The Thunderbird is now discontinued. But does the Meteor 350 have what it takes to be ideal cruiser for India?
Meteor 350. The name might be new — to us! — but it has been pillaged from Royal Enfield’s massive back catalogue and, while all-new, the Meteor is the replacement to the Thunderbird — a reflection of the global aspirations since RE doesn’t have the rights to use T’bird all over the world. But why the Meteor 350 and not the Classic 350 — Royal Enfield’s bread and butter model? Well, the updated platform will eventually be rolled onto other motorcycles but that’s a story for a different day.
Speaking of the Thunderbird, well, the styling on the Meteor 350 has evolved and the it is definitely evolutionary — tallish front-end with a pear-shaped tank, round headlamp and even the engine is styled to remind you of the old 350. In terms of dimensions it is 100mm longer and even though the seat height remains a low 765mm the ground clearance has gone up by 35mm to a substantial 170mm now. At 191kg, it is lighter by 6kg, though a big part of that is down to the fuel tank capacity reduced from 20 to 15 litres. The version we are testing is the top-of-the-line Supernova which gets all the cruising-oriented bells and whistles including a pillion backrest, large fly screen, dual-tone paint and machined wheels. There’s loads of chrome but the engine is blacked out with the machined cooling fins providing a great contrast and drawing the eye to the beating heart. There are two more variants christened Fireball and Stellar and while it may all sound very Star Wars these are actually derived from the Super Meteor of the 60s.
The paint job is excellent, the fasteners and welds are nicely finished and hammering it over our test route resulted in precisely zero rattles and quality issues. This is a modern, well-finished motorcycle but some bits stick out like a sore thumb — especially the cheap-feeling fuel filler cap. The fasteners for the windscreen — a factory-option from RE’s GMA line — is of terrible quality.To be honest, these are all minor niggles, it is our job as critics to point it out to you. But the most important bit is the brand new engine and that seems to be completely sorted.
Place the T’Bird and Meteor side by side and you notice the engine is much shorter because it is a not-so-long-stroke motor now. That said, at 72 x 85.8mm, this is still a long-stroke motor to give it the Royal Enfield character. Meeting BS-6 norms with a single-cam 2-valve head is quite the achievement, though we’d have preferred if RE hadn’t scrimped on this front and gone with proper four valves for the single. And it has a 5-speed gearbox, again the engineers saying this is ‘enough’ when asked about a 6-speed.
How does it work? The refinement is excellent. Through the pegs, ’bars and seat the vibrations are beautifully controlled and while revving it hard does deliver more vibes it is never uncomfortable and is perfectly judged to communicate what is happening between your legs. The character? At start-up, idle and low-revs you get that long-stroke thump that reminds you of Royal Enfields of yore, a more gentle and smooth thump but a thump nevertheless which I think is lovely. The gearbox is slick in operation but I caught neutral one too many times shifting from first to second. The exhaust has a nice note, though regulation is the limiting factor in the aural quality. And it pulls with more verve than before.
The power, at 20.2bhp, isn’t much more than the T’bird but it peaks at 6100rpm which is much higher than before. Max torque of 27Nm is actually slightly down on the T’bird but because the engine is far smoother and far more eager to rev you don’t notice it. It works best in the mid-range, pulling smoothly and cleanly. And you can also rev it to the limiter when you want to extract every last ounce of juice from it; unlike the past it doesn’t feel like it’s going to vibrate you out of the saddle. The brakes though, discs at both ends with dual channel ABS could do with a better bite, although there’s enough stopping power.
On our tests it did 0-100kmph in 17.5 seconds which is acceptably if not enthusiastically quick. That, though, is the nature of the bike. It starts with the riding position that is relaxed and one which I took a bit of time to get used to — especially lifting myself out of the saddle while jumping speed breakers. This is a seriously impressive chassis that not only rides the bumps but delivers excellent handling; the most impressive aspect being mid-corner bumps don’t throw the Meteor around and — best of all — doesn’t make the rider nervous. Be it the open highway or twisty state routes, it is such a relaxed, enjoyable and involving motorcycle. It’s one of those bikes that you can spend hours in the saddle without getting tired, and the saddle itself is very comfortable with the right amount of support for your back side. Not without good reason does Royal Enfield call the Meteor ‘the best cruiser in the country’ but it’s our job to verify those claims.
Pricing is the reason why Royal Enfield has kept it simple with the Meteor, and we expect it to cost between Rs 1.6 to 1.8 lakh. It’s important they hit this because Royal Enfield no longer have the segment all to themselves. There’s Honda with the H’ness CB350 (what a name!). The Bajaj-Triumph is coming. There’s a Yezdi on the way. Hero and Harley-Davidson will be one to watch out for. You have cafe racers and scramblers to entice you away from cruisers. But none have the massive community that Royal Enfield has created — from hardcore bikers heading to the Himalayas to once-a-month breakfast rides while fully decked out in Royal Enfield gear. You don’t just buy a motorcycle, you buy into a lifestyle for which you retain a soft corner for the rest of your life.