Feb 10, 2014

#43 What I'd Really Like to Buy

All Rights Reserved © 2005 Thomas W. Day

A few columns back our editor, my boss, tried to convince us that we should be happy the various manufacturers have "given" us the great bikes we have today. I'm probably being arrogant, but I have to think that some part of that came from a “discussion” Victor and I had about how disappointed I am with the current state of motorcycle magazine reviews. Of course, I was bitching and he was reasoning, our usual state of "discussion," but I still think I made a valid point.

Somewhere. About something.  Sometime. Probably.

I think Victor's angle was that we should be, in some what, thankful that the folks who make motorcycles have provided us with the great bikes that we can select from today. But I'd have to disagree, if that's the argument. If the manufacturers took a few years off and sat on their engineering laurels a little too long, privateers would roast them on the track. Motorcycles have improved because and in spite of the folks who are currently manufacturing them. Some of the coolest bikes, and I mean that from a form-following-function-perspective, are built by individuals who got tired of waiting for Japan, Italy, England or the US manufacturers to get the job done. Predecessors of the V-Strom and much better dual-purpose and adventure touring motorcycles, in fact, have been built from SV frames and motors by a number of individuals before Suzuki figured it out.

I think it's obvious that some really cool bikes will come from the V-Strom foundation. Victor's right, of course. Some aspects of motorcycle engineering are truly amazing, especially when you consider the state of the art from 30-40 years back. From that viewpoint, we have nothing to complain about and everything for which to be thankful. That rationale applies to computers, too. And I'd like to take this moment to thank Microsquash for the wonderful, if slightly buggy and extremely virus-prone, operating system and word processor that spawns this article. (Or my Mac laptops and towers that are issued with godawful user-hostile virus' with the benign name, "OS X."

That acknowledgement out of the way, I'd like to remind the powers that be that the reason they make reasonably decent products is that, if they didn't, we would make them for ourselves. In fact, many of the coolest, best-designed bikes in the world are still made by clever, creative, inventive motorcycle fanatics. On the occasion that the Big-Four-plus-HD don't pick up on the really hip designs, someone else will: Ducati, KTM, Triumph, or someone we don't even know about yet. The hip state that motorcycle technology enjoys is as much because of privateers and the new guys on the block as it is because of the major manufacturers.

In defense of my own position, I’d to mention that, not too long ago, one Chief Editor of a major glossy magazine had the gall to say that he might be tempted to "buy" a particular motorcycle, if he didn't have so many to choose from and to ride for free. Now, why would I care about the opinion of someone who doesn't even own a bike? If the guy isn't even interested enough in motorcycles to own one or two, what makes him expert enough to recommend what I should be buying? That link between motorcycle magazines and their reviewers, and the companies they pretend to be reviewing, is a little too cozy for my taste. You might even suggest the relationship is downright inbred.

Which finally brings us to the bike that is closest to what I want to own, the Suzuki V-Strom 650. I have an SV650 and the longer I own it, the more it looks like a dirt bike with alloy wheels, but it's never going to be the bike I want unless I really get serious about modifying it. When I first read about the V-Strom, I thought it might save me a lot of work. So I kept reading. Of course, all of the test riders loved the bike.

I'd quote them, but I'd have to identify the magazines and writers, because you couldn't tell one quote from the other without that added information. For that matter, you can't tell the "reviews" from Suzuki's marketing drivel, either. I wouldn't be surprised if the reviewers cut and pasted text from Suzuki's website into their articles. Efficiency, it's a beautiful thing.

But that's not really my point in writing today. I'm looking for an excuse to whine about not having the motivation to part with some of my not-particularly-hard-earned-cash on a new motorcycle. There are lots of things to like about the DL-650, but damn little information to make me trip past the "I want it" to the "I need it" stage. I've read a pile of reviews, but don't know anything useful about the bike after all that reading. A few reviews were barely disguised trip reports, often bragging about going places I'll never have the spare time or discretionary cash to consider. Those folks really yank my chain. But nobody bothered to provide useful details about life with this motorcycle.

