“Never judge a book by its cover.”
That age-old proverb was pounded into us as kids during elementary school, but it’s one that certainly has proven its merit time and again in real life. Especially in the motorcycle world; a continuing obsession with spec-chart numbers or internet rumors often provokes many to write off a particular model without ever having so much as looking at it in the flesh. And it’s a mistake that some are likely make with the new 650 twins from Royal Enfield.
Building its first motorcycles in 1901 makes Royal Enfield one of the two oldest manufacturers in the world, and after producing large numbers of motorcycles for military use during the first World War, the British company actually built an underground factory in an old bath-stone quarry during WWII to avoid vulnerability from bombing raids. Royal Enfield built a number of 700cc twins from 1953 onward, culminating in the 736cc Interceptor of the late ’60s. Unfortunately, the British motorcycle industry wasn’t able to keep up with the Japanese onslaught of the ’70s, and Royal Enfield’s two factories closed down in 1970.
The brand was still living on in India however, as Madras Motors had a licensing agreement with Royal Enfield in 1955 to build the 350cc single-cylinder Bullet model. The company merged with commercial vehicle manufacturer Eicher Group in 1994, and as domestic motorcycle market demand increased exponentially, Royal Enfield eventually established two factories in India. To give you an idea of India's motorcycle market, Royal Enfield sold more than 820,000 motorcycles in 2017–’18—and yet that represents less than 5 percent of the total two-wheeled sales in that country! Before you dismiss the company as a bit player in the Indian market, it should be noted that the total two-wheeled sales number in India comprises mostly mopeds, scooters, and some small-displacement motorcycles. Meanwhile, Royal Enfield only offers bikes that are 350cc and above, with sales growing at an annual rate (more than 23 percent) faster than any other Indian motorcycle manufacturer—a stunning achievement when viewed from that perspective.
Having gained notoriety abroad up to this point with three 500cc single-cylinder bikes (the vintage-styled Classic, the more conventional Bullet, and the adventure-tour Himalayan), Royal Enfield is now taking the next step up with two all-new twin-cylinder machines | the café-racer-styled Continental GT 650 (tested here) and the classic Interceptor 650. These two middleweight motorcycles are not intended to be competition for other bikes with similar displacements and/or styling; the company is looking at these two machines as filling an entry-bike void in the US market. One where the terms “inexpensive,” “simple,” and “fun” coexist with “cool” and “user-friendly.” “We’re not looking to take market share from anyone,” RE CEO Siddartha Lal said, “We are here to grow the market by creating our own category."
Both bikes use a totally new air-/oil-cooled, SOHC, 648cc, parallel-twin, four-valve-per-cylinder engine with a 270-degree crankshaft (à la Triumph Bonneville and Yamaha MT-07). The powerplant externally looks more retro than any other current “classic” bike, but inside there are plenty of modern updates, such as valve rocker arms that utilize rollers on the cam side and screw/locknut adjustable tappets on the valve side (for less friction and ease of maintenance), a power assist/slipper clutch, and a primary gear-driven clutch. Claimed power figures are modest, with 47 hp at 7,250 rpm and 38 pound-feet of torque at 5,250 rpm. I can already hear the spec-chart mavens now, “Only 47 hp?” Keep reading, please. Despite being air-cooled, the engines are clean enough to pass EPA and Euro 5 emissions standards, with RE claiming it will also pass Euro 6 standards when they come into effect in two years.
The steel double-downtube cradle frame was designed with the help of renowned chassis builders Harris Performance, which was purchased by Royal Enfield in 2015. The 41mm conventional fork and twin reservoir-equipped shocks are from Gabriel (of automotive aftermarket fame), while the single 320mm disc up front and 240mm disc out back are clamped by ByBre (an abbreviation of “By Brembo,” Brembo’s Indian subsidiary) calipers, with a twin-piston slide-pin caliper in front and a single piston slide-pin caliper in the rear. Wheels and tires are vintage spec, with a spoked 2.50 x 18-inch rim with a 100/90-18 Pirelli Phantom Sportscomp tire in front, and a spoked 3.50 x 18-inch rim shod with a 130/70-18 Pirelli Phantom Sportscomp in the rear (both tires have inner tubes due to the conventional spoked wheels).
The Continental GT’s styling harkens back to the café racers that sprang up in England during the ’60s, with a slender seat with cowl-shaped rear end (Note: The bikes that we rode were equipped with the accessory single-seat option that is shorter and lower than the standard seat), and a nicely shaped fuel tank that holds 3.3 gallons. Speaking of options, there are a total of five fuel tank color schemes, including a spiffy-looking chrome version, and the paint has a quality finish. A traditional round pair of tachometer and speedometer gauges sit in plain view, with a small LCD slot in the tach that displays a fuel gauge and odometer. Ergos are toward the sporty end of the spectrum without being too committed, with clubman-styled clip-ons that rise up above the top triple clamp, and pegs that are more rear-set than the ones on the Interceptor.
