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 1997 Suzuki LS 650 'Savage' (custom cruiser)

I used to own a 1997 Suzuki Savage 650 that I bought new in May 1997.

Description: Air-cooled four-stroke SOHC single cylinder, 652 cc. The 1997 models come in either black or candy orange.
Five-speed transmission, electric start, kevlar belt drive, spoked wheels with tube tires, rear drum brakes, front single disc brake. 27 inch high seat, small 10.5 liter (2.5 US gallon) peanut-shaped gas tank, 174 KG (382 pounds), 31 HP, 37 ft-lbs, top speed of 85 mph, 55 mpg. 0-60 mph: 6.98 seconds. 1/4 mile: 15.30 sec @ 81.11 mph.
Reviewed in the following magazines: MOTORCYCLIST August 1995, RIDER July 1995, MOTORCYCLE CONSUMER NEWS September 1996.
Uses 2.4 liters of oil per complete change with filter. Needs a single NGK DPR8EA-9 spark plug. Fabric air filter. Looks a lot like a Harley Sportster with a big single cylinder engine instead of a V-twin. I have received many compliments on it being a nice-looking bike for non-riders; it's funny how most car drivers never paid much attention to my previous sport bike but really like the traditional-looking cruiser style.
Pricing:
Inexpensive: In May 1997 I bought mine new with no mileage for $4799 CND ($3599 US). The Savage sold in small numbers in the 86-88 time frame. Now that cruisers are popular, it was brought back in 1995 and is selling well. The local dealer tells me there are quite a few of them around town, have proven very reliable, and they're easy to service and to get parts for.
History:
I used to ride a Kawasaki EX-500 (Ninja) sport bike. The EX was a very good bike but after riding it for four years I decided I wanted to make something different. I wanted a simple, easy-to-maintain cruiser that would make a good general purpose commuter but was also big enough to make the occasional road trip. I considered buying an Intruder 800 or Marauder 800 but after test riding I found they were a bit too big and heavy for my liking.
IMHO the Savage looks good if you like plain simple cruisers. It starts and runs very well. It's fairly light and easy to steer. The clutch and transmission are simple to work. After reading some magazine reviews that claimed the LS 650 was a slow bike I was then surprised to find that it actually performs okay; the Savage has about the same acceleration and speed as a small econo-car with a standard transmission. Pretty decent mirrors. I find the front seat is fairly comfy, but the passenger seat isn't too good. At 5' 8" I find the seating position, foot pegs, and handlebars to be well-placed for me, but tall riders will find the LS uncomfortable.

One thing I find very uncomfortable: the engine casing gets very hot after riding more than say 20 minutes or so. I've found that when riding I have to be careful to keep my left heel away from the engine or the heat transfers through the heel of my leather boot and gives me a burn blister on my foot!
I've found that it performs well on hilly roads with modest speed limits. I am able to easily keep up with slower sport bike riders on a twisty road. I've discovered that on the open highway the LS 650 is quite comfortable doing 100 km/h (60 mph) at 4000 rpm in 5th gear but has little excess power left for passing. The single cylinder redlines at 6500 rpm.
The older Savages from the 1980s have four gears. The newer ones have five gears, but the ratios are spaced differently, so that in 5th gear the newer bikes run only a couple hundred RPMs lower at 60 mph than the older ones do in 4th gear.
The brakes work quite well for a small single disc and drum; I believe this is because the bike is fairly light and has a long wheel base, allowing a rider to get more use out of the rear brake. For such a light bike it handles well in a strong crosswind.
Modifications:
None so far. I found my old throw-over saddle bags went on the Savage fairly well. I bought a Maier Small Hurricane windscreen (for 1" handlebars) for about $60 US by mail order. It bolts on easily and does give a modest amount of protection from rain and wind blast.
Opinion:
A good commuter bike for urban areas. I tour occasionally on it, but it has little power left once it gets up to highway speeds. If you are a sport bike fan you'll find it a boring bike, but I rather enjoy simple elemental bikes.
From asking other Savage owners it seems the LS 650 is extremely reliable and bullet-proof. Maintenance is very easy to do. I really like the idea of a belt drive: no mucking about with chain lube or sprockets; you only have to adjust the tension. I have had to do this only a couple of times in ten thousand miles and it was very easy.

