Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500X First Ride Review
- Mar 2, 2018
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Now let’s get one thing straight at the very beginning, I reason I liked Royal Enfields too much, not to really ride them long, was that they were of the vintage kind, were soft oldies who spewed oil, vibrated a lot, had iffy suspension and so-so brakes. Of course they rode daintily as long as one didn’t give them much stick, coming close to doing the ton meant a serious chore of tightening all nuts and bolts after one came back home and yes, also cleaning out the sump for the de rigueur oil leak. The one thing which many people did say about the bike was its beat, just like Harley’s phased out exhaust notes, the Bullet thump is one of the most pleasurable exhaust audios one can never tire of hearing but hey I also want a bike which makes me feel good. I am nostalgic all right but I needed something more than just what the old Bullet was capable of delivering.
Someone somewhere within Royal Enfield must have got into my subconscious and heard the anguish (or maybe the sarcasm) for when I happened to get aboard one of the new Classics early this year - in Germany of all places! And was astounded. In fact many, if not all, of my gripes about Royal Enfields and Bullets were dispatched but as the Bullet with the all new fuel injected engine was yet operating in an European state of tune, I didn’t want to raise expectations and nor did I want to go overboard in my desire till I experienced firing this Bullet on our roads.
Now I am not a violent person, believing more in the non-violent form of sustained reasoning to put my point of view across. Using this approach, I blagged myself a quickie ride aboard one of the new Classic 500s on the short track at the Royal Enfield works in Chennai. It was immediately like I had known this bike all my life and very similar to the one I rode in Germany barring for Indian rubber on it. Getting it to Pune was therefore imperative and lo behold, we had one bike all to ourselves for the winter in the super new classic green shade.
Now there are diehard Bulleteers in our midst but more often than not they have given up and converted to the mainstream. When the new Bullet Classic did come up though it seemed a role reversal of sorts was just unfolding. Riders who thought a two-wheeled green meanie had to be a Kawasaki were pleasantly astonished to hear the loud muffled boom of a single cylinder machine in an even more likeable shade of green. Man this bike seemed familiar yet it somehow was also different and let us use this as the start of a journey capable of unraveling an eye, mind and heart opener! Yes folks, this is a high caliber Bullet which you and me can buy, own and enjoy firing! - down most stretches of roads, for sure.
Configuration & Make-up: Traditional art form
No doubt the style genes are all mid-1950s brought upto date with modern must-have bits adorned in an unobtrusive manner. Now there is nothing to describe the styling of a Royal Enfield Bullet as long as you don’t take in the cruisers which to me remain something totally against the character of this brand. The new Bullet Classic 500 plus its 350cc version do continue the same theme with rounded tank and massively plush saddle. However you do have to look at and identify new details which make the new package so very different. The chassis is identical to the one honed over the last half century but the swing arm and suspension components are different. The style shrouds for these might yet hark back to the mid-1950s but their innards have modern pistons, valves and springs to offer new age damping characteristics while yet giving a good decent ride. Overall the metallurgy has improved immensely and with the firm now having put in modern production engineering methods, the consistency of chassis alignment is pretty much up to speed with equivalent Japanese tackle. Never thought I would be saying this but you have to hand it to R L Ravichandran, the affable CEO of Royal Enfield and Siddharth Lal, the young scion who heads Eicher. The duo is the perfect foil as they did just about everything to change the bike while retaining its traditional character and appeal.
The new Classic 500 carries the traditional Bullet headlamp nacelle with its pilot lamps and large speedo integrated in one unit. The handlebar is not a sporty one nor does it intend to be, endowing the rider with an upright comfortable perch while not taking anything away from ease of steering. The seating position on the Bullet is so old school and so very welcome now given the bike is reliable, refined, powerful, responsive and pleasing to ride! The new engine, which we will get to in a jiffy, is key to this but on the ergonomics front, the single saddle seat for the rider and the squarish squab for the pillion give this bike bucket loads of character and charm. I think if I were to buy and own such a bike, I would junk the pillion squab for good and replace the present single saddle for a more Harley-esque version, better endowed but beautifully sculpted and I think this would suit not just the Classic to a T but also make this bike the best long distance mile-muncher which surely is its true calling in life.
The large tail lamp with brake light cluster is also period retro as is the large mudguard. The Classic 500 is one rare machine in India which has its chassis frame also painted in the same shade as the tank, side panels and mudguards. Overall the aesthetics are brilliantly conceived and turned out, as if a spanking new machine had just rolled out from 1960s Redditch in the UK but much much better than the Brits ever made them then!
