In search of the ‘perfect bike’ - for me

Admit it - we all are looking for that perfect thing sometimes - whether it’s a car, tool, firearm,  motorcycle, or something else..

Unfortunately - the reality is many things are a compromise, and this sadly also applies when trying to find a multi-pupose motorcycle.

Quick background

I grew up riding dirt bikes, some much bigger than me, first minibikes, then an RM-125 set up for racing I about needed a ladder to get onto (I was 12 or 13).  I ran through a series of bikes between myself as well as some friends swapping off-road toys - a small but awesome DR100 (so throwable), older Yamaha XTs, IT and DTs in the 175-350cc , range, a CB800 street bike, Suzuki Savage for something ‘entirely different,’ and then was ‘on pause’ for a little while after leaving WA state and an old-but-kicking-butt TT175 I’d throw in a truck and go scout out property I could ride on using an ORV(Off-Road-Vehicle) sticker.  (Mine was newer than the pic to the right.. ;)


What was I looking for - this time?

I had ridden some friend’s SVs and liter sport bikes, but getting back into my own bike gave me a bit of pause - the sport sports are crazy fun on the road, but as already obvious from both driving a bunch of tubo and supercharged Miatas(tiny next to SUVs) as my ‘motorcycle substitute’ for a while - the typical drivers on the road can be pretty clueless.  

Of course, I went out and looked at a ton of bikes.  While I’ve owned well over 100 cars, and only once bought new, I briefly considered buying a new motorcycle.  

I went back and forth a while, across several styles of bikes, and also considered the local drivers for a while, coming to the conclusion it probably wasn’t the ‘best idea’ to commute daily in the area, but I definitely wanted some solid weekend time at the least.  

After shopping quite a bit, I eventually came to the conclusion that buying a new motorcycle the price of a solid used car, pretty much made little sense.

Buying a new motorcycle makes little financial sense...

Bikes, like nearly all cars - depreciate pretty quickly.  Beyond that, a ton of bikes are exactly as I assumed when I’d been considering new - weekend toys, and some start out intended to be weekend toys, but then rarely are ridden.  Put it together and there are lots of bikes out there with relatively low miles, with a whole lot of life left in them - at much better prices than new. Of course, if you’re the type that thinks they’re ‘competing with the neighbors,’ or whatever - it’s your cash; buy a new bike if it makes you happy.

So what’s my perfect Motorcycle?

Coming back down into the realm of reality and thinking about what I’d like to be doing riding-wise again, knowing there are at least some places to ride off-road nearby, I pretty quickly came to the ‘one type to rule them all’ - the dual-sport motorcycle.

But which one?  Manufacturers are all over the place in what they call a ‘dual sport’ or even ‘adventure’ bike, and it’s confusing to, well - everyone.  Just search on Adventure Rider Forums for ‘best dual-sport’ or ‘Bike X vs bike Y’ threads - and read for days.  Everyone has a ‘top N dual sports’ list findable by Google and elsewhere.  

The inherent problem with ‘dual’ sport bikes, meant to both be off-road capable AND touring or on-road usable, is what works best for one doesn’t always work well for the other.  

By definition, dual-sport bikes are already a compromise..

Why?  Heavier bikes are more stable at speed or in wind, or even with passing trucks on the road.  21” front tires so helpful off-road can be less than ideal for canyon carving/twisty roads on pavement…and this is even before you get to which actual tires are at all competent in both places?  Knobby tires are useful for dirt, mud and sand - but less stable or grippy on nice pavement.  

It comes down to ‘good enough’ depending on your mix of road and dirt - as well as your definitions of each.

Interestingly, BMW - a brand whose cars I’ve had a whole range of mixed emotions on (E36 M series were however, awesome!), had a pretty long history in motorcycle.  Like their cars - more expensive, but there’s some real motorcycle history there, and they probably have one of the most well-known ‘Adventure’ bikes in the GSA Adventure lineup.  In general, they’re fairly quick and well handling, with the same general engine and similar underpinnings to their R and K series of competent road bikes.  They also are pretty high up their in prices, especially for 1000CC+ models and new.  

