Royal Enfield Continental GT: Riding

September 28, 2018

After spending the last two days around the Santa Cruz/San Jose putting 290 miles of twisty forest and quick coastal roads on the two options of the new Royal Enfield 650 Twin I'm left feeling very impressed with them. 

 

Currently, only the US prices have been announced and I knew those before I rode either of them. The Interceptor, the sit up and beg Roadster that I'll write about in the next day or so, starts art $5799 (plus regional purchase taxes), the Continental GT cafe racer starts at $5999 (plus tax). Chrome tanks or multi-coloured paint options, like the one above, add a couple of hundred bucks to the price.

 

Royal Enfield (RE) staff repeatedly said that the UK price will be an equivalent. If that's at the current exchange rate that means £4450 to £4600, but don't quote me on that. In the past the UK often pay £ to $, so 30% more than US buyers, but RE staff repeatedly hinted that the UK price would be equivalent to US and the UK prices will be announced at Motorcycle Live at the NEC, I believe.

 

The price is so crucial to the story of these two bikes, because it blows the Western market wide open. I feel the twins are about as basic as a retro middleweight can be and still pass Euro 4 regulations, but there isn't a lot of obvious cost-cutting. What is there feels reasonable quality, it's just that there aren't any superfluous gizmos or extras.

The SOHC 650 twins are fuel-injected with ABS, but they are air-cooled (they are fitted with an oil cooler). RE claim 47bhp and 52 Nm (38lb.ft) of torque. The bikes have a single front discs with a twin-piston sliding caliper from Bybre - a Brembo brand. The switchgear that could easily have been designed 25 years ago, but it feels so familiar to a rider of my age (mid-40s), because it's exactly like the switchgear fitted to new Japanese bikes I owned and rode 20 years ago. I don't see that as a problem. I don't desire more complication on a bike like this. The new twins have skinny 18in rims with Pirelli Phantom tyres and inner tubes - the front tyre was an existing Pirelli pattern/size/carcass, the rear needed to be designed for RE. I think the front is from the original Ducati Sport Classics of 2005. The alloy rims are powdercoated alloy, silver on some options, black on others. Twins clocks are simple, analog dials with a digital mileometer/trip. The chrome of the twins pipes looks deep and the bike sounds good. It has a 270-degree firing order, like the Thruxton, and the offbeat adds to the aural pleasure.

I rode the Continental first and was surprised how heavy it felt lifting it off the sidestand. It weighs a claimed 202kg (445lbs) wet but without fuel. At 5ft9in (1.75m) I could easily put both feet on  the ground with slightly bent knees. Both tanks are narrow enough where they meet the seat that the inside of your knees hit the fins of the head before my thighs would grip the tank.

 

Electric start, no kicker, and the first interaction is with the slipper clutch that is actuated by a cable from the lever, not hydraulic. The lever is superlight. We head out on the guided ride behind one of the European-based test and development riders. Everything instantly feels familiar on the bike. No fumbling for indicator switches or feet reaching for pegs. The cafe racer riding position is pretty gentle. The bars are clip-on style but level with the top yoke. 

 We head up the Pacific Coast Highway, then turn into the hills and almost single track forest roads, some well-paved, some rough and in need or repair. The pace increases and I lose the lead rider. I wasn't as willing to push as hard around blind unfamiliar bends, but it shows the 47bhp twin is real world quick. I know what you’re thinking - 202kg, 47bhp, it doesn’t sound like a recipe for much excitement, but it is. Really. The chassis was developed with RE's technical partners, Harris Performance, a company with over 40 years of frame building expertise. The chassis test team is led by former British Supersport champion (and current DTRA racer) Paul Young. The bike was developed at test tracks in the UK, India and Spain. 

 

The Continental feels a lot like the first generation Triumph Thruxton, a bike I put nearly 10,000 miles on after it was launched in 2004. That was an 865cc, and had more top end than this, but was not a million miles away in terms of performance. The gearbox is smooth and slight, but both bikes felt over-geared. I was repeatedly running in fifth, not realising there was another gear to grab, because it didn’t feel like it needed it. Six-speed gearboxes are a new thing for RE, this is their first production bike to be fitted with one.

 

The route took in hairpin infested roads and never did I feel that the rather prosaic front brakes were out of their depth. The suspension is the area the twins most obviously show they were built to a price, though the front forks felt fine, the twin shocks would benefit from better initial damping.

On the whole finish is good without being exceptional. It’s more than good enough for a bike of this price with room for improvement. The top yoke looks lumpen; the polished shell of the headlight is not as shiny as it could be; some of the exhaust header welding is industrial; seat cover material feels slightly thin; filler cap is fiddly.

 

Good points. Paint finish is great; exhaust chrome is good; engine is handsome; clocks are clear and classy.

 

I couldn’t put anything on social media without one or two people piping up about their troubles with their own Enfield, or some with preconceptions, while other people stuck up for the brand, so it’s hard to tell if build quality is improving or remains a niggling problem. Only time will tell, but Bosch fuel injection and Brembo brakes sound like trustworthy brands, and RE say they’ve put 1 million miles of testing on this new platform.

 

If you’re in the market for a brand new retro, I’d recommend a road test. It feels to me, at this price, it’s hard to beat.  

 

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