Magnificent Seven: Enthusiast motorcycles on a budget

Magnificent Seven: Enthusiast motorcycles on a budget

The great biking guru Roland Brown once wrote in one of his myriad columns that bikers tend to live in a spectrum. A spectrum that is defined at one end by those who like the solitary existence of a man in search of two-wheeled performance where the man and the machine are all that matter. Even the terrain plays second fiddle. At the other end of that same spectrum is the other lot of bikers for whom motorcycling is less about speed and performance and more about attaining a kind of esoteric idea of peace and freedom, usually with a bunch of like-minded bikers.

If you watch the movie ‘Why We Ride’,you’ll get this part of the picture. To get the other two parts of the same picture you have to watch two more films. The 1971 documentary On Any Sunday starring none other than Steve “Bullitt” McQueen and the far more recent Hitting the Apex, starring the legendary Valentino Rossi, late Marco Simoncelli, the superbly talented but just-as-whiny Jorge Lorenzo, the pocket rocket that is Dani Pedrosa and then wild card that was Marc Marquez.

Watch these three films back to back and you’ll quickly get the point that Roland tried to make in his column; and with this understanding comes a fresh realisation. That the entire spectrum of bikers is correct in their attitude towards motorcycling! As long as the rider finishes the day with a smile splitting his or her face, it’s all-good.

In this feature, we bring you seven rather different types of motorcycles with engine displacements ranging from 300cc to 400cc, each aiming to cater to a different part of this spectrum. The idea is to help you decide, which part of the spectrum you belong to and therefore, which of these motorcycles is the perfect fit for you.

That perimeter frame can take the fight to the last corner
That perimeter frame can take the fight to the last corner

Bajaj Dominar 400

Everyone thought this would be the new, more powerful Pulsar. But it wasn’t. After much debate and discussion, according to our sources in Bajaj Auto, the company decided on Dominar and spawned an entirely new product line with no associated legacy to live up to. Going by the numbers we see on the roads already, it would be fair to assume that the Dominar is a hit. After all, there is absolutely nothing within striking range at that price that can also boast the same specs, that also deliver the performance. A liquid-cooled 400 with a modern perimeter frame for the price of a contemporary 250? Compelling was probably the best way of describing the Dominar at the time of its launch – the biggest Bajaj’s introductory price was Rs 1.36 lakh, ex-showroom.

Although Bajaj made much of the motorcycle’s design at the time of the media ride, the bike doesn’t really stand out as much as the company’s designers would have hoped to. I rode through Pune traffic and hardly a handful of heads turned my way. This, however, is something I like since the rider comes across as someone with class who doesn’t yell his arrival on to the scene but chooses to quietly slip in with a degree of measured subtlety that is appealing. The design itself is pleasant, even though it doesn’t shout out its presence. I genuinely wish Bajaj had decided to offer more colour options than the striking white and the maroon and blue that are virtually indistinguishable.

Ergonomics of the Dominar are well sorted and will comfortably see you through a few hundred kilometres on the highway or a couple of hours that it takes for you to cut across the city on your way home after a hard day’s labour. The handlebar, foot peg and seat relation definitely works, irrespective of your height or width. The only thing that doesn’t work, even though it looks pretty neat, is the split instrumentation. Unless you’re wearing an open face helmet, there’s no way you will notice the bit on the 13-litre petrol tank because it stays hidden by the chin bar. Thankfully, the unit on the tank only houses the tell-tales.

Although much has been said (and written) about how vibration-rich the KTM-sourced 373.3cc liquid-cooled engine is, frankly I didn’t find it to be that much of a bother. I’m yet to see a large capacity single cylinder engine that emits no vibrations! The engine note is throaty and is pleasant. Notable changes to the unit (compared to what we will see on the KTM) are the addition of DTS-i and ExhausTec technology and replacement of the original DOHC with SOHC and consequently two less valves. As a result of these changes, the peak output of 35PS and 35Nm is spread wide, starting closer to the bottom of the rev range. Tractability is therefore quite nice, a characteristic that most users will find endearing, given the Indian rider’s propensity to shift up through the slick shifting six-speed gearbox as quickly as possible and thereafter relying on throttle inputs unless a gear change is absolutely necessary. I suspect, this tractability would also have ensured better fuel economy from the Dominar than its Austrian cousin, had it not been for the Indian bike’s weight. Tipping the scales at 182kg (kerb weight), the Dominar isn’t the lightest of the pack. Nonetheless, a tankful of petrol should see you through 350 odd kilometres. Unfortunately and inexplicably, the engine fails to excite. It doesn’t seem to pack as much of a punch as one would expect of a modern 400cc engine and lacks the raciness that enthusiasts find so alluring about the orange bikes. There is a slipper clutch too but isn’t really of much use since you’ll seldom find the need for aggressive downshifting.

