If someone was to ask me what the best beginner bike in the world is, I’d have to say that if you didn’t care about offroad capability, the answer is easy: Buy a Suzuki Savage, aka the Boulevard S40, aka the LS650. It’s well-suited to the job, and you can usually find one for a good price, because they just don’t get any respect.
It’s a puzzler, because there’s actually a lot to like here. Not only are they good for newbies, an experienced rider can have fun with them as well, and they were one of the longest-lasting bikes in Suzuki’s lineup for decades.
A Different Option
Depending who you ask, the Suzuki Savage hit the market around 1986 (as usual, there’s some question about earlier JDM models). Whenever it came on the market, one thing’s for sure: It certainly didn’t set the world on fire, because it was just a bit different from everything else.
In the mid-’80s, the Japanese had bikes like the Virago or Intruder to please retro enthusiasts, or the V-Max, V65 Magna or Eliminator for riders who wanted a cruiser with a bit more jam. If you were looking for a bargain-basement, entry-level bike, you could buy something like the original Honda Rebel 250 or 450. Even those modest machines had multi-cylinder engines. The Japanese were moving the cruiser world forward.
And then there was the Savage. Originally, it came with a four-speed gearbox—even Harley-Davidson had left that antiquated design behind, when it went to the EVO Sportster (Suzuki converted these to a five-speed design shortly after production started). Instead of a cheap and cheerful parallel twin, it had a massive single-cylinder engine. Nobody else had a big-bore thumper cruiser! And while most other Japanese cruisers had a chain drive or shaft drive, the Savage went with a belt drive. No other manufacturer had a machine like this on the market, and in the decades since, it’s stayed that way.
But, that single-cylinder engine (about 31 horsepower, and 37 pound-feet of torque) was tough. If you look at it closely, you can see obvious shared DNA with Suzuki’s line of big-bore DR600-650 singles. It doesn’t have an oil cooler, and obviously the output shaft arrangement is different, but overall, you can see Suzuki re-used proven ideas when it built this bike. No wonder—Suzuki’s long been the master of parts bin engineering, and while its bikes may not always feature the most up-to-date technology, you know that these designs work.
Although these engines generally run forever, there are a couple of bugbears. First, there’s a plug at the front of the head that often leaks oil. Unless you forget to keep an eye on oil level, it’s only a cosmetic problem, but it’s annoying, and many riders have pulled their bikes apart unnecessarily as they didn’t realize it was a fairly easy fix.
Second, there’s also a well-known issue with the cam chain tensioner coming apart, and that’s obviously very bad for the top end. You can buy upgraded parts to solve this problem through the SuzukiSavage.com forum, or if you know how to deal with the issue, you can find a local welder to help solve the problem by extending the tensioner—but if they somehow screw up the job, you’ll probably end up wishing you’d just gone with the first option.
Aside from those issues, the only real problem with the Savage’s engine is that it’s an old-school rattly single. If it’s in good tune, you can run highway speeds all day. While there aren’t many bolt-on parts to hot-rod these engines, experienced engine builders can definitely get more power from them. One common, cheap upgrade is to junk the stock muffler and bolt on a Dyna or Sportster exhaust. Some users claim this helps make more power, although they might just be tricked because the bike makes more noise …
As for the rest of the bike, it’s all very basic. There’s a set of telescopic forks up front and dual coil-over shocks in rear. They’re fine for sedate riding, but if the suspension gets a bit tired, you’ll definitely feel the bike flexing if you push it hard through the corners. The front brake isn’t exactly grabby, and the rear drum is also unimpressive.
Surprisingly, these are relatively fun machines in the twisties, though. While so many cruiser manufacturers emphasize physical size over actual performance, the Savage is a smallish bike, at 381 pounds wet. If you have a set of decently wide handlebars, it’s fun to muscle it around corners. It’s low on horsepower, but it’s got enough torque that it’s good for real-world riding on quiet back roads and city streets, especially with that light weight. The 19-inch front wheel and 15-inch rear aren’t nimble, but they turn OK.
And, if you like traditional cruisers, it just plain looks good. At least, the older models do—later-model Suzuki Savages got ugly swept-back handlebar risers and some other questionable styling choices, but the earlier models had the stripped-down lines that defined early American cruisers. Frankly, it’s a look that Harley-Davidson should have gone for, instead of unleashing the visually overweight Street 500 and 750 models on the world.
So what makes this bike worth a look? It’s a very, very good bike for beginners. The low seat height means it’s unintimidating to climb aboard, and the mid-mount footpegs mean you have far more control than a heavier 800-class cruiser with feet-forward riding position. It’s got just enough torque to keep you out of trouble on the road, but not enough horsepower to really get you into trouble, thanks to that slow-revving engine.
It’s also an easy bike to maintain, with a non-complicated single-cylinder engine, and the belt drive means no faffing about, lubing the chain or checking tension. If you’ve got technical questions, the SuzukiSavage.com forum generally has an answer. Because these bikes were mostly unchanged for more than 30 years, someone’s encountered your issue in the past, and will share advice. The forum’s trader section has pretty decent prices on used parts, too, if you need them.
The stripped-down, compact design lends itself to customization. It’s an easy conversion to a bobber or chopper, and with a bit more work, you can have a tidy little cafe racer or even a scrambler. Check the Ryca Motors website, if you want to see the potential here. These aren’t typically seen as touring bikes, but if you add a small windshield and a set of saddlebags (factory mounts are available), you can pound out the miles.
But, best of all? These bikes are cheap. Cheap, cheap, cheap. They never commanded a high MSRP, and plenty of people buy them and barely ride them. This 2008 model for sale in Iowa has only 442 miles on the clocks, and is listed for just under $3,000. It’s basically brand-new! Look around, and you’ll see similar deals on these bikes, no matter where you are in North America. Not a bad deal for a reliable bike that could be converted into almost anything you want, or left as stock for a trouble-free learner. If you’re on a strict budget, and you want an affordable motorcycle to explore North America, you could do a lot worse.