Honda has decided to take the fight to Royal Enfield by bringing an all-new, India-specific neo-retro. But has the plan worked?
Honda has been quietly chalking out a plan to take on what is one of the most successful motorcycles in the history of Indian automobiles – the Royal Enfield Classic 350. Even during the pandemic, the Classic has been consistently managing to sell in huge numbers; around 40,000/month on an average. It’s one of the reasons behind Royal Enfield’s global success story and of course; the huge pile of cash reserves. But now, Honda has decided to grab a major chunk of that pile by bringing a motorcycle that seems to be clearly inspired by the Classic 350 in every way possible, be it the design, the dimensions or even the engine specifications.
However, Royal Enfield has an answer in the form of the Meteor 350 – which is the replacement to the Thunderbird. But the platform is modular so expect a lot more models to come our way in the near future. I digress. The Meteor 350 is a cruiser while the H’ness CB350 is a roadster but both the machines are about the simple joys of motorcycling, providing the raw experiences. Now, the Meteor 350 has already beaten the likes of the Benelli Imperiale 400 and Jawa in our comparison test which means the only machine that can challenge the status quo here is the Honda. But has Honda managed to outdo Royal Enfield in its own game with the H’ness CB350?
The Meteor 350 has been on a roll since its launch with a big thumbs up from both, the masses and the critics. My colleagues have been singing praises for months now and here I am, finally getting to swing a leg over what is one of the main contenders of the 2021 IMOTY. Has the hype been worth it? Well, yes and no.
Over the years, we have come to expect Royal Enfields to behave in a certain way. The Twins however turned the perception upside down which means the expectations are very high from the Meteor 350. Well, to begin with, the design is not very impressive. We have been seeing the Thunderbird for almost over two decades now and the Meteor 350 doesn’t look really different. It definitely seems better put together when you take a closer look, but this segment is all about that ‘love at first sight’ feeling. And the Honda scores better on that front for sure. The Meteor isn’t a bad-looking motorcycle but its familiar looks do not warrant a second glance. Even the exhaust note seems to be muted and is very different from the thump that we’ve come to love. But get on the saddle and you’ll be surprised.
The low seat makes you feel like you’re sitting ‘in’ the bike and not ‘on’ it unlike in the case of the Honda. The switchgear is unique and takes some time getting used to but you’ll love it once you get used to it. The pass switch is cumbersome to use and that’s my only grouse. The attention to detail is exemplary and the same reflects in the way the Meteor goes about its business.
If spec sheets defined a motorcycle, it would be pointless to ride the CB and Meteor. However, the riding experience is so contrasting that you’ll realise how important it to is to experience a motorcycle to make a fair judgement. The Meteor isn’t as loud and refined as the CB and you’ll know that the moment you twist that rotary engine starter switch. The single-pot behaves very similar to the Interceptor’s twin with oodles of torque flowing in a buttery smooth manner. The Meteor is such a relaxing motorcycle to ride that it makes the Honda feel like a Panigale V4 when ridden back to back. You can simply shift to the fifth cog and let the motorcycle cruise on its own. You can come down to speeds as low as 20kmph without downshifting even, which makes it very effortless to ride. The engine is very tractable and emits minimal vibes only after 80kmph. And these are ‘good vibes’ unlike the numbing sensations on the Royal Enfields of the past. Even the exhaust note feels very Bruce Wayne-like and not manipulative like Batman, as it does on the CB350.
Royal Enfield has upped the ride and handling game with the Interceptor and the tradition continues with the Meteor 350 as well. You would never expect a Royal Enfield to behave better than a Honda in corners, but the Meteor is definitely superior with its neutral handling. The wider rear gives you a lot more confidence in the corners alongside the chassis, despite it having a shorter wheelbase than the Honda. Even the ride quality is much better than the Honda’s with the Meteor gliding over potholes, even at high speeds, without losing its composure. The perfectly cushioned seat adds to the comfort, making it a brilliant mile muncher. The brakes are not as sharp as the CB’s but offer substantial stopping power when squeezed hard. I’d have liked to try out the Tripper too but the procedure to login is very complicated so more on that later. The Meteor 350 isn’t a perfect motorcycle but has a lot of character – a very important trait for a motorcycle of its kind.
