Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500 Test Ride

Photograph by Vir Nakai

A tried-and-true motorcycling Swiss Army Knife, Royal Enfield has long been the bike du jour for dyed-in-the-wool Indian adventure motorcyclists. The recently launched Thunderbird 500 employs a multitude of improvements to achieve higher levels of performance, comfort and, above all, practicality. To discover some of its potential, Royal Enfield invited us for a 2-day pre-launch ride from Bangalore to Ooty and back routed on superhighways as well as some tasty sinuous backroads of the Nilgiris.

Photograph by Harsh Man Rai
On first look, the Thunderbird has a brutish appearance, far removed from the rather effete appearance of its previous iterations. Clad in all black, including the powder-coated 500cc, 27-bhp engine, the only relief is found in the winking chrome of the fenders, exhaust and headlights. A fat 20-litre tank tapers into thickly padded quick-release stepped seats, the rear one easily detachable to stack up luggage for longer trips and lashing points for bungee cords are thoughtfully provided on the sub-frame. Round folding foot pegs now occupy a slightly more forward position and the handlebars swoop high and back making for a comfortable and upright riding stance. Nestled between the beefy 41 mm front forks is a distinctive projection type headlight with twin 55w lamps, a cat’s eye light guide surrounding the lower bulb—a shame really then for the ugly brackets that hold the headlight in place. The bazooka-sized silencer is not going to find many fans and hopefully Royal Enfield will offer an optional silencer as they did with the upswept exhaust on the Desert Storm. For the first time Royal Enfields comes with a 240 mm rear disc brake and an oval section braced swingarm, both very welcome additions.

Photograph by Harsh Man Rai
Slip into the thickly padded saddle and the Thunderbird 500 feels comfortable for an average-sized rider even though it feels short front-to-back and might not be the most accommodating for longer-legged folks. The Thunderbird 500 weighs in at 195 kg but in spite of its added girth, it is still easy to manoeuvre at parking lot speeds. Once on the highway the bike really sings. The handlebar placement and slightly forward placed  foot pegs put you in a comfortable upright position. Rock solid at triple digit speeds, the TB500 displays none of the rear end waggle that plagued the Classic 500 variants at high speeds. Comprehensive instrumentation provides data like average speed, two trip meters, besides the usual speedo and tach displays. The display is difficult to read in bright sunlight as it is deeply recessed into the twin pods and the blue on black numbers don’t provide enough contrast. Another first for Royal Enfield motorcycles is vibration-free mirrors at all speeds!
In the short 30-km ghat section just before our destination of Ooty, the TB500 feels remarkably adroit. The chassis feels much stiffer it feels much solid when ridden aggressively and the wide handlebars ensure quick responses as the bike dives into corners with remarkable composure. The Thunderbird 500 is definitely the best handling new generation motorcycle from Royal Enfield so far.
Like any motorcycle, there are some things I’d like to see changed or improved. More compliant rear shocks with better rebound damping, a power point to charge electronics while on the move, a more accessible place for the hazard light switch and of course a more reliable fuel gauge.
Styling preferences notwithstanding, the Thunderbird 500 is a ‘many roads’ bike that can competently tackle city streets, highway slog and a little dose of dirt with a proficiency that can’t be found on any other motorcycle in Royal Enfield’s stable. - HARSH MAN RAI
Thunderbird 500, Rs 1,83,000, Mumbai