RE introduces their most advanced offering in the Indian market yet, the Thunderbird 500. We ride down from Bengaluru to Ooty to taste first blood
T.H.U.N.D.E.R.B.I.R.D. Nice name, isn’t it? Has quite an evanescent ring to it and yet sends shivers down your spine? Kind of conjures up images from a George R R Martin novel or a Tolkienesque fantasy as seen through the eyes of Peter Jackson. A huge, fire-breathing mythological beast of prey, with a wingspan than can straddle counties and a vocal range that can rival a banshee wail. An apt name for this then, Royal Enfield’s only cruiser offering in the Indian market.
The original Thunderbird’s launch in the Indian market met with a great deal of enthusiasm, but mixed with a dollop of scepticism as well, since it was a product radically different from all previous Royal Enfield offerings. Since then, the cruiser has charmed its way into the hearts of loyalists and even managed to convert a sizeable number of sceptics to the Royal Enfield cause. And now, about five years later, we have its successor.
Royal Enfield first displayed the Thunderbird 500 at the Auto Expo in January this year and it received an enthusiastic response from all quarters. The show bike came with a long and impressive list of features that one had hitherto never expected from Royal Enfield, at least in India. Recently, to demonstrate the bike’s mile-munching capabilities, the Chennai-based manufacturers organised a media ride from the IT city of Bengaluru to the scenic hill station of Udhagamandalam (formerly Ooty) and back. Spanning open four-lane highways and twisty narrow hilly roads, the planned route would be the perfect real-world proving ground for the T’bird’s cruising abilities.
Visually, the T’bird 500 is strikingly similar to its predecessor, save for the re-designed embossed stickering, the new exhaust can (and chrome heat guard), projector headlamp and re-designed sissy bar. The real difference lies in the black-painted engine, which is now a fuel-injected, 500-cc Twin-spark unit from the Classic 500, with a peak power of 27.6 PS at 5,250 revolutions per minute and 41.3Nm at 4,000 RPM. The underpinnings have been given a thorough reworking and the wheelbase has been reduced by 20 mm: from the earlier 1,370 mm to 1,350 mm. Beefy 41-mm diameter telescopic suspension with 130 mm of travel handles suspension upfront while the rear is taken care of by gas-charged shock-absorbers with five-step adjustable pre-load and 80 mm of travel. The braking duty up front is handled by a 280-mm disc brake gripped by two-piston callipers while a single piston calliper mated to a 240-mm dia disc anchors the rear. The rear wheel size has been changed to 18 inches and is now shod with a 120/80 MRF Zappers, but the front wheel size remains unchanged at 19 inches, now wearing 90/90 Zappers. With the increase in engine capacity and power/torque has come an increase in weight: the bike now weighs 195 kg, an increase of eight kg from the previous 187 kg.
One of the annoying parts of long-distance touring is having to stop every now and then to fill the tank up, when all you want to do is just keep on riding and riding into the horizon. Keeping that in mind, Royal Enfield have enhanced the fuel tank capacity to an impressive 20 litres. Tourers who love munching the miles in the night will also have yet another reason to cheer with the new projector headlamp. The T’bird 500 is only the second motorcycle in India to get a projector headlamp and it is a revelation of sorts. The H7 55/55W provides illumination that’s above par and also a notch above most other motorcycles in the country. Complementing it in an equally classy manner is the slim and trendy LED tail-lamp.
Swing a leg over the T’bird’s softly-cushioned seat, reach out to the ape-hanger ‘bars and your gaze falls on the new ana-digital instrument console and stays there for quite some time. The blue-backlit analogue speedometer and tachometer are tastefully complemented by a small LCD panel on the left pod that houses an odometer, two trip meters, clock, fuel gauge and service indicator. The right pods house the tell-tale lights.
On the move, the Thinderbird feels a lot like the Classic 500, which is not a surprise in view of the shared engine. With its strong bottom and mid-range grunt, the bike surges ahead like a locomotive on rails in every gear until the 5,500-RPM red-line. In the fifth gear, I briefly clocked 138 km/h, which is a commendable feat considering that this was a thrashed-from-new bike with just 20 km on the odo when it was handed to us. We will have to wait and see how the new T’bird fares against its brethren and that will be possible once the bike comes for a complete road test and we strap our test gear on to it.
The only deterrent to an otherwise faultless gearbox was that we encountered a fair share of false neutrals, especially while downshifting rapidly. Otherwise, the T’bird is a very comfortable machine to tour the countryside on. A few of the taller riders complained of some pain and numbness in their tailbone (coccyx), but yours truly didn’t have anything to complain on that front. Yes, beats me too!
Where I did have a problem was with the vibrations of the T’bird. Although Royal Enfield have come a long way in terms of refinement, the T’bird is still a vibey bike, which will be a bit of a bother on long trips. We reckon this is something Royal Enfield loyalists have come to accept and indeed, embrace, as part of the brand’s charm. As our convoy of automotive journalists and Royal Enfield personnel started ascending the zigzag road leading up to Udhagamandalam, we were in for the biggest and most pleasant surprise of the T’bird 500’s package. The changes in wheelbase, front suspension and rear wheel size have resulted in a bike that is hugely forgiving and planted in corners, so much so that we have no trouble in proclaiming it to be the best handling Royal Enfield in a long time. The T’bird corners with aplomb, but the only problem here was the screeching sound of the low-set footpegs grinding against the tarmac at every opportunity.
The 500 is slated to go on sale very soon with advance bookings to be open shortly, retailing for Rs 1,82,571 (ex-showroom, Mumbai). For that price, what you get is a technologically advanced cruiser with all the accoutrements and gizmos that any modern-day rider has come to expect from a mile-muncher. And you just can’t put a price tag on that legendary thump, can you? The best Royal Enfield ever? You betcha.
Photography: Royal Enfield
Update: Apparently, there will also be a smaller vesion, the Thunderbird 350cc, which will retail for Rs 1,43,346 (ex-showroom, Mumbai). Stay tuned as we bring you further developments from the launch event happening right now!