The Dominar sports the second longest wheelbase in this company, after the Mahindra Mojo, at 1453mm. It also features one of the best frames in this group – a genuinely taut perimeter beam frame, with 43mm telescopic forks up front and a multi-step adjustable monoshock at the rear. On straight patches, the bike is rock stable and ploughs ahead without a shake of its head. Tipping into the turn takes a bit of effort, courtesy the raked out front, but once you’ve got past this little niggle, the bike settles into its course with a firm set of the jaws. It stays true to its chosen line and will see you through bend after bend after bend with that tractable engine making powering out of corners easy work. Ride quality though is on the firmer side of life and if you’re on the lighter side of life (like yours truly), be prepared to bounce around a bit over the rough stuff. On paper, it’s got the best brakes in the business with a 320mm dia rotor up front and 230mm rotor at the rear. Not to forget that twin channel ABS that you can get as an option – we wouldn’t even suggest that you consider the one without. The brakes have bite and decent progression too for most purposes. However, on that one odd day that you need some sharp stopping power, the extra mass of the bike means that the brakes will have their task cut out when it comes to killing momentum.

Since the first time I swung a leg over the bike only three odd thousand rupees have been added to the bike’s ex-showroom price. Unfortunately, with the new GST norms in place this is the only bike other than the KTM that will become expensive. Current norms will result in an additional 3 per cent tax on motorcycles with engine displacements above 350cc. As a result, the bike has lost just a smidge of its earlier sheen on the value-for-money count. Nonetheless, it continues to be a pretty good overall package for someone who’s looking for a relatively relaxed ride on reliable and sorted machinery.

Benelli TnT 300

The only Italian (made in China and assembled in Wai) in this motley crew of motorcycles, the Benelli TnT 300 is a naked street bike. Launched alongside much bigger motorcycles from this lesser known but no less illustrious Italian motorcycle maker, the TnT 300 is the bread earner of the Benelli brand. As a matter of fact, this is the machine that should make, or break, the Benelli brand in India.

Visually, the TnT 300 is a handsome motorcycle. It has enough musculature and is well proportioned to attract the right kind of attention. And that is irrespective of which angle you’re looking at the bike from. The styling has a distinctly European flavour, even though a Chinese firm now owns the brand and therefore the product. There is enough bling to appeal to Indian tastes as well, particularly the chrome exhaust shroud and the tastefully done polished metal crankcase cover with the Benelli logo etched on its surface.

Swing a leg over this Italian and you’ll find that the bike boasts well sorted ergonomics and most riders will be able to firmly plant both feet on the ground from the saddle. The seat is wide and comfy and is neither too firm nor too soft, proving equally comfortable in the city and out on the highways. The pillion seat is fairly comfortable too and the grab handles for the pillion are pretty nice to hold on to. Overall, it’s the kind of motorcycle that puts you at ease almost immediately with its moderate demeanour.

Thumb the starter and you’ll be greeted with the nicest sounding motor of this segment. Perhaps even a segment or two above it. It’s throaty and the sound that comes out of the underbelly exhaust is very pleasant. Give it some beans and it sounds even better, laden with the promise of powerful performance. Be that as it may, one thing is for certain. Wherever you go, people will hear you coming and will certainly not curse you for it. The 300cc liquid-cooled parallel twin puts out 38.3PS and 26.5Nm, transmitted via a fairly slick shifting six-speed gearbox.

Filtering through Pune’s rush hour traffic, you will need to work that engine as you sift through the ’box for the correct cogs. The Benelli is incapable of providing much help here. But as the roads begin to open up and the traffic thins out, managing this heavyweight – it’s literally the heaviest bike in here, tipping the scales at a hefty 196 kilos, becomes easier. The engine develops its grunt rather high in the rev range and it is only when the mill is burbling towards the middle of the rev counter, which is redlined at a heady 11000rpm, that you start getting into the groove of things.

Cruising is the TnT 300’s comfort zone and it cruises exceptionally well. You can keep riding this Italian beauty at triple-digit speeds all day and she’ll never break her stride. Beyond 3000 revs there is no snatchiness or any sensation of lack of urgency – or otherwise, from the motor. Just twist the throttle and keep moving. There are vibrations though that you will have to keep up with as they filter through your palms, arse and feet in the form of mild buzzing. You might have guessed it by now that refinement isn’t exactly the Benelli’s forte.

As the road starts to twist and turn its way forward, the Benelli’s steel trellis frame combined with the fat upside down forks and off-set hydraulic monoshock feel capable of keeping up. Turn in is a bit lazy but the bike holds its line well enough. Nothing exceptional but able to do the job. The gentle sweepers are dispatched without even batting an eyelid. She will keep up even as the twists and turns get narrower and sharper but it is crystal clear where her strength lies. Especially when leaning right, because when fully cranked over, the protruding exhaust box scrapes quite a bit. Grip, there’s plenty of, courtesy an excellent pair of rubber shoes from Metzeler for the TnT 300’s 17-inch wheels, 120/70 up front and 160/60 at the rear.

