It takes me about five seconds to proclaim the Himalayan the best Royal Enfield I've ever ridden, and it all comes down to one detail. The all-new LS410 engine has a balancing shaft in it.
I don't mean to sound glib. It really is that simple. Where the Bullet, the Classic and the Continental threaten to shake themselves to pieces at highway speeds, the Himalayan feels as tight, smooth and composed as … well, as a motorcycle made sometime after 1980.
It only makes 24.5 horsepower – an amount so humble that the .5 seems significant – but with this bike you're free to hold full throttle right up to the 6,500 rpm redline in any gear without feeling like you're beating up on the thing. It's a quantum leap forward. This bike is fit for extended public highway use.
But let's back up a little. The Himalayan is Royal Enfield's first adventure style bike, which is funny, because from what I understand, pretty much every ride in India is an adventure. That's why the other Enfields aren't built for freeway cruising. Sixty kilometers per hour feels plenty fast in the homicidal traffic of Delhi, complete with its famous wandering cows, or the treacherous unsealed mountain roads, where every blind corner holds an untold number of buses, all overtaking each other at once.
The Himalayan was one of designer Pierre Terblanche's contributions to Royal Enfield during his 20-month stint as head designer. If you follow motorcycle designers, Terblanche was the guy that replaced Massimo Tamburini at Ducati, and penned the 999 Superbike, the Hypermotard and the old, slabby Multistrada. Not the most glamorous CV, but then he did a pretty classy job on Enfield's Continental GT cafe racer.
There's nothing sexy about the looks of the Himalayan. It's all practicality, function over form, from the twin front mudguards, to the front racks (which double as crash bars), to the rear luggage rack and a very utilitarian dash that mixes analogue and digital nicely. If it's got any sort of visual charm, maybe it's the sort of bike you could imagine Indiana Jones banging around on, whip and jacket flapping in the breeze, holding his hat on with one hand, a weathered, ancient map in his pocket …
Or not, I dunno. Look, I feel like there's a non-zero chance that a Classic 500 or a Continental GT might look cool enough to convince somebody to have sex with you. But I can't imagine anybody getting a bonus chance to reproduce just because they rocked up on a Himalayan. The man who buys one of these? Himalayan nobody because of how cool his bike looks.
This is an entry-level soft-roader, and I think a lot of people will appreciate its approachable 800 mm seat height, which makes it one of the easiest ADV machines around to hop onto. The seat itself, though, is foofy and soft and not the bike's strong point. An hour into a freeway blast, my backside is really feeling the frame rails that run up the sides. For the first Enfield you'd really want to do big freeway miles on, you'd do well to look into something firmer from the aftermarket.
I'd also pull the screen off. It doesn't seem to contribute much except for noisy helmet buffeting at freeway speed, and the bike simply doesn't go fast enough to make it much of an aerodynamic advantage. But that's me; I don't like screens at the best of times, and I accept that some people do, just like I accept that some people pay good money to get hit with paddles and told they're no good at things.
Otherwise, though, the Himalayan purrs along nicely in 5th gear, its 15-liter (4 gal) tank delivering more than 300 kilometers (186 mi) of cruising range, and an extraordinary 4 liter/100km even when I spend half the time at full throttle. It'll do 120 up a bit of a hill, and 135 down it, with the windsock that is me aboard. I have no doubt it'll hit 140 (where it'd redline with standard gearing) without needing to be dropped out of a cargo plane. At no time does it feel like you're abusing the motor, and the vibration is so well controlled that you can read number plates in both mirrors.
Hit the twisties – in this case, Victoria's spectacular Great Ocean Road – and there's another surprise: this thing is a ton of fun to throw around. You can feel the gyroscopic resistance of the 21-inch front tire on turn-in, but if you're prepared to steer it firmly, it's a genuine hoot to carve lines with.
It's often more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast one, and this is a great example – 24.5 peak horsepower gives you no reason not to yank the throttle wide open the second the suspension settles in a corner. So you do, pegs skimming along the road and the suspension doing a pretty admirable job of keeping things under control. I'm surprised at the pace it holds, even if overtaking needs to be planned a week in advance.
