Touring the Golden Quadrilateral on a pre-production Benelli 302R
“Only the final endurance testing and validation is left. Would you like to do it?”
That was DSK Benelli boss Shirish Kulkarni to our Ed Sirish, when the latter inquired about the launch dates of the fully-faired 302R that was shown at the Auto Expo. This is a bike that has the potential to rocket sales numbers of DSK Benelli, building on the already strong response to the naked TNT 300 and offering what many customers have asked for – an affordable, fully-faired motorcycle that is both fast and stylish while still being comfortable for Indian roads and journeys. Shirish told us that it was just a matter of weeks before the 302R would be launched in India as most of the testing and validation work had been complete and they were only waiting for the last endurance tests to be signed off. Would we like to do it? Yes, of course!
Now this is something new for us. Our testing is extensive but the cars and bikes we test are final production units, signed off by the R&D, quality control and production teams. This is the first time we will be handed pre-production prototypes, an engineering checklist that is given to test riders detailing things to keep an eye out for and – very importantly – we will have a hand in the bikes that go into production. If something breaks on the way, it will be up to us to convey to the engineering and production teams how that part failed and what needs to be done to ensure it doesn’t happen if you, dear reader, buy the bike. That means an added set of responsibilities on our shoulders, but we’ve not been one to shy away from challenges.
And so it came to be that on the auspicious day of Ganesh Chaturthi we set off from Pune. Our target? 6000 kilometres over 11 days. Our route? The Golden Quadrilateral. The task that we had set ourselves was finding all kinds of roads and conditions – fast open highways, bad roads under construction, wet roads, extreme heat and nothing offers a better mix of conditions than the Golden Quadrilateral that slices through all four quadrants of the country. It is also the fastest way to clock big mileage without doing something silly like riding from Pune to Bangalore, and back, ten times. There was the small matter of having to get back to the office and put this story in to print in time for this anniversary issue.
You see the two motorcycles in these pictures? Now this is not a comparison test, the TNT 300 is here to provide a benchmark, a baseline from which the 302R will be measured, evaluated and gauged. The TNT 300 is also a motorcycle we are very familiar with – regular readers will remember that last year we did the Coastal Challenge with DSK Benelli, starting off in Nagpur and heading to the three coastal extremities of our country in 24 hours. The TNT 300 impressed us in that challenge, making it to the West coast with hours to spare. If the 302R can sustain non-stop riding at a strong pace without any hiccups like the TNT 300 did, then DSK Benelli have got a great bike on their hands.
And so we were off to the flag-off by DSK Benelli boss Shirish Kulkarni at the company showroom in Pune. I was assigned the 302R, Nikhil Kulkarni who rode the TNT 300 on last year’s Coastal Challenge was again assigned the TNT 300, our newest intern Vishal Joshi chased us in the backup car and Rohit Mane was assigned photo and video duties. Both bikes had already been prepped for the journey a day prior and we were even given a day-long session at DSK’s new training facility so that if anything were to go wrong we could sort the issue out ourselves and keep riding.
Since we are all based in Pune, after the flag-off we headed home for a good night’s sleep in our own beds. And the next morning I woke up late, not a smart thing to do considering we had 900km to go for Bangalore (sorry guys, for making you wait for an hour).
To save myself from the ire of my riding partners, I set a brisk pace on the 302R towards our first stop, the McDonalds outlet on the Pune – Bangalore highway just after Kolhapur. The 250km ride helped form our first impressions of the 302R, and one thing was evident – the fairing helps in negotiating crosswinds and windblasts effectively, keeping the bike planted at high speeds.
With some ‘happy meals’ in, we pushed on, helped in no small measure by the highway improving dramatically as we entered Karnataka, and also the traffic thinning out. The roads certainly helped us in maximising the bike’s potential with beautiful countryside from the ghats of Nipani to admire.
We were aware of the notorious Bangalore traffic but we didn’t have to ride into the city, instead we hit the bypass that led us straight to Hosur, the start point of the highway towards Chennai. Day one over. Tick mark against everything in the checklist. Nothing to report to the engineering teams.
The rice meal trail
The Bangalore-Chennai stretch was certainly one of the best roads of the journey as it was a six-lane highway comprising of fast flowing corners throughout the way till Sriperumbudur. The tarmac glittered in the early hours of the day, while providing optimum grip levels all along. Before noon we were on the outskirts of Chennai (no oversleeping this time!) and making a call to Sirish. “Can we shoot at the MMRT?”
Half an hour later we were on the Madras Motor Race Track where Phillip George, the track manager, was happy to let us shoot the bikes. Now we would have loved to give you a track impression of the 302R but hot laps were forbidden as we weren’t wearing full leathers. I grumbled then but in hindsight, that is a very good rule – safety over and above everything else. Few pictures in the bag, we grabbed lunch at a dhaba right outside the circuit, marking the first of many ‘one rice meals’ lunch stops. Post this, we were to push off for Nellore 200km away.
But the sweltering heat wasn’t kind, and it thwarted our progress by forcing us to stay indoors for nearly an hour. Once we were back on the bikes, it was a non-stop ride to Nellore with lovely eucalyptus forests along the highway on either side.