Ride quality is on the firmer side of life and in stock setting you’ll be bouncing around a fair bit over the rough stuff. But here’s the good news. You can easily adjust the setting of the offset monoshock via a rotary knob. Twist it one way to soften things up or the other way to firm it all up some more. Set it up as you like before you get going or on the fly, this is the Benelli’s party trick.

This Italian motorcycle is also the only one in this company to bring three discs to stop all discussions around performance. The TnT 300 does get a pair of petal discs up front and a single petal disc at the rear. Bite, there is enough even though feel could be improved upon. What is missing and is glaring in its omission is the lack of ABS in any form.

On the whole, the Benelli TnT 300 is more of a fast cruiser with the looks of a naked streetfighter. It also has tremendous pose value since it looks good, has Italian brand heritage and commands enough respect. Not to forget, the bike also sounds superb and rides pretty well. Unfortunately, at Rs 2.83 lakh, ex-showroom in Delhi, it feels a bit expensive for the kind of thrills it can offer its owners.

Handling is sharp and it can still take the fight to the newbies
Handling is sharp and it can still take the fight to the newbies

Kawasaki Ninja 300

After the Royal Enfield Classic 350, the Kawasaki Ninja 300 is the oldest motorcycle in this segment and has a sizeable fan following. For a while, until the launch of the first 390 Duke, that is, this was the only offering in this segment for enthusiasts not taken in by British motorcycling nostalgia or desi machismo. But I suspect, even without the relatively monopolistic situation, the Ninja 300 would have garnered a healthy fanbase.

To start with, the Kawasaki offers the smoothness of a parallel twin, a good handling chassis, Japanese reliability and great touring abilities. The fact that it was available in the brightest shade of lime green – Kawasaki’s signature shade, you can imagine further helped cement the bike’s popularity. The Ninja 300 was of course preceded by the smaller 250 but the smaller machine didn’t exactly do what Kawasaki had hoped it would and was deemed expensive at the time. The men in lime green quickly responded with the Ninja 300 as a replacement and since then there has been no looking back for this mini manic Kwacker.

Intercontinental tyres are its weak spot
Intercontinental tyres are its weak spot

Unlike the other Japanese offering here, the Kawasaki’s styling is a more definitive nod to their bikes of the yesteryears. Make no mistake, the design is sharp but it doesn’t seem as contemporary as either the R3 or the 390 Duke or even the TnT 300. The ergonomics also felt mildly off, with the rear set foot pegs being just a tad bit higher than they should be. At least for a person of my height. The Kawasaki is also at a disadvantage if you do a simple tech spec comparo with its compatriots. Perhaps not on outright power and torque but on other aspects like size of brakes and the girth of the front forks. Compared to the Duke’s 43mm USDs, the Ninja’s 37mm telescopic rightside-up forks feel somewhat puny. The single 290mm petal disc also seems a bit of an oversight in a segment where at least two competitors have bigger brakes. But there’s often a world of difference between what is on paper and how a motorcycle feels in real life. And it’s no different with the Kawasaki Ninja 300.

The 296cc liquid-cooled parallel twin with DOHC and eight valves, has been updated to comply with the new BS IV emission norms but doesn’t feel as smooth as the similar unit in the Yamaha as you thumb the starter. Courtesy the chokehold of ever tightening emission norms, the exhaust note from the stubby end-can isn’t all that great, but not really unpleasant either. The 39.5PS and 27Nm are spread over a wide spectrum of the rev range, which makes for a fairly linear delivery of grunt. As a result the bike is quite easy to ride, be it through traffic or cruising on highways. The six-speed gearbox functions flawlessly and the ratios are well spread out too to offer a good balance between rapid acceleration as well as relatively relaxed touring. If you give it the beans, the Ninja proves a fleet footed customer and will race ahead in whichever direction its pointy twin-headlamp nose is aimed at. Accompanied by a manic howl. The transition from two to three digits on the digital speedo is barely noticed.

Ergonomics don’t suit tall riders
Ergonomics don’t suit tall riders

Although it doesn’t look it, the Ninja’s front forks are raked out at 27 degrees, a full degree more than in the Mojo. But the wheelbase isn’t overly long and the raking out has not been done to neutralise biases in weight distribution for the Kawasaki’s mass remains at the centre of the motorcycle. The bike is rather stable on the straights and the strength of the relatively short 1405mm wheelbase begins to become evident once the roads begin to double back on itself. Quick changes of direction, switchbacks, long sweepers, everything is taken in the Ninja’s stride as it charges ahead with confidence. That said, it doesn’t feel as sure footed as either the Yamaha or the KTM on the handling front.

Ride quality is on the softer side of life. Not as pliant as the Mojo perhaps but definitely more so than either the R3 or the Duke. The bike soaks up bumps, ruts and potholes quite well without any significant adverse impact on its dynamic capabilities.