Yeah, they rode it and had fun. Big deal. I've ridden old BSAs and older BMWs and had fun. I've ridden the 1963 Harley 250 Sprint and had fun. I even raced the thing and thought I was going pretty fast. I rode Honda 305s, Suzuki 185 twins, and a Honda step-thru 90 and enjoyed myself. I put 120,000 miles on a Honda CX500 and, mostly, enjoyed the ride. I put 100,000 miles on a pair of Yamaha XZ550 Visions and enjoyed every mile. Except for the crappy serviceability of the bodyparts, I loved every minute and mile of my Yamaha TDMs. That's not useful information, though. I mean, does anybody care that Cycle World or Sportbike's kids had fun riding a bike they didn't have to pay to play with? Good, that's settled.

What I want to know is if the bike is at all competent for the advertised purpose and, if it isn't, what would it take to fix it? If fact, I want to know what it would take to fix it, period? That's the kind of review that has vanished from Planet Earth.

Forget the "the motor's a brick that will run forever" crap. I know it's going to break and I want to know what it will take to fix it when it does. I mean parts cost, labor cost (if I can't do the work myself), downtime, and all of the associated bad news. How hard is it to replace or clean the air filter, service the injection system, get to and adjust the valves, or replace a tire? I don't even want to hear their opinions of the bike until they've put at least 20,000 miles on the thing and had to fix at least one major problem. Of course, some of these "wonderful new bikes" can't even survive a weekend without major repairs and we're still told the bike is the best thing since cheese food. While we’re at it, I want to know how likely it is that the manufacturer will be providing parts and service ten and twenty years from now, based on their support of stuff that is that old today. Even today’s cheap bikes cost as much as a small town house, so I want to know what is going to happen to my investment in “house years.”

Why don't we read that sort of review on a regular basis? First, the bike manufacturers would rather we didn't.

So I don't feel particularly inspired to sing the praises of Suzuki or any other bike manufacturer. They have their own marketing departments, they don't need my help. They've wrapped most of the motorcycle publishing industry into their marketing departments, too. It's hard to find any part of the business that is more sophisticated than a parrot.

The bike rags said the SV's motor would "run forever," but it turns out that defective cam tensioners put an early stop to that. Now, they want to tell us the DL's motor will be just as bulletproof. They said we didn't need no stinkin' reserve petcock because the electronic idiot light would give us plenty of warning before empty. I'd like to put a rope around the throats that babbled that idiocy. For the second time in a couple of months, my SV has sputtered to a stop about 25 miles short of the usual 150 mile-to-reserve normal it has given me for the last 25,000 miles and I had to push the damn thing about a half mile beside rush hour traffic. If Suzuki was too cheap to put a petcock on the DL, I'm probably more likely to buy an old Honda Transalp than a new V-Strom. If you're going to change a good thing, you better make sure you make it better, more reliable, more useful or I'm not likely to be fooled twice. For now, I'm stuck filling up my SV every 50 miles until I figure out what part of the fuel idiot light circuit died. Or I find a petcock to retrofit to my bike.

The "intended purpose" part of my argument seemed to rankle Victor a little, too. Suzuki is billing the V-Strom for "Adventure Touring." GS BMWs are adventure touring bikes. The KLR650 is even more adventurous. The old Honda Transalp was dangerously adventurous. The Yamaha TDM was way underrated and pretty damn adventurous. The DL650, with probably-fragile cast wheels, a foolishly low-slung and unprotected oil filter and cooler, a manifold that dangles, unprotected, under the engine, explosively delicate sportbike body plastic, and 450+ pounds of earth-bound-mass probably won't be particularly adventurous. But I want to know about all that stuff. I want someone to ride it hard, drop it on a dirt road, and tell me what broke and what it cost to fix. I don't care if they had fun riding around a paved test track, being spoon fed by Suzuki's marketing department, and riding home first class on the Concord.

Unless a Concord full of oxymoronic motor-journalists were hijacked to Mozambique and put to work removing landmines, I couldn’t care less about motor-journalists’ opinions.

Actually, that would be a pretty interesting story. 

The last near-contender for my "last bike" was the Yamaha 850 TDM, which I loved but which didn't love me. The TDM was so close to perfect that I wore out two of them before I gave up on the ideal that that bike didn't quite represent. I've only done that once before, with the Yamaha XZ550 Vision. Of course, damn few of you liked either of those bikes, so they were only imported into the US for two years before Yamaha decided to quit trying to "educate" US riders on bikes with actual functions and went back to the high tech and high dollar crotch rockets and low tech, high dollar cruisers that imagination-limited Americans (except for Canadians) love so much.

March 2005

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