The Honda CB350 and the Benelli Imperiale 400 are here to take on Royal Enfield. But first, they will have to deal with a Meteor strike!
The success of Royal Enfield, to an extent, has to do with the fact that it dominated a segment that practically lacked any competition. With improved quality products, it continued to rule the modern-retro motorcycle market on a global scale. But success attracts attention, which in this case paved the way for other players to enter the retro motorcycle segment. In the last two years, we have seen the resurgence of Jawa, thanks to Mahindra, and the entry of the iconic Benelli brand into the segment with the Imperiale 400. And now Japanese auto giant Honda wants in on the action too, with the recently launched CB H’ness CB350.
Now, RE simply wasn’t going to stand back and watch the competition just roll in. In fact, it was already battle-ready. And its latest launch is a testament to how much it has improved over the years, with which RE is hoping to maintain its dominance in the segment. So, we got our hands on the CB350 and the Imperiale 400 to see if they have what it takes to take on the new RE Meteor 350.
Design and Features
Now, the modern-classic motorcycle has a pretty straightforward and generic design. However, the Meteor, the CB, and the Imperiale all have distinct looks. The Benelli takes the most traditional route, as it gets a low-slung and elongated design and, of course, spoked wheels. But there is a whole lot more to the Benelli. The simple round analogue dials also add that old-school charm, and the fact that it gets a smaller fuel tank but larger fenders than the other two bikes makes it look much more unique on the road. The Imperiale is also the largest of the lot, and it certainly will attract a lot of attention. What I like about the Imperiale is that it doesn’t try to woo you with new-age technology – the only rider aid you will find is ABS. If you can’t take your eyes off the modern-classic design, then I think the Benelli should be your pick of the lot.
The CB350 doesn’t look much like a retro motorcycle. Yes, it does have a few attributes such as a round headlight and long seat, but it still is more like a modern naked or café racer bike. Nonetheless, it still looks very good – the chrome front fender and the dual-tone paint job on the fuel tank, with the large Honda badge, really stand out. In terms of quality, a quick look is enough to tell you that the CB is a high-quality machine. It gets alloy wheels and full LED lighting, which also add to the contemporary feel of this machine. Out of the three bikes here, the CB comes loaded with the most tech features, which include phone connectivity, a slipper clutch, and, for some strange reason, traction control.
The Meteor, on the other hand, isn’t so much a new design as an evolved version of the Thunderbird. It certainly has the retro appeal, but on the road, it doesn’t look as impressive as the other two. Our test bike had a windshield and back-rest, which made it look like a proper cruiser. In terms of tech, the Meteor is the first-ever RE to get phone connected navigation. Also, it has a separate dial for navigation display.
The Benelli gets the largest engine of the three – a 374cc single-cylinder unit. And before the arrival of the CB350, it was the most powerful engine in the segment, with 20.7bhp and 29Nm of torque. The Imperiale certainly has got a powerful punch, but because of its weight, it struggles at lower revs to pick up the pace. The engine is a well-crafted unit and seems to have the most grunt in the higher rev range. However, you can ride comfortably in the city if you stick to the mid-range. The engine is mated to a 5-speed MT, which works very well for riding in the city. We also managed to ride the bike on the highway for a while, and at high speeds, the engine felt very comfortable and refined – in fact, it felt a bit more refined than the Meteor.
While we are at engine smoothness and refinement, let me say the CB350 certainly shines. Despite it being the smallest capacity engine of the three, it’s the most powerful in the segment. Over the years, Honda has become synonymous with quality and engine refinement, and the CB350 is not an exception. The 348cc single-cylinder air-cooled unit pushes out an impressive 20.8bhp and 30Nm. And because it’s also the lightest motorcycle on our list, it accelerates very well. While it doesn’t have the best low-end grunt, it certainly has the best power output in the mid-range. The 5-speed MT is crisp and neat, but for a modern-classic, its only oddity is its extremely tall gear ratios. You have to hold gears for much longer, which means that the engine really likes to be pushed hard. It’s certainly a very aggressive unit, and the best part is that the buttery smooth engine never feels strained, even in the higher rev range. Also, its exhaust note is very impressive. However, its roll-on acceleration isn’t the best.
