After 23 years of reliability, Suzuki’s DR-Z400E enduro stalwart has been given a few hardware updates to keep it in the game
It’s easy to get caught up in the marketing gaff that says you need the latest and greatest machinery to get your motorcycling buzz. I’m as susceptible to it as you might be. But every now and then a bike bites you on the bum and surprises you. Suzuki’s DR-Z400E did exactly that.
Everyone knows the DR-Z and, although it hasn’t much changed since its release back in 2000, I’ve genuinely never heard anyone say a bad word about it. Sure, by today’s standards, you’ll hear that it’s old, and heavy and its suspension could be better, but that’s countered by how bulletproof it is and how much dependable bang you get for your buck.
I hadn’t ridden a DR-Z since it was released, and I admit I’d dismissed it as an option. But Suzuki has sold over 20,000 DR-Z400Es in Australia in the last two decades, so I thought I best to reacquaint myself with the lanky yellow machine.
Our test unit is the Cape York Edition – which is the only spec you can currently buy – and it is loaded up with some useful goodies. It comes equipped with a solid aluminium bash plate ($264.20), a must if you’re heading off road, Barkbuster Ego handguards ($136.70) and aluminium radiator guards ($261.80) – three things I consider essential for a bike heading off road. Up until 1 February, the goodies were thrown in for free, but now the Cape York Edition is $400 more than the standard model. Still bloody good value.
With a 935mm seat height the DR-Z is a tall drink of water and, coupled with its 140kg claimed wet weight, shorter folk may find it imposing. But I’m tall and large and I find the DR-Z to be just fine, and compared to the huge multi-cylinder adventure machines getting around today, the Suzuki feels like a whippet.
The DR-Z’s 398cc liquid-cooled single is fed by an old-school carby, so you’ll have to dig around for the choke before you crank the starter button. Suzuki doesn’t provide power or torque figures but after scouring some back issues of AMCN from around the time of the bike’s release, the DR-Z is said to make 29kW (38.8hp) of peak power.
Either way, the DR-Z isn’t lacking in grunt and likes to rev. It’s still a fast machine and with an exhaust and a filter you could get some good increases in power and torque. There’s all manner of mods you can do to get the Suzuki going harder – 23 years’ worth, to be precise – just check out all the DR-Z forums.
There’s enough low-end grunt to chug around in the bush, pop a wheel over an obstacle or grunt up the greasiest hill, but all of the midrange grunt makes it an absolute ball on open fire trails. The only issue I encountered was a propensity to stall when changing down heading into a corner aggressively – a commonly reported problem with the DR-Z.
What I love about the DR-Z’s engine is its tractability and predictability. I did a lot of riding with a mate on a KTM 300 EXC in very muddy conditions and, while the EXC was busy wheelspinning out of every corner like a madman, the DR-Z just hooked up and tractored out. Ultimately that means easy riding and less fatigue, which is what you want for a long day in the seat.
Mechanically, my only real gripe with the DR-Z is that it’s running a five-speed gearbox. That’s absolutely fine for enduro and trail-riding work, but if you need to ride a distance to get to your dirt riding area, or if you want to use it as a longer-distance adventure-style bike, you’re going to have to gear her up which, in turn, will effect your off-road performance.
The right-way-up 49mm Showa fork offers adjustable compression and rebound damping, and the rear shock offers full adjustability. In standard trim, it’s plush and comfortable rather than taut and ready to sail through the air. That equates to a pretty civilised ride on and off road, but once the speed creeps up or the big single is loaded up most people are going to want to stiffen things up a bit. With that said, I did a few modest leaps and the suspension does firm up reasonably well in the latter part of the stroke.
For road use and well-groomed dirt-road use, the suspension is quite capable. However, when things get a bit rough, the DR-Z’s suspension can get its knickers in a knot. Rocky terrain has both ends deflecting, and trying to maintain rear-wheel traction can be a mission when powering out of corrugated corners. I think it’s generally accepted that suspension performance is an area where the DR-Z would really benefit from a few bucks spent to get it set up properly. If you’re still having problems after that perhaps you purchased the wrong bike.
The DR-Z impressed with its front-end feel when riding off road, based on how aggressively I could lean on the front-end hooking through a turn. It’s fantastic heading into tighter turns under brakes with the front loaded up.
The DR-Z’s brakes still do the business; there are Nissin calipers front and back with a 250mm disc on the front and a 220mm disc on the rear. Braking isn’t as sharp as more modern machinery, but that’s to be expected. Junking the rubber brake lines would likely help immensely, though I still wouldn’t say braking is one of the DRZ’s weak points.
I’ve heard plenty of people around the traps whinging that the DR-Zs 140kg wet weight is way too heavy, but in the scheme of things is it really? Because Honda claims the exact same weight for its CRF300L, Royal Enfield’s Himalayan weighs in at a claimed 191kg ready to ride and Kawasaki’s more contemporary alloy-framed KLX450R weighs in at a smidgeon over 128kg.
The seat is broad as far as enduro bikes go, it is pretty comfortable and I reckon that makes the DR-Z a good lightweight adventure machine. Okay, the steel ’bars are too low and look like they’d bend easily, so should be chucked in the bin or used as a home defence weapon and, while you’re at, you’ll probably want to tear the mirrors off and replace them with smaller, lighter items.
The only drawback for me, apart from the lack of an extra cog is the price. At $11,790 (ride away) it’s getting up there and, let’s be honest, Suzuki hasn’t exactly been throwing development money at the thing. Sure, the $662.70 worth of goodies for $400 sweetens the deal, but for me a bike that hasn’t changed in over 20 years shouldn’t cost more than $10,000. I know the world’s changed, but in 2019, the Cape York Edition was $9390 (ride away). That said, you’re getting one of the most reliable dirtbikes produced in the last 25 years, it’s so easy to live with, and comes with a 12-month unlimited-kay warranty.
The DR-Z is a machine that can do it all. A cliche maybe, but I reckon it’s absolutely true in this case. All-in-all the bones of the DR-Z are solid. And it’s unique in that with a bit of planning and a little (more) cash, it can be a fun enduro machine, a crazy-time motard or a light and dependable adventure mount. Now that’s versatility!