Royal Enfield is going from strength to strength in 2015, overtaking Harley-Davidson in sales and growing at a remarkable rate both in India, where the brand is a revered and well-loved icon, and abroad, where Enfield's classic looks and simple, rootsy approach to motorcycling is finding favour with old-school riders and younger fashionistas alike. The Continental GT cafe racer is the fastest, lightest and most powerful Royal Enfield ever built, but it's definitely not fast, light or powerful. What it's got in spades is character. Enjoy our full review and a very tongue-in-cheek video below.
The world's oldest continuously operating motorcycle manufacturer, Royal Enfield has a brand new factory in Chennai and it's ramping up quality and production to record levels. Enfield is now selling around 300,000 motorcycles per year – overtaking Harley-Davidson at around 260,000 – and sales are trending upwards.
While a ton of Enfields sell in India, the brand also has a certain cult status internationally. The fact that some of its designs have barely changed since the 1950s gives these bikes an authenticity that rings bells for the hipster crowd and raises smiles from older motorcycling fans who were around back when these Enfields were the hot new thing.
The Continental GT is on of Royal Enfield's first fuel injected motorcycles, and it rocks braided brake lines with Brembo calipers and a pair of Paioli shocks at the back end. There's also a digital trip meter on the clocks, but the modern touches end there. The GT is a period-perfect cafe racer that looks for all the world like it's been lovingly restored by a vintage bike fan.
Quality-wise, things look solid. The paint job is beautiful, with our test bike sporting a deep red, while the welds look clean and solid, and fit and finish are spot on. Time will tell how these bikes stand up to weather, but the new factory's work looks great at first glance.
In the 50 years since the original Continental GT was released in 1965, peak power has gone from 21 horsepower to 29.1. It's not a lot, but the 2015 GT's 535cc single-cylinder air-cooled engine still manages to deliver a satisfying riding experience with a distinctive big-single exhaust note.
Acceleration is decent off the line. The clutch grabs a little, or perhaps it's just the well-spaced power pulses reaching the back wheel, but the GT makes enough grunt to get you off the line and out of the traffic easily enough. Shifting early makes the most sense as it runs out of puff as the revs come up and you're better off using the lower down torque.
The engine is good for freeway speeds up to an indicated 120 km/h (75 mph) with a bit left to give – mind you, I suspect the speedometer is overreading by at least 10 percent. It's not a speed machine by any means, but it handles freeway work fine.
The riding position is a lot more comfortable than you might expect looking at it. It's a compact bike, but your legs aren't squashed up and the riding position isn't too far forward. The seat is thin, though, and your butt does get tired on longer rides, but not as quickly as your hands and feet tire of the vibrations.
Lively vibrations are without doubt a key part of the feeling of riding the Continental. The mirrors shake so hard at certain revs that you can't see much in them at all, and I found my hands, feet and crotch going a bit numb from time to time. Bolts from the exhaust shield started working themselves loose, so owners would do well to keep tools and loc-tite handy for their first thousand kilometers (620 mi) or so.
Mind you, I wouldn't change the vibrations at all. Sitting at the lights enjoying the thump and shake of this bike is part of the pleasure and character of the thing. This is a bike that sucks you into its world. After a week on board the Continental, my riding brain had thoroughly slowed down to match its pace, and I found that relaxed pace surprisingly satisfying.
I enjoyed the ton of attention the bike garners from young and old motorcycling fans, as well as the conversations it started just about every time I parked it somewhere. I did not enjoy the humiliation of trying to kick-start it – I shot about two for 100 on that task and ended up using the electric start more or less exclusively. But that's a technique issue; I didn't grow up kicking dirt bikes over.
The Continental GT is on the road for AU$8,990 (US$7,230) in Australia. It's vastly cheaper in India (2.13 lakh rupees, or US$3,340). Outside India, you can certainly get a lot more for your money in terms of speed, power, performance and technology. On the other hand, for a bike with such a presence and a feel to it, it's hard to feel like you're getting a bad deal.
It's instant, old-school cred in a bottle. And if you're cool enough to pull off the look, you won't find much on the market that comes close – maybe the Yamaha SR400 with a ton of modifications. I for one am not cool enough to make it work – not by a long shot – but for one short week, I really tried. Enjoy our (very tongue-in-cheek) video review below.