2003 SV650S review: First ride

The new 2003 SV650S has a hell of a reputation to live up to as it steps into the shoes of its vastly popular predecessor.

If you were given a clean sheet of paper and told to write down your perfect real-world bike, your list might just be a rundown of the 2003 SV650S.

A bike has to handle so a sweet chassis is obviously at the top of the list. Then you'd like a motor with enough thrills to keep you amused while not being a pain to use and obviously you'd want brakes that work, decent suspension, a comfortable riding position and clocks you can read. And at the bottom of the list come real-world considerations - a grabrail for a pillion, bungee hooks for luggage, mirrors that show more than your inner elbow and a padded seat. Oh, and a bargain price tag.

It's a simple formula, and probably the template Suzuki used to design the original 1998 SV650. And boy did they do a good job.

Since its launch in '99 the SV650 has proved a phenomenal sales success. Suzuki simply listened to what riders were saying and built the bike they asked for, in both a naked and faired version. And surprise, surprise, sold it by the shed load.

Last year the SV was Europe's best selling bike. Over 16,200 of the little beauties were sold during 2002, to go with the 17,800 sold the year before. Not bad going at all.

Having reached this jolly successful stage, Suzuki could quite reasonably have sat back on their collective laurels, patted themselves on their collective back at their cleverness in making the bike, and taken an 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it' attitude. But they didn't, and so for 2003 the SV650 has received a host of changes to make it (they hope) even better.

The most obvious change is the styling. The old SV always looked a bit soft with the lights just a shade too GSX600F (the standard unit of motorcycle ugliness against which all others are measured), giving the whole bike the appearance of being a bit bug-eyed. The seat unit, and especially the pillion seat, were very rounded too and the half-fairing came so low it covered half of the frame - one of the coolest features about the bike.

So for 2003 the SV has gone all angular, and looks much better for it. Visually it's identical to its new big brother, the SV1000S, with the same front fairing, tail unit and tank design. It also shares the sharp twin vertical strip LED rear lights, funky clocks and improved frame design, proudly displayed on the 'S' thanks to that shortened front fairing.

And the new frame isn't just a visual improvement over the old tubular style either. A new high-vacuum-mould process makes the frame lighter and stronger with fewer ugly welds. The benefits of all this techno-wizardry to the rider are minimal. Apart from the improved looks, the handling feels identical to last year's model and on the road you would be hard pushed to split the two.

But then this is no bad thing because the old SV650 was always a sweet little handler and one of those bikes that brought a smile to your face whenever you rode it. A big part of its sales success, apart from its low price, was the confidence it gave newer riders, and all that's still there on the new bike.

The bike feels very small and compact without being uncomfortable. Suzuki's use of a V-twin motor in the SV means it's narrower than an in-line four rival like Yamaha's Fazer 600 or Honda's Hornet 600, which makes the SV feel smaller as well as making it easier for shorter riders to reach the floor. This may sound patronising, but to new riders having the floor within easy reach is very reassuring, not to mention useful, and this is one of the SV's major selling points.

On the move the chassis retains the superb balance of the previous model. Given a set of twisty corners and an SV650, I challenge any riders not to come out the other side splitting their faces with uncontrolled smiles. Even experienced sportsbikers can have enjoy  it - as our very own Gusbuster demonstrates by commuting on his girlfriend's SV and then raving about the handling.

The motor is also a beauty. A 650cc V-twin may seem a strange capacity and configuration but it works so well. For 2003 Suzuki has resisted the urge to play with it but instead has replaced the carbs with fuel-injection to meet new emissions laws. This hasn't dramatically altered the characteristics of the engine but has made it slightly stronger in the mid-range and thanks to Suzuki's Dual Throttle Valve system, as found on the GSX-R range, lowdown manners are bang on too.

There are no powerbands or kicks to be had across the SV's rev-range, just solid, punchy feisty drive that, given a decent run-up, will see you peaking over the far side of 120mph if you feel like it and is flexible enough for you to either rev the nuts off it or ride the low down torque the V-twin produces when you're feeling lazier.

To build the SV to its budget £5,149 price Suzuki has cut a few corners and the brakes seem to be one of them. While the twin piston sliding calipers on the front are up to the job they really could do with being a bit stronger. They just don't give you the confidence a decent set of four-piston opposed calipers do and I am sure Suzuki isn't saving that much by fitting the twin-piston units instead. I would look at fitting a set of higher friction aftermarket pads to give them a bit more bite and probably a set of braided-steel lines.

The suspension is also built on a budget and doesn't come with much adjustment, although preload can be twiddled front and rear for basic fettling. On stock settings the rear felt fine although the front is a bit soft. When you start playing silly buggers on the SV, a slight stiffening of the front helps the bike feel a bit more together and less bouncy.

For the practically-minded the SV comes with a pillion grab rail as standard, bungee hooks, a fuel warning light (no gauge), hazard lights and mirrors that actually show the road behind. There is also a decent amount of storage space under the seat, although we are talking U-lock and a set of waterproofs at a squeeze, not a picnic hamper. If touring really is your thing then Suzuki will be launching a whole range of extras for the SV including a luggage system, hugger, lower fairing and a taller screen.

The faired 'S' version should be in the shops now and will be followed shortly by the naked 2003 SV650 version. It is virtually identical to the 'S' but the front fairing is dropped in favour of a single front headlight, the footpegs are slightly lower, bars flatter  and the copper colour is dropped in favour of macho black. Oh, and you get chrome mirrors instead of the black plastic ones on the 'S'.

While these alone may not be enough to swing your decision one way or the other the £300 saving may be enough to make up your mind as well as the probability that the naked version will be one insurance group lower than the faired one. According to Norwich Union the previous model SV650 was group 11 faired (S) or group 10 unfaired. Why? Well insurance companies claim that the extra cost of replacing broken plastics justifies the higher group rating - the robbing gits.

Should you buy the 2003 SV650S?

The SV650S is a blinding little bike that packs more punch for your pound than many other more expensive tools out there. Suzuki has managed to take an already excellent bike and improve it - which doesn't always happen. The new model is better than the old one, but it's more of an evolutionary improvement than a radical upgrade. If you already own an SV then it's probably only worth upgrading if you really like the new style. And then you might want to consider the bigger SV1000S which is more of the same but with a 1000cc V-twin motor. However,  if  you're looking for a bike that does everything including producing involuntary smiles , then check the SV650 out.


Honda Hornet £4649

Stylish and practical the Hornet uses an old version of the CBR600 motor. Very capable as a commuter or weekend plaything it's only real let down is a pathetic tank range. Updated for 2003 with styling change and tweaked motor.

Yamaha FZS600 Fazer £5099

The Fazer is comfortable, handles well and has a half-fairing as standard. Looks were updated last year but it's still a bit square.

Suzuki GSF600 Bandit £4099

The bike that started the budget naked bike craze is really showing its age now. Finish isn't the best so they look tatty quickly but the engine is solid if a little uninspiring.