I cannot express how impatient I have been with Royal Enfield over the last two years. It was there, ticking in the back on my head every time I saw an Enfield cruise down an open highway, “why don’t they make a big engined cruiser?” Sure, the Classic Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500 is brilliant, but given my physical size, it’s just so damn small and not the most comfortable, the Electra is a little bigger but totally unrefined and the Thunderbird 350, well, it’s just a 350.
The body and frame of the Thunderbird 350 is the best looking out of all the RE bikes. The only real problem I had with the bike is that it is underpowered and I feel that it should have been fitted with a bigger capacity engine a long time ago. We live in a highly advanced technological world so it shouldn’t be too difficult for a company like Royal Enfield to have the technical know-how of making a bigger, better quality motorcycle. But alas, it seems I wasn’t the only one who had these sentiments. Thankfully there are other people in the world besides myself whose opinions also matter.
Like some of you, my first glimpse of the Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500 was at the Delhi Auto Expo earlier this year and the initial build-up and hype of the bike got me really excited. But when I finally saw it up close and personal, I wasn’t totally satisfied. Yes it did look fantastic, and yes it did finally have a bigger engine, but quite frankly I was hoping they would increase the overall size of the bike itself to make it really stand out and make a massive statement about the direction that Royal Enfield was now facing.
Fast forward to September 2012 and I found myself in Bangalore with the entire Royal Enfield Corporate team, including CEO Dr. Venki Padmanabhan, for our Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500. I was expecting maybe a few minor changes from the bike that I saw at the Auto Expo, but I really couldn’t spot any. Like I said, the Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500 really does look fantastic. Firstly, it’s based on an all-new platform featuring a singular downtube frame with an oval shaped swingarm in the rear. It’s also got a newly designed headlight with a projector lamp and a LED taillight –hinting that RE is investing more & more in advanced materials & technology. The fuel tank has been made significantly larger, which makes a world of a difference in terms of styling, giving it that big-bike feel. The filler cap on the tank is also repositioned so that when the bike is put on its side stand fuel can be correctly filled to the brim. The front telescopic forks are the thickest found on any Royal Enfield at 41mm and also add to the big-bike look. The engine has got a matte-black finish to make it look tougher and the exhaust is freshly designed with a unique silencer. It’s also got plenty of chrome that looks brilliant with the three different black paint shades that are available, and both the front and the rear get disc brakes. The new instrument panel features digital and analog readings in a classic dual pod layout, so you no longer have to worry about when you need to refuel - as it now features a fuel guage too.
The engine has been borrowed from the Classic Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500, and while it is a well balanced and designed engine, we would have hoped for a little more power. The 499cc single cylinder, 4 stroke, Twinspark unit delivers a power output of 27bhp and 41Nm of torque, sufficient enough for Indian road conditions, and uses a 5-speed gearbox with the typical one down-four up pattern.
Our Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500 started in Bangalore and we were to ride to Ooty and back. For riding, the roads are perfect in these areas, with varied kinds of landscapes and terrains. We had stretches of straight smooth tarmac, a beautiful windy and hilly forest road as well as a steep climb with countless hairpin bends to get to Ooty. These conditions were perfect for us to get a good feel of the Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500 and see what performance it is capable of.
When you seat yourself on the new T’Bird you will notice that the seat has been designed to give you a little extra support and keep you comfortable, while the foot pegs are placed slightly in front for a better riding position. The bike is also very well balanced and on the highway the bike really rides effortlessly and smoothly. The grunt from the engine is typical Royal Enfield and sounds great, letting everyone know that you are passing through. The engine also performs really well and you can easily cruise at a speed of 120kmph for long periods without any strain on the bike, but the bike feels the best when you are at 110kmph. I managed to touch 130kmph on many occasions, but that’s when you feel the engine calling you to back off the throttle. The extended handle bars are also placed comfortably well and you feel little to no vibration on your arms, which is a huge improvement in terms of overall ride quality. The switches are nice and bulky, and placed well, while the instrument cluster is easy to read, giving you a stress free ride.
The forest stretch of the Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500 was the most beautiful and enjoyable with small hills and twisty smooth roads, with an occasional elephant popping out to say hello. The Thunderbird was superb on the twisties and was so effortless to handle. The bike is not all that heavy and is easy to maneuver and a joy to ride. The front forks also have an increased travel length of 130mm, which improves the suspension and allows you to run over potholes, bumps and speed breakers with no problem at all. As Dr. Venky told us in the press briefing, this Thunderbird has been developed specifically keeping the overall Indian highway conditions in mind, and I really enjoyed every bit of it. The front and rear disc brakes also perform well when needed.
The final stretch of road is a very steep climb up to Ooty with a number of small hairpin turns. A forest official stopped me and asked if I could give him a ride to the top, and I gladly agreed because this could also give me an opportunity to see how the Thunderbird would climb steep hills with the added weight load. It was a bit tough at first to control the bike on the sharp tiny bends and steep inclines, but once I got the hang of it, the Thunderbird obeyed my every command. The power needed to easily climb up those roads was sufficient, but as I said earlier it wouldn’t have hurt to have a little extra fire power from the engine, in fact it would have been ideal. Overall, once again the bike performed without any qualms and the ride came to end.
The Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500 is really a huge leap forward for Royal Enfield, and I thank them for listening to their customers and coming out with such a beautiful bike, and especially for the fact that the bike now also features good quality materials and a proper instrument cluster for this day and age. The only sad part is that the body and frame of the bike could have been a little bigger to give it a stronger on road presence, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t already turn heads where it goes. A strong bike with a strong engine, and finally a decent seat for long rides and decent materials; but is the price of Rs 1.82 lakh (on-road, Mumbai) justifiable? Well, that’s for you to decide, but if you have the cash stashed away, this is the perfect Indian cruising vehicle, so go out and get one and enjoy the ride.