Tushar BurmanSep 01, 2021 20:18:31 IST
The pandemic has been one blur of days. Back in November 2019, the Royal Enfield Meteor 350 was one of the first vehicles I reviewed, just a couple of weeks after I joined Tech2. Twenty-one months since, we have the refreshed Classic 350, which was the bike I wanted all along. It took a while, but it was worth the wait. I’m hoping that RE picks up that 21-month-old Meteor from me as quickly as possible and replaces it with a shiny Halcyon Green C350. You might imagine from the tone so far that this is going to be a generally positive review. The TL;DR is this: if you’ve always wanted a Royal Enfield, or owned one in the past and are still faithful, the new Classic 350 is a great choice. Here’s why.
The Classic 350 is still classic
There will be those that lament a certain lack of ‘character’. If that’s you and you like to regularly scrub your hands with kerosene, stop right here and go buy your mechanic another pack of smokes. After twenty years of dismantling carbs on the roadside with my RD350, I’m quite ready to never do that again. And with the new Classic 350, you’ll probably never have to. It may have something to do with the fact that it’s fuel-injected, but the point is that this is an all-new engine, just like the one in the Meteor 350. It’s solid, smooth, happy to rev, makes decent power and torque (20.2 hp and 27Nm). All the things that the older Classic is, well, not.
So why is it still authentic? Royal Enfield has gone to great lengths to not change the things that people like, and design is clearly front-and-centre on the priority list here. At first and even second glance, the 2021 Classic 350 looks every bit like the old one. There are changes, of course. To the wheels, to the frame, the motor looks a bit different, as does the swingarm, there are disc brakes front and rear, and a myriad other changes. But everything comes together to recreate a very beautiful motorcycle. You have the classic tank, shrouded telescopic forks, the nacelle that houses the instruments (Royal Enfield has always called it something I quickly forgot), the little metal peak over the headlamp – all hark back to Royal Enfields of old, all totems of their legacy in motorcycling, and all perfect nods to what came before. Even the large chrome exhaust looks about as clean as it can in a BS6 world, and even sounds okay. This is a Royal Enfield you’ll be happy to swing a leg over.
The Classic 350 is new in all the right places
Just like the Meteor 350, from which it borrows heavily, much of the Classic 350 is all-new. The motor and frame are mostly borrowed from that motorcycle, with a slightly shorter wheelbase and taller seating position. It’s the same basic motorcycle with slightly different geometry and the format is different. You sit on instead of in the motorcycle. Other borrowed bits include the switchgear, handlebar grips and on the top model, the Tripper navigation screen; only this time, it is nicely integrated into the instrument cluster. We’ll skip the tech discussion for this review, because the Tripper navigation system and app integration are identical to what we saw on the Meteor 350.
Also new are the wheels, which can be cast or wired, depending on the model you choose. Personally, I like the 19-inch front/18-inch rear wire-spoke wheel combo. The two cast alloy options just don’t seem congruent with the image of the Classic, but there are many, many options and 11 colourways to choose from. The suspension is also revised from the Meteor 350 to suit the new format, but visually looks the same as any Classic. So really, the motorcycle isn’t all that different from the well-loved (and sometimes troubled) model that it replaces. It just has the troublesome bits modernised, and the love is kept alive.
On the go: all is forgiven
For 67 years, Royal Enfield has made the same basic motorcycle, with a revolving door of idiosyncrasies to keep the faithful entertained and, well, faithful. I learned how to ride a motorcycle on a 1984 Bullet 350 modified to look much like a modern Meteor (and quite a bit better, in my memory). I managed to kick-start it without breaking a femur, and only left a small amount of oil wherever I parked. I also learned about the families and struggles of the mechanics we routinely broke bread with and generally had a good time riding pillion as the owner – a former RD350 rider – wrung its neck around the streets of Mumbai. But when it came time to buy a motorcycle, I bought a used RD350. The Bullet was just too slow, too common, too idiosyncratic and unreliable for my taste. So, I bought a bike that was all those things, but was rare and really quick. Problem solved.