Haul on the stoppers and you realise that at least in this one case what’s on paper is also on the road. The single 290mm petal disc up front with dual piston callipers and the 220mm rotor with dual piston callipers at the back, do a par-for-the-course job of shedding speed and bringing the bike to a stop. In this one case, progression isn’t much of a problem. Bite is. The fact that there’s no ABS – wonder why manufacturers routinely ignore this critical piece of kit on these powerful (even if relatively) motorcycles, only adds to your worries.

The Kawasaki Ninja 300 was recently launched in its BS IV compliant MY 17 avatar at a pricey Rs 3.64 lakh. At that price it’s hard to justify the worth of the Kawasaki over some of the others you see here. It’s still a very good product and will hold its own on almost all parameters in this bunch. Unfortunately, with that kind of a pricing attached to it, Kawasaki will have a hard time getting the Ninja 300 to be ridden out of showrooms.

The 390 Duke’s Metzeler rubber is delightfully grippy
The 390 Duke’s Metzeler rubber is delightfully grippy

KTM 390 Duke

This bike hasn’t been around for long and neither has the brand. But in the short span of time that they have been here, KTM and the 390 Duke have captured the imagination of the Indian biker like no other. It wouldn’t be unfair to confer iconic or legendary status on the Austrian motorcycle already. Go for any weekend ride out from any major city or town and the odds of being greeted by a clutch of these orange machines is very high indeed. Such sudden explosion of popularity seems inexplicable and incredible until you look at the bike’s spec sheet. And just like that, everything falls into place. Everything becomes crystal. Where else could you get a modern machine that is so capable, so powerful and one that offers so much of the Thrill of Riding, at that price? And if all this were true of the old bike, the new generation of the 390 Duke that we have here is even better with more value on offer than its predecessor.

Like the previous model, the new Duke is an out and out performance machine. Not in a sporty, race track dominator kind of way (even though it is more than capable of handling a trackday) but as a bare naked street fighter. It’s a hooligan to its orange trellis and makes sure you know it. There’s nothing welcoming in that visage with the split LED headlamp is there? It’s good looking and sharp but it is mean. You don’t want to mess with the 390 Duke. You treat it with respect. The other thing that the Duke’s styling communicates is its youth. It’s a young motorcycle that is meant to appeal to a youthful audience. Naturally, it has the gimmicks to match. That mobile phone-like full colour TFT instrumentation is beyond cool. Adjust it for different read outs, different colours and even completely different themes! Should keep you well occupied whenever you’re not riding the thing.

Tipping into corners is more an act of instinct
Tipping into corners is more an act of instinct

Astride this orange and white machine, you realise that the ergonomics of the old bike, which most riders have gotten used to in spite of all the criticism that was heaped on it from certain quarters, have been retained. Arms wide open, perched in the bike (as opposed to on it), feet set rearwards, the seating posture gives the impression of preparing to ride a Bronco bull. Which isn’t far from the truth really.

With a power-to-weight ratio of a staggering 292PS per tonne, the acceleration that the 390 Duke is capable of is nothing short of a head rush. Although the liquid-cooled 373.2cc single is essentially the same as found in the Dominar, here it is in its high strung manic avatar with a higher compression ratio of 12.6:1 compared to the Bajaj’s 11.3:1 and a DOHC unit in place of the other’s SOHC. In this BS IV compliant variant the bike also gets the benefit of ride-by-wire, and boy, what a benefit that is. Where the old 390 was jerky and snatchy at low revs and low speeds, the new one is smooth with power available at every step of the way. Does that mean that things have become more sedate in this new bike? Not even remotely. The 390 Duke is as manic as it ever was, the only difference between the then and the now is that where the old one was a petulant child, happy doing only one thing, the new one is more mature and can mask its uni-dimensional aspect a bit better. But only a bit, because even the mildest displays of enthusiasm lets the child inside pop out like a jack-in-the-box.

Up the twisties of Lavasa or around Bajaj’s Chakan test track or the MMRT, the bike is an absolute hoot. Steering geometry is super sharp with a steering head angle of 66 degrees. And that wheelbase, at 1357mm, is possibly the smallest in this lot. These numbers have a remarkable impact on the KTM’s agility. It tips in with an alacrity that will alarm the novice and delight the enthusiast. How the Austrian firm has managed to split that trellis into two separate parts and still maintain the old rigidity levels is nothing short of black magic. The trellis has been split in the interest of reparability. So, if you do have a crash and damage the rear of the bike, the entire rear sub frame can be replaced! Innovative, if nothing else. The WP 43mm inverted forks are firm and so is the WP monoshock. Firmer than the rest of the bikes here that is! Compared to the old 390 however, the new bike is definitely a couple of notches softer, and is so much the better for it. The KTM no longer kills your spine every time you go over the slightest of road imperfections.