The H’ness CB350 is a beautiful machine to look at, no second thoughts about that. The round LED headlamp along and round indicators (which seem to be inspired from the Harleys) along with the two-tone paint on the fuel tank cover give it an identity of its own. When parked next to the Meteor 350, it definitely looks a lot younger but even more blingy. In this segment, the design plays a very important role; more eyeballs equate to more brownie points and the Honda surely succeeds at doing so.
Unlike the Meteor 350, the CB350 has a very different approach to its power delivery. It isn’t tractable like how you’d expect a neo-retro machine to be. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. The motor has no grunt in the low range (no tacho, can’t specify RPM) so you have to constantly skim through gears to find the correct engine speed. And unless you’re wringing its neck, it hesitates to move. When going over bumps at about 20kmph, I literally had to shift down to almost the second cog to get going. The almost 350cc motor develops almost the same amount of torque and power as the Meteor 350, but the delivery is poles apart. It even reminded me of the KTM 250 Adventure that I had ridden just a week ago. The engine doesn’t allow you to laze around and expects you to hit the limiter every single time. And that’s exactly what had made me reach the location before time. Thankfully, this is a Honda which means refinement runs deep in its genes. In fact, it is so refined that it feels simply out of character for a machine of this particular kind.
The gearbox is super-slick as well – again a typical Honda trait and the slip and assist clutch adds to the comfort. The clutch is featherlight and that’s why it isn’t that big an issue to work through the gearbox. Amidst all this, the articulated exhaust note eggs you to push harder. It doesn’t really sound like a thumper and brought back memories of my Rotax stroker go-kart from 20 years ago; especially at high revs. It’s so loud that a group of Harley owners stopped and asked me if this was the 350cc motorcycle that Harley is working on. They also invited me to ride with them which means, HOG memberships are guaranteed! (Take that Royal Enfielders)
The ride to Aamby Valley saw the CB350 over highways, twisties, potholed B-roads and everything else. What I enjoyed the most was its agility – so well-balanced is the chassis that you never feel the heft. It’s a 181kg motorcycle with an athletic build making it feel like a 160kg. Handling is marred only by the thin rubber and if I were to put it better, I’d say that this feels like a shrunken Street Twin. The ride is not very cushy and the CB350 does get unsettled over bumpy patches. It feels even more pronounced after riding the Meteor 350 which is supremely stable at all speeds. The rear suspension bottomed out with my weight (85kg) on several occasions, so if you want to go to Ladakh, this might not be your best option.
A big plus point has to be the brakes. They are sharp and very communicative and give a lot more confidence than the Meteor’s. The features-list is impressive as well with traction control (why though?), Bluetooth-enabled cluster which works only with a headset, lit-up indicators and that Honda badge. The CB350 is an impressive motorcycle indeed. It handles like a naked and even goes like one. The ride and handling setup isn’t as sorted out as the Meteor’s but the refinement levels are exemplary and if you are an audiophile, the CB will provide you with the atmosphere of a live concert.
The Highness seems to have an upper hand when it comes to evaluating a motorcycle on the basis of its rideability. However, this Honda tries too hard to be a Royal Enfield and loses its own identity in the process. It feels like a naked, trapped in a retro body, waiting to come out of the closet. Don’t get me wrong; this isn’t a bad motorcycle at all. In fact, it’s bloody brilliant. But this segment requires something that’s full of heart, oozing with character and the whole experience simply fails to deliver on this front. The gear ratios are too tall, the ride is slightly stiff and the engine feels very awkward, suddenly making the exhaust note sound like EDM in a world of symphony orchestra. Add to it, the challenge of it being sold only at 40 Conclusion dealerships and a price tag that’s higher than the RE, and you’re in a situation.
The Meteor 350 on the other hand isn’t a perfect motorcycle as well. But that’s exactly what makes it likeable. It is full of character – just like all other Royal Enfields. It suddenly makes the CB350 feel like a hurried job. On our way back from the shoot location, I was pulling rank to take the keys of the Meteor 350 on a road that includes everything – twisties, highways and small B-roads. The Meteor 350 outshines the Honda everywhere. The engine is a gem and the ride and handling setup is better suited to our conditions as well. Add Royal Enfield’s brilliant dealership and service network to the mix, and you can rest assured for a peaceful journey to Ladakh and everywhere else. You’ll also be smiling throughout the journey and that feeling is priceless.