SANTA CRUZ, California—Royal Enfield started manufacturing motorcycles in the U.K. in 1901, the same year as Indian and two years before Harley-Davidson. The British plant closed down in 1971, but in the mid-1950s, the company had licensed Madras Motors, a motorcycle manufacturer in India, to assemble Enfield-branded motorcycles for that country’s armed forces. It never stopped making bikes and it is this company that has evolved into today’s Royal Enfield, now owned by commercial truck maker, Eicher Motors.
Several years ago the company began exporting the Bullet, a 500 cc single with styling derived directly from its ancestral bikes of the 1940s. Unfortunately, it also had a reputation of not staying together very well. Its reliability was awful.
Royal Enfield sales have been marginal outside India, and the company wants to change that. It’s banking on the new Continental GT 650 and Interceptor 650 twins to grow its global market share, including in North America. The bikes will be built on a dedicated assembly line, and the company has completely overhauled its quality control process at the factory to improve reliability.
The Interceptor name might be familiar if you grew up around bikes in the 1980s. You might think Royal Enfield borrowed the name from Honda, which had given the moniker to its VF500, 750 and 1000 V-four sport bikes. However, Royal Enfield first used the name back in 1960, on the Interceptor 700 twin.
The modern Interceptor is styled like a traditional Brit bike, with a tall, wide handlebar, long, flat seat, 13.2-litre teardrop gas tank, and upswept mufflers. Like all proper classic bikes, it also has a centre stand.
The original Continental GT was introduced in 1965, when the company modified its 250 cc Crusader model into the first ever factory café racer, in response to the custom bikes springing up in the U.K. at the time.
The new Continental GT 650, which replaces the current single-cylinder model, is the sportier-looking bike, styled like a café racer, with low clip-ons and rearset footpegs, and it has a slimmer fuel tank that’s smaller by 1.2 litres. Aside from those cosmetic differences, chassis geometry, suspension and engine specs are identical between the two machines.
The development of the new twins was a collaborative effort between Royal Enfield’s U.K.-based design and testing department, and the design department in India. Several of the engineers and test riders who worked on the project are British; some of them were formerly at Triumph. The main fuel-injection engineer is Japanese and came to Royal Enfield from Suzuki.
Engine: the good
Being my first exposure to the brand, I decided to scrutinise these new bikes by poring over them, as well as a cutout of an engine on display, with a keen mechanic’s eye. The bikes are simple in design, but well thought out.
There’s nothing on the Royal Enfield engine that is groundbreaking. It’s an air-cooled, 648 cc parallel twin with a single overhead cam and four valves per cylinder. Output is modest at 47 horsepower, and torque is rated at 38 lbs.-ft.
To save on development costs, only one spec of the bike will be produced for all markets globally. That means you’ll have the same engine tuning, emissions and chassis specs in Thailand as you do in Canada. Despite air cooling, the engine meets Euro 5 emissions standards, and is supposed to meet Euro 6 standards in the future.
The reason the engine was not made larger, like maybe 800 or 900 cc, is because Royal Enfield’s largest market is India, and in India a 350 cc bike is considered a big bike. The company did not want to overwhelm Indian riders moving onto something larger with too big a step in engine output. And since there is one global spec for the machine, the rest of the world also gets a 650.
The pistons have a friction-reducing coating, and while the valve train is simple, it is designed for reliability; the rocker arms incorporate rollers on the cam side and tappet followers on the valve side. These items reduce friction, and thus reduce valve train wear. Valve adjusters are locknut and screw, so even someone with moderate mechanical skills can adjust the valves at home.
A forged crankshaft drives the clutch via a primary gear, which is quieter and lighter than a chain, and is not prone to loosen with time. The clutch is mechanically assisted for light lever effort, and the same mechanism provides the slipper function when decelerating and downshifting.
Royal Enfield’s test riders sampled specially-built test engines with a 180-degree crankpin layout (like Honda’s modern CB500s and Kawasaki’s 400 and 650 cc parallel twins), with a 360-degree layout (like the first-generation of Triumph’s new Bonneville), and with a 270-degree layout (like current Triumph Bonnies and Yamaha’s MT-07 twins). They unanimously agreed that the 270-degree crank provided the best torque characteristics, with a broad spread of power throughout the rev range, and it also produced the best sound. The engine is counterbalanced.
Bosch provides the fuel management system, and the engine breathes through Mikuni throttle bodies. Bosch also supplies the ABS, which is standard. The exhaust features double-walled exhaust headers so the pipes don’t change colour with heat.