If anything, the brakes are the limiting factor here, a single disc front end requiring four finger braking if you're really steaming in. But I'm not complaining, I'm giggling like a schoolgirl. It's pure, simple motorcycling without electronic assistance or pretense, and it puts a big smile on my dial.
Off the road … Well, let's make one thing very clear: I'm nobody's idea of a good dirt rider. I muck around in the bush on a KTM 250 now and then, and I spent two weeks in the muddy, sandy plains of Mongolia abusing an Enfield Bullet a couple of years ago, but I'm rubbish at it.
Which is probably not far off where the average Himalayan buyer is going to start off anyway. The 21/17" rims speak to decent off-road capability, as do the 200 mm fork and 180 mm shock travel, and this isn't a bad bike to stand up on.
I found it pleasant enough to putt along some single-track fire trails, bouncing over the odd branch and splashing my way through a couple of river crossings that didn't get more than a foot or so deep.
There's a small bash plate for engine protection, and the accessory/crash bars up front made me feel like I could tip it over and pick it up a few times without losing too much sleep. A couple of dents and paint chips would go nicely with the bike's rugged looks anyway.
The engine doesn't have the same unstoppable, chugging torque as the old-school Enfield 500cc single in the Bullet, though. It prefers to be kept stirring a bit. There's also nowhere near enough torque to wheelie this 191-kilo bike without bouncing it off something. And these semi-offroad tires by Ceat – a company I've never heard of before – do impressive work on the road but get gunked up with mud pretty fast, and they start slipping a lot when we start trying to climb some muddy tracks.
Still, on a gravel road or a mild trail, the Himalayan handles itself well. The weight is kept low, the non-ABS brakes have a good amount of power and feel for a loose surface, and the easy-riding character of the whole package will encourage riders to get out and start exploring.
And that's what this bike's all about. It's an approachable, learner-friendly package that opens up a world beyond the sealed highways. But I can't help thinking to myself on the ride home that in trying to make its first dirt bike, Royal Enfield has accidentally made its best ever road bike.
It's the brand's first color TV-era motorcycle if you ask me, even if it's got legs and knobs and wood panelling instead of a high-def flat screen and wall mounts. I don't mean that in a bad way – motorcycles have been excellent fun for a long, long time. Ask your grandad. If this bike advanced as far as the plastic case and remote control TV era, say by adding ABS, it might lose some of its charm.
It's so much better than the rest of the Enfield range in my eyes that it's going to have to be compared with the more mainstream mini-ADV machines that are starting to pop up. The Kawasaki Versys-X 300 is probably a good place to start, as it costs around the same AU$5990 that the Himalayan does in Australia (In India, you're looking at 1.6 lakh rupees, or a shade under US$2500, and my understanding is that it hasn't been released yet in the USA).
The Versys gives you a parallel twin engine, a 17-liter tank and some 15 more welcome horses. It's also lighter than the Enfield at 175 kg fueled. But it's got a half-inch higher seat, a 19-inch front wheel instead of the 21, and shorter travel suspension, so it's a fair bit more sealed-road oriented, as well as managing to make the Himalayan look much more windswept and interesting in design.
If it hasn't come across strongly enough, let me say I think the Himalayan and its LS410 engine are a huge step in the right direction for Royal Enfield. I suspect we'll see that motor in a heritage-styled road bike before long that'll make the tattooed ladies swoon as well as eating highway miles, and it will be a good thing. I wonder if it regains a bit of the old bangy Enfield charm when you put an aftermarket pipe on.
Between you and me, I also hope Enfield keeps making the old, flawed, rattly 1950s designs it's famous for, because nobody else makes anything like them these days. Deep down and against all reason I've got a soft spot for them, too.
More information: Royal Enfield
Ed's note: in the interests of ethics and full disclosure, we need to point out that Loz has been doing some freelance work on video projects for Royal Enfield Australia.