When the opportunity came up to have Royal Enfield send me a motorcycle for six weeks I jumped at the opportunity. Over the last 18 months to two years, Royal Enfield in the U.S. has really raised their profile with very clever and stylish marketing. Aesthetically, the visuals here have a cool retro vibe without going overboard or being cliché.
It has been nearly a decade since I last had the opportunity to review a motorcycle. In fact, the opportunity to ride a motorcycle for me has been almost nonexistent for several years now. I’ve been unable or unmotivated to finish a rebuild on a 78 Yamaha XS400 with 1,100 original miles. So this is going to be a literal breath of fresh air.
Why has there been such a trend for Retro-Modern? The same reason Restomods became popular. This is the look, feel, and character of something older with none of the headaches. The Royal Enfield Continental GT nails this aspect. From the look of the case castings, wire wheels, dual rear shocks, and the view of the gauges, to the fact that this is still an air-cooled engine. You might as well be looking right at 1965. It has the classic Café racer look like you are ready to “run the ton” from Ace’s Cafe.
Still, here the instruments have digital elements with a fuel gauge and the lighting is actually useful. This is of course unlike something form 1965. Also, push the starter button and the bike fires right to life. No carburetor or choke to worry about. There’s no need to kick start. Once you thumb the starter you get a nice bark from the exhaust. The engine settles into an easy idle. Then you put on the rest of your gear while you give the motor a minute to warm up.
One of the most shocking things about the Continental GT was how easy the clutch engages. It’s quite simple to pull away from a stop. When the bike arrived I took delivery a few blocks down the street because it was strapped to a semi-truck transporting a lot of motorcycles. There’s nothing like the first time you get on a new bike and your first ride means pulling right out onto Woodward Avenue in the middle of the day. Letting the clutch out and pulling into traffic was as easy and natural as if I had been riding the bike for years.
This bike was factory fresh too. It arrived with just under 300 miles showing on the odometer. Overall, the fit and finish were better than I expected. Now if that seems damning with faint praise, it’s not. This is a $6,000 motorcycle. Or in the “Dr. Mayhem” color combination I of my tester it rings out at $6,249.
For reference, a Triumph Street Twin is $9,300. Yes, I’m aware it also has a 900-cc engine vs the Royal Enfield’s 650-cc mill. Kawasaki’s W800 is $9,000. The Ducati Monster 797 rings in at $9,300 and the Scrambler Sixty2, a 400-cc model, is $8,000. Those are all large enough deltas to change how you look at and evaluate the bike.
Sitting on the bike at 5’10” with a 32” inseam, I had no problems flat-footing it. However, a friend of mine who is about 5’7” with a 30” inseam could not. The reach to the handlebars requires just a bit of forward cant, and the footpegs are just slightly set to give a nice, comfortable rider triangle.
The seat offers a good amount of room to move around on. The padding is firm and towards the backend of a 90-minute ride, I was wishing it had more compliance.
The 648-cc parallel-twin engine is air-cooled as mentioned, with fuel injection and electronic ignition. In today’s world, it’s a bit of a surprise that any air-cooled engine can get past emissions testing. The engine makes 47 horsepower at 7,250 rpm and 38 lb-ft of torque at 5,250 rpm. The engine is happiest between 4,000 and 7,000 rpm. It’s just fine below 4,000, however, given the 435-pound curb weight minus fuel, it feels a bit lethargic if you try to accelerate in a higher gear from below 4,000 rpm. On the road, the stock exhaust has a nice bark to it. It’s not loud. But it has a quality parallel twin sound where you might not even need or want to buy an aftermarket exhaust.
In the sweet spot though, the engine is responsive and revs nicely. There is a hard cut at 7,300 rpm, however. And when I say hard cut I mean it’s not a soft “I don’t want to rev anymore” it’s more jarring. Is 47 horsepower enough on this bike? Maybe. If it had, say 60 horsepower, I think that would be perfect. Just enough to really give a thrill and keep things interesting, yet not so much you worry about it getting away from you if and when you go WFO.
Can it do wheelies? Can you back it in? I don’t know. I’m not the person for that. Zack, Ari, Adam, and a few others on YouTube can probably get you that answer. But this isn’t really a bike for that.
On the road
Find a nice two-lane road and keep the Conti GT between 40 and 70 miles an hour and it’s a joy to ride. OK, the front forks feel like they have a bit too much compression, and the right handlebar is buzzy enough that you need to keep flexing your hand from feeling like it’s falling asleep if you ride for more than an hour. Both can be fixed for not much money and a little effort. Different bar weight ends would likely cure the handlebar buzz. Different fork oil or adjusting the shim stack could make the front slightly more compliant.
The brakes on the Continental GT are good enough, too. This is not a high strung sportbike where the latest Brembo monoblock calipers and 19 RCS Corsa master cylinder are required. These are a single 320-mm disc with ABS. There were two instances where I felt I was using ALL the brake. Both were coming up to an intersection where the lights when from green to yellow to red very quickly. I didn’t feel the ABS pulse in the handle, but I didn’t have any more lever travel either. I had full confidence in the brakes but was also made aware of their limitations. Honestly, I think they are fine for the type of bike and the type of riding that will be done. Would I like more brakes? ALWAYS! Could I live with these? Sure, no worries.
