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Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500: Cruise Missile

RE’s latest cruiser doesn’t reinvent the wheel on the highway. But it’s closer to the horizon than the older one

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There’s something about Enfields that gets even non-bikers excited. With bike makers in India taking their own sweet time to develop their own 500cc engine, Enfield has been making hay – churning out 500cc engines for over half a century now. So, unlike all those similar looking 100cc commuters that easily get lost in the crowd, the Enfield has a distinct identity.

This year, Royal Enfield is spreading its 500 goodness to its latest Thunderbird as well. Enfield is taking the eccentric approach, announcing it will only sell the Thunderbird 500 in three shades of black – seriously: a regular black, a matt black and a bluish-tinged black.

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Visually, the T500 looks stunning. Unlike the older T350, which has a very ill-fitting fuel tank that looks like an afterthought, the T500’s tank is well integrated and flows nicely into the bodywork. And it’s a bigger capacity – 20 litres! Which stretches its range out to 400km. There’s also clever design, like the placement, or rather displacement of the fuel cap from its conventional position – this not only looks good, it also helps you fill fuel to the brim. Of course, you’re robbed of the whole drama of jiggling the bike to pack in those last few drops more before you shut the chrome lid.

Chrome has always been an essential part of any cruiser and the T500 is no exception. It has been used tastefully all over, so the instrument casing, headlight and exhaust are all dipped in chrome. Adding a dash of 21st century to this classic design is the projector headlamp, single-ring parking light (very much like a daytime running light) and the five-bar LED taillights. Apart from being a styling element, the projector headlamp lights the road well and gives the T500 a distinct identity.

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The instrument cluster has also gone through a heavy redraw. Don’t worry, the speedometer and rpm meter stay the same. Add to that, a digital multi-info display that shows time, average speed, average fuel consumption, two trip meters and a digital fuel gauge. You also get a hazard light switch, a first on an Indian bike, but it’s inconveniently placed between the two circular dials rather than on the switchgear. My only complaint with the T500’s design is that, seen from dead front, the bulk is completely lost, not helped at all by the thin front tyre (90/90 section).

Seat design and seating position are pretty much like the older bike’s except for two things. First, saddle height has been raised by 5mm, with the addition of extra foam to keep the rider as comfortable and fatigue-free as possible over long distances. Second, unlike the older bike’s single-piece seat, the new T500 comes with a split seat, something all Thunderbird owners will appreciate. You get a bit of storage space below the pillion seat, but more than that, if you decide to ride alone, the rear seat can be removed to make space for saddlebags or a carrier.

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Riding position too is like the older bike’s, with upright seating and handlebars falling within easy reach. The seating position might not be as laid back as it is on some bigger cruiser bikes, but given that more than open highway, the T500 will typically be used more for grocery shopping and the office run, it looks like a fair compromise.

Lots of T350 customers were looking for an upgrade from their current bike and stuffing the 500’s fuel-injected engine into the frame was a logical step. But if you think the T500 is really a 350 frame with a 500 engine, you’re mistaken. Some significant changes have happened on and under the skin. The T500 is a tad shorter in length and wheelbase than the T350. The reworked swing-arm also gives the bike better stability, especially on corners, but more on that later.

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The engine is a straight lift from the Classic 500, so don’t expect drastic changes in performance – there’s 27.2bhp and 41.3Nm of torque. This is impressive on paper and out on the highway, the engine will hum along at 80-90kph all day long. If you want your highway cruiser to swallow kilometres faster, just downshift to fourth and twist the throttle. The T500 will oblige without wasting time. On the Bangalore-Mysore highway, the bike cruised at 120-130kph easily.

The gearbox is a 5-speed manual, not as smooth as the ones on those Japanese bikes, but it does have a mechanical feel to it, which I loved. Over time, motorbikes have had so much refinement drilled into them, I didn’t realise how much I love – and miss – the feel and sound of metal on metal.

The downside is the limited amount of usable power that you get to play with in the rev range. Before 3500rpm, there’s not much low-end torque available, so if you want to overtake on a highway, you need to downshift to build revs. The engine redlines at 5500rpm. And with the tall fifth gear, you need to keep clicking through the gears to stay in the power-band. The front suspension has been reworked and now gets wider 41mm forks compared to the 350’s 35mm; the rear swingarm uses a new oval section design. All these changes plus the bike’s 195kg weight add to stability.

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And it’s not just straight roads that the T500 is built for. On our way to Ooty, we were treated to 36 hairpin turns, and the Thunderbird pleasantly surprised us by leaning into every tight corner effortlessly. I’ve ridden the older bike, which is why I realise what a big leap this is. So despite all that mass, it feels light on its feet, not only in corners, but also weaving through traffic.

Low-speed engine vibration is in check, but as you reach triple-digit speeds, it rises – but that’s something you expect from a 500cc single-cylinder engine. The T500 does a good job of filtering out most vibration, but some remains, most noticeably on the footpegs. But then, given the goodies the new T500 comes with, we’re sure Enfield loyalists won’t complain much about this inconvenience.

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Speaking of goodies, the T500 gets a 280mm front disc brake and 240mm rear disc, which replaces the older 153mm rear drum brake. This and the grippy MRF tyres stop this near-200kg bike easily. Which then gives you the confidence to push the bike harder into corners, and brake later.

So, is the T500 worth trading in your older 350 for? Yes! The 500 not only looks better, it also offers a whole lot more than the older bike. On refinement and ride ability, the 500 checks all the right boxes. Of course, there’s room for improvement, but here’s the thing – Enfield didn’t earn its army of loyalists by building technologically advanced bikes. It did it by keeping things simple.

(Words: Abhinav Mishra, Photos: Nitin Rose)

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