The heavier GSAs can also be pushing close to 600lbs.  So a perfect example of the compromises to be had there - a 600lb motorycycle may be rock solid on the street (with proper tires), but it certainly isn’t the one to take through mud, or seeing a whole lot of air time coming off tabletops or in the wild.  

On the other end of the sprectrum - dirt bikes with plates?

Heck, I’d already had some of these before in their earlier models - DTs and XTs, and Honda XLs and newer CRFs  or a personal favorite in the DR series and DRZ series from Suzuki, in smaller displacements - more or less mirrored their off-road-only brethren but with added lights and acoutrements to make them road-legal.  

Meanwhile, KTM, a well known Austian racing and dirt bike manufacturer, had also stepping into the dual-sport, or in their case, more accurately ‘dirt boke with lights and a plate’ category, with a growing series of bikes including the EXC lineup, which had hard-core dirt riders wetting themselves.

Some generalizations for dual-sport and Adventure bikes

Getting down to the basics, the reality is this - lighter bikes are more nimble and generally capable off-road, while light bikes don’t do road trips or deal with wind well (including passing 18-wheelers).
Heavier bikers are generally more stable on-road and less capable off-road.

The higher the CC a bike has, the heavier it is, although weight differences are not down to engine CC/displacement alone.  

Dirt bike seats, as well as nearly all Adventure and even road bike seats - are awful for anything other than short periods for most riders - just plan on replacing it with aftermarket no matter which you choose.. 

Single engined bikes or ‘thumpers’ are generally lighter and what’s used for nearly all dirt-bike engines, but can get buzzy and vibration prone on the road, while twins are heavier (added weight as a negative for off-road riding in general) but smoother on road.

Which way to lean - off-road or on?

With bikes like the KTM 350EXC at around 280lbs wet, the Suzuki DRZ-400S at around 320lbs, and the Honda CRF-450L around 290lbs, the bigger Adventure bikes like the GSA 1250 approaching 600lbs, and the mid-weights like a BMW F650 GS twin weighing in at 428lbs,
the ‘tank’ KLR650 at 430#, we can pretty much sort the trends here.

The ‘nearly dirt bikes’ pretty much hover around the 300lb mark, at least before they become supersized (e.g. the KTM 790 Adventure is ~440lbs), the big ‘adventure bikes’ can be closing in at high 500+ lbs or more, and the ‘mid-sized’ group hovering around 650cc or so can still be around the 450lb marker, depending on the bike.  

The smaller CC bikes don’t generally have enough power to do well at 70-80mph+ on the highway, while the added CCs usually bring some more weight along with them.  There are a handful of notable exceptions perhaps, but they’re tough to find.  The KTM EXC 500 for example, is still sub-300 lbs wet weight (the only weight that matters, honestly - with oil, antifreeze, brake fluid and gas..) while the DR650 is lighter than some of the other 650s but still not lithe at ~365lbs wet.

Gotta pick something...

I waffled back and forth, but then basically it came down to this - I wasn’t buying a new bike, so what showed up used - was what showed up.  

I didn’t need the fastest bike out there, and wanted to do at least some off-road, while reality also was there are no ORV policies in place here, letting me go off-road easily, while I definitely planned on some longer day trips on the bike.

All of this put me into the ‘mid-range’ group of bikes, which at the time were a handful, pretty much all at 650CC as while I truly love both the XT350 and DR350s - I wasn’t seeing them as likely to be highway-worth at speed.  The KLR 650 being a tank, but slow and not particularly road-worthy, the DR650 being generally capable and light-ish for a 650CC bike (although even then, aging tech and air-cooled), the “Wee" V-Strom DL650 didn’t exist ye on the used market really, or a BMW F650 variant.  I was also considering some of the older bikes if an XT600 or a truly nice XT350 came up, along with some older GS BMWs as a final possibility.  

I wound up coming across a later 90s BMW F650 - which sort of fit in ‘the middle of the middle’ overall - heavier than a DR, and slightly heavier than the KLR650 current at the time, but nowhere near the weights of the bigger ‘adventure’ bikes or even the DL650 just coming out.  It was red - never my favorite vehicle color, but ir grew on me.  It was overall reasonably powered and could make 100MPH+, so yeah - let’s see what it can do!