FIREPOWER: All new modern thumper with muscle to move mountains
Providing much needed ammo, not to blast others away but to stay relevant for the emissions-mandated times, has meant an all-new fuel injected single cylinder unit construction engine (can’t call it a lump now!). This unit was in the works for a very long time but the challenge Royal Enfield had was to give it the platform to conform to Euro IV emissions and higher plus while they were at it, to also work out a unit that was reliable, refined and slick in its delivery. Absolute power wasn’t even considered as high enough on the list of things to do though one clear objective was of course that its torque should talk loud.
Enfields over the years had that anachronistic method of engine construction where the engine cases and the gearbox were separate and bolted to each other. Further, the neutral finder mechanism in the gearbox was also a throwback to prehistoric times. While Siddharth Lal, a long-standing Bullet buff was enamored of this idiosyncratic detail, he knew that modern day gearbox technology, especially in the manufacturing of the components meant such a detail was not needed. In the interests of packaging as well as reliability, a complete unit construction unit was long needed and finally, almost 54 years since the first 350cc Bullet single, the world now has an all new unit construction single from the marque!
Salient features of this new age mill include an all alloy cylinder block with iron cylinder liner and pressure die cast engine cases for a more robust structure with better sealing. The engine has very pleasing architectural aesthetics to curry favour from established aficionados and to entice new BABs (born again bikers) to this machine. The bike uses a small-bore (84mm) - long-stroke (90mm) cylinder dimensions to make for a 499cc swept volume. Displacement is one thing but getting the top end to do all the business in a four-stroke is another and here there is yet another important change. The pushrod operated overhead valves now have been beefed up and the pushrods have hydraulic lifters so as to make not just regular valve adjustments a thing of the past but to also give the valve-train much needed consistency of operation.
Enfield toyed with an overhead cam, coming deliciously close but in the interim they have stayed faithful to the push rod single. However this two valve head now features the latest in combustion chamber design with a heavily pronounced squish band which seems a logical follow-up from the previous non-unit lump which did however feature “lean burn” tech devised by Royal Enfield in conjunction with Austrian engineering firm AVL. The icing on the cake though is the adoption of an electronic fuel injection system (sourced from Honda-owned Keihin) but to term it as icing wouldn’t be right. That’s because this techno-detail has permeated right through to the overall delivery process of the engine: from low revs to mid range and top end in such a clean, crisp and torquey manner that I have to say this seems the best manifestation of an EFI engine from an Indian manufacturer that is spot on from the word go!
HANDLING THE ORDNANCE: Pleasingly explosive without hurting anyone
You have the firepower, a willing urge to pull the trigger and also the leeway to do just that without breaking the law so why wait? The first thing which strikes you when you swing a leg over the saddle and go about placing yourself on the bike is the way the Bullet’s low slung build helps you stay comfortably upright with both feet firmly on terra firma. For a bike with a near 190kg kerb weight this is a key detail for peace of mind but then the other strength of the machine is there for converts (like yours truly) and BABs to delight in – moving the bike on and off the main stand is a simple chore and very easy to perform and here as well as on the move you have to credit the suspension geometry and the overall weight distribution which helps you inadvertently. The huge mass just melts away in those few seconds and now you begin to understand why this most (supposedly) macho of Indian motorcycles is actually a pussy cat!
The riding position though is brilliant for the long ambling kind of ride, on secondary state roads or on highways. In fact the one thing which really appealed to me was the strength of the bike to go around corners in a sure-planted manner with just the torque lugging it silkily through twisties. In fact this bike isn’t to be used to corner carve in a Rossi-Stoner kind of all legs-and-elbows riding style but one which is more akin to a Mike Hailwood – Giacomo Agostini classy clean unruffled style. Yes simplicity works best even to this day, especially when the tackle thumping away underneath has a tall long-stroke motor which is lusty to the core.
PULLING THE TRIGGER: Hits more bulls-eyes consistently than any other
At 27.2bhp (made at 5250rpm) and 41.3Nm (at an easy 4000rpm), power and torque developed might not be earth shaking but they endow this finely geared gentle giant to deliver big smiles to its pilot whatever be the intensity with which he twists the throttle. Gone is the massive vibe-force so much a character trait of previous Enfields but this Bullet is a different animal altogether. Of course there are vibes but they make their presence felt alarmingly when the bike is really punching away at its top end. At any other time in the rev range the tiny slivers which tingle your hands are nothing to complain about. The clutch action is not just precise but very well weighted and the throttle response is crisp whatever cog you are in. The five-speed ’box is a delight with its positive shifts and even when hurried through I didn’t encounter any false neutrals. The change from separate gearbox to unitary construction has also brought about this new shift actuation of a welcome high order.