Engine: the bad
Nothing. There is nothing bad about this engine. Yes, it’s air cooled in an era when liquid cooling is the accepted standard. However, it’s powerful enough to satisfy experienced riders, and tractable enough to make novice riders feel entirely at ease.
The engine also sounds great, emitting a throaty, syncopated rumble. As for reliability, time will tell, but what lies beneath the engine covers is proven and simple, and not particularly prone to failure. And if something does go awry, there’s a three-year, unlimited mileage warranty. Yes, three years.
Chassis: the good
The twin-downtube steel frame is not a marvel of technology, but like everything else on these new twins, it is well executed. It was designed in conjunction with famed chassis builder, U.K.-based Harris Performance. Both downtubes are removable to facilitate engine removal, and since the engine is counterbalanced it can be bolted rigidly into the frame, which makes for a very rigid chassis.
Chassis geometry — which boasts a 1,400-mm wheelbase, 24 degrees of rake and 105 mm of trail — could have easily been lifted from the spec sheet of a middleweight supersport machine.
The fork is a 41 mm conventional unit with 110 mm of travel and is not adjustable; in the rear are twin shocks, adjustable only for preload, with 88 mm of travel. Gabriel, a name more familiar for making aftermarket replacement shocks for cars, provides the suspension components. Seat height is beginner friendly; the GT’s is at 793 mm, while the Interceptor sits 11 mm taller due to its thicker seat padding.
The tires come in sizes that were popular when new wave music was a thing. The front measures 100/90-18, the rear 130/70-18. These narrow tire and wheel sizes were chosen to maintain visually appropriate proportions. According to company CEO, Siddhartha Lal, modern retro bikes with 17-inch wheels look great, but the 17-inch wheels and wide tires “just kind of look off.” Narrow tires also promote neutral steering. After riding the bikes, I cannot find fault with his reasoning.
Brembo’s Indian subsidiary, Bybre (BY BREmbo), provides the brakes, which include a 320-mm front disc mated to a twin-piston caliper, and a 240-mm rear disc with a single-piston caliper. If the name sounds familiar, Bybre also equips KTM and BMW bikes made in India. You’ll also find braided stainless-steel brake lines, and ABS is standard.
Chassis: the bad
Okay, by now you’re probably thinking I’m getting paid by the company to gloat. I’m not. I rode the bikes and they spoke for themselves. So, sorry, but I can’t find anything bad with the chassis, either. The GT weighs 198 kg dry, and the Interceptor adds four kilos to that. By comparison, the Triumph Street Twin weighs 198 kg dry.
Company president, Rudy Singh, insists however that the new 650 twins are not meant to compete with the Triumph, nor with the Ducati Scrambler or any other modern retro bike. “We are not here to take market share away from anyone,” says Singh. “We are here to grow the market.”
We rode the Continental GT on the first day, and the Interceptor on the second day, and logged more than 200 km on each bike. The mountain and coastal roads varied from smooth to very bumpy, and from sweeping top-gear esses to second-gear hairpin switchbacks. And at times, yes, we rode at higher speeds.
The bike’s lack of vibration is immediately noticeable after pulling away from a stop, and it remains vibration free up to and beyond highway speeds, with mirrors remaining crystal clear. Clutch pull is beginner-bike light, and the six-speed gearbox is probably the slickest-shifting unit I’ve tried in a long time. The lever almost feels like it’s engaging gears electrically, with short, solid throws. In 400 km of riding, some of it at obscene speeds, it never missed a shift.
Gearing feels tall, with the bottom four gears used to handle most of the tighter roads, though the powerband is wide enough to pull the gearing without issue. Top gear is engaged only when we hit highway speeds, with the engine revving 4,000 rpm at 100 km/h. One gear down from sixth gets you by slower traffic quickly from 100 km/h, and the bike cruises effortlessly at 130 km/h. Apparently, a top-speed run on a deserted stretch of road would register 180 km/h on the speedo.
While the narrow Pirelli Phantom Sport tires hark back to the 1980s, they have excellent grip over a variety of paved surfaces, and even on loose gravel. Steering is neutral, with no further input needed to keep the bike leaning once turned in, and the bikes are very nimble, yet stable at speed. The chassis is surprisingly rigid and forgiving, returning confidence-inspiring feedback even when ridden at an expert-level pace.
