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1999 Suzuki DR350SE.

1999 Suzuki DR350 Torture Test
Riding the LA to Barstow to Vegas dual-sport ride
(click to read "making the DR better off-road")

With out a doubt, Suzuki's DR350 has had a big impact on the dual sport market. As US riders searched for more off-road worthy mounts, Yamaha and Honda were taking their big thumpers the opposite direction. Enter the DR, which provided riders a bit more off-road capability than previously available from Japan. The results were brisk sales and swarms of DR's showing up at organized events. A number of years have passed since the DR's introduction and now companies like KTM and ATK are selling serious off-road hardware at serious prices. This left us wondering just how viable the DR was in today's Dual Sport arena. For the answer, read on.

The DR has gone through relatively little change over the years. Last year, 1998, the bike received the more off-road capable suspension from Suzuki's 350 dirt model. For 99, the DR receives new graphics and looses the purple frame.

So what do you do when you find yourself with a new dual sport bike in November? If your in the East you'd probably say park the bike until spring. Here in Southern California, however, it's the perfect time to ride the legendary Los Angeles to Barstow to Las Vegas dual sport event put on by AMA's District 37.

Before we could show our face, or helmet, at the start of the 98 event there were a number of tasks we had to attend. First, we had to put some break-in miles on the odometer - 185 to be exact. Not a normal break-in period but all that was possible as Suzuki kindly scavenged their sources, at the last minute, to provide the 99 model for us. As we added miles, it became clear the little Suzuki is delivered with very soft suspension settings. We spent the last portion of our prep time stiffening up the suspension, which involved increasing the damping adjustments and maxing out the preload on the rear shock. As luck would have it, we got the DR adjusted just to the point where it was very well balanced front to rear - very rideable off-road. Our last chore was to add a roll chart and knobbies at both ends to replace the reasonable all around stock tires.

From the very beginning of the ride, the Suzuki impressed us. Though the 350s power output is marginal at best, Suzuki engineers did a great job of matching the six speed gear ratios to the power at hand. In first gear you can pick your way up slippery hills with no problem. It will actually put Honda's XR650L to shame in these conditions as the more powerful Honda has an embarrassingly tall first gear, which incidentally matches it's seat height. It's actually impressive how the DR pulls in any gear, given it's lackluster horsepower. Even at 65mph on the blacktop, the bike has some roll-on power left to pass.

The first mountain dirt road we encountered offered up a combination of surfaces ranging from smooth hard-pack to tight roads strewn with rocks and such. Nothing like the icy conditions of last years event, just good riding. On fast roads the DR performed quite well and the strong disc brakes offered excellent feedback. When the trail turned slippery or was dotted with large rocks, the bikes 56.7" wheelbase allowed it to squirm around quite a bit, but the bike offered enough composure to pass some out-of-control riders on more dirt worthy mounts. Even when the DR was bobbing around in difficult sections it never had that heavy 4-stroke feel which is one of the traits that make this bike easy to ride.

Out in the desert we hit our first sand wash were the bike worked ok, that is until the sand got deep as it often does in the California desert. Here the DR had a hard time pulling itself up on top where you need to be for better control. The steering suffered as a result making the bike difficult to keep straight. All you can do in deep sand is peg-it and hang on.

Continuing on through the desert, indirectly towards Barstow CA, the bike worked really well until we hit the first deep whoops. Here the short DR got swallowed up and the soft suspension only made things worse. It's strictly a slow down, keep on the gas over the tops of each bump, and keep it straight scenario till you're out of the whoops. Our other tester, on an XR600, simply motored away never to be seen again until he took mercy on me and stopped.

Once we reached Barstow it was time for the normal routine before getting cleaned up for a nice dinner. Check over the bikes, service the chain, add a fresh air filter and such. Unfortunately, I discovered the front tire had spun on the rim and was about to rip the valve stem out. Suzuki failed to see the need for a front rim lock, something that would continue to nag us. Fortunately we were blessed by J.D. of Dual Sport Connection (818-552-4109) who  offered us their air equipped trailer to fix the tube. (There is a lot of support on this ride) We spun the tire back using the tire machine and remounted the wheel. Finally it was time for dinner.

