Suzuki hasn’t innovated much in the past decade, preferring to warm over previous designs and compete on price, not a technological arms race. Is that a bad thing? It depends whether you want the latest and greatest, or if you just want a competent bike at a fair price.
It’s a customer-friendly approach, and while the journos often accuse Suzuki of being in a rut, that’s not exactly true. Suzuki’s built a great reputation on affordable reliability, and it didn’t just start in the past 10 years. Look at this 2003 Suzuki Bandit 1200—it’s the perfect example of Suzuki’s philosophy. Even today, these machines stand out as bargains.
Recycling gone wild
The Bandit 1200’s story starts with the GSX-R1100 superbike. That Gixxer had a run from the mid-’80s to the late ’90s (dates differ, depending which market you’re in). With 155 horsepower at the crank and 75 lb-ft of torque, it was a real monster. This oil-cooled dinosaur outlasted other liquid-cooled models because it offered plenty of grunty torque, not just peaky, screaming horsepower. It wasn’t the latest tech, but it just plain worked.
When the 1100 was put out to pasture, Suzuki came up with other plans for the engine. The keeners in R&D put a GSX-R750 top end on the 1100’s bottom end, and gave us the liquid-cooled RF900R sport tourer. Then, they decided they needed there was room in the lineup for a budget-minded naked bike. That’s where the Bandit 1200 came in, in 1996.
The Bandit 1200 was air/oil-cooled, just like the GSX-R1100. It was detuned to make 98 horsepower at 8,500 rpm, with 67 lb-ft of torque at 4,500 rpm. While the jaded motojournos of the 1990s might have decried this re-tuning, the updated 1157cc inline four was now much more usable in the real world.
Unlike the GSX-R1100, which had a six-speed gearbox, the Bandit 1200 made do with a five-speed. It had SACS (Suzuki Advanced Cooling System) though, the same high-pressure internal oil cooling system that sapped heat away from internal trouble spots. It worked for the 1100, and it worked well for the 1200, too. SACS didn’t just cool the oil, it cooled the engine (Fun fact: Suzuki still uses SACS on the DR650, decades after its debut … and it still works well).
The Bandit 1200 got a sensible, cheap steel frame, and raided the parts bin for other suspension and brakes components. Suzuki was determined to keep costs down.
Nevertheless, some versions of the Bandit 1200 did come with very nice equipment, considering the era Suzuki produced it. ABS was available on some models, along with a decent-looking headlight fairing that provided protection from the elements. As the model progression went on, some models got six-piston brake calipers up front, along with stainless steel headers, cartridge forks, upgraded twin-headlight setup, adjustable handlebars and bigger fairings. Depending which market you were in, you could even get factory touring accessories, or a factory-built touring bike built around the Bandit 1200.
In a way, it had a similar role to the current V-Strom 1000/1050 models. The Bandit 1200 didn’t have the latest technology, but it had everything you really needed, and the MSRP reflected its affordable construction.
Ready to re-work
Despite its positive points, some naysayers called the Suzuki a “Blandit.” Welp, you can’t please everyone … but if the Bandit was too wimpy and weak, you could do a lot to make it better.
Here’s the thing with Suzuki’s big-bore four-cylinders from the late ’70s through the late ’00s: They’re all basically the same bike. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a world of difference between the air-cooled GS750 and the liquid-cooled GSX-R750, but once Suzuki figured out the basics of frame geometry, most of these bikes were built along similar dimensions. The engines, brakes and suspension will switch all around between many of these bikes. If you don’t like your bike’s current equipment, no big deal! Just install something from a faster Suzuki.
With that in mind, owners started swapping Gixxer suspension over to their Bandits. Wheels, brakes and other parts from other Suzooks easily bolted onto the big Bandit (although the later Bandit cartridge forks were decent as-is, depending whose opinion you listen to). If you wanted more horsepower, there were big bore kits, since hot-rodding four-cylinder Suzukis is a time-honoured tradition that goes back to the ’70s. You could even swap in a GSX-R1100 motor, or at least GSX-R1100 internals.
With all that in mind, the Bandit 1200 is still a decent machine, if you’re a gearhead who likes tinkering. The old Suzukis are heavy by today’s standards, but they’ve still got lots of torque, and are easy to work on. And, because they’re getting up in age, the prices have started to hit the basement. If you’re looking for a budget-friendly tourer, backroad burner, or even an occasional track day toy or basis for a custom, the Bandit 1200 can do it all.
This one is for sale at an Indian dealer in Daytona Beach for $2,999, and it looks like they just want it gone. They’ve already dropped the price a grand, and the Cycle Trader ad says to make an offer. Music to our ears! It’s an ’03, so it has the better, later-generation suspension, and the finish should still be in good shape (it’s hard to imagine the dealer taking it in in the first place, if it wasn’t). This could be an excellent fly-and-ride proposition, if you’re brave enough to sit through a potentially COVID-infested airplane flight!
Photos: Indian Motorcycle Daytona Beach