The other thing that’s improved, and vastly so, is braking. That used to be one of the weakest bits to an otherwise iron clad package. The new one gets a 320mm dia disc up front with four-piston radial fixed callipers and a 230mm dia disc at the rear with a single-piston floating caliper along with Bosch’s 9MB twin channel ABS. There’s plenty of bite and progression now where the earlier set of anchors would feel overwhelmed by the bike’s forward momentum.

On the price front too, the KTM has the edge with the 390 Duke being brilliantly priced at just over a couple of lakh rupees, ex-showroom in Delhi. But even the KTM has its down sides. For starters, the bike attracts the extra three per cent tax under the new GST norms, courtesy its 373.2cc engine capacity – anything above 350cc attracts this extra tax. So, by the time you’ve got the bike out of the showroom and on to the road, any advantage of a competitive pricing is lost. The 390 Duke is also a very demanding bike. It wants your complete focus at all times. It’s not a motorcycle you can relax on. No, this is for the guy from the far end of the spectrum. The one who shows the finger to brotherhood and all that, choosing to focus on his own pleasures instead.

Relaxed touring on open highways is its forte
Relaxed touring on open highways is its forte

Mahindra Mojo

For the longest time ever the Mojo was an idea more than it was a motorcycle. For five years after the bike was first shown in 2010, the Mojo could mostly be seen as spy shots on various web portals, the images captured by enthusiasts who managed to catch glimpses of the machine when it was being tested on public roads. After a while, barring sporadic reports of sightings, even the spy shots stopped. Just when the whole world was about to write the motorcycle off as a creation that never saw the light of day, Mahindra launched the Mojo in 2015.

On the face of it, the machine that was put on sale wasn’t a bad one even though visually the bike could split a room down the middle. You either liked it or you hated it. There was never any middle ground. Not with that outlandish twin headlamp face that seemed a tad too large for the rest of the motorcycle. Speaking of which, the rest of the motorcycle – the twin gold tubes of the frame notwithstanding, looked more conventional. In fact, the rear three-quarter view was the most attractive-to-all angle of the Mojo.

Intended for relaxed touring, the Mojo features tallish handlebars and an upright position. It isn’t racy but the argument in favour of this riding posture would be that for a bike with a 21-litre petrol tank, which implies a range of at least 500km on a tankful, you should be able to stay in the saddle without complaint for at least two to three hours. Even on the media ride from Bangalore to Coorg and later whenever I have used this bike, I have failed to sit comfortably on the bike for anything more than an hour and a half at a stretch. But none of my other colleagues have ever complained about this. You see, Mahindra engineers used a 5’9” mannequin, which is the height of the average Indian male, to design the ergonomics. So, while it’s not perfect for my smidge-over-six-feet frame, it suits most Indian riders.

The Mojo is best viewed from the rear three-quarters
The Mojo is best viewed from the rear three-quarters

The first thing you notice about the Mojo’s liquid-cooled 295cc single-cylinder engine is how refined it is. It feels completely unstressed, at all times. One of the benefits of a relatively low compression ratio. On the flip side, the engine only makes about 26bhp of peak power. Thankfully, the 30Nm of max torque makes up for it somewhat. Delivery of power is slightly oddball with most of the grunt stacked in the middle of the rev range. Rev it too little and progress is sluggish. Rev it too hard and she runs out of breath. However, as long as you keep her burbling somewhere in the middle, you’re sorted. Speaking of burbling, the Mojo uses a twin exhaust that sounds rather nice. In fact, on that count the Mojo is second only to the Benelli. Transmission is sorted with carefully selected ratios and smooth shift action.

The chassis of the Mojo is as oddball as its face. It’s a twin exposed tube frame with a box-section swingarm and fat upside down forks, the latter being raked out at a cruiser-like 26 degrees. Although Mahindra insists that the raked out front fork and the resultant extra long wheelbase is for extra stability on the long straight highways that the Mojo is expected to tackle, we suspect it has something to do with weight distribution too. If you look at the bike, there’s no denying that the majority of the motorcycle’s mass is concentrated up front. With such a front-biased weight distribution, a sharp rake and a shorter wheelbase would certainly skew things further. While this is all educated guess work in the absence of any confirmation from Mahindra, what is true is that the Mojo is quite stable on straight roads. Not the exceptional stability of claims but the genuine stability of reality. Suspension set up is on the softer side and as a result, the ride quality is quite pliant over all sorts of road surfaces with shocks being damped quite well. On that count, the rider’s backside and the Mojo’s reputation are both safe. Where the bike falters is when the roads start to meander. Mild gentle sweepers are fine but show her a set of switchbacks and she will turn out to be shyer than you thought she was. Getting her to turn isn’t the easiest chore on the list, thanks to that overly long wheelbase and she doesn’t feel the most comfortable tackling bends. The party piece of the Mojo however has to be the Pirelli tyres her wheels come shod with as standard kit. They are peerless in their offer of grip and are so good that they often end up masking some of the flaws of the bike. The Mojo then is a bit of a mixed bag with some good bits, some great bits and few that show massive scope for improvement. A version 2.0 then some time in the future perhaps? Who knows? What we do know is that the Mojo is a motorcycle meant for the rider who likes relaxed touring without too many twists and turns in the mix. At that game, the Mojo is pretty darn good.

