Not a strong believer in the virtues of the Suzuki GSF400, our motorcycle correspondent Patrick van Sleight experienced a life-changing moment behind the fairing of a limited edition Bandit.

By Patrick van Sleight


My hands were shaking as I switched the ignition off. I could still feel the blood rushing through my veins as my swollen heart hammered in my chest. My mouth cracked open to release a silly chuckle as I realised that Suzuki’s little GSF400 Bandit had proved that you do not need lots of cubic centimetres to have a lot of illicit fun.

It happens every time – I’ll innocently be running an errand when, without meaning to, I transform into Valentino Rossi on a hot lap. The trip to the shops inevitably takes me round the best twisties in town.

At first, I didn’t really like the Bandit 400s because I found them too temperamental. Despite its cult status in the grey-bike fraternity, I never could quite understand the bike’s appeal.

Those revs are usually far too high and produce too little power – the bikes always sound as if they are doing 200 km/h when, in fact, they might be passed by some old granny pushing 80 km/h. Riding at an indicated 120 km/h usually means travelling in sixth gear at 8 200 r/min and every Bandit 400 I’ve ever ridden felt different from the one before. Yet they had one thing in common – an irritating and jerky throttle response.

I spent some time with the rare Bandit GSF400V, which was distinguished by the red centres of its brake discs and the red cam covers. It had a variable-valve intake camshaft and is popularly considered to be more powerful and faster than the “standard” Bandit. The variable-valve system, reminiscent of Honda’s VFR800 with its VTEC, is something that is still a rarity on bikes, because the performance benefits are negligible and the system is more effective on Honda’s cars.

The Bandit’s system works differently from the Honda’s, but has the same purpose: to increase efficiency with more torque in the lower and middle rev ranges, and to produce more power at high speed. The Bandit’s intake camshaft has two types of lobes, one low-lift lobe for high torque in the low and mid-range, and a high-lift lobe for more power in the upper rev-range. The lobes operate the valves via two sets of cam-followers, which are activated by an off-centre spindle, which in turn is rotated by a charge of coolant through a geared rail. If the spindle turns one way, it activates the followers for the low-lift cam, and the other way for the high-lift cam. The coolant charge is released under pressure by a solenoid on the cam-cover, which in turn is triggered by a signal from the bike’s on-board computer. The on-board computer reads the revs, gear-position and throttle opening to determine at what point the spindle should swivel to a particular side. It should produce a kick and a scream in the mid-range, but I could never tell if the system was working properly.

The bike felt gutless throughout the lower rev-range and could not get past 9 000 r/min, where it spluttered and spewed, presumably as the variable-valve system struggled to kick in. The Limited V, finished in maroon and black, was produced for one year only in 1991. However, riding it was a huge disappointment and this V-model proved why I preferred to stay away from 400cc Bandits.

That was until I rode the Bandit 400 Limited. The first thing that struck me about this Bandit was the very light and slick feeling of the controls. The Bandit is a design from the late ‘80s and I expected it to feel old. The first Bandit 400 I rode had a very heavy, hewn-from-concrete feel to it, but not this one. This bike was almost 15 years old and by far the nicest Bandit I have ridden.

The bike’s powerful brakes (with reasonable feedback) were another indication of its quality and modernity.

But this Bandit’s true gem was its engine. It is basically the same water-cooled unit found in the GSX-R400, and in true Suzuki spirit, you do it no favours by pottering along in the slow lane. It feels very tight and highly-strung, like a racing bike, and this thing needs and wants to be revved. The Bandit Limited has the same engine as the “standard” Bandit, meaning it thankfully has no finicky variable-valve system, resulting in a smoother ride. Hinting at its age is perhaps Suzuki’s reference to the now obsolete “slingshot” carburettors and its TSCC Twin-Swirl Combustion Chamber engine design.

Most Bandit 400’s have a rather quiet exhaust as standard, but this bike has a noisy end-can that is a mixed blessing… rough-sounding at small throttle openings, but with the subtlety of flicking a switch, it suddenly smoothes out at the 6 000 r/min mark. From there it builds into a crescendo and a high-pitched wail that only ends at a stratospheric 14 000 r/min!

The high-rev nature has one considerable downside, especially for riders used to bigger capacity engines: In the higher gears there is virtually no pick-up from slow speed, requiring frantic downshifting to gain momentum and prevent stalling.

The Limited was produced in 1990 only, and apart from the swansong GSF400VZ, is the only Bandit 400 with a fairing. This particular fairing is rather evocative of the café racers of the 70’s (like the Ducati 750SS and 900SS). It is a half–fairing in a very classy blue and silver colour-scheme. And with the low clip-on bar it makes for a fast-looking machine, unlike the non-faired bikes with their more upright seating positions.

I find the dimensions of the bike perfect for my smallish frame, but I am sure larger riders will be uncomfortable, especially with the low handlebars. The bike’s low weight makes it pleasant to manoeuvre at parking speeds, and a delight to flick through a series of bends. It is not an intimidating bike, and I felt safe pushing its limits.Where you would have to respect the second-half of the throttle on an open-class super bike, you would avoid straying into the lower-half with the Bandit. Too much speed is lost and that means tap-dancing through the gear-lever to keep the rev-needle high