UPDATE June 2000: Someone wrote me an e-mail asking me if I think the Savage 650 makes a good beginner bike...
Yes, I think so. I would compare it favorably to bikes like the Honda Shadow 600, the Virago 535, and the Kawasaki LTD 500 custom. It's light, has a low seat height, is very reliable, cheap to buy and run, etc. They are a good bike for a rider under say 5'9"; taller folks will find the Savage too cramped.
I bought mine about 36 months ago: I've rode it about 12,000 miles in that time; I ride it daily to work or around town. I also take it over to the mainland (about an hour's ride on the freeway) to visit family and friends. I've had no problems at all - just the routine scheduled service at 600 miles and then every 3600 miles. Each service was about $100 US.
In the last few years I've also rented a Shadow 600 (in California for a week/1000 miles) and a Honda CX500 (in New Zealand for two weeks/2000 miles). I would say the Suzuki is lighter and faster than either of those bikes (especially the CX - what a slug!).
Cautions:
The fuel tank is pretty small; you have to switch to reserve after only 100 miles or so. The bike has no tach (which is okay for a cruiser) but it has no tripmeter; I think this is a major flaw, as with my old bikes I have always reset the tripmeter at every gasoline stop to gauge my fuel usage.
The Savages have a tendency to backfire. According to the January 1997 issue of RIDER magazine, this is because Suzuki deliberately sets the low-speed and midrange circuits of the carburetor to be too lean so that the Savage will pass EPA emission standards. This article describes how to properly set these circuits for better throttle response.
NOTE: I have done the modification below and it does indeed eliminate backfires with no adverse effect. - Bruce Clarke


Savage Backfire
(from January 1997 RIDER magazine's Tech Q&A)

Q) I purchased a new Suzuki Savage 650 last July. From the very beginning the motorcycle would backfire when decelerating or coming to a stop. I took it back to the dealer twice before the 600-mile service, and complained about it at the initial service. I have tried different grades of gasoline and they seem to have no effect. The dealer has told me that I should expect backfiring with the design of this engine and that it should decrease as I build up mileage. I have 900 miles on the bike now and backfiring doesn't seem to be decreasing. I have found other riders of Suzuki Savages that are having the same problem. - Jay Coney, Kerrville, Texas.

A) This column receives a lot of mail over the course of a month, and the single biggest gripe among our readers are problems with lean-running. late-model carbureted bikes.
The poor old LS 650 really suffers at the hands of the EPA, and I certainly sympathize with you, Coney. We can fix it, but first let me explain the hows and whys.
When the throttle of any engine is rolled or snapped shut, some fuel is drawn through the engine and kicked out the exhaust without being burned. In abundance, this raw fuel vapor can be smelled, tasted - and when light is passed through it- seen. It's referred to as photo-hydrocarbons or more commonly smog. Yes, there are several other pollutants coming out of the exhaust, but the human senses can't detect them. The manufacturer of motorcycles have three methods of dealing with excessive hydrocarbons. Forcing air down into the exhaust port with an air pump and diluting the outgoing fuel vapor is one method.
Kawasaki pioneered this method with their 'Clean Air System', which employed a vacuum-driven pump that puffed air through reed valves placed over the exhaust system. A 'cat' is nothing more than an oven which bakes the hydrocarbons, burning them off.
The most common method is to simply lean out the carburetor. The low-speed and midrange circuits of the late-model carburetor are not adjusted to give optimum performance - they're set up to produce a minimum hydrocarbon count on deceleration. What miserly amount of fuel they do deliver to the combustion chamber when the throttle is closed causes misfire and an audible afterfire in the exhaust pipe.
Now, I haven't mentioned fuel injection or other exhaust gases. As I said, the bulk of complaints from readers of this column is deceleration backfire and also poor idling of carbureted engines. No doubt we'll get around to discussing other emission-control devices and their problems in future issues.
Getting back to your Savage 650, Coney, here's how we can specifically cure its problem. We need to richen those two areas of the curburetion curve that are factory set on the ridiculous side of leanness. Remove the diaphragm slide from the carburetor and look down inside its bore. Two small screws hold a plate over the slide needle.
Removing the plate, you'll see a small, white plastic spacer with a hole through it sitting on top of the needle. Throw that spacer away and reinstall the plate. A spring under the needle clip will now push the needle up to the plate occupying the space vacated by the white spacer. The distance that the needle has been 'lifted' is the thickness of the discarded spacer - and that's ideal. With the needle raised, more fuel will flow by it, meeting the actual needs of midrange running.
We can also fatten up the low end of your bike's carburetor by turning out the low-speed mixture screw. To gain access to this screw, you'll need to drill out the brass plug pressed in over it and yank it out with a sheet-metal screw attached to a slide hammer. You'll find that plug up high on the right side of the carb about where the mouth enters the carburetor. Usually Suzuki applies a splash of white paint over the brass plug so that it's immediately noticeable. With the engine warmed up and idling, turn the mixture screw out incrementally until you achieve the highest idle. There will be no doubt in your mind that you're making progress because the idle will come up and sound stronger. At this point, turn the idle adjuster knob out and bring the idle back down to a leisurely gait.
Just these two, relatively simple adjustments will not only eliminate the backfire, they will make an amazing improvement in throttle response and driveability.