If you have to work within a budget, then the Kawasaki Versys, Suzuki Gladius and Honda CBF600N are all contenders, at about £4500 on the road. Alastair Walker took a spin on the new Gladius 650.
The old SV650 Suzuki was one of the most successful budget twins of the 90s. It even had its own race series at one stage, and the little SV formed part of the essential grounding in biking skills for many a novice rider. There\'s a touch of the SV in the Gladius 650\'s DNA too, the same soft, steady power delivery, sweet handling and predictable, no-surprises braking performance. This isn\'t a bike that intimidates riders, but it loves to play when you\'ve built up your confidence. It also has one of the lowest seat heights this side of a Fantic chopper.
So is the Gladius the perfect starter motorcycle, ideal for those who have just passed their test?
Maybe. Let\'s start with the good stuff. Firstly, the Gladius has a peach of an engine. The 645cc twin cylinder unit is docile, yet builds up enough power to make life interesting. It can soon take you past the ton, and as we all know, that can get you on the six o\'clock news these days. More importantly, the Gladius has enough punch to accelerate past one of those East European, conjoined lorries, that seem to be about 90 foot long. Even in top gear, the little Gladius can whizz safely past most hazards and if things change and you need to suddenly brake or swerve, the bike is agile, with progressive brakes that get the job done.
The riding position is very useful. You sit fairly straight, tucked into the low seat, nice wide handlebars giving you control in town, or threading through lines of stationary traffic. The mirrors work well, giving you plenty of vision on what\'s going on behind. The Suzi handles a twisty country lane with more aplomb that you\'d expect too. It isn\'t as precise as the Street Triple, or as reassuring as the BMW F650, but it competes very well with budget rivals like the Kawasaki Versys. It is a flickable, lightweight twin and the wide `bars reminded me of some of the Supermoto bikes, like the Yamaha XT660.
I didn\'t ride the Gladius at night, but that oddly shaped headlight looked like it put out a searchlight type beam. Always handy in traffic, assuming any driver actaully looks properly in your direction of course. For novice riders, Suzuki has fitted the legendary digital gear indicator, first seen back on the GT250 in the 70s, and a surprisingly useful feature on a torquey twin like this. Sixth gear is an overdrive, for economy more than anything else, but the bike pulls cleanly, even in top.
FINISH TABLETS REQUIRED?
So the Gladius is cheap. No denying it, £4500 on the road is a bargain price. But I think some details betray a skimpiness, which will ultimately help this model corrode and devalue that bit quicker than some of its budget rivals.
I look at the front mudguard and wondered why Suzuki had designed it so short, as the result is road spray, stones, small badgers etc will all be flung at speed at the engine and exhaust. OK, maybe I\'m not `with-it\' regarding bike styling, but in most of Northern Europe and America, it rains a great deal and I don\'t see why a commuter bike like this comes with a cut-down mudguard. Talking of budget finish, the exhaust seems to be coated in matt black paint, with a basic chrome heat shield over it - again, I don\'t see this lasting more than one winter. In an age when Hyundai offer a 7 year warranty on a hatchback costing seven grand, I don\'t accept that bike manufacturers should make things so vulnerable to the elements.
It\'s a shame, because some of the alloy parts, like the footrest hangers, the pillion grab-handles and the frame trellis rails, are decently made. The chainguard is excellent - it\'s huge. You look at Suzuki\'s Bandit models now, compared to a decade ago and there\'s no doubt that the new ones are better finished in many areas, so we know Suzuki can do it better. On balance, I\'d guess that a Honda CB600N is likely to bear the brunt of a few winters better, and if you can afford the extra £1000, so too would the Triumph Street Triple.
It\'s hard work prising open people\'s bank accounts these days, especially in the automotive sector. That\'s why the styling of the Gladius matters. The old SV650 was a bit plain, functional. This new model, from its `Gladioli\' name, to the vibrant colour schemes - ruby pink anyone - gets people talking. It looks more expensive than it is, which is a very good thing. No learner wants everyone to think that they\'ve got no money and had to buy something really basic. It looks similar to the Ducati Monster with a trellis frame, hump-back gas tank and low seat. No bad thing.
Like the Versys, or the Hornet 600, I think the Gladius is a machine that stands out, really has a modern feel. If you\'ve just got the biking bug and are under 30, then I reckon this will have some appeal. Biking is in danger of becoming an old man\'s activity, and the big naked/roadster, machines on the market often look too conservative I think, too samey.
The Gladius is one to add to any `first proper bike\' shortlist. It\'s fun to ride, easy to master, yet offers just enough character and quirkiness to keep the owner interested for a year or two, before moving on to bigger things maybe. The low seat also makes this machine a winner for ladies and shorter types. Fit a fender-extender to protect your engine, a small screen and a top case, and you have yourself a handy commuter too, not just a sunny Sunday bike.
For the money, it\'s a decent all round package.
Test bike suplied by Bill Smith Motors, Boughton, Chester. 01244 323 845.
- Engine; 645cc, twin cylinder, four stroke, liquid cooled
- Peak power; 75.9bhp
- Peak torque; 49 ft/lbs
- Gears; 6 speed
- Chassis; Steel trellis frame
- Front suspension; 41mm upside down telescopic forks
- Steering head angle; 25 degrees
- Rear suspension; monoshock, adjustable for pre-load
- Wheelbase; 1395mm
- Brakes; Twin 290mm front discs, 2-piston calipers, single 240mm rear disc, single piston caliper.
- Wheels/Tyres; 120/70 ZR 18 front, 160/60 ZR17 rear
- Dry weight; 202Kgs wet
- Fuel capacity; 14.5 litres
- Estimated top speed;120mph
- Seat height; 785mm
- RRP; £4500 (Mar 2009)
Thanks to www.carolenash.com/insidebikes for the use of this bike review.