There are only two ways you can think about a Royal Enfield motorcycle – either you like them or you don’t. In all these years of watching the Bullet thump by, I have never encountered someone who doesn’t have an opinion about them, but if there’s one fact that even the haters will have to agree to, it’s that RE’s bikes exude a certain old-time charm that is simply lost in today’s age of technology. With the Thunderbird 350 being in existence for over ten years an upgrade has been due for a while and that’s just being subtle about the delay! Of course, the big cruiser evolved in the years since, moving from the AVL lean burn motor to a more sophisticated Twin Spark unit.
Despite its biggest USP being its classic appeal, to stand the test of the times technology has to be embraced and the Thunderbird had to become sharper not just in form but also in function. You’d think it would be an easy task plonking in modern technology given the resources available today but to have to retain that old school charm is definitely a challenge. It seems though that the crew at Royal Enfield sure know how to.
At first glance you’ll almost feel like nothing’s changed at all, but it’s only when you take a good look that you see how different the new Thunderbird 500 is from its smaller engined predecessor. The trick with this is that the Thunderbird isn’t made to look like a sibling to the 350, but in fact like a 350 that has put on more muscle and shaped up in the right areas. So the bike’s very attractive upswept stance remains, but that form has been given an extremely attractive makeover.
The headlamp unit remains round, but now gets an integrated H7 55/55 W spec projector lamp with a very BMW-ish halo around it that acts as a day time running lamp and looks super cool! The chrome twinpod meters are now shorter and get a matt black base. The instrumentation itself gets a classy touch with great blue backlighting and a digital readout for the odometer, tripmeter and fuel gauge, now also incorporating a handy trip computer that gives you entertaining information such as the average speed and such. The tell tale lights though could have been better illuminated to be able to spot in daylight. There is also a neat hazard light function in the new bike as well. Switch gear is all-new and there’s a very neatly crafted handlebar bracket that has the Royal Enfield logo etched in.
The fuel tank is the biggest change that gives the 500 its muscular demeanour along with the very ‘American’ blackened engine with biffed fins treatment. The exhaust pipe loses its conical end gets a nice cylindrical end with two blackened bands at the tip and also gets covered with a heat shield – no more charred right ankles then, good! The seat retains its curves but is now split with the pillion part removable to reveal a very tourer-friendly flat plate to mount your luggage to.
Grabrails finally let go of the chrome and settle in for a powder-coated aluminum look with a short backrest for the pillion. The tail lamp gets the LED treatment too with vertical light guides giving the Thunderbird 500 an unmistakable identifying element. The only bit that seems a tad out of place is the large-ish rear mudguard but we reckon that has more to do with ARAI regulations than design disregard. The best part is that we’ve all seen this new Thunderbird before at the Auto Expo earlier in 2012 and the production bike hasn’t changed from that at all and it even stays true to its front 19-rear 18 inch tyre configuration.
Apart from the big styling update, the other most important evolution on the Thunderbird 500 is of course its powerplant – now carried over from the tried and tested Desert Storm / Classic 500. The 499cc displacement is achieved through a 84mm x 90mm cylinder dimension and is fed through a Keihin electronic fuel injection system. All that gives this T-bird 41.3 Nm and over 27 horses – that’s a whole 13 Nm of torque and more than 6 horses more power than the 350.
The engine is still a stressed member in the scheme of things as far as the single downtube chassis is concerned and is mated to a 5-speed gearbox. It seems pretty obvious that the airbox has been played around with a bit as well and this unit emanates a throaty almost-performance-air-filter type roar unlike we’ve ever seen on any Royal Enfield before – it actually sounds pretty neat! Those looking for the quintessential Bullet-thump might be a tad disappointed then, but give that motor some revs and the smiles will return. All that has given the Thunderbird 500 some pretty good fuel efficiency as well – our Bangalore-Ooty-Bangalore run returning somewhere around 45 kmpl (roughly calculated, and with riding on the open highway almost all the way).
The 500 also gets a much-needed tweak to its suspension both fore and aft. The front forks are now thicker at 41mm and there’s no offset with the axle either – exactly what a modern motorcycle front should be like. The swingarm is all-new and features a box section softened around the edges. Ride quality thus improves massively, but what is even more fascinating is the big leap in handling. The changes on the front end coupled with a wheelbase that is shorter by 20mm makes the Thunderbird 500 a delight on a set of twisties.
So this isn’t just a highway cruiser, but a bike that you could occasionally carve corners on as well. The bike turns in really quick and is way more flickable than it used to be. Add the fact that the ground clearance has increased by 5mm despite the bike being exactly that much shorter in overall height and you know this isn’t just a Thunderbird with a cosmetic upgrade and a bigger engine – it’s actually a much better machine than it ever was.
With so much happening, the Thunderbird 500 has gained a few pounds in weight as well – now just 5 units shy of the 200kg mark. RE has upgraded the brakes to take care of the added inertia – the rear now getting a 240mm single caliper disc to complement the 280mm double pot caliper on the front. Braking feel is something that does leave a lot to be desired though and while the bike will slow down just as you want it to, the feedback from the levers will leave you wondering if there’s a slight chance that it won’t! The 90/90 MRF Zapper FM up front and the 120/80 Zapper C at the rear are adequately grippy and a big improvement on the rubber that used to shod the 19-inch rims all-round on the earlier bike.
That does bring us to the chronic problem that has plagued all Royal Enfields – vibrations. While those have damped down compared to earlier machines, they’re still pretty evident and the fat rubber wrapping the foot pegs doesn’t help much. Counterbalance weights at the tips of the pegs could have improved things a bit especially for pillion riders. That said, there aren’t too many of those vibes hitting you through the handlebar and the Thunderbird 500’s mirrors will actually give you a clear picture of what’s behind you instead of just turning tailing vehicles into ghosts in the mirror. In fact the mirrors on the new Thunderbird are one of the best sets we’ve ever seen – with the lower inside corners shaved off. This essentially gets rid of you seeing a big chunk of your shoulders in the mirrors and thus gives you a better view of what’s coming up from behind – a design idea that has left us wondering why no one else thought of that before.
Like we said before, the Thunderbird 500 is quite a massive leap ahead in motorcycling terms for Royal Enfield than we’ve ever seen compared to its current model line-up. The bike will cruise close to three-digit speeds without breaking a sweat and on one particular stretch of empty highway we even saw 140 km/h on the speedometer. With the bigger 20-litre fuel tank and the kind of efficiency we witnessed, it will even take you longer without having to stop for fuel and it’s got enough mounting options to load up all your luggage on it as well. The bike does have it’s low points too though – like the vibrations that are still very much around, and the fact that the foot pegs have been moved further forward – so no more standing on the pegs all you RE fans bound for the Himalayas!
The split seat’s contour could be a little hard on the tailbone too depending on how tall or short you are. All things considered though, this is a perfect step up for those Thunderbird fans who simply don’t want to make do with the Classic 500s – not only on the styling front, but also on the overall motorcycling front. And if you’re still not satisfied, you could always save up further for the super awesome café racer that Royal Enfield showed off at the Auto Expo as well!
Engine: 499cc, single cylinder, Twinspark, air cooled
Power: 27.6 PS @ 5250rpm
Torque: 41.3 Nm @ 4000rpm
Compression ratio: 8.5:1
Transmission: 5-speed constant mesh
Fuel supply: Keihin electronic fuel injection
Kerb weight: 195kg
Fuel tank capacity: 20 litres