Putting the F650 through it’s paces

I rode that bike - a lot.  
In snow a few times, if inadvertently.  Through 4 states in the mountains in one day.  Through Deal’s Gap - a few times.  With steet tires, with TKC080s, and with MEFO Explorer tires, tires aired up and aired down for occasional off-road.  
I daily commuted and weekend rode her.

I even took her through a ‘dirt bike school’ and saw some air time with her.  I think I had bought the bike with 6K miles on her, and was up to 30K-something miles pretty quickly overall.  

How was it?

It was an overall good bike.  It wasn’t crazy fast to get me, getting back into riding more regularly after a break, into crazy trouble.  
The seat sucked (they all suck…) so was replaced with a Corbin, which was better.  
Parts were mixed - my gas tank lock cylinder needed replacement, and apparently there were none in the US, on top of being - not cheap.
As a thumper, she did vibrate a bit on longer road trips, and definitely didn’t have enough grunt down low for more aggressive type of dirt riding.  

The few times I got her airborne I was reminded I really should replace the OE shocks with something….better.  
I was also reminded - she isn’t light, never more obviously than when I tried to run her in a dirt bike ’school’ class.  

Meanwhile, I did several classes with her more street oriented, from MSF Advanced to various ride like a pro type classes, and she shone there, especially compared to anyone on any type of cruiser as well as many other bikes.

I also took her off-road a bit whenever I could, even jumping into construction areas in the mountains, just to ‘get some dirt in her.’  She certainly had no problem on fire roads, gravel, and even some 

Surprisngly, to me at the time, at least - she was also pretty damned reliable, except for the crunchy lock cylinder.

But - was it the one?

After a while, especially when it came to off-road - it seemed like no.  A bit too heavy.  A bit low on low-end grunt.  Could use suspension work front and rear.  To be fair - I could have invested the time and $ into the suspension, which may well have transofrmed the bike for me - but there wasn’t much to be done about the weight or power, really.  

On the road - she was pretty good, although the single engine did tend to vibrate the handlebars a bit - a crampbuster helped on the longer highway hauls, and compared to others, wasn’t bad at all.  

I wasn’t ‘thrilled’ with the power she had.  She could get up to over 100MPH, and had a well-behaved engine - but wasn’t really all that fast, to me.

Meanwhile - some more bike shopping, and a foreign country trip

That ‘dirt bike school’ event had really humbled me and jarred me out of the ‘I’m on an adventure bike - I’ll make it work mentality.  Granted, I was right there with the instructor and leading the pack on blasting through the woods and crossing streams, plowing through mud, but there were some technical tracks I just wasn’t up to, especially compared to kids running little CR230s and the like.  

So - in parallel, I did a trip across Costa Rica with a waterproof backpack, a printed map, a CamelBak - and a rented bike.  

The plan was literally - no plan at all.  Decide where to stop and when as it came up day to day, but generally to go ‘see some things’ with a few broad places wanted to see like Manuel Antionio National park towards the end, and to generally stay away from ‘the tourist areas.’  

I think a KTM option or two was available, but I envisioned most of the trip being on marginal paved, gravel and dirt roads, with a day or two of more focused off-road.  KTMs weren’t enjoying the best reliability reputation at the time (this seems to have improved now?) and the last thing I wanted was bike trouble on a trip like this.


So the decision was down to some older, but still reasonable-ish, to me, options - Suzukis - a DR350 or a DR650.  At somewhere around 50lbs difference between the two, the DR350 was perhaps able to do 85MPH with ~30HP, and it’s bigger brother could do around 100MPH with ~44 HP.  As I expected to do some time on the Panamerican Highway at some point, I did what most of us tend to, I think - I settled on the bigger DR for the trip.

I have a separate trip report covering the trip in some detail, but will summarize as after nearly getting heat exhaustion (loaded DR dropping a fair amount of time, running out of water), but making it across an all day off-road, later to find out - OMG, most experienced riders don’t even touch that(oops? :) ), 40MPH cross-winds going around Lake Arenal, finding small shacks in the middle of nowhere where some man or woman would go kill a fresh chicken for you for some lunch - well, Pura Vida - it was definitely an experience, and a good, if at times, challenging one.  Waking up one morning to a tarantula the size of a baseball and the ’scary’ wired shower heads were all just minor surprises - I loved it all.  

