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Text & Photos: Sandeep Goswami/ Old Fox
That the Royal Enfield Continental GT café racer can be called a pretty good motorcycle goes without much doubt. It is pretty, from almost any angle at that. The ‘good’ also gets apparent when on the move but with a qualifier. More on that later. For the moment let’s get to know both the bike and the concept from up close.
Café racing goes back to the 1960’s era Europe and was a fun past-time with its own hue of light-hearted and informal competitive riding for riders and enthusiasts alike. Of course getting competitive on a fast two wheeler would bring in its own form of aggression and an occasional tumble into the wrong side of the law but the general idea was to make your bike as capable as you could using homegrown stuff and then riding it the best that you could. So of necessity, the design would tend towards minimalism to keep the weight low and the seating would encourage the rider to tuck in to maximize speed. Though we in India never did have any such thing going here but then bikers anywhere would understand the legitimacy of any excuse for riding a bike, riding it hard after some tinkering with it and later getting to talk about it all endlessly among similar company.
Royal Enfield India brings in a taste of this very concept to the riding fraternity here as the Continental GT. The romance of simplistic motorcycling of the yore brought alive in modern times and with a promise of reliability and control that rise to modern standards has an appeal in its own right. Adding the ‘charm’ factor is the heritage that comes tagging along with the bike. The RE people have managed to stay pretty close to the original café racer concept with the Continental GT and this ‘authenticity’ is a strong USP for the bike. It is new for India, heritage for Europe and in a sense nostalgia for the US.
The GT arrives
The RE Continental GT is a new bike in all respects except for the engine powering it. The cycle parts are all new, designed up from scratch and the modernity shows in the way the GT rides, handles and brakes. The steel double cradle frame has been designed by Harris Performance and is a revelation in stiffness and composure. The bodywork comes courtesy the Xenophya Design (a UK based firm since 2001 that is a member of the Motorcycle Design Association) and has a definite freshness about it despite being in conformance with a previous era concept. The manner in which the modern clip-ons, the knurled foot-pegs with those long feeler bolts, the right-sided drive chain et al have been blended into a 60’s era package is commendable. Quality performance parts pepper the entire bike with Brembo brakes that come with braided lines, Paioli shocks and those sturdy Excel aluminum spoked rims. The result is a fine handling motorcycle which comes almost as a culture shock for someone accustomed to the usual ‘run of the mill’ Bullet!
The synergy between the various cycle parts of the Continental GT effortlessly brings it at par with any of the better modern day motorcycles in terms of handling and braking. Powered by a tweaked up version of the Unit Construction Engine powering the Classic 500 with a slightly bigger bore, a remapped EFI and some flow improvements, the GT however could easily handle a newer and far more powerful engine. The 29.1 BHP @ 5100 RPM and 44 Nm of torque @ 4000 RPM rolled out by the 535cc unit is just about adequate; more so because the rest of the bike can be pushed far beyond what the engine can produce.
How it rides
Walk up to the Continental GT and you have that urge to get to know it better. It looks fetching, a beautifully shaped fuel tank resting on a very proportionate-looking motorcycle. The solo seat adds a ton to the charm. Even though a ‘pillion also’ seat comes as an option, one look at the long seat fitted on and the GT begins to look uncomfortably like any other Bullet albeit with a new tank. The view from the pilot seat is uncluttered and the clip-ons don’t really make you kneel into submission. The ergos are not the ‘all weight on the wrist’ types though a regular Bulletier will need some getting used to the lowered bars and those slightly rear-set footrests. Turn on the ignition key, flip the engine kill switch to ‘run’, thumb the starter for a 2-3 second burst and the 535 EFI thumper thumps into life. The idling is lumpy for a short while and settles down as the engine warms up. Blip the throttle and you stall it – a reminder that a large piston is going up and down and needs a graded hand to urge it on. There’s a troublesome flat-spot just off idle and the uninitiated tend to stall the engine the first couple of times before realizing the need for more persistent throttle to get rolling. The tallish first gear adds to this effect but once on the move the engine responds very well across the rest of the rev range. The torque is meaty past 2000 rpm and lustily pulls the bike till just past the 4000 rpm mark. Above that the vibrations begin to dominate the proceedings and even though the engine can be revved up to its 5500 rpm cut-off, there isn’t much coming from it past the 5000 rpm mark and so you either up-shift to a higher gear or take that as the fastest you can go in top gear. In any case if the lack of power doesn’t make you up-shift, the vibrations enveloping you north of 4500 rpm would compel you enough.