Day two would take us a different direction than most. We had been approved to be part of the 25 or so riders going a totally different route to Las Vegas. Our route would go through Death Valley on a special ride permit. This meant no coarse marking, no support and no sweep crew trailing riders. The rule of the day, "DON'T GET LOST" - we did!

As our second day began in the cold dark desert, I remembered that we had changed the DR's tires using talcum powder - as prescribed by a very famous desert racer who will remain un-named. The tire change was a breeze, the night before the ride, but having residual talcum powder left in the vicinity of the tube meant it would be that much easier for the tire to spin, thus leaving me with an instant flat front. My solution was easy, just don't use the front brake. Easier said than done!

After getting slightly lost a couple of times early on, we found the right trail and began to gas it. Then it began to rain and the desert turned into a riders paradise, moist wet ground with no dust! This meant it was time to blast away and we did, all while trying to avoid the front brake. With excellent traction, something we seldom find in So. Cal., the DRstrret22.jpg (9718 bytes) was just that much more fun to ride. In fact, the DR does quite good feet-up slides, surprising for a bike with such a small chassis.

It was inevitable that I would get a flat, it was just a matter of when and how many. After crossing much of Death Valley I noticed the flat just as we entered a beautiful area with roller coaster type terrain. At least it wasn't raining at the moment; we laid the bike on the side of a hill and put in a new tube.

Now it was really time to avoid using the front brake as there were no more front tubes and patching a tire in the rain was something we weren't looking forward to. After this there were no more flats, but there was the one time when face-to-face with a barbed wire fence I clamped both binders as hard as they would go. I still had a foot to go - good brakes and no flat.

After some 300 miles and some great high speed single track leading into town, we arrived in Las Vegas. We were greeted by clearing skys full of rainbows. Even better, our chase truck was waiting for us when we reached the finish. At the end of this ride, this means dry clothes and a place to lock the bikes before venturing out into the Vegas night.

During our ride the DR350 performed admirably under what most would consider abusive conditions - I don't like to go slow. After hundreds of miles, many of which were were covered at full throttle , the DR was running well. We did have one experience where the bike ran poorly trying to stall at low throttle after blasting down some fast dirt roads. We never found the culprit and Suzuki wasn't able to give us any answers. The only casualty was the loss of a section of the lower chain guide. If we had a wish list for the bike it would include heavier springs and more damping front and rear, and more horsepower.

Once it's set up properly the DR is fun to ride, especially with it's quick light steering and good brakes. The seat is excellent off-road and overall comfort level is good, especially for shorter riders. Serious off-roaders will want to go to heavier springs and have the valving improved, but the DR350 can be ridden quite fast in stock trim.

(click to read "making the DR better off-road")

Suzuki: 1999 DR350SE
Quick Specs: Ratings:  Poor Fair Good V/Good Excellent
Average Range: N/A Acceleration           6 .      
Displacement: 348cc Carburetion             7      
Drive: 520 o-ring chain Comfort (overall)               8    
Fuel Capacity: 2.4 Gal. (.5 reserve) Comfort (off-rd)               8    
Fuel Mileage: N/A Finish (quality)                 9 .
Suspension Front: rebound & compression adjustable Handling (overall)               8 . .
Suspension Back: Single shock, rebound, compression, preload adjustable Stability (handling)               8 .  
Tire Front: 80/100-21 Suspension (off-road)             7 .    
Tire Back: 110/90-17

Suspension (overall)

              8    
Weight: 286 lbs.

Fun Factor

              8    
Retail (US): $4,649 Overall Rating               8    

 

Ups Downs
Easy to ride Needs stiffer suspension for serious off-road
Comfortable, good seat Odometer isn't resetable by tenths
Clutch took our abuse Bike ran poorly at times after full throttle riding
Good brakes Could use more horsepower
Shock didn't fade .
A real foam air filter .

(click to read "making the DR better off-road")

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