To this day, when I mention having gone to Costa Rica, and people name some tourist location - I literally have no idea, sorry, other than going around Lake Arenal in a storm, and eventually making it to Manual Antonio. ;)


While I did feel the weight of the ‘big DR’ occasionally, or really, more specifically, primarily the once when exhaustion and lack of water had set in - that DR did well overall, really well.  No, I wasn’t running on an MX track launching off of tabletops, but it really kind of did it all.  If only the DR350 or an XT350 would be, well - a bit faster with a higer top speed, they could possibly be - the one bike to do it all, in my world, anyways.  The XT and DR 350s were nearly clones of each other, with the XT being slightly lighter than the DR, more or less in the 250-275# weight range, older-school tech but reliable, but a bit challenging to get to or keep at real highway speeds.

Besides almost getting heat exhuastion that once and gong the wrong way which dead-ended on the most secluded beach I’d ever seen, then having to backtrack… I had really enjoyed the overall mixture of riding in CR.  

So of course - it got me thinking, again - about the next bike.


There were lots of almosts out there - the XT and DR350s were kind of close, and I suppose the DR650 was still a contender.  The Honda XL650….I looked at the KLR650 again, but it was right in the weight range of my F650, with less HP, so I wasn’t seeing it.  Meanwhile, riding trips to and from the mountains were pretty much a necessity.

I still didn’t trust the reliability of KTMs, as ‘race-bred’ bikes - awesome when running, but while I have enough experience as a mechanic, I wasn’t looking for a perpetual project…something that was I was reminded of when riding with someone I’d met with a KTM EXC 450 which had some - issues - on some local dirt trails.

There should have been more selection, but there just - well, wasn’t.  I had decided ‘this time’ I was looking for a more dirt-focused bike - so lighter in general, that I’d make into a ‘good enough’ highway bike.

Enter - the Suzuki DRZ-400S.  Not quite as light as today’s CRF or KTMs, it was still a solid 100lbs lighter than my Bimmer.

Riding the DRZ - everywhere

DirtRidingDRZ web

By comparison to the F650, the DRZ was indeed a ‘dirt bike with plates.’  It was faster and lighter than the DR650s, and water-cooled, so at least a generation newer on tech, although not necessarily ‘cutting edge.’  It had gobs of suspension travel, like a proper off-road machine ‘should.’  It’s seat, unsurprisingly, was only nice when compared to a plywood board, so that was immediately replaced, this time with a Sargent seat.  I also upgraded to a larger gas tank as a nod to commuting and trying to do trips on it, and replaced the bars with a Pro Taper setup.  Other than that - I rode her.  On-road every day commuting, off-road on occasion.  

Even at 6’, the seat height is tall.  You kind of get used to it, but while I had taught a friend to ride easily on my BMW650, this wasn’t a good ‘learning bike’ for anyone, unless they were 6’6” or so - which was fine by me, but just saying in the event someone thinks they’ll teach a 5’6” friend how to ride on one… ;)

So - was the DRZ - the one?


The DRZ was a blast as a hooligan bike, so much so that the DRZ-400SM, or Super Motard, came into existence with smaller rims and road tires.  

She was very reliable, and once over the relatively ‘extreme’ seat height (surprise - it’s a dirt bike!  Even if a slightly heavy one for dedicated off-roaders/MX fans), was a great zip around town bike, and tons of fun and capable in the dirt.  

So - what’s not to like?

Well - on the highway at speed, there were basically 3 issues.

She was certainly more ‘buzzy’ on higher speed highway rides.  Playing around with weighted or filled bars might help a bit, but she was really a dirt bike, so some level of this is expected from a single.

Due to her lighter weight - having an 18 wheeler pass you at speed…could be a bit of a harrowing, butt-clenching experience.  It may have to also do with the height of the bike, but you feel it when a big truck passes you by.