These groves were in abundance till Vishakhapatnam, with another lunch stop (yes, yes, I know, we eat too much) spent eating more rice meals. The roads did have a few diversions off the highway, but none so much as to cause any discomfort while riding. We hit the loneliest stretch of roads too on our way to Bhubaneshwar as we could not find a single soul for miles until we reached the Orissa state border. At the border we endured two hours of truck traffic as the truck checkpost in Orissa is on the main highway instead of a separate lay-by as seen in previous states.
As for the bikes, turns out the 302R has improved on the cornering ability of the TNT 300. This is accentuated by the soft compound Metzeler M5 tyres that it runs, instead of the harder Pirelli Angel GTs on the TNT. The turn-ins were a dream with it being very nimble while changing direction. In fact the 320R proved so good to ride that Nikhil had to practically wrestle me for the 302R’s keys.
With the halfway mark approaching – the City of Joy, Kolkata – we suffered our first puncture upon crossing into West Bengal. A small setback in what proved to be a relatively easy day of riding. We also had a rest day to look forward to with the bikes being sent to the DSK Benelli facilities in Kolkata for some tender loving care.
The next day, we hit the highway and 100km after we left Kolkata the road conditions deteriorated. With the target of reaching Dhanbad in Jharkhand, we soldiered on. That’s where we realised the suspension setup on the 302R, which is rather compliant for a fully-faired sports bike, did make it very accommodating over the broken tarmac. In fact, it is slightly softer than the TNT 300 and that marks another welcome improvement to the 302R after taking feedback from TNT customers.
We were aware of the situation on the highways in Bihar, but we didn’t expect the roads to be virtually non-existent.They took the term broken tarmac to another level. But we kept riding as we didn’t want to stop in Bihar for the night. Whatever you read in the papers, about the economic progress in Bihar, they still have some way to go to match the roads in other parts of the country. Luckily for us, things took a turn for the better upon crossing into Uttar Pradesh with a lovely four-lane highway upon our arrival. We had to be careful though, as the roads in Uttar Pradesh had developed troughs in certain sections due to continuous strain under extreme heat and heavy truck traffic.
That night we halted at Allahabad and then pushed on to Delhi the next day. Physically though, we weren’t tired as the riding posture on both bikes suited touring. The TNT 300’s upright stance was helpful to continue ploughing through while the 302R’s semi-crouched posture was not too aggressive to cause any troubles to our back, but neither was it too laidback as in the case of sports-tourers. A suggestion we had though was maybe a different bush to further reduce the engine vibrations.
A little detour into Agra to visit the Taj Mahal helped in lifting up our spirits with the pleasure of knowing that we had the Yamuna Expressway awaiting to mark the end of the third stretch on the G-Quad. The Noida to Gurgaon stretch, with all the traffic, took a toll on us and I for one wanted to halt in Delhi itself, with ulterior motive of savouring some mutton burra at Kareems. But with the following day’s marathon ride to Udaipur in mind, it was wise to continue on to Gurgaon and spend the night there.
We were pumped and rejuvenated as we would be reaching home in the next two days, and Rajasthan’s highways totally mesmerised us allowing us to push the bikes to their limits for long stretches, helping us maintain very high average speeds. 100km before Udaipur, we took a detour on to the State highway as the allure of the twisties beckoned us. We also heard about some good roads from our mates who were on the quattro Xpedition.
The next day was a marathon stage with nearly a thousand kilometres left between us and our bed at home. We couldn’t have asked for better roads for our final leg with the Gujarat roads being well surfaced, wide and not heaving with traffic. Up until that point the rain gods had been kind to us, showering us with just a handful of blessings in Bangalore and Uttar Pradesh. But they showed us no mercy once we crossed Surat and were 500km away from Pune.
The cooler conditions though made the bikes purr even better. While the TNT 300 did snake around once in a while due to aquaplaning, the 302R stood rock solid and didn’t let go even once. On hindsight the rain was a good thing as it helped us gauge the bike in wet weather conditions as well and we can report that it handles slippery roads very well.
The rains did ease off once we reached Thane but there was another monster we were forced to overcome – the Mumbai traffic. Despite running in lower gears and virtually being on the clutch more than the throttle, the engine temperature didn’t soar as much as one would expect from a fully-faired bike. We took our final halt to get some chocolate shakes in our system and then did the last 100km to Pune in lashing rain. It seemed like the traditional Ganesh Chaturthi rains hadn’t left Pune in 11 days!
This story cannot end without mentioning the main protagonist who frequents our highways – man. The human element on the road has always given us unwanted experiences during our rides and they have certainly been a nuisance this time round too, especially on fast stretches with unwanted and unnerving crossings – on foot as well as on wheels. The false sense of infallibility is highly prevalent in people who frequent the highways and nobody seems to care about other road users. There were plenty of heart-in-mouth moments but the dual discs up front on the 320R provided ample braking to stop safely in such situations, and the tyres too were well matched so that even in the rain there wasn’t much sliding around. But, DSK Benelli are going one step further, and will only launch the 302R with ABS and that is a very good move, prioritising safety above all things.
As for our checklist, apart from tick marks in all the columns I’m sorry to say we didn’t have many suggestions for DSK Benelli engineering. After clocking 6000km in 11 days across India we can confidently say the 302R is ready for India, and going by the reactions of a cross-section of people we met on the way, particularly the all-round praise for the styling, it seems India is also ready for the 302R.