somehow we’ve managed to lose half an hour between Brough and Hartside Top. Can’t think how – unless those couple of extra runs up and down Hartside Pass were to blame. Have you ridden it? Surely, every British rider has at some point – it’s a proper rite of biking passage and if you haven’t, make sure you get up there ASAP. Obviously, it’ll be raining, but the road is so good as to be worth getting wet.
So, 10.17am. Four hours and 17 minutes after leaving home, I pull into the car park to find Joe and James already there. They came the simple way – up the A1, off at Scotch Corner and along Route 66. Their way was 30 miles shorter but both look more knackered than me.
And if the ride here was good, then the run back will be even better. Another run of an old favourite. B6277, B6276, B6259, A684, back down the A6108 before crossing the A1 and taking the long route back through Lincolnshire to home – a little over 12 hours after setting off. The last stretch is fascinating. In an attempt to replicate the class-leading fuel figure of Honda’s NC700X I ride the BMW in the same way I’ve been riding the Honda. Stick to 65-70mph, gentle throttle and carefully planned overtaking. On the Honda this has let me keep average speeds as high as I normally get, with a return of 75mpg. It’s not the most exciting riding, but it is very efficient. The F800R manages 68.9mpg. Not as good as the NC700, but the BMW can do crazy as well as frugal, where the Honda is more single minded.
But what a day. A proper start to 2012’s dry riding season and a new favourite naked sportster. This bike is impressive enough on its own riding merits, but an average consumption of 58mpg with an average speed of 60mph was the icing on the cake.
Okay, there are plenty out there who’ll say that motorcycling shouldn’t be about numbers and data and, in some ways, they are right. But any bike that can be this much fun and comfy too, and that economical has got to be worth a look. Right?
Suzuki DL650 V-Strom
Twenty-four hours later, I’m back in the Pennines on a very different bike. James (who came with us yesterday to help out with the pictures), has lent me his V-Strom for the day. I was always a fan of the old one, but the new V-Strom, launched late in 2011, is a much better bike. It feels a lot more substantial and a much higher quality machine than before. It feels taller too – I’m on tippy-toes at junctions – although I think this is as much to do with seat width as height.
Styled like an adventure bike, the new V-Strom, like the old one, is really a very competent middleweight tourer. It cruises easily at 80mph, takes two people enormous distances in comfort and has the same split-personality engine that allows lazy cruising or focused scratching depending on your mood. I did a few hundred miles on one last summer and was looking forward to riding it again.
The first 110 miles of A1 and A1M were a lot more comfy than yesterday on the BMW. The Suzuki’s half fairing offers plenty of protection and the screen (set to the higher of two positions) does a good job of keeping the wind off. The riding position is good too. A bit like BMW’s GS with the seat on its highest setting (which is the comfier of the two – a GS on low seat makes my arms ache for some reason), there’s plenty of visibility and not too much weight on my lower back.
First pit stop at Wetherby and the V-Strom’s used 11 litres in 120 miles. That’s 49mpg at a sustained 80-90mph. Not too bad, but the BMW was better yesterday. I like the Suzuki engine and I’m looking forward to really using everything it has on the Dales roads. But, although Suzuki claims its more efficient than before, this has always been a sporty motor that likes to rev and that always means high consumption when pulling a tall, heavy and decidedly unaerodynamic chassis around.
Once off the A1M things get much better. The softly sprung chassis needs a bit more coaxing round the tighter corners. Early braking and letting the suspension settle makes a huge difference to confidence – cornering the V-Strom on settled suspension is easy, but turning in while the forks are still rebounding off the brakes is nerve-racking.
Which means you need to make the most of the height and visibility to read the road as far ahead as possible. Do this and the V-Strom makes light work of some very difficult roads and the ride quality over some of the mid-corner craters adds huge confidence.
It’s on these roads that the engine really comes alive though. Nowhere near as torquey as the BMW, it needs revving harder – much harder. But there’s another couple of thousand rpm to play with after the F800 and the V-twin motor revs (and sounds) like a sports bike. Real world maximum is a fraction over 100mph, but if you’re patient, determined and bought the wrong bike, you can see 125mph on the speedo.
There’s a price for all this idiocy, of course. 37mpg on the stretch between Ripon and Brough. Yesterday the BMW did almost 60mpg at similar speeds, but it wasn’t quite as comfy or well equipped.
Two hours ago I wasn’t convinced in this bike. Hard to describe but there’s a feel about it of being not-quite-well-built-enough to justify the price. The old V-Strom sold in huge numbers because dealers sold them at good price and that not-quite-top-notch feel didn’t really matter. The new V-Strom is a much better bike than before, better built too, but at this price, it’s competing in a different class.
But I’m warming to it with every new road covered. 300 miles in and I’ve adapted my riding to suit the bike. We’re getting along and apart from the tippy-toes thing at junctions I’m completely at home on it. There’s one more decent A road before the motorway slog home and we spend an enjoyable 50 minutes going up and down it a couple of times.
The trip home is relaxed. I want to see just how economical the Suzuki can be if ridden carefully. So we stick to around 65-70mph all the way back and get 62mpg.
Not bad, but still around 10% down on the BMW at similar speeds and 20% down on my Honda NC700X, which might not have the sporty side that the V-Strom does, but is every bit as comfy (although the fairing isn’t as weather protective), every bit as fine handling and more than £1000 cheaper.
And that is the V-Strom’s biggest problem. The new one is much better than the old one, but it’s become expensive. Triumph’s Tiger 800 is a more focused adventure bike for the same kind of money and Honda’s new NC700X is a more focused tourer for considerably less. The V-Strom is comfier than the Triumph and faster than the Honda. If that’s what you need, it could be the perfect bike.
Words: Steve Rose
Pics: Joe Dick
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