The Meteor comes with a brand-new engine from RE – a 349cc single-cylinder unit, which develops 20.2bhp and 27Nm of torque. While it’s the least powerful engine on our list, it still manages to provide the best low-end grunt. The new engine is much smoother than previous RE units, and it certainly feels very good. It’s not as refined as that of the CB or the Imperiale, but it offers fantastic performance. Riding the Meteor in the city is very easy, and its roll-on acceleration is the best. It is, however, not the most versatile engine. Nonetheless, the Meteor is an easy-riding cruiser, and on the highway, the engine feels calm and composed while offering that classic RE thump.
Ride & Feel
All three bikes are vastly different, and they all ride pretty well. The only problem with the Meteor and the Imperiale is that their rear suspension is on the stiff side. Both these models will be sold globally, and I think that’s why they have the rear twin shocks set up that way. On nice roads, the ride is pliant and smooth, but once you’re on bad roads, riding the Meteor really becomes problematic. The CB350, on the other hand, has a more well-rounded suspension setup, which can take on bad roads quite comfortably.
In terms of handling, all bikes have their own charm. The Meteor, because of its front control setup, feels better than the rest as a cruiser. The comfort level of the Meteor is phenomenal – it has the most comfortable seat of the three. Although it feels good around corners, its footpegs scrape well before you start enjoying the lean.
The CB and the Imperiale have mid-controls, but while the Benelli feels more like a city slicker, the CB350 feels more like a motorcycle that wants to be pushed. It definitely is the most sporty and aggressive of the lot, with simply the best handling, thanks to its strong and lightweight chassis. You need to ride this bike hard to experience all that it has to offer. It can be ridden calmly, but it never feels like a relaxed ride.
All three bikes have their unique characters and charms. Still, it’s a comparison, and we had to choose one. So, to that end, the Honda CB350 is our pick as the best overall product. Its quality, handling abilities, engine performance, and Honda badge really make it the best value-for-money option. The Meteor, on the other hand, is the best long-distance riding machine here, while the Benelli is more of a niche Italian beauty.
All three are good in their own right, but the fact remains that Honda and Benelli will never have the reach of RE in India. With more than 1,000 dealers spread across the country, India will always be Royal Enfield’s kingdom, and the Meteor is the first of many new guardians of the throne.
Honda’s dials are simple & easy to read. The Benelli’s twin-pod arrangement looks the classiest. Meteor’s instrumentation looks more modern.
- Royal Enfield Meteor 350
- Benelli Imperiale 400
- Honda H’ness CB350
Engine: 350cc / Single-Cylinder/ Air-cooled
Power: 20.2bhp @ 6,100rpm
Torque: 27Nm @ 4,000rpm
Price: ₹1.75-2.0 Lakh (Ex-Showroom)
X-factor: An affordable and incredibly comfortable long-distance highway retro cruiser, with good build quality.
• Very comfortable for long rides
• Refined engine with great sound
• Stiff suspension not good for rural areas
• Weak brakes
Engine: 374cc / Single- Cylinder / Fuel-Injection
Torque: 29Nm @ 3,500rpm
Power: 20.7bhp @ 6,000rpm
Price: ₹1.99 Lakh (Ex-Showroom)
X-factor: A beautiful modern-classic, with wonderful ride quality.
• Good build quality
• Smooth engine
Engine: 348cc / Single-Cylinder
Power: 20.8bhp @ 5,500rpm
Torque: 30Nm @ 3,000rpm
Price: ₹1.90 Lakh (Ex-Showroom)
X-factor: In their first attempt, Honda have aced it – the CB350 is a modern-retro in the true sense of the word.
• Ride & handling
• Limited dealer network