First Impression: 1997 Suzuki XF650 Freewind
Suzuki's Euro All-Arounder
"Hey! What's going on here?" I shout to myself while the right footpeg leaves a trail of rubber on the asphalt of my favorite canyon road. "This is supposed to be a budget priced, do-it-all beginner's bike? What's going on here?" But first things first.
Suzuki's engineers always seemed to have a keen hand for crafting good value bikes. It's surprising that a do-everything sort of bike was missing from their line-up. Enter the new Suzuki XF650 Freewind for 1997, a true all-'rounder. Naturally, this depends on your definition of the perfect do-it-all bike. We're not talking about just street riding, so the new crop of naked "standard" mounts, such as Suzuki's own Bandit, just won't do.
Also, the bike should be plenty capable of touring road work while still being able to tackle the occasional fire road or trail, so that rules out most dual purpose machines as well.
For many Americans and Europeans the answer has been BMW's F650, a bike that's topped European sales charts the last few years and might do the same in the U.S..The Japanese have been slow to catch up with this trend, but now Suzuki is playing along. And with a price tag that blows away the BMW.
Suzuki built their Beemer-beater simply: they took the engine from their successful DR650 dual-purpose mount, slotted it in a lowered frame and equipped it with an abundance of road-oriented features such as massive body work, a useful fairing and 19-inch front wheel.
The most European-looking Japanese bike made in the last few years. With its understated Suzuki logo the Freewind appears more like the spawn of a fancy Italian manufacturer and celebrity designer than a committee-designed big-four machine.
On the street many onlookers refused to believe that those sensuous curves belonged to "just another Suzuki." You won't see much of its styling from the saddle, right?
So let's get moving. Taking the Freewind off its stand takes very little effort. Indeed, it's no heavyweight at 360 pounds. The first shocker comes gazing upon the instrument panel, or should I say instrument screen, as it's 100 percent LCD. After putting LCD odometers in their latest sportbikes, Suzuki equipped the Freewind with a complete LCD panel, displaying speed with digital numbers and revs with a graphic bar. It has a nice fuel gauge to boot. And you know what? It works better than expected.
"Even in strong sunshine everything is easily read, and its rev bar and speedo are fun to watch, too."
Start the Freewind and you'll hear a very muted and un-thumper-like sound. This should come as no surprise, with noise regulations being what they are these days. What is surprising was its lack of stomp from idle when compared to its livelier cousin, the DR650.
Suzuki's Freewind will still pull a wheelie if actively persuaded, but a less-experienced rider shouldn't fear the bike ever doing an unwelcome rear wheel stand.
A quick get away from a full stop requires a lot of revs, but from then on the Freewind gets into its stride and accelerates smartly. The general feel is soft.
With a reasonable seat height of 32.5 inches that sags quite a lot with rider weight, you get an excellent beginner's mount. It should be noted that like the DR650, the Freewind can be made even lower by readjusting its suspension.
The wide off-road type bars allow for plenty of leverage in tight situations, and all other controls are extremely light. The seating position does feel a bit odd at first, with a deeply curved seat locking the rider into a fixed position, but after a long time in the saddle this proved to be a rather comfortable compromise.
Good city manners are expected from a dual purpose hybrid. Less expected is the excellent freeway behavior. Try cruising at more than 70 mph on most big trailies and you'll get plenty of handlebar wag.
Thanks to its 19-inch front wheel and low mounted aerodynamic fender, the Freewind shows none of this misbehavior, tracking straight and true at elevated speeds.
Its single lung engine enjoys stretching those gear changes too, and what you get is seamless acceleration.
"Even more impressive is the total lack of vibration from its engine at all revs."
You'll be hard pressed to find a smoother running single. When you consider that Suzuki achieved this smoothness by using just one balance shaft (to save weight) instead of the usual two found in most singles, you can appreciate what a great design this mill really is. Its smoothness allows for long periods of high-speed mile eating. Also, the Freewind's fairing does a good job protecting the rider's chest from windblast. I'm a fairly tall rider, so shorter riders should find even more peace behind the screen.
"...Suzuki's Freewind offers a true, rounded and sorted package..."
All this might sound a bit too sedate and proper, and the Freewind indeed has that user friendly personality that prompted Suzuki-Europe to target women riders, but the XF650 turns out to have a strong liking for kinks and sick lean angles. Yes, we all know that D-P bikes can run circles around sportbikes in the tight twisties, but truly the Freewind is in a league of its own.
Thanks to its lowered and stiffened DR suspension, the XF stays firm and steady at lean angles and speeds of which most D-P bikes can only dream. No less important in the traction equation are the excellent Pirelli MT80 tires. They are totally road oriented and seem to be made from a track compound that allows footpeg scraping in a bike with supposedly endless ground clearance.
Well, you say, my Bandit 600 can do all the above with ease and power to spare. But what do you do when the road ends? I know I wasn't supposed to, but the temptation to try the Freewind on a trail was too great. In a word, the Suzuki can cope, and rather well at that.
Fire roads are entirely within its scope, and only its expensive looking plastic and shortened suspension persuade you not to take on too big a challenge. With a good rider aboard and proper tires, the Freewind could tackle any hard-packed flat trail. It is nice to know that off-road ability is there.
This new segment of light, single-cylinder do-it-all bikes is now alive and kicking. Until now, BMW pretty much owned the market, but not any more. With a price tag in some markets around 15 percent cheaper than the F650, Suzuki's Freewind offers a true, rounded and sorted package that will take a rider in comfort to almost anywhere, both on- and off-road.
For a beginning rider who doesn't know what their preferred kick might be, the XF650 can supply a guided tour through most motorcycling activities. And next time you think those road-going pseudo trailies are dull and boring, go out and check your local canyon road. You might be in for a surprise.
Manufacturer: Suzuki Model: XF650 Freewind Engine: Four-valve single-cylinder, air-oil cooled Bore and Stroke: 100 x 82mm Displacement: 644cc Carburetion: Twin 32mm Mikuni Claimed power: 47 hp @ 7000 rpm Transmission: 5-speed Wheelbase: 58.3 in (1465mm); 57.3 in (1455mm) lowered position Seat height: 32.6 in (830mm); 31.5 in (800mm) lowered position Fuel Capacity: 4.9 gal (18.5 liters) Weight: 355 lbs (162 kg)