Benelli's Imperiale 400 has been four years in the making. Is it too late in the face of the Jawa and the evergreen Classic 350?
There's something about a classic motorcycle that tugs at your heartstrings. If you don't believe me, ask any of the 70,000 plus enthusiasts who spend over a lakh and a half rupees every month on a Royal Enfield. That's more than the Bajaj Pulsar! And mind you, a TVS Ntorq could possibly beat these guys at a traffic light drag. But that's missing the woods for the trees. These motorcycles are not about drag races or lap times. What matters is the ownership experience, and being part of a community. These bikes are far from flawless but that's what makes them human-like; relatable even. And with Royal Enfield, you have the largest community of bikers in the country with whom you can go on weekend rides, the yearly odyssey to the Himalayas, or just Goa for Rider Mania. Heck, many even set up their own DIY bikesheds!
Classic Legends had the same idea – replicate RE's success, harking back to the years gone by and ride the wave that has made modern-classics so, so popular. The Jawa packs in nostalgic value but with thoroughly up-to-date components. And now Benelli is ready for a bite of this lucrative pie in a ready market where, unlike Europe, there's no need to justify the idea of a low-capacity neo-retro. Will the Imperiale 400 be able to do the same?
The Spitfire on two wheels has been winning the classic war for decades. But that's also because of the clever packaging of the brand and its monopoly. With the advent of Jawa and Imperiale, the competition has clearly moved the game up a few notches. The Classic 350 has served Royal Enfield for over a decade, making it a cash cow but now it feels dated by at least a generation (even five) in this company. However, it still has the brilliant rider's triangle which begs you to ride with your legs and lats open, like a bodybuilder posing at Mr Olympia. And that's what matters in a 'Bult' as it's called around the pinds of Punjab. Take for example the bare minimal cluster which comes with no fuel gauge but just a low fuel indicator. But who cares about it all when the Bult (let's just call it so for the 'feels') makes you... um...feel like the king of the road?
The old-school, air-cooled, long-stroke 346cc single cylinder produces a measly 20bhp making it the least powerful of the trio. However, the numbers shouldn't matter in a gentleman's war. The thumping heartbeat of the Bult is good enough to let you cruise at 80kmph in fifth gear. Getting there is like winning a war anyway, fighting the gearbox to slot into the right gear and the engine's demurring. However, the best bit is its tractability. Stuck in fifth gear? Fret not, for the Bult will let you drop to speeds as low as 20kmph and then pull back up to its cruising speed of 80kmph. Braking isn't its forte, though, thanks to the weight but it has seen massive improvements over the years. The dual-channel ABS unit is super intrusive too, and does not allow for any slippage at all.
The suspension is set up on the softer side (isn't that obvious, duh!) but it's not as soft as the Imperiale. The Bult is not really friendly around corners but again, wrestling it around your favourite set of twisties gives you a sense of fulfilment which not many bikes offer. Getting a knee down on your KTM could be your high but it's the same feeling you get when the feelers scrape on a Bult. California Superbike School is for hipsters, they say.
Things have certainly changed for hardcore Bult buyers after the launch of the super refined Twins last year. I am in awe of my long term Interceptor which has fared brilliantly over the past eleven months and when editor Adil says that it's the best motorcycle made in the country, you ought to agree. A lot of purists have been crying of foul play. And if Royal Enfield is heading in the same direction with the launch of the BS6 offerings, the future is going to be quite unpredictable. But for now, let's live with the fact that the Bult is still one of the most iconic machines of our times. It has changed the fortunes of Royal Enfield in the country. But the 'Twins are taking the Indian brand to the world. And if the upcoming Royal Enfields are headed that way, I'm all game.
The tiny Jawa is dripping classic cues and – for those who remember the past – even brings out a tear of joy. Even I got emotional when I first saw it. Youngsters who haven't seen the original 250cc 'strokers emit blue smoke way back in the 80s go gung-ho over it. And then there are the stories from those who have seen it blazing the streets! My father-in-law says that it was the only motorcycle the sales team was allowed to buy at Larsen & Tubro because L&T wanted all their sales guys to look cool. Heck, a 60-something stranger stopped me at a traffic light and got all teary-eyed, remembering how he learnt to ride astride the original 'stroker. But underneath the nicely detailed panels that hark back to the original Type 353 lies a very different breed of animal.
Classic Legends has borrowed the lovely 293cc, liquid-cooled motor (the only l/c motor in this class) from the Mahindra Mojo. And that's not a bad thing at all. In fact, the engine was the Mojo's only USP and when combined with its slick six-speed 'box, the Jawa already has a winner on its hands – doesn't it? Well, not really. The short-stroke motor is rev-happy and isn't really luggable as it should be on a motorcycle that's expected to be a lounge/mountain-hopper. It sounds quite coarse too, at least to my ears and there's plenty of knocking on our test bikes. However, it is the most powerful of the lot, though as mentioned before, the numbers don't really matter unless you're planning to keep up with your KTM buddies on a Sunday blast — where the Jawa would only be too happy to oblige. In fact, Classic Legends has retained the sportiness of the original Jawa and if you are someone who cares about the Thrill of Riding, this is the classic to go for. The same also reflects in the way the Jawa goes round corners.
