Let’s say that your dual sport adventure riding consists of a mix of dirt roads and highways; no single track riding and no freeways. Or suppose that you are planning a long distance mixed dirt/pavement adventure ride such as the Trans America Trail (TAT) or the Continental Divide Ride (CDR). You decide that you want a bike that can easily handle up to class 3 dirt roads (see the dirt road rating system here if you don’t know what a class 3 road is) and that you can also ride on highways at up to 70 mph for extended distances (say, 200 miles).
The usual suspects for this type of riding are the 650 thumper class of motorcycles such as the Kawasaki KLR 650 or Suzuki DR 650 or any of the larger, multi-cylinder adventure bikes such as the BMW 800GS. Motorcycles in either of these categories are capable of meeting your needs….however, to be fair, the 650 thumpers and big adventure bike are usually not the best choice for challenging dirt riding. For many riders these bikes are just too large and heavy to be taken very far into the dirt. Sure, you can ride them on a hard class 2 or class 3 road but you may be doing too much work and having too little fun while doing so. Plus, falling down – an increasingly likely situation as the difficulty of the terrain increases – can be very damaging to your motorcycle and/or you. Damaged or not, you are then faced with the challenge of picking up a heavy bike.
What about a smaller bike? 250cc – 400cc bikes can be 100 – 200 pounds lighter than 650 class thumpers or multi-cylinder adventure bike, thus making them a significantly better choice for serious class 2 and 3 dirt road riding. However, small bikes typically aren’t well suited for riding long stretches of pavement.
Can we modify a smaller bike to make it better on pavement without negatively impacting its dirt-ability? If so, then we would have a viable third option for the type of riding described above. We would have a (relatively) lightweight motorcycle that would be fun to ride on difficult terrain and that we could ride comfortably for hours at highway speeds. With this in mind I decided to find out if Suzuki’s DR-Z400S could be turned into a good lightweight dual-sport adventure motorcycle.
Capabilities and limitations of a stock DRZ
Introduced in 2000, the Suzuki DR-Z400S quickly claimed the top spot as the best dual sport bike available, earning “Bike of the Year” awards from several magazines. Over the next few years the DRZ continued to be the top choice for those who wanted to buy a new, street-legal dual sport bike. Since then Suzuki has made few modifications to the DRZ and other manufacturers (KTM, in particular) have arguably surged ahead in the dual sport race. Even so, the DRZ still remains a solid choice for dual sport riders and a good seller for Suzuki.
While it is a very good dual sport bike, the DRZ is, in my opinion, a bit lacking as a lightweight adventure touring bike. Fortunately its popularity means the aftermarket has responded with a wide variety of parts, fixes, and upgrades, some of which can convert the DRZ into a better adventure bike.
In order to make the DRZ a better choice for dual sport adventure riding I have made some modifications that I believe are significant improvements. With these mods I think the DRZ could be a fine choice for the TAT, CDR, or other multi-day adventure rides. Let’s review the changes I’ve made and discuss the effectiveness of those changes in terms of dual sport adventure riding.
- 319 lb wet weight (stock bike, full of fuel and ready to ride)
- 33.4 horsepower (rear wheel)
- 5 speed transmission
- 15/44 stock gearing (15 tooth front sprocket, 44 tooth rear sprocket)
- 94 mph maximum speed
Pros and Cons
For my needs a stock DRZ doesn’t really need any improvement for dirt riding. Aside from properly setting up the suspension for the weight of the rider + gear and adding some protection, the DRZ’s power, relatively light weight, fine suspension, and handling make it excellent for the dirt part of dual sport adventure riding.
It is on the street where the DRZ is lacking. In particular, the following items need to be addressed to make the DRZ better on the street part of adventure riding.
- Small 2.6 gallon gas tank: Adventure riding often involves riding in remote areas, so an extended fuel range is important. I want a minimum of a 200 mile range and the DRZ’s 2.6 gallon tank allows only about 125 miles with conservative riding.
- Uncomfortable seat: The stock seat is narrow and hard, making it uncomfortable to sit on for more than about 30 minutes.
- No wind protection: The DRZ doesn’t have any wind protection for the rider. Worse, the shape of the headlight fairing seems to funnel the wind directly into the rider’s chest so that at highway speeds the rider is constantly battling the airblast in order to sit upright.
- Narrow ratio 5 speed transmission: The DRZ has one of the narrowest five speed transmissions of any dual sport bike, making it impossible to set the bike up for both dirt and street riding. If you gear the bike so that first gear is sufficiently low for dirt riding, then the top speed of the bike is severely limited – you will be running very high RPMs at highway speeds. If you gear the bike so you can run relaxed RPMs at highway speed, first gear will be much too high for any serious dirt riding.
- Noticeably buzzy at higher RPMs: Vibration (buzziness) becomes an issue when you run a constant, high RPM on the highway. Excessive vibration can lead to premature rider fatigue and, possibly, numb hands.
If a rider could bring these areas up to an acceptable level (for that rider), then the DRZ would better fulfill its role as a dual sport adventure bike.