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'DNA' drive: Royal Enfield’s Thunderbird 500, the 'Baap' of Thumpers

Friday, 26 October 2012 - 10:30am IST | Agency: dna

The latest from Royal Enfield’s stable — the Thunderbird 500 — gets first-time modern touches.

It’s been some time coming and the growing community of young, urban riders had been awaiting the launch of the all-new Thunderbird 500. Revealed amid much fanfare at the Auto Expo in New Delhi earlier this year, there are great expectations from the latest iteration of the Thunderbird. Does it fulfil them? Let’s find out.

First launched in 2002, the T’bird was the first Royal Enfield to get the company’s new Unit Construction Engine (UCE) in 2008. This engine now powers all the heavy metal that rolls out of the Chennai-based iconic manufacturer’s factory.

Yes, Royal Enfield has always treated the Thunderbird as an experimental playground, in a bid not to dilute its Bullet and Classic brands. So, once again, it is the T’bird that gets a raft of new features that will test the waters for future Enfields.

The bike’s headlight now gets a projector lamp — it’s a boon on night rides — and redesigned rearview mirrors. The instrument console houses chrome-rimmed, rounded twin pods that display an analogue speedometer and tachometer, and also sport a digital odometer, trip meter, fuel gauge and clock. The backlit dials are legible and stylish. The tactile feel from the handlebar grips is decent while the well-weighted clutch and front brake levers have a solid and meaty feel to them. Nice. The switchgear now also includes a hazard warning switch, another Enfield first, along with a blackened engine unit and transmission case, oval-section swingarm, LED tail-lamps and rear disc brake.

Recognising that riders are now taking the long road home, Royal Enfield has increased fuel tank capacity to 20 litres, and the fuel filler lid is now offset to the top of the tank. On the highway, the new 500 returns nearly 30kpl that, along with the larger fuel tank, augments the new Enfield’s riding range.

The riding saddle has seen a redesign job and you now have the option of removing the pillion seat to make room for luggage, which can be tied down to bungee anchors. The 500 also gets a pillion grab rail, a revised exhaust and prominent RE logos on the footpegs. While overall fit and finish has improved, it still isn’t good enough for a premium motorcycle like the Thunderbird.

The brand-new Thunderbird borrows its 499cc, single-cylinder, air-cooled, four-stroke engine from the Classic 500, complete with twin spark plugs and Keihin fuel injection. Push the starter button and the engine thumps into action, belting out the trademark Royal Enfield note. There’s ample low- and mid-range power but the power delivery of 27.2bhp at 5250rpm and 4.17kgm torque at 4000rpm simply aren’t enough for an engine of this capacity. That’s only 7.4bhp more than a 350cc Twin-spark engine, which can be had from engines less than half this cubic capacity.

Given an open road, the T’bird 500 can reach a top whack of 130kph but it feels best ridden between 80-100kph, the engine feeling stressed at anything over 110kph. The five-speed gearbox employs a one-down, four-up shift pattern. Stable handling remains a virtue, like all Enfields, and there’s little that can stop the Thunderbird from thumping ahead smoothly.

Once astride the cruiser, you notice that the rider footpegs are now moved ahead to suit long-ride outings. And, with corresponding changes made to the handlebar, reach and ergonomics are better. The 500 gets 41mm front telescopic forks, up from 35mm on the earlier model, and dual gas-charged rear shock absorbers. However, for a cruiser, ride quality feels too stiff and could have been better.

Heavy handling, an age-old RE bugbear, has been addressed on this new bike. The T’bird 500 uses a single downtube frame, with an oval-section swingarm used at the rear. The wheelbase, reduced by 20mm, helps make the new motorcycle easier to handle in traffic and on sharp, steep turns. The 240mm disc brake at the rear works with a 280mm single front disc to improve stopping power.

All in all, retro meets modernity with the new Thunderbird 500 that remains the tough and muscular cruiser it always was. What helps make it more relevant in the rapidly advancing Indian motorcycle market is the subtle rider-friendly updates.

While the machine is Royal Enfield’s best Thunderbird to date, it would have helped if the changes were more significant, considering buyers in India can now pick and choose among far more competent international products. Also, for its price -- a considerable Rs1.66 lakh (ex-showroom, Mumbai) – bikers deserve more. Courtesy: Autocar India

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