CAN AN AIR-COOLED OLD-TIMER BEAT THE DRZ400’S LEGENDARY RELIABILITY?
OK so at first glance a shootout test between these two motorcycles looks far from current news, given that the Honda first rolled off the production line way back in 1996 and the Suzuki some five years later in 2001. With the off-road market now completely dominated by shiny new metal from KTM and their recent acquisition Husqvarna, why would any potential buyer possibly be considering either of these bikes?
The answer is all about context. Heading out on your £8k 2017 Yamaha WRF250 when you are competing in the British Enduro Championships in Mid Wales or setting out on the Prologue to the Romaniacs in downtown Sibiu makes perfect sense – there are few that could fault your buying decision. But riding off into the muddy trails and dirt tracks that cut through the dense forests of rural Cambodia, there are some very good reasons to consider the tried and trusted technology of the XR and the DRZ …
At Ride Expeditions we operate astounding motorcycle tours throughout some of the most beautiful landscape of Cambodia and beyond and the bikes we chose matters – we mean, really matters. The latest enduro machinery might be technologically brilliant with enough power to win the world championship, but if it needs servicing every 20 hours and gets through engine oil almost as fast as petrol it simply will not pass muster. Period. What we need is bulletproof machines that will put up all the abuse that we can throw at them without complaint. Expedition riding is hard on the bikes we use – for our Tough Hog Tour we circle the whole of Cambodia on the most challenging trails over 17 days, so the bikes we use need to ride well, crash well, be reliable and easy to repair – anything else is just window dressing.
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The Honda is tough and super comfortable, like your favourite pair of Doc Martins. The seat is soft, the cockpit open and seat to foot-peg dimension is spot on.
The XR is a highly dependable bike, from the motor to the running gear; it will not let you down. Some people however do experience difficulty kick starting these old bikes when they’re hot.
The XR is no longer made so everything is second-hand. As such it’s beer money cheap for champagne fun. Parts are cheap and available globally.
Buy an XR400R and you get one good-looking hunk of metal, but in a decidedly old-skool, retro MX way – but that’s no bad thing. A fettled example with new plastics still cuts the mustard on the track or the trail.
The mighty Honda delivers a sledgehammer of power if you give it the full handful, but will still do the delicate stuff with an unexpected lightness. It may be a bit slower to pick up than the new four-strokes, but once you make the adjustment, it’s fun from tick-over to top end.
THE HONDA XR400R – AIR COOLED AND AWESOME
When Honda launched the XR400R in 1996, it joined a rich line of off-road models from the diminutive XR50 to the top of the range XR650, itself one of the longest running unchanged production models in the history of motorcycling. As such it had much to live up to, and it did it well. The bike was equally popular with everyone from hobby riders to pro-racers, and Honda shifted boatloads of the machine in the eight years it was in production, eventually shutting down the line in 2004.
So let’s breakdown what exactly makes the Honda tick. At its heart is a 397cc single overhead cam, four valve air-cooled four-stoke engine. It’s kick-start only, which reduces the weight of the engine, but on the odd occasions it won’t fire up, you’d probably trade all of that weight and more for an e-start.
While we are talking weight, the XR comes in at a respectable 120 kilos or 265 lbs. – fine for the age of the machine, but at least ten kilos over more modern machinery and that’s before you add fluids – reliability comes at a price! But that same reliability has amassed the XR fans all over the world and the Honda continues to gain converts. Reviewing the bike in 2009, Dirt Rider said, “ the XR remains a slim, nimble bike with outstanding steering, proven reliability and affordability” – Nuff said?
The oil is held within the frame, so way out of harm’s way, and the conventional mounted fuel tank will take 9.5 lites, which although on the light side for an expedition machine, there are plenty of oversize options available for those forays into the unknown.
To complete the stats’, the bike puts out a modest 34bhp and sits at a 930 mm seat height, but with almost motocross levels of suspension travel, it soon sits down when you are in the oh-so comfy saddle. The plastics are well-designed and high quality, the brakes are super powerful and the build quality typically Honda – what’s not to like?
RIDE EXPEDITIONS RATING: HONDA
THE SUZUKI DRZ400 – LIQUID COOLED LOVELINESS
Suzuki might have come to the 400cc trailie market later than Honda, but they came in strong with the DRZ, a model that continues to roll off the production lines some fifteen or so years later. European regulations may have lead to its demise closer to home, but over much of the rest of the world, the humble DRZ continues to have legions of satisfied buyers, including the Australian Army. Motorcycle News called it “a brilliantly competent dual purpose motorcycle” and they got it spot on – with road versions, trail versions and even a supermoto option, the DRZ has earned well for Suzuki and keeps doing so. If it ain’t broke …
OK so what do you get for your money? Well, the major difference to the XR is that the DRZ runs a 398cc liquid-cooled double overhead cam, four valve lump, making the motor sound all together more smooth and refined. You might think that this would make the bike heavier than the Honda and although it certainly looks more bulky, the early kick-start only version is actually 5lbs lighter at 260 lbs, or 117 kg. Add in an electric boot that came as standard on all later models and that goes up to a chunky 277lbs or 125 kilos, and that’s just the dry weight! But if you are stuck halfway up a snotty hill and your left leg can’t reach the ground, that button is a lifesaver and you’ll forget those extra pounds …
Thanks to the more modern design of the engine and the reduced tolerances that liquid cooling can allow, the DRZ puts out a healthy 40 BHP, six up on the XR. It will take half a litre more fuel too at 10 litres and you’ll need to swing your leg a bit higher thanks to the 945mm seat height. The bodywork is well made and easy to remove, and the seat offers good comfort – just what you need for covering the big distances on our Cardamom Mountain Explorer tour. Brakes are strong and forgiving for off-road use, but lack a certain bite at road speeds.