The oldest and certainly not the fastest but perhaps the grandest of the lot
The oldest and certainly not the fastest but perhaps the grandest of the lot

Royal Enfield Classic 350

The Classic 350 is for the man who thinks the 80s is too racy; and no, we’re not talking about the year. We’re talking about the numbers on the speedo. And yet, inexplicably, in spite of all the ridicule that is piled high on this machinery and all the times it’s chastised for its unreliability or lack of refinement or sheer velocity, the Classic 350 continues to kick butt when it’s a question of flying off the shelves. Just last month, the company sold over 58,000 motorcycles the bulk of which was made up by the Classic 350. So, yes, it’s a bike we respect – fast or not. If for nothing else then just for its ability to hold appeal nearly 75 years after it was first created! Not to mention that the stated intent of the Bajaj Dominar (a bike launched in 2016) – something that was made explicit at the presentation before the media ride, is to grab a share of the market the Classic 350 operates in. So what is it that makes the Royal Enfield tick?

Like the riders in ‘Why We Ride’, the Classic 350 owner is not looking out for excellence in machinery and production. Instead he is looking for a sensorial experience, and sensorial experience is something that the Royal Enfield delivers by the bucket load. From the point where it shudders to a start to the steady ‘thump’ of the single-cylinder mill, this bike has captured the very soul of India’s motorcycle riders (even naysayers can’t deny this) in a way that is the envy of every motorcycle maker in the country.

In many senses, it’s a time machine. Take a look at that headlamp with the twin pilot lamps or the single large white-backed analogue speedo that dominates the instrument panel. They haven’t changed since my dad got his driving licence. Neither has the single down-tube frame for that matter, which uses the engine as a stressed member. What has changed is the suspension – 35mm telescopic forks up front and a pair of gas charged shock absorbers with pre-load adjustability at the rear, and yes of course, the engine. The unitary construction engine, or UCE in RE parlance, features the old engine architecture but fuses the engine casing with the transmission – ostensibly for greater efficiency, not of fuel but of operations. The exhaust note too has changed somewhat, suppressed more by tightening emission norms than the glass wool of its silencer.

Get going and you’re greeted by a wave of torque that starts lower than a bass note and peaks at 28Nm at 4000revs. The power figure of 20PS at 5250rpm is more of a footnote in the Royal Enfield story. The engine knows it can’t match rivals in power play and so, it doesn’t care to play at all. It’s far happier torqueing its way through the Indian countryside, accompanied by that tell tale thump that is as signature as Harley’s vegetable claims.

Delivery is crisp even though the acceleration is far from brisk. But unlike on other more modern machines, the Royal Enfield doesn’t mask the sensation of speed, 60 feels like 80 and 80 feels like flying. Any more than that and she feels strained and the burden of her legacy – her age, begins to show. First as a buzzing in the palms and under the soles of the feet and then as unbridled vibrations that creep through from everywhere. No, she is better kept on this side of 80.

” Remember, kneedowns were only reserved for the later then this bike’s frame was designed”
” Remember, kneedowns were only reserved for the later then this bike’s frame was designed”

For a septuagenarian the chassis works well enough and she handles okay. Don’t try to be over enthusiastic and pull off cornering stunts like you’d do on a more modern machine. Remember, knee-downs were only reserved for the altar when this bike’s frame was designed. In any case, the Classic 350 isn’t for the guy who dreams of carving up hillsides, unless it happens to be the mountains of Ladakh where you’d be taking the turns nice and slow. Given that raked out front fork and the longish 1370mm wheelbase – the third longest in this test, it couldn’t be otherwise.

Ride quality, though much better than what it used to be once, is still the chink in the Royal Enfield armour. To be fair, the twin gas-charged shockers do a decent enough job of absorbing part of the shock of a bump or a pothole. What lets things down is the aftermath of a bump.

Those single seats with the vintage sprung styling look great but there is a price to pay. Once the bike is past the bump or the pothole, the seat continues to oscillate vertically for a few moments. It takes some time getting used to and is thoroughly uncomfortable until then.

On the braking front too, the Classic 350 isn’t really up to scratch and you’ll find the 280mm front disc behaves quite like a wooden block returning no feel whatever. The 153mm drum at the rear merely slows down the rear wheel. But there is enough bite and the bike will stop. This motorcycle is the ultimate sign of machismo you can buy and no, you cannot hurry it into doing things it wants to take its time over.

So, if you were to ask is this a good motorcycle? Well, the honest answer to that is, it is flawed as a product and certainly not contemporary. What makes people part with their hard earned money then to buy this? The sensory experience, the nostalgia and above all, the idea that something so incredibly out of time can still be so incredibly cool and sexy.