On the highway
While the Conti GT is best on the back roads, it’s also not bad on the Interstate depending on the direction and speed of the wind. Riding into a 15-20 mile an hour breeze at 80, you do get enough buffeting to almost make it unenjoyable. With that same wind as a crosswind or a tailwind, it’s just fine. In fact, given the gusts one particular day the Royal Enfield was quite composed in the crosswind. The blustery breeze didn’t affect it at all.
Rolling at 80 down the freeway though you will be turning the engine quite hard. Glancing down at the tach it shows 5,200-5,300 rpm, and you could feel that buzz in the throttle pretty noticeably. Again, different bar end weights would be high on the list if I was buying this. The mirrors once I found a good adjustment for them were okay. I’d like them to sit a little further out so as to give more view, but they didn’t blur out from the vibrations so at least I could see what was behind me.
Where the aforementioned low mileage on the bike was most noticeable was the gearbox. Most of the time it was just fine. There was no problem shifting up without the clutch and downshifting was mostly good. I did catch a false neutral once, and if you were really trying to get down through the gears quickly it felt mushy. As in fluid resistance because it didn’t want to go down the gears that fast. On my last ride with the bike, this wasn’t as noticeable, I’m thinking that once you get 1,000 miles or so on the bike this would go away.
Then it went pear shaped
So what’s this “Good Ride Interrupted” all about anyway? About two weeks after the bike was dropped off I ended up in the Emergency Room. My neck stiffened up, almost like I had whiplash, and then started spasming. This happened twice more while I had the bike in for review. Twice more I ended up in the ER. Needless to say, I was a little reluctant to strap a three and half-pound Arai Quantum X helmet on my head. The last thing I wanted was for this issue to get triggered while I was riding. Blurred vision and crippling pain are not things you want while operating anything.
I had several longer rides planned out as the team at Royal Enfield didn’t put any hard mileage limits on the bike. Yet given what happened I was only able to put about 300 miles on it. That said, I think I had enough distance covered for a good takeaway.
It took me a few rides to get back into the mental groove of being on a bike again. It wasn’t so much the controls or being aware of traffic, it was the mental game. I was thinking too much about everything else rather than being in the moment.
Why motorcycles are superior
For me, the best aspect of a motorcycle and what tells me I connect with a motorcycle is that I can truly be in the moment. A good motorcycle ride is like meditation, everything else just melts away. You don’t have the distractions of phones, computers, or the radio. You are on the bike. Your vision is just a little sharper. You notice the smells of everything. You hear little things on the motorcycle you hadn’t noticed before. Time slows down.
As much as I loved road racing motorcycles back in the day, it is this aspect of riding that I have missed the most. Turning off the chaos, anger, and stress of daily life and letting your mind be calm and relax. In the back half of 2020, with everything going on in our country and in the world, it’s a welcome reprieve.
The last ride I had on the Royal Enfield was a 70 mile run on a reasonable two-lane road. Well, as reasonable as you can find in Northern Oakland Country north of Detroit. About a third of the way through the ride is when, for the first time, it all came together. Like seeing an old friend for the first time in a very long time the memories come rushing back and a smile comes on your face. Knowing it was my last ride on the bike I tried as much as possible to just live in that moment. Absorb it. Hold on to it. It will be sometime before it comes around again.
When it comes to cars and motorcycles people tend to get caught up in numbers, statistics, and spreadsheets. The best thing about motorcycles is they are about feel. You can have all the best components and the best performance numbers, but if you don’t get the feeling you are looking for, all of that doesn’t matter. It is truly some of the last analog experiences left to us.
The Royal Enfield Continental GT won’t win any numbers games. It is a motorcycle that is built for the experience. The experience of riding. Of connecting. Of turning off the world for just a little while. If you can understand this, then you understand this machine.
Who is this bike for? If you are a first time rider or getting back onto a motorcycle for the first time in a very long time, this is a perfect bike. The Continental GT is very easy to ride. It doesn’t have so much power that it scares you, but it does have enough to be interesting and entertaining.
This is a great second bike too. It has style! It really looks straight out of 1965 and sounds like it too. If your first/main bike is a sportbike, touring, or ADV bike, this provides great contrast and different riding experience.
Good commuter bike? Maybe. There is enough room on the bike to put a nice sized tank bag or strap a bag on to the rear. It’s easy enough to ride in stop and go traffic and as mentioned can do freeways, though it’s not happiest there.
Just need a Sunday morning bike. Again, I think the Continental GT fits the bill. It’s inexpensive to purchase. Maintenance of this will be dead simple. Running costs should be minimal. So if it’s parked in your garage and you only get to ride it 15 to 20 days in a year, you don’t stress about it.
The Royal Enfield Continental GT isn’t a bike you should sleep on. It’s very good value for money and it has a classic look that will always be in style. It’s unique enough that you won’t see yourself coming and going all the time on the road. Lastly, Royal Enfield is working at building a good community with its riders through some quality marketing and social media, as well as going full in with their involvement in the American Flat Track series.
If you go take one for a ride, I don’t think you will walk away disappointed.