When I rode an Interceptor behind one of Royal Enfield’s British test riders, who led at a surprisingly quick pace, the bike dove hard into banked hairpins and railed around off-camber sweepers with remarkable ease. He picked up the pace after being pushed by a couple of antsy German riders following him closely. Getting around one of the Germans who couldn’t keep the renewed pace and probably regretted being impatient, I filed in behind his colleague and the lead rider, and we rode as if lapping our favourite racetrack. I apologise if anyone finds this irresponsible (it was, but it was so much fun), but I was only prompted to follow for the sake of science — you know, to see if the bike exhibited any ill handling traits, which until now it hadn’t. [Costa, thank you for your service. –Ed.]
It’s only at a ludicrous pace that the bike begins to wallow a bit, induced mostly by the tall, wide handlebar, and the suspension, which is designed for everyday use, and not for knee-dragging frivolity. Despite this mild moving about, it never nudges into your comfort zone and never does anything surprising, even when hitting relatively big bumps, mid turn, at high speed.
The suspension actually works remarkably well despite its limited adjustability, revealing its limits only when hitting big, sharp bumps, and when a 200-plus pounder like me wrings the bike out for what it’s worth. Despite wearing the tires right to the edges, nothing ground out, not even the centre stand.
Whether putting about town or carving canyon roads, throttle modulation is excellent. The engine pulls in a linear manner all the way to redline, and if you’re willing to use the gearbox and let it rev, you’ll probably surprise your sport-bike riding buddies on winding roads.
On the road the biggest difference between the Continental GT and the Interceptor is the riding position. The GT has a slightly forward leaning riding position and the footpeg-to-seat distance is tighter, and the Interceptor has a classic, naked-bike upright riding position. While I really like the look of the GT, I’d choose the Interceptor to appease my aging joints.
Okay, finally, the bad
Alright, the new Royal Enfield 650 twins are desirable. They look great, ride exceptionally well, have a three-year warranty, and are remarkably affordable (wait ’til you see the price). Where it comes apart is at the dealer network. There are currently only 12 dealers across five provinces: Ontario, Quebec, Alberta, British Columbia and Nova Scotia.
Beginning in 2016 the company’s subsidiary in the U.S., Royal Enfield North America, picked up distribution to Canadian dealers, which is not an unusual arrangement; Ducati and Triumph also distribute through the States.
While the current plan is to expand the dealership network in North America, it is demand for the product that will determine just how much it will expand. Royal Enfield has no plan to flood Canada or the U.S. with new dealers, but rather, it wants to see who is interested in taking on the brand and working from there. And according to Lal, interest in the brand is increasing worldwide.
“It is the first time that people are knocking on our door and asking about selling our bikes rather than the other way around,” he says.
So, how much?
There’s no beating around the bush here. Royal Enfield wants to penetrate the North American market, and it’s doing so not only with remarkably competent motorcycles that are stylish, but also with aggressive pricing.
Pricing for the Interceptor 650 starts at $7,499, and the Continental GT starts at $7,749. Those are Canadian dollars. The base price is $1,900 less than the Yamaha XSR700 and almost $3,000 less than the Triumph Street Twin. That is remarkably affordable. Damn, at that price, I’ll buy one and put it on my credit card. That’s for solid colours; there will be a small premium for the custom colours, and a bit more still for a chrome gas tank. In all, 11 colour schemes are available between the two models.
Royal Enfield says it can meet that price point mostly by applying economy of scale. The company anticipates it will produce 950,000 units (all models, not just twins) by the end of this year. Ninety-five percent of those bikes are destined for India, which represents only 5 per cent of all new bikes sold in that country — get your head around that. For comparison, Royal Enfield sells about 75,000 bikes a month in India, and in 2017, new bike sales in Canada totalled less than 62,000. There’s strength in numbers, no doubt.
If you judge the new Royal Enfield twins just at face value or by their spec sheet alone, you’ll be missing out. While they are low on frills, what is there is very good. These bikes are charming and they have character, and although those terms are often used to qualify something that has quirks and doesn’t quite work right, these bikes work very well. They offer ease of operation for novice riders, while experienced riders can ride them stupid fast and have fun. And they look great.
I believe these new twins will represent a paradigm shift for Royal Enfield, and you’ll likely see a lot more of them on the road in the next few years. Well, that is if the company sorts out its distribution network.
The Continental GT 650 and Interceptor 650 are scheduled to arrive in Canada early in 2019.