RIDE EXPEDITIONS RATING: SUZUKI
As with all off-road Suzukis, the DRZ has armchair levels of comfort from the plush saddle – a must for long days in the trail. What is not so comfortable is lifting all that weight if you fall off.
The DRZ has almost legendary durability – it’s like ‘The Terminator’ of the trail world. The motor requires less maintenance than a rock and is about as tough.
OK so it looks like we are being harsh here, but if you buy new, the DR is quite pricey for such old tech. As a second-hand buy however, it’s cheap as chips and will make you smile all day.
In a world now populated by lean athletic machines, the DRZ has the body of a shot-putter. If only they could have made it sexier like the RMZs – Oh wait they did it was called the RMX450 and didn’t sell very well…
The DRZ has enough power in that slightly ugly motor to drag a barge out of a canal. OK so it’s not delivered in a particularly exciting way and the top end is just not worth looking for, but the mid to low is just endless and super strong, it’s just that if you’ve ridden anything modern, you will be disappointed.
HONDA XR400 Vs SUZUKI DRZ400 – ON THE TRAIL
The stats and figures on the two machines only tell part of the story. A bike might look like a racehorse on paper and ride like a donkey, so the only true test is to take them out on the trails where we are going to ride them. OK so bearing in mind how many units these bikes have shifted, and in the case of the Suzuki, continue to shift, neither is going to be a lemon. That said, there are fundamental differences between red and yellow, and heading out onto the achingly beautiful, if challenging trails of Cambodia where we run our tours, those differences come to the surface pretty quickly.
First off is how they feel when you sit on them. The XR feels like an old-skool ‘crosser – nice open cockpit, wide bars and an uncluttered feel – just what you want to see on an off-road bike. In comparison, the DRZ feels cramped with too much going on in front of you – it obviously has all the same controls and equipment but they all seem a bit busy and packed in on the bars.
With the engines fired up and engine warm – a far easier process with the DRZ’s button, the bikes are good to go and straight away the XR feels the livelier and easier to ride. Despite the fact that the DRZ had a better spread of power across the whole rev range, the XRs superior suspension allows it to be far more spritely and controllable. From cornering and high speed stuff to following single ruts and gnarly climbs, the XR wants to do what the rider wants far more then the DRZ, which often takes a dose of ‘body English’ to get it to comply. And on the later e-start versions this feeling is increased.
The Suzuki is happier on the faster tarmac road sections than the Honda, but for use on the backwoods around Phnom Penh, this is fairly academic – there are very few fast tarmac roads! While the DRZ does have more power, the opportunities to use it tend to be few and far between in the jungles of South Asia.
Which brings us to another plus for the XR – its simplicity. Talk to adventure motorcyclist and this is a watchword for success – simple is good. The XR might have an old fashioned air-cooled power plant that harks back to pre-war engine design, but its simplicity is its strength. You can get to the plug without dismantling the bodywork, there are no radiators to crack and break when you are miles from civilisation and a kick-start doesn’t need battery power. This is a bike stripped back to the essentials, and proven in the harshest of conditions. For both bikes access to the air box is from a user- friendly side-loader, which although most of the time can prove an asset, when you are one of the many deep river crossings that form part of the Ride Expeditions experience, an old fashioned top-loader or even the filters over the engine like the new breed of Yamaha WRFs would be vastly better.
Yet in fairness to the Suzuki, the liquid cooled motor is an absolute beauty. It has masses of power from low-end grunt to screaming top end punch – it’s a fantastically linear power curve. The engine might be slightly harder to work on, thanks to the increased size of the water jacket, but it’s so reliable that you probably will never have to do much maintenance anyway – change the oil once a year whether you need to or not! And if you are worried about the radiators, a full set of aftermarket braces will keep off all but the worst of the impacts.
This is a bike that will go on all day without complaint, and being a model still in active production, if limited development, it continues to be a sound buy for everyone from commuters to adventure motorcyclists.
If you haven’t guessed where we’d put our money by now, you clearly have not been concentrating. Both the machines will provide hours of maintenance free enjoyment whether in the dirt trails of California or the forests of Cambodia, thanks to almost legendary reliability and rock-solid engineering. Both have been, or were in production for long enough to iron out the wrinkles and for an armoury of aftermarket goodies to be available. Similarly, both Honda and Suzuki have good enough global coverage to mean that getting hold of spares, even in remote locations, is relatively easy.
But for all this, the team at Ride Expeditions would choose the XR over the DRZ every time. OK it doesn’t have an electric start, but with better suspension, handling and off-road performance and one of the best seats ever fitted to a dirt bike, the trade off to choose the red bike is an easy one. We travel to some of the most remote parts of the planet on our tours and for us the pure engineering simplicity of the XR400 is the obvious choice.
But here’s the rub – while the Honda might be the choice of the two in this test, both are outclassed by the more modern machinery on the market right now. Although both bikes have proved more than up to the challenge of trail riding in the Cambodian jungle and riders around the world continue to love them, the reality is that they are both heavy and bulky compared to the new metal. From 2016 we are phasing out the both the faithful DRs and the dogged XR and replacing with them with the total wonderful KTM EXC450F. It’s a bike that has dominated enduro and trail riding for years, and we can hardly wait
If you fancy riding on the trails of Cambodia – go to the Ride Expeditions website right now or Contact us direct. With tours from a one-day taster, to an astounding seventeen days of adventure taking on the whole of the country and running through the whole year, we can provide the ultimate motorcycle expedition, from riding in the forests of Cambodia on Hondas to travelling through the Himalayas on classic Royal Enfields. With a full support team, experienced local guides and some of the most beautiful scenery in the world, this will be a holiday you will never forget.