The last one, which is perhaps the most frustrating, as I really like this bike, but she as hard-pressed to reach much over 80MPH on the highway, and wasn’t too ‘enthusiastic’ once you’re above 70MPH, which can be a problem, not from a sheer speed standpoint, but from the occasionaly need to take evasive manuevers on a bike at speed.  She also has only 5 gears - the number of times I kept trying for, wishing for, one more gear on this bike - can’t be counted.  Lots of fun getting to 60+, but you could just hold the throttle pegged at that point.  Granted, she’d run around 80MPH all day long, but - needs more of a top-end.

Now, there are some options out there to counter this, and I may yet try one of these - you can change the sprockets to impact overall gearing, giving up a bit of low end to up the top end a bit, re-jet the carb and or do a pipe/exhaust, to let her breathe a bit more optimally at the top end, or finally, moving from the 36mm OE carb to the FCR39mm carb used in the MX versions of the bike, but - it’s not cheap.

Finally, of course - you can also bore and stroke the engine, in combination with some of the other work mentioned (you’re going to at least need the FCR39 in this case, exhaust, etc.), but again - not inexpensive getting there.

Meanwhile - I did a thing and had some more adventure

I was looking around for another ‘cross a foreign country’ type of ride, and eventually came across one - there were others that looked, well - awesome, but pricing on trips with any kind of guide or support - simply aren’t cheap, so in the spirit of both seeing another locale ‘in a unique way’ but possibly not repeating the whole heat exhaustion in the middle of nowhere after running out of water experience, I was game for it, and went on a MotoCaribe trip - to the Dominican Republic.  I’ve got a trip report elsewhere on the site and probably over at Advrider forums, but the gist is this - you ride V-Strom 650s all over a section of the DR, in a small group, and stop somewhere different every night.  At some points, there are ‘group decisions’ whether or not to take the harder fun route and things of that nature, but I liked it well enough I went back to do an ‘exploratory tour’ a second time with one of the founders and I - to sort of scout - can they make this into another tour option, which was a lot of fun, as some of it was maybe on the ‘perhaps not’ route section and it was just a blast, in short.  I did waffle a bit at the Haitan border, but again - a blast was had, including the remnants of a hurricane making life a bit…challenging at times.

DR certainly has a lot of motorcycles, but most of them are old, and or tiny - in the 100-200cc or so range.  It’s amazing to see what they do on those things, riding 3 up carrying propane cylinders and such, and riding among them is - something else.  The best way to describe it is if you image being inside the middle of a swarm of bees, with everyone smacking handlebars going down the (sometimes highly questionable quality) ‘roads.’  It freaks some out, but I loved it once you get in the groove.  

The DL650 is a heavier pig than my F650, but even so I had her zipping along beach sand, and probably a fair number of places a lighter bike or one shod with more agressive tires might have been ‘preferred,’ but it was a great time, especially the second ‘exploratory’ trip.  

We saw Carnivale, cigar factories, lots of scenery, beaches, and perhaps most surprising - realzing the entire climate across the island literally ranges from sub-tropical to near-desert.

I was also generally impressed with the DL650 overall, as it was quicker than my F650, and smoother as a result of the twin engine - but it was still kind of a pig/heavy beast.

So - was it time for a different bike - again?

Maybe.  Over time I pretty much coalesced a bit finer on what I really wanted, which, you know, was simple, right?

A bit faster than the F650, but also lighter towards the DRZ side…but more highway-usable than it was.  

So, what did I do?  I had some hopes for some new bikes coming out, but ultimately they weren’t really ‘better’ than my F650 as that ‘ideal bike to do it all’ nor as capable in the dirst as my DRZ…. so I did something entirely alien - had been generally becoming interested in possibly a Ducati Monster, something fun and standard, as the all out supersports just weren’t conducive to longer road trips.

So of course - I wound up buying a Suzuki SV650 Naked.  Somehow.

I wound up buying a Suzuki SV650 naked and said ‘SV for the street, and DRZ for the dirt.'


Even that one wasn’t simple.  Everyone seemed to have the SV650S model, with more of a sport bike seating position to it.  Those - I could find everywhere, easily, in the local used market, but - I wanted the standard, ‘naked’ model, and second generation with EFI.  I suppose in a way, riding the V-Strom (which is heavier than the SV) - I kind of fell in love with the engine, but in something lighter, felt like it would be a fun bike - and it is.