Owing to its pocket-sized dimensions, the Jawa handles like a naked streetfighter, limited only by the low-slung twin exhaust pipes. The rider's triangle, too, is the sportiest of the lot with a canted-forward posture and rear-set pegs which ultimately makes you feel in control. In fact, the suspension is set up on the stiffer side when compared to the other two. It all works well until you show it a bad patch of road. The damping isn't really great and the chassis sends all the jolts to your spine. And that's in addition to the continuous massage your butt and heels receive thanks to that chatterbox of the motor. A special mention to the Bybre brakes here though. They are brilliant at bringing the Jawa to a halt and even with a rear drum, single-channel setup, the Jawa managed to stop in the least possible distance in our test. We also tested a Forty Two with dual-discs and dual-channel ABS and the results got even better. However, the ABS on the Jawa was working intermittently and at random times failed to intervene resulting in lock up (which engineers say is only momentary but when the front locked we didn't wait for the ABS to kick in and let go of the brakes ourselves).
But if you are someone who isn't going to head to the mountains, the Jawa does make a lot of sense. It's the most easygoing of them all and will be great to use for everyday commutes, owing to its lightweight and zippy nature. If you are willing to look for a wholesome experience though, enriched with dug-dug from the motor and lub-dub from your heart, you must head to a different dealership.
The Imperiale has no relevant legacy to speak of, except for the fact that it's inspired from the Benelli-MotoBi bikes from the 1950s. However, instead of taking inspiration from the yesteryears' classics, Benelli has modelled the Imperiale after not just the modern Royal Enfields, but the Triumph classic roadsters as well. And mind you, both Royal Enfield and Triumph make quite potent neo-retros. Take its aesthetics, for example. The Imperiale is the biggest of them all with a wheelbase of 1450mm identical to the Triumph Bonneville T100! In fact, the Imperiale doesn’t look out of place even in the company of the Interceptor, unlike the Jawa. Even the cluster is quite similar to the Speed Twin’s, all of which works in the Imperiale’s favour, giving it a lot of road presence.
Benelli has even plonked in an all-new 373cc, single-cylinder engine which churns out the maximum torque of them all. However, even the Imperiale doesn’t feel as torquey as the Classic and takes a while to get going. After 3,500rpm, things start to fall in place and the engine wakes up, pulling cleanly all the way to a redline of over 7,000rpm. However, unlike the other two, the engine here is properly refined and the Imperiale is extremely comfortable at 100kmph in fifth gear. Speaking of which, the gearbox is velvety smooth and not even once did it feel clunky nor were there any dead shifts.
Being the heaviest of them all, it's quite a handful and needs to be muscled around. Taking a U-turn is a pain too, thanks to its length and limited steering lock. Benelli has found the sweet spot when it comes to setting up the suspension for ride quality but the front forks still feel stiffly sprung when compared to the rear which feels overtly soft. And then there’s the least suspension travel of 65mm at the rear, which means it ends up bottoming out even through the smallest of potholes. The brakes, too, are disappointing and despite having the biggest disc, they do not provide enough confidence.
But don’t write off the Imperiale just yet. It’s the only one of the three that comes with a cluster that actually gives you relevant information. And how can you forget the exhaust note? Yes, despite being a single, the Benelli (like all other Benellis) sounds extremely pleasing; a soundtrack I wouldn’t mind listening to on loop.
The Classic 350 has a very enigmatic appeal to it, owing to its thumping motor and laid-back attitude; very much like that of Terry Crews. It may not be as appealing as the Benelli or as well-equipped as the Jawa but then it offers you a lifetime subscription to the largest biking community in the country which no other brand can boast of. But it clearly has started showing age and if you're looking for the Thrill of Riding, you must Czech, erm, check the Jawa out.
The modern day Jawa is a piece of art. The front-mounted horn, anti-clockwise speedo, twin pipes and even the stand are all straight outta the '50s. Classic Legends has also managed to retain the riding mannerisms of the Jawa with its nimble handling and naked-like agility. But close your eyes and the 'special' feeling goes away. The engine lacks tractability and every time I wrung the throttle, I couldn't help but remember my long-term Mahindra Mojo owing to its lack of low-end grunt, which is quite unlike a classic motorcycle. The Jawa is a well-engineered product. But if engineers won hearts, the Germans would be making the most appealing automobiles in the world, not Italians.
Speaking of Italians, the Imperiale may not technically be one but somehow Benelli has managed to find the perfect mix. It's clearly inspired from the Royal Enfield but Benelli has managed to rid the bad bits and improve on the good - and not at the cost of losing its own identity. The Imperiale has a lot of road presence and the exhaust note guarantees a second glance too. The engine packs a lot of grunt, especially in the mid-range and has a very sophisticated way of putting down its power. It barely emits any vibes which speaks volumes about its quality. The fit and finish is great and the suspension setup is ideal for long distances, if you're sticking to highways that is. Benelli is also offering two years free service and three years/unlimited distance warranty. Seems like they have taken a leaf out of not just the Classic 350 but the 'Twins too.