Bigger Banger: 1990-1996 Suzuki DR650S

Read what makes the 1990-1996 Suzuki DR650S a big dual sport bike and how the Honda XR65OL and Kawasaki KLR65OA contenders compare.

By Staff
article image
courtesy of Suzuki
A press kit photo of a 1990 DR650S from Suzuki.
  • Claimed power: 46hp @ 6,800rpm
  • Top speed: 98mph (period test)
  • Engine: 640cc air/oil cooled SOHC 4-stroke single, 94mm x 90.4mm bore and stroke, four valves, dual spark, 9.7:1 compression
  • Weight (dry): 340lb (155kg)
  • Fuel capacity/MPG: 5.5gal/45mpg
  • Price then/now: $3,599 (1990)/$2,000-$3,500

Motorcycles that straddle the line between street and dirt riding have been variously described as dual purpose, dual sport, adventure, and more recently street scrambler. Back in the day, most evolved from dirt bikes, though now they’re more likely to be purpose designed. Inevitably, there’s been fragmentation within the niche: is your ride a two-wheeled SUV, desert sled or rally raider? 80/20 on/off road or 50/50 or ?

But one unifying feature of dual sports is that they’ve mostly gotten bigger, heavier, faster and more powerful. They’ve adopted multiple cylinders, sophisticated suites of electronics, shaft drives and superbike performance. Two examples: the 2022 BMW R1250GS Adventure tops 590 pounds at the curb, while the new Ducati Multistrada V4S claims 170 horsepower!

Was there a middle ground? Did motorcycles exist that could get you reasonably comfortably on the highway to an off-road playground without drive by wire and cornering traction control? And without its power and avoirdupois overwhelming an unsuspecting rider as soon as they hit the dirt?

Introduced in 1990, the Suzuki DR650S is a possible candidate. It was derived from the DR600S/SP600 of 1985, which featured a 589cc air/oil cooled SOHC single with four valves and dual spark plugs in Suzuki’s Twin Swirl Combustion Chamber (TSCC) cylinder head.

The DR650S expanded the 600’s 94mm x 85mm bore and stroke to 95mm x 90.4mm for 640cc, increasing power from 44 horsepower to 46. The air/oil cooling system, which aimed oil jets at hotspots inside the engine became Suzuki’s Advanced Cooling System (SACS). In the DR650, two counterbalance shafts quelled the inevitable big-single vibes, with gear drive to a 5-speed transmission. A new flat-slide 40mm carb was fitted, as well as a rear disc brake. The drivetrain slotted into a box section steel tube cradle frame, with a full floating rear swingarm, the single shock adjustable for preload only. The 41mm front fork was air adjustable.

And in these and many other ways, the DR650S was typical of the big duallies of the early 1990s, except one: there was no electric start — that is until the DR650SE arrived in 1996. Even so, starting the big thumper wasn’t that difficult if you followed the correct procedure. But that meant getting the big piston to the right part of its cycle with the decompressor, then giving a firm boot on the lever. Cycle magazine pointed out the obvious: “Even when you get the ritual right, kicking the DR650S to life is tougher work than thumbing a push-button — especially after an off-road tipover.” They also noted a tendency for the fire to go out when the DR was idling at a stop, which compounded the irritation. Added Motorcyclist, “Hot starts can be tricky if you don’t get it right the first time.”

Most testers, though, forgave the DR650 this flaw for its superior off-road performance when compared with other similar offerings, as Motorcyclist discovered in a 1990 shoot-out with the Kawasaki KLR650 and Yamaha XT600 Tenere:

“Power delivery was perfect,” they wrote. “Suzuki’s 650 packs the strongest punch here at anything above idle. The stoppers are up to the task as well: the Big DRs brakes are almost impossible to fade.” On fast pavement sweepers, “though the KLR felt faster, powering through a gentle series of 80mph sweepers the DR650 opened a three-bike-length lead it never relinquished.”