Gears, Brakes and riding
Gear shifts are again better than the usual Bullet mannerisms and I personally did not hit any fool’s neutral but the shifts do require a firm and decisive movement of the foot along with good clutch-throttle coordination to be a smooth success every time. The clutch is light with a comfortably wide friction zone. The bike pulls briskly and hits a 100 kph in 3rd gear close to its peak rpm and in a roughly estimated 13-14 seconds. I couldn’t push the bike beyond an indicated 115 kph, the low numbers attributable to my high weight, broad profile and the sheer newness of the engine (the bike showed a mere 32 kms on the odo when handed over to us). An indicated 140 kph has been said to be possible though the ‘elusive ton’ of the 60’s (100 mph equating to 160 kmph) still remains elusive to the 2013 café racer. But the best ride comes from riding the wave of torque and not venturing into the max power territory. The 2000 rpm wide usable thrust range does show up its limitations and at times you run out of revs during the middle of an overtaking maneuver or during a longish but tight curve where power on the wheel is as necessary for a predictable turn as is a good chassis. That the chassis can handle a lot more than the engine can deliver becomes all the more obvious as the GT virtually flies down the twisty downhill sections. The Brembo’s, especially the 300 mm twin-pot up front are commendably gradable and precise. This is probably the first ever Enfield Bullet that allowed me to trail brake with remarkable precision. Being primarily someone who relies most on the front brake, I could sing praises for its fade-free responsiveness. The rear though felt rather dead, low on feedback and the its pedal position made for a perpetually ongoing fight between the out-jutting kick-starter and the brake pedal, the former hidering the foot from fully covering the latter. The kick-starter usually won and that is a sore spot on an otherwise well designed bike. The rider is forced to keep the foot toe-inwards to reach the rear brake pedal and that becomes painfully uncomfortable after a prolonged romance with the twisties.
Handling and Suspension
The suspension is on the firmer side that favors better road manners at a slight compromise to comfort. The compromise however would be more for the pillion as he sits the furthest from the center of rotation of the bike. Not so much of a disadvantage for a bike that comes as a solo seater in standard trim and as a concept. The bike handles beautifully, an adjective that becomes quite inadequate when other Bullets are brought up for comparison. The wide clip-ons give enough leverage to counter-steer and flick this heavy (at a 184 kg wet) bike side to side. The chassis can handle sharp inputs though multi-dimensional loads like those coming from hitting ripples on the tarmac while cranked over hard and braking too does make the bike lose its composure. It runs wide and shows a decided reluctance in returning to the previous line. But then such maneuvers are usually the edge of the handling envelope stuff and if a bike can be somewhat forgiving even in that red zone, it does say a lot about the goodness of its chassis/suspension combo. The Pirelli’s of course get a large chunk of this praise too. There though is a decided tendency in the bike to tramline along longitudinal ruts which is quite disconcerting. The tyre section widths up front and rear are not that far apart as to be the cause so it probably arises from a complex interaction between the bike geometry, the riding position and the superlative trye grip. The front most importantly is not at all flighty what with those 41 mm dia fork tubes and that neat little fork brace fashioned as a front fender mount.
Instruments and Electricals
The analogue instrumentation looks appropriate and nice, tacho damping is good and the small digital odo cum fuel gauge as an inset on the speedo is a neat touch. The fluorescent white back-lighting makes the instruments look fetching after dark and thankfully none of the indication lights are so bright as to intrude into the rider’s peripheral vision at night. The horn is typical Bullet and just great in the effect it produces on the ones it is sounded to. The headlight is bright, the low beam however seemed low-set on our bike but the high beam in contrast was good enough for battling it out with oncoming traffic on those typical Goan single-laned roads. All other electrical bits and parts look, feel and work good. The battery is an asset at 14 Ah. The 13.5 liter fuel tank is not small but our rough estimates of fuel consumption at anywhere between 25-28 kmpl (ARAI certification puts it at 41.9 kmpl) in the real world put the range at a little more than 300 kms before the fuel gauge starts blinking at the minimum marker bar. But by then the thick but narrow seat would probably compel the rider to refuel earlier if just for a butt break.
Summing it up
The Royal Enfield Continental GT is an apparently happy marriage of tradition and technology, of heritage and modernity. The longevity of the ‘happiness’ would depend upon all its elements continuing to work in unison. The new engine will probably be the hardest worked of them all since the cycle parts are way more capable and the rider will be egged on to push the engine harder for more performance. Fingers crossed on that. But this beautiful bike does manage to bring back that grin of sheer pleasure on the riders face. It is a mix of a pleasant surprise (a Bullet that runs that well!), happiness at catching those many eyeballs on the road, the seeping in of the romance of simplistic motorcycling from times gone by and the excellent price (the GT sells for 2,05,000 INR on road in Delhi) it can be had for. The Continental GT is all new while arising from history and promises to lead the way to lots more in the coming future.
Technical Specifications of the Royal Enfield Continental GT Cafe Racer –