Fire up the Royal Enfield and you’re immediately greeted by a nice, melodious twin-cylinder rumble from the upswept mufflers, and the clutch pull is nice and easy. Plentiful low-end power means pulling away from a stop is very novice-friendly, and the six-speed gearbox has a nice, positive action. Grab a handful of throttle, and you’re rewarded with a very responsive thrust that belies the engine’s old-tech exterior. The 270-degree crank provides gobs of quick-revving torque that makes the engine surprisingly fun to use, whether it’s zipping you out of tight traffic spots or blasting down your favorite twisty road. Paying attention to the tach is basically superfluous, as the twin’s wide spread of power extends from just off idle to around 7,000 rpm, where it begins to run out of breath. There’s no sense trying to rev it out like that anyway, as upshifting well before then simply gives you another boost of acceleration and ear-to-ear grins. Vibration is minimal, with just a hint of vibes in the midrange that barely fuzz out the images in the mirrors.
The steel double-downtube cradle frame may look old-tech as well, but its performance is anything but. Steering is delightfully light but neutral, with enough stability to keep things from ever feeling flighty or nervous; line changes mid-corner are easily accomplished with little effort, yet the Continental GT holds its line without requiring any input from the rider—a handling trait likely aided by the relatively narrow 18-inch tires. And if you’re thinking those skinny-looking Pirellis don’t have much grip, think again; the Phantom SportComps may be old relative to the latest radials, but overall traction is excellent in every phase of riding, whether it’s accelerating, braking, or cornering.
The non-adjustable suspension (save for seven-step rear spring preload) has fairly soft spring/damping rates to provide a smooth ride over nasty pavement, but ramping up the pace in the canyons doesn’t cause it to come unraveled. In fact, the Gabriel fork and shocks were impressive in their ability to keep the chassis stable despite bottoming out on some of the bigger hits at a pace that would have many sportbikes sweating. The Royal Enfield scales in at 435 pounds with no fuel (meaning around 450 pounds with fuel), and it carries that weight well. It was only at an expert-level pace that the Continental GT’s chassis would begin to protest with a bump- or steering-induced weave in the fast corners, but the vast majority of riders will never see the need to approach that pace anyway.
We heard a lot of grumbling about the single front disc brake when the Royal Enfield twins were unveiled, but once again, appearance isn’t everything. The 320mm disc and two-piston ByBre caliper were easily up to the task of slowing the Continental GT during aggressive riding, providing enough feel and feedback for experienced riders while not being overly responsive and progressive for novice hands. And the standard Bosch ABS worked well, with no real overt intervention even during hard braking situations in the canyons.
Gripes? Yeah, sure, there are a couple. The accessory single café seat that we tested was great for canyon riding, but its lack of padding gave it the feel of an upholstered plank after about 30 minutes in the saddle. And the use of inner tubes in the tires means that if you get a puncture, repairing it isn’t as easy as current tubeless rubber. But those are minor complaints, especially when you consider the Royal Enfield’s price.
Oh, we didn’t mention that yet? The Continental GT will retail in dealerships early next year for $5,999 for the solid color schemes, $6,249 for the multi-colored versions, and $6,749 for the chrome-tanked edition. Considering the performance, ease of use, cool styling, and simple fun factor, that’s a serious bargain. And those concerned with past rumors regarding Royal Enfield’s Indian manufacturing origin, take note: The build quality is nice with good detailing, and is head-and-shoulders above any other Indian motorcycle manufacturer (Royal Enfield completely revamped its manufacturing and QC methods with the new twins). The company is confident enough to back both new twins with a three-year, unlimited-mileage warranty—yes, three years. Plus roadside assistance to go with it.
All in all, we were very impressed with the Royal Enfield Continental GT 650. Its combination of authentic looks, approachable yet surprisingly capable performance, affordability, and solid product backing give the Royal Enfield an appeal lacking in most other two-wheeled offerings today. Could the Continental GT 650 be part of a game-changing move in the USA by Royal Enfield? We certainly hope so.
2019 Royal Enfield Continental GT 650
|PRICE||$5,999 (solid colors), $6,249 (multi-colors), $6,749 (chrome)|
|ENGINE||648cc, air-/oil-cooled, SOHC, parallel twin, 4 valves/cylinder|
|CLAIMED HORSEPOWER||47 hp @ 7,250 rpm|
|CLAIMED TORQUE||38 lb.-ft. @ 5,250 rpm|
|FRAME||Tubular mild steel, double cradle|
|FRONT SUSPENSION||41mm conventional damping rod fork, 4.5-in. travel|
|REAR SUSPENSION||Twin coilover shocks, adjustable preload, 3.5-in. travel|
|FRONT BRAKE||2-piston floating caliper, single 320mm disc w/ ABS|
|REAR BRAKE||1-piston floating caliper, single 240mm disc w/ ABS|
|SEAT HEIGHT||31.2 in.|
|FUEL CAPACITY||3.3 gal.|
|CLAIMED WEIGHT||435 lb. (all fluids, no fuel)|