I never wanted to ride the Bullet Classic 500 as I do my other screaming Indo-Japs but was I in for a surprise! The long stroke punch that the new engine throws on every fourth stroke along with the clean crisp delivery every time the throttle is cracked open makes it lunge ahead just so as to clear its lungs like a long distance runner. I mentioned at the start of this feature that on this bike the torque talks loud and you have to really understand this trait because while its performance is right up there, it is its ability to work hours on end which keeps the pleasure flowing on and on….
With our intrepid Varad More aboard for the performance and fuel efficiency tests, the Bullet Classic mesmerized us with its figures lone after it had got us salivating just with the hands-on ride experience. Go with the flow is a much abused term but it sits beautifully well on this machine. I don’t think this machine will be bought as a firebreather to rival Pulsars and Ninjas but hey this slow revving neo-retro is no slouch. Zero to 60km/h in 3.98 seconds compares well to the 3.8 seconds of the Pulsar 220 DTSi and thanks to the strong fourth cog and of course its displacement, it beats the fastest Indian in the zero to 100km/h sprint – 10.97 seconds to the Pulsar’s 11.3 seconds. In fact only the Kawasaki Ninja beats the big Bullet here with an 8.1 second time for the 0-100km/h dash.
The Bullet 500 from about 115km/h on though starts rocking out with vibes which to begin with one can tolerate but going past 120km/h these get to be irritable. Top speed recorded was 124.64km/h but this is academic because you should never buy this bike for speed but for the pleasure of quick fast motorcycling from a different era lost to us. The place where this bike can and does astound is in its roll-on acceleration. In the 30-70km/h band she motored in pretty quick times but we also did a 40 to 100km/h roll-on in the top two cogs and the true flexibility of the motor and its lugging ability were astounding – 9.82 seconds in fourth and 13.64 seconds in fifth!
ALL TANKED UP: And everywhere to go!
Waves of torque lash you as you twist the throttle open when motoring from 60km/h on and this bike gets to the ton pretty quickly making you marvel at the bulk she is lugging. And it is this very torque which had us goggle-eyed. I was zapped when we did the fuel efficiency – a 38.88kmpl mark for the in-town runs and a 46.48kmpl score on the highways. A 40.78kmpl overall mark is terrific by any stretch of the imagination but this is the real world we are talking of and it equates to a 550km range using the bike’s 13.5-litre petrol tank. To see things in the right perspective, let me use this opportunity to underline a misconception which many Indians wrongly equate across the automotive spectrum: sheer displacement or the lack of it doesn’t mean more or less in performance, or the quality of its delivery or a trade-off in consumption. Modern tech with precise electronic control has seen all these packaged together as a huge reward to the user. Of course you need to have the basics right – engine breathing, combustion, proper scavenging, low friction innards and the right gearing but the rewards are also there in ample measure. The Bullet Classic 500 is the near perfect example to underline this fact.
GRIPES: Of course there are a few!
The most serious stuff here is weight and I think that the Royal Enfield boffins are aware of this, especially as CO2 legislation will force them to address this in the coming years. I still think that while the MRFs are good and help with the handling and road holding, I would like to see some softer compounds being employed to get the front end to bite and hold. Many a time the front end skates when the anchors are dropped from the 280mm dia front disc and this is scary. A combination of tyre compound, construction and tread pattern plus the front end geometry need to be tweaked for this to be willed away. And yes, at certain steps in the rev band, the round-style period rear view mirrors do tend to blur out the vision making them ineffective. The Bullet Classic 500 comes with a kick starter and this seems superfluous especially since the electric starter is what I used always. Maybe it will save a kilo and every single gram should help the bike’s cause. And yes, the bike did leak a bit of oil, the drain bolt being smeared in the stuff at the end of about 1600km of sustained use.
GAME, SET & MATCH: Finally the real deal after 54 years!
This isn’t an attempt at snide humour but telling it as it is. The Classic 500 is the best single-cylinder bike Royal Enfield has ever made and so what if it took 54 years to set right this score. I also say that this bike is for the evolved biker and also for the one seeking something less frenetic from the buzzy revvy type of machines which swamp our roads today. This bike has the spunk accompanied with a melodious exhaust note which helps you motor away in pleasure without realizing you are cracking 100km/h and your teeth fillings haven’t yet been dislodged. Just for this the asking price of Rs 1.50 lakh or thereabouts in Pune is worth the while.
Speaking of which, I must narrate an incident which happened among our staffers after all had been fighting to ride the Bullet Classic everyday. Three of our guys want to buy the Kawasaki Ninja 250 but the asking price has only got one of them to splurge out. Now four more have jumped into the fray but they are swapping Kawasaki green for a subtler soother shade of classic Bullet green. Need any more reasons to underline all what I have said above? Fire away folks, the new Bullet Classic is surely of a different caliber.
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