Where the missing starter scored for the DR650S was in making it 20 pounds lighter than the KLR: “Weight is the enemy off road,” Motorcyclist wrote. “It never gets tired, it wears you out … all other things being equal, the lighter bike prevails.” They noted the DR650 was “The most competent and confidence inspiring … acres of smooth seamless power and the best suspension … put it firmly in the lead.

“Pairing the most power with the best suspension and steering, the DR650S ends up the best big bore off road and by a margin … for riders who spend as much time off the street as on and have what it takes to light a big single the old-fashioned way, the Suzuki is a clear winner.”

Cycle World named the DR650S best dual-purpose machine in its 1990 “ten best” list. MC

Contender: 1992 Honda XR650L

picture of a Honda XR650L.7

  • Claimed power: 43.6hp @ 6,000rpm
  • Top speed: 96mph (period test)
  • Engine: 644cc air-cooled SOHC 4-stroke single, four valves, 100mm x 82mm bore and stroke, 8.3:1 compression
  • Weight (full tank): 345lb (157kg)
  • Fuel capacity/MPG: 2.5gal/42mpg (avg.)
  • Price then/now: $4,399 (1992)/ $6,999 (2021)

The 1992 XR650L combined what was essentially the chassis and running gear of the earlier XR600 with the electric start 650cc powertrain from the competent but unloved NX650 Dominator, with the suspension uprated to cope with the extra 40 pounds. Honda’s goal was to produce a dual-sport that performed off-road at least as well as the kickstart-only XR600, so development of the 650 was dirt biased. The counterbalanced NX engine was adopted “as was” except for a camshaft change for more torque. Wrote Rider magazine in a three-bike shoot-out with the DR650S and Kawasaki KLX650, “The XR650L is easily the dirtiest of our three dual-sport test bikes. Wet weight is a full 41 pounds less than the Suzuki.” The XL also had the most suspension travel at 11.6 inches front and 11 inches rear, with the 43mm Showa fork and single rear shock adjustable for preload and damping. That also meant 13 inches of ground clearance — and a lofty 37-inch seat height! The XR650L was awarded “best dual purpose” by Rider in 1994 and has remained essentially unchanged since. Buying one today is as close as your Honda dealer.

Contender: 1987-2007 Kawasaki KLR650A

1987-on Kawasaki KLR650
  • Claimed power: 38hp @ 6,300rpm
  • Top speed: 92mph (period test)
  • Engine: 651cc liquid-cooled DOHC 4-stroke single, four valves, 100mm x 83mm bore and stroke, 9.5:1 compression
  • Weight (curb, full tank): 398lb (181kg)
  • Fuel capacity/MPG: 6.9gal/45mpg (avg.)
  • Price then/now: $3,899(1990)/ $1,500-$3,000

Swiss army knife and two-wheeled Jeep are metaphors commonly applied to the KLR. And in 1987 it pretty much defined the category that later accommodated the DR650S and XR650L. The single-cylinder 4-stroke used two counterbalance shafts to reduce vibration and featured electric start. Ground clearance was generous at almost 10 inches while suspension travel was more than nine inches front and rear, and seat height a more moderate — for this group — 35 inches.

In shoot-outs with the DR650S and XR650L, the Kawi was usually the also-ran, but performed competently in almost all tests. The most common complaint was that the front suspension and brake were easily overwhelmed in the twisties. But the KLR was also the standard that others were measured against.

Motorcyclist magazine probably best summed up the 1990 model: “For the second year running, Kawasaki’s KLR650 rolls off with all the dual-sport marbles. It’s not particularly great at anything except being good at everything, and that’s precisely the idea behind this whole premise anyway. Paris-Dakar pretensions and odd looks aside, it’s simply the best at going where you want it to go, wherever that happens to be.”

  • Updated on May 25, 2022
  • Originally Published on May 24, 2022
Tagged with: dual sport bikes, on the radar
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