May not have a Deltabox frame but the trellis is super taut
May not have a Deltabox frame but the trellis is super taut

Yamaha YZF R3

For a generation of bike lovers brought up on a diet of anecdotes about the magic of the old RDs and RX-es, the R3 was the motorcycle that would allow them to just about comprehend the lure of a Yamaha performance machine. It is undeniably sporty, yet versatile. Exciting, yet calm. Refined, yet racy. But for those tyres, the Yamaha YZF-R3 would have been the epitome of motorcycling perfection. In the segment that we’re talking about, of course!

There is no doubt that it is among the most handsome of motorcycles money can buy – positively gorgeous, courtesy those lithe lines and the sharp head and tail. Look at it; if that isn’t a lean machine, I don’t know what is. There is musculature in the tank but it’s not overtly muscle-bound. The R3 has the lean build of a marathon runner instead of the stockiness that sprinters exhibit. And for good reason too, for despite its sporty intent the R3 is a sports tourer in reality.

Don’t believe me? Get astride and you’ll know what I’m talking about. The ergonomics aren’t half as extreme as you might have thought them to be. Au contraire, they are actually relaxed and will let you traverse miles of highway before your wrists start aching and the bum starts to protest. As a matter of fact, the relation between the clip-ons, the split seat and the rear set foot pegs is an ergonomic dream. It really is that comfortable. Even the switchgear is all within thumb’s reach. Perhaps the only thing that you’ll need to stretch yourself for would be the mirrors that are mounted on the fairing with adjustable stalks. The pillion seat is rather comfy too and is nothing like the two-storey high pillion seat that you find on the smaller R15 v2.0.

At the heart of the R3 is a super sweet liquid-cooled 321cc parallel twin. It’s a thoroughly modern unit with DOHC and four valves per cylinder. Peak output is rated at 42PS of power and 29Nm of max twist force, which is transmitted by a 6-speed transmission that is slick but slots in with a nice and positive click. Power delivery is crisp and creamy with grunt available at every bit of the rev range. On the go, acceleration is brisk and the bike piles on the numbers on its digital speedo fairly rapidly. The sensation of speed however is somewhat muted and you are fooled into believing that you’re actually going slower than you really are. Blame it on the smoothness of the whole package. The engine is inherently super refined and feels even more so in this company. It is the only other motorcycle here with two cylinders, the other one being the Kawasaki Ninja 300. There are no vibrations and harshness is a remote concept. Scythe through a race track, filter through the city or tour the countryside, the R3 feels perfect.

It isn’t just the way she powers through either. Unlike the more sophisticated beam frame of the R15 – Deltabox in Yamaha speak, the R3 uses a trellis frame matched with 41mm KYB telescopic forks and a KYB monoshock at the rear with a conventional box section swingarm. For the kind of roads we ride our motorcycles on, the setup is so nice that it could well be a benchmark. Handling is sublime and it corners with a confidence that will see yours improve in tandem with each passing turn. The bike tips in easily and then holds its line without even the remotest sign of nervousness as you clip the apex and then power out in search of the next turn. On a very smooth track like the Buddh International Circuit, you would probably want the suspension to be tuned a wee bit firmer but on regular roads or even on the less than perfect surface that you get at the MMRT or at Kari, it is the bike’s stock setup that you want. Admittedly, you might experience a bit of wallowing but it’s this same ever so mild wallowy aspect that keeps both wheels firmly in contact with the tarmac. The R3 is all about striking a balance and versatility. To that end, the ride quality is pliant and absorbs shocks without fuss.

Yet, for all its prowess and capabilities and versatility, the R3 is not perfect. Close, but not quite. The brakes for starters could have been a bit better. The single 298mm disc with four-piston callipers and the 220mm disc at the rear with a single-piston caliper feel adequate. There is good bite and progression but it isn’t outstanding like the rest of the bike. The fact that there is no ABS is a sore point that remains unaddressed. Then of course there is the small issue of the tyres. In a bid to keep costs down, Yamaha wrapped the R3’s 17-inch wheels with MRF Revz C rubber, which, frankly, needs improvement since the rest of the package feels way ahead of the tyres’ abilities to remain glued to the tarmac. Slightly grippier rubber would have done wonders on a motorcycle blessed with such superlative abilities.

Then of course, there is the issue of pricing. Despite all its cost cutting measures – trellis instead of the more expensive Deltabox, no ABS and a choice of tyres that is just adequate, the R3 is a costly affair for the bike was launched at a hefty `3.26 lakh, ex-showroom, Delhi. With KTM selling their ware at nearly a lakh of rupees less but offering as much power and modernity, people found it easy to give up on their aspirations of refinement. Last but not the least, the R3 has not kept up with the times and is yet to be upgraded to comply with BS IV norms. Which means, even as this issue goes to press, we wait with bated breath for Yamaha India to announce the price of a future ready R3. Finally, who is this bike meant for then? Me. For all its flaws, I love its balance and versatility, its refinement and I wouldn’t mind parting with the extra cash since this would be my machine for all seasons.