After looking unsuccessfully locally for some time, I finally said - if I find one on the eastern half of the US that I like, I’m going for a fly and ride. And I did, with replacement seat in hand.  I did another trip report on this one, but I can summarize that one as - landed with tornados touching down 30 minutes away, went through deliverance country when the gas light turned on, having no idea just how much gas that means I had left at 2am in nowhere-land, slept with the bike in my room in a highly questionable motel outside of Chicago - helped some guy in the hood fix his bicycle, went across the ‘sky bridge’ with massive cross-winds, rescued some guy on a Harley who had gone over the side in the Tail of the Dragon, met up with some folks for an SV rally, and well - had an adventure. ;)  

The full trip report is out somewhere on svriders and elsewhere on this site.

So…an SV and a DRZ?

Yeah, for now.  

The SV is an amazing bike all around.  And yes - the seat sucks, too - replace it
I bought the bike with a whole 6K miles on her, and put 50% more mileage on her just bringing her home, and lots since.  I redid the front forks a bit, and replaced the OE shock with an Elka, put some decent Sport Attack Conti tires on her, and - rode it.

I commuted daily on her, did another several thousand mile road trip invovling some surprise snow in April, rode through New York City kicking cabby’s taxi doors, and pretty much used her as my daily transportation for some time.  

Great bike overall.  

It’s not an all-day 2 up sport tourer, but it’s a quick bike, and light enough to just be tossable.  It’s quite competent in the turns.

It obviously, however, is not even remotely - off-road capable.  

One thing to note is for ‘ideal’ touring or extended road-time, something neither the SV nor most of the more dirt-oriented ‘dual sports’ have - is an actual fairing or windshield of any note, which can certainly wear you out over continuous miles. The more ‘adventure’ or road oriented models from the BMW 650s on up, the V-Stroms - tend to have at least taller windshields, although your height and riding position may still leave you wanting more on 6+ hours in the saddle road trips.

So now what?

Tough to say.  I started riding a bit less due to both married life as well as an increasingly busy (read as far too many working hours) work life, but the bug remains.  

I picked up another turbo Miata, one of the best deals in reasonable-cost but truly fun vehicles out there, and did some road trips with her, but the bug remains.  

I’ve thought briefly about selling off the SV and DRZ for a V-Strom.  I keep watching for new bikes to hit the scene.  It seems like the perception of KTM has come along nicely on the reliability front, so I keep checking out things like the 390 Adventure, 500 EXC and even the 790 Adventure, although the latter is just too heavy IMO for an ideal ‘all arounder.’  Meanwhile, BMW has updated the 650, and added the 700, 750 and 800 GS over time, but nearly all of which besides the 650 seem to be adding weight.  

The Triumph Tigers are all interesting, but suffer from the same weight class as their cousins in similar dsiplacement categories - they’re heavy for anything off-road.  

I remain interested now that the Yamaha Tenere 700 is in the US, although it’ll take a few years before finding one used in the US market. I’m also bouncing around KTM models and searching for info on real-world relaiability nowadays, along with considering a newer but still 650CC BMW GS.  I sure wish the KTMs came in colors other than orange, however! 

What’s changed over time?

I suppose to some extent, the reality of the types of riding I’d like to be doing more often (mixture of on and off-road), as well as just more seat time and trips.  Locally, it’s tougher going off-road unfortunately, at least without driving or riding a few hours out, or if someone you know owns some land.  Were I living in a state with an ORV sticker and lots of available riding, I expect I’d continue on with keeping the DRZ (or even a CRF230 or similar), and a more street-oriented bike like the SV650, which is a near-perfect street tool short of long touring, or a Triump Street Triple or similar.  

As it is, I’m still stubborn, and hoping for the one bike to do ‘enough’ - ‘well enough’ overall, but it’s not really a solvable problem any time soon,  at least not to the level of true technical off-road capabilities along with the ability to do highway touring.  

Having said that... 

the right-sized and right-weight ‘adventure’ or ‘dual-sport’ just might come into being, at least for me. We’ll see.