The Suzuki DR-Z400 was a great bike. It had a wonderful engine matched with a so-so chassis – and lived with a slight weight problem. But as they often say, its sum was greater than its parts, and it offered plenty of bang for buck. Back in 2000 that made it a winner, even JB here had one as his enduro racer for that season (back in NZ). In Australia, suitably modded it became a national open class motocrosser of some capability. In Europe and the UK, given the propensity and affordability of proper European enduro weapons the DR-Z was placed more as a trail machine, not a racer. It was still a good ‘un, though.
Nearly a decade later, after being delisted in 2006 (in the UK), the DR-Z400E was resurrected for one last hurrah before the arrival of Suzuki’s all-new RMZ450X enduro racer (a bike that was surely undervalued and undeservedly short-lived). The DR-Z came at a budget price – and with hindsight would have been a stoating buy as today, another decade later, you’ll struggle to find DR-Z are being listed practically for the price it was new then. Yep, as good as zero depreciation…
Indeed, today a good, fit DR-Z is highly sought after and while it was heavy for an enduro bike, in the modern context it’s light for an adventure model, which with the addition of a long-range tank it becomes quite easily. So reading Barni’s report on the 2009 model makes interesting reading for anyone considering the DR-Z as their next adv-lite.
words: James Barnicoat images: Barni / Si Melber
‘High maintenance’. A phrase guaranteed to strike fear into most right-thinking individuals. Because whether we’re talking about the opposite sex or motorcycles, it generally means there’ll be great swathes of your time spent sorting, fussing and yep… paying to keep them happy. And that’s time which, on the whole, could be put to far better use…
Thankfully, motorcycle manufacturers have realised that we’d much rather be riding their products than tending to them with feeler gauges and cursing them in our garages, so there seems to be a resurgence in low maintenance machines. Of course, we’ve all seen how two-strokes have made a comeback recently – their easy-riding and cheap ‘n’ simple spannering characteristics making them more attractive than complex and expensive thumpers – but now the four-stroke market has begun to change.
With many people lamenting the passing of simple, easy-going trail machines, we’ve recently seen the big manufacturers sit up, take note, and actually put into production up-to-date versions of these bikes. Yamaha kicked things off with their new WR250R. Okay, so the use of EFI and a liquid-cooled DOHC motor might not sound great for the home mechanic, but service intervals aeons apart sure do. Kawasaki followed suit, but putting a different spin on things they opted to slap a fresh face on their old KLX250 trailie, and now Suzuki have joined the fun. But rather than go to the trouble of building a new bike, or dressing up an elderly one, they’ve simply reinstated an old favourite. Like a best-loved TV soap character you thought had been killed off years ago, the DR-Z400E has miraculously returned from the dead. Who shot JR? Not Suzuki it seems!
Launched in 2000, the DR-Z proved itself to be a tough cookie. The torquey DOHC motor required little in the way of tinkering and, save for a few camchain tensioner issues (long since fixed), has never really given any trouble. I think the phrase is ‘well proven’. What’s more it came with that all-important electric boot. In fact, it was the first Japanese middleweight enduro machine to do so!
Available as the 400E (basic enduro-spec) 400S (trail-spec) and latterly 400SM (supermoto), a lack of demand originally killed-off the E-model in 2006. The S followed suit in 2008 and the supermoto was read its last rites this year. So why’s the E coming back? And why are Suzuki now saying that their ‘enduro’ bike is more of a trailie, when they’ve just euthanised a perfectly serviceable trail bike in the ‘S’ model? Well the answers to these questions are inexorably linked…
Euro3 emissions regulations forced Suzuki’s hand in killing off the DR-ZS and SM. They were quite happy to continue selling the tough little thumpers and – looking at the sales figures for a moment – we were still quite happy buying them. But the Eurocrats said ‘non’. Ironically, the E’s lack of road kit (something we often berated it for) is what has allowed Suzuki to bring it back to market – wheelying it straight through the ‘loophole’ which lets them import an ‘off-road’ bike that’s exempt from emissions regs (for that is how the E has always been sold), that we (or a dealer) can then road register! And that’s how we came to be testing one on the green lanes of Devon…
So far we’ve got the DR-Z400E as being quite heavy, not particularly well-suspended and slightly lacking in the handling department. But things are about to get much better for ‘old yella’. Because it’s got a fantastic motor..!
Yep, whilst most modern chassis can run rings around the Suzuki, its engine remains a true great of the single-cylinder world. The low-down and mid-range power is just so strong, yet so linear, that you rarely have to trouble the top-end. There’s certainly no need to constantly hassle the typically Suzuki-slick five-speed ‘box – just plonk it into a tall gear and let it lug you along. It’ll pull from a standstill in third gear and finds traction far better than most DOHC motors. Sure, its outright power won’t give you bragging rights down the boozer and your mate’s competition motor will rev up quicker, but for trail riding this is a genuinely great engine.
I suspect that for long stretches of roadwork you might want an extra cog in the gearbox, but on the backlanes of Devon it scooted along effortlessly.
As more lanes passed under our wheels, the DR-Z continued to frustrate and elate in equal measures. Stable yet unwieldy, delightfully grunty yet far from sprightly. The heavy cable clutch began to grate with me, and the Nissin brakes were slightly below par in terms of lever feel. Yet all the time I reminded myself that this is, effectively, ten year old technology and whilst it doesn’t have the all-round performance of today’s enduro machines, but then nor does it cost the same or require quite the same level of care. You might want to cosset it in terms of cleaning and frame protection – the DR-Z was never renowned for its high level of finish and the paint on our lightly used example was already starting to wear away – but you’d do that with virtually any new machine.
Back to the Future
What we’re dealing with here is a friendly, reliable jack-of-all-trades. But more than that it’s a cheap way to get your dirtbiking kicks (£3914 plus £88 for registration and tax). And one that doesn’t need you to spend a fortune on service parts or all your spare time stuck in the garage fettling. And with most riders looking to cut back on their outgoings right now, that’s an appealing attribute. Suzuki’s timing couldn’t have been better.
What’s more, the Suzuki fills a gaping hole in the market – there simply isn’t another middleweight machine like it. You can ‘go large’ and pick something like BMW’s Xchallenge or choose a smaller machine such as an AJP, a CRF230 or one of the aforementioned Japanese 250s. But for a tough ‘n’ trusty 400 trailie it’s currently the only option.
Buying the DR-Z is a decision ruled by the head rather than the heart. It’s not really a bike you aspire to own, or that your mates are going to coo over in the garage. But that’s really the whole point. You won’t be stuck in the garage. You’ll be out riding…
Thanks to: Luke Plummer at Suzuki and Jim and Andrew Savery at Wheeldon Farm Off-Road Bike Centre (01548 821784) for making this test possible.
Suzuki DR-Z400E K9
Price: £3913.91 (plus any OTR charges)
Engine: DOHC, liquid cooled, four-stroke single
Bore & stroke: 90 x 62mm
Frame: Steel double cradle
Front susp: Showa 41mm right-way-up fork
Rear susp: Hydraulic shock
Front brake: Nissin two-piston caliper, 250mm disc
Seat height: 935mm (claimed)
Fuel capacity: 10L
Weight: 135kg (wet, tested)
Contact: Suzuki on 0500 011959/suzuki.co.uk