Editor’s Verdict (by Adil Jal Darukhanawala)

Seven truly distinctive motorcycles that are not natural competitors in any which way possible even if you have to do so on a rupee to kilogram basis or on the smiles per rupee aspect. It is this varied smorgasbord of biking delights that makes the Indian motorcycling scene so vibrant. If I have to assess and grade the bikes I would begin first at the base level and here it is a straight fight between flawed modernity in the form of the Mahindra Mojo and the quaint inadequacy of a vintage iron and you are right I refer to the Royal Enfield Classic 350. The Mojo has missed its mark and that too by a long and huge margin and I just couldn’t comprehend what the product planners and the engineers were up to. To be honest they were as dumbstruck as anyone else but it simply lacks the credibility to do the business in a field of top-notch performers. The Royal Enfield Classic 350 is one, which is living off its imagery and its legacy as the only true blue Brit single-cylinder motorcycle yet in production. If it were left to me I would have got the bike to shed weight, given it decent suspenders, knocked off the vibes as best as possible and ratcheted up the QC massively. Anyway its maker is to be credited for learning how best to milk legacy and since the Harley-Davidsons operate in a frightfully different planet RE have a stranglehold on small displacement legacy – good, bad and ugly – that in itself pleases, infuriates and numbs different kinds of riders. But I must say one thing here and that its maker has given it character and presence and taken it far away from its doodh-wala application.

On to the next machine in the pecking order and that is the Chinese-built Italian masquerading as the real deal. The Benelli is a pretty decent product but apart from its styling and its fantastic exhaust note there is not much I see in it to really make me yearn for it. The pricing is pretty steep just for style and exhaust audio but if you wanted a relaxed machine then this could be it.

Or it could have been the Kawasaki Ninja 300. This is a bike that in its 250cc avatar really got small capacity performance bikes going in India. I like the baby Ninja and it has its virtues – balance, flickability, even a decent stretch of power on call but only if you to know how to extract it of course. However, it came with sheer Japanese arrogance in price and with erstwhile partner Bajaj Auto running rings around it with its KTMs on one end of the spectrum and the Pulsars at the lower end, this sandwiched Ninja hasn’t got the turn on many thought it could ignite a spark in many bikers’ subconscious.

On to then the two bikes that are so good at playing the game in different ways and that is about performance. One with a manic turn of delight with a less is more appeal and the other with a genuine mainstream kind of conventional motorcycling that is presented in its most evolved form. Here I bracket the KTM 390 Duke and the Yamaha R3 as two very different means to the same end. The KTM is without an iota of a doubt the bike that has outright performance writ large all over it.

I like it that it makes no bones about its absolute over-the-top appeal and delivery. And it is probably the most technologically advanced bike in this lot of seven and yes has that like it or lump it aspect to it. My sons love it and for good measure as do many youngsters of their age group and yes, it is also a social status enumerator though a bit pricey.

The same pricey feeling is common with the Yamaha R3, which for me is perhaps the best that Yamaha has ever made in India, even if there is no ABS. The perfectly balanced stance with the right sort of rider ergonomics and pleasing contemporary style are matched by fantastic long legged ability plus also great dynamic ability. Its engine is a peach of a twin-cylinder motor and the way it whips up the horses as you wind that throttle is something to relish. All I can say is that Yamaha has treated this bike poorly and not given it the push and the promotion it deserved while also pricing it way too high, allowing the KTMs to laugh all the way to the bank.

That means we now have the Bajaj Dominar 400 standing and this is my pick of the seven for no other reason that it is one of the best handlers there is on the market today and also probably the best all rounder among this lot. The way she is light on its feet despite its visual mass is something that you have to ride to believe and with a turn of torque with fantastic weight distribution making it agile yet planted means this is the bike I would buy from the seven (though knowing me, I would prefer to have at least two others from this lot in my garage as well!). Also its strong vibe-free motor and transmission package is a mile muncher making it one bike capable of scratching it over distances the others can only dream about. While all this has worked brilliantly to satisfy the rider in me, I must say that there is quite a lot, which is not right. The fact that its maker only wanted it to dominate the nether world is not correct because this is a bike that is lightning quick and absolutely capable even in the wide-awake world. The second aspect was all about its standout-ability – yes it’s a contrived term for want of a better word and I think for a bike that is so terrific while wearing the garb of a nun is a big no no! Maybe the engineers don’t need to be marketeers especially now that the sports bike segment is no longer a Pulsar fiefdom and others have also tried to get in on the act. Mind you the Dominar is the best motorcycle ever made by Bajaj Auto and in this lot of seven is also my favourite pick for the reasons outlined. Get the market messaging right and improve the visage that heightens the performance and excitement quotient this bike has in bucketloads and its true potential could then allow it to be living up to its name.

Related Stories

No stories found.