Were today’s Classic 350 available back in 2001, I might have made a different choice. Today’s Classic 350 is likely to be reliable, not too slow, clean-running, efficient and most importantly, it’s likely to work when you really need it to. In 21 months of (mostly) lockdown, the Meteor 350 in my shed has never failed to start at the first thumb. I just don’t ride it that much because the foot-forward riding position just doesn’t work for me. The Classic 350 fixes this for me, while looking way, way better.
At speeds of up to 100kph, I had no complaints with the Meteor 350, and this continues to be the case with the Classic 350. It pulls away smartly thanks to its generous low-end torque, feels smoother than any Bullet you’ve ever ridden, and the gears never miss. I mean literally, never. Beyond 100 kph, the Classic is at a bit of a disadvantage thanks to the larger 18-inch wheel at the rear (the Meteor uses a 17-inch rear), which results in different gearing and more laboured progress at high speeds.
Nevertheless, I found that if you properly pulled the bike in fourth, you could reach high speeds in fifth with no problem. But this is a thing, and has been noticed by every journalist that rode the bike. It is not a deal-breaker, and could be considered harmonious with the character of the Classic.
This is still a highway-capable motorcycle that you can take touring. In fact, more so than the old Classics, since the new engine is an absolute gem. Torque is available down low, and you can rev it without feeling stressed. The faster you go, the smoother the bike seems to get, until close to the limit. This should make it much more comfortable over long distances. At a mostly-constant 90 kph, I found myself fresh at the end of our long riding day.
Our press ride was along the NH4 to Jadhavgadh, turning off onto rural roads across lush meadows on the last stretch. The highway is damn good, until it isn’t, and by then, it’s too late to do anything about it. Eight-inch craters on otherwise perfect tarmac is enough to cause crashes, but the new Classic 350 dealt with them at speed with surprising composure; elegance, even, where the old Classic would have been a real handful… assuming you had managed to cling on. The suspension setup is exemplary for what it is – basic twin shocks at the back and a 41 mm telescopic fork up front. It works really, really well in combination with the new, stiffer chassis. The old Classic had a chassis that I can best describe as al dente.
Brakes on the new Classic 350 are good. The consensus is that they lack bite, but are adequate and did the job ably, ensuring there were no hairy moments. For some reason, my complaints about the meaty levers did not resurface, despite being about as fresh to me as they were in 2019.
Ergonomically, the new Classic 350 feels just right to me. The handlebar is within reach with a slightly canted-forward riding position. The rider’s legs are a little in front of the centre of gravity, and perfectly useful for standing up when you do manage to see an eight-inch crater in time. I did a little over 200 km over the course of the riding day in dry as well as wet weather, and came out unscathed, relaxed and impressed with the Classic 350.
Caveats: few and fixable
Thankfully, I have little to fill this section with, and all of these niggles have been universally recognised and will likely be fixed by the time production units reach owners. In brief, the mirrors come loose and don’t adjust much, the Tripper screen is angled poorly unless you’re super tall, and the rubber foot pegs tend to be slippery with riding boots on. I’m also not a fan of the stock tyres; they did not inspire confidence.
Verdict: there’s a Classic 350-shaped spot in my parking
As I touched upon in my Meteor review, Royal Enfield has successfully transformed itself into an aspirational lifestyle brand over the past few years. The gear they send us for review (including the amazing kit I rode with, that I can’t talk about yet) is top-notch, with good build and world-class armour. It’s the sort of stuff I’d be happy wearing (and often do) while riding other motorcycles because it’s good stuff. With the Classic 350 (launched at a starting price of Rs 1,84,374), I feel like the bike has finally caught up with the gear. This is a proper, aspirational motorcycle that I would be happy to recommend to anyone inclined. Heck, I’d be happy to ride it every day when I don’t feel like looking like a poser on my adventure bike that lies mostly parked. The Meteor has its place, but not in my garage.
Royal Enfield, kindly do the needful.