Second Look: Royal Enfield Continental GT

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There's no arguing that Royal Enfield got everything right in the styling department — the GT's café racer profile is nigh on perfect.
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2015 Royal Enfield Continental GT
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2015 Royal Enfield Continental GT
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2015 Royal Enfield Continental GT
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2015 Royal Enfield Continental GT
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The GT's 535cc single-cylinder engine keeps the bike simple and narrow. Its widest girth is where the muffler kicks out at the rear.
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The GT's 535cc single-cylinder engine keeps the bike simple and narrow. Its widest girth is where the muffler kicks out at the rear.
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The GT loves two-lane country roads, where its competent chassis shines.

2015 Royal Enfield Continental GT
Claimed power: 29.1hp @ 5,100rpm
Top speed: 80mph (indicated)
Engine: 535cc air-cooled OHV single, 87mm x 90mm bore and stroke
Weight (wet): 405lb (184kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3.6gal (13.5ltr)/58mpg (avg/observed)
Price: $5,999

First impressions are only that. An hour or a day with a bike rarely tells the whole story. A new bike can feel great on that first, short ride, but a week or a month of riding often tells an entirely different tale — and not always a good one.

In 2014, Royal Enfield introduced a game-changer in its previously staid line of retro machines — the Continental GT. Inspired by the 1965 250cc Continental GT produced by Royal Enfield in England, the new GT is the most adventurous offering yet from Royal Enfield in India, which has staked its export future on retro classics powered by simple, single-cylinder engines designed to invoke memories of the original Enfield Bullet. Royal Enfield CEO Siddhartha Lal believes the mid-sized motorcycle market has lots of room for growth, and he thinks bikes like the Continental GT have a bright future thanks to their relative simplicity, accessibility and affordability. He’s backed up that belief with a new state-of-the-art, 200,000-square-foot factory in India’s Oragadam industrial region, where the new GT is built.

At $5,999 the GT is priced against bikes like Honda’s new CB500F twin, a far more technically advanced half-liter sport bike powered by a liquid-cooled twin. While the new GT is the most advanced machine yet offered by Royal Enfield India, technology-wise it’s hardly on a par with the best from Japan.

Alan Cathcart sampled the GT for our January/February 2014 issue following its U.K. debut and came away impressed, noting the bike’s relaxed performance and solid handling, the latter thanks to famed chassis builders Harris Performance in England, who designed the GT’s all new frame.

I had the opportunity to flog a new Continental GT during the model’s U.S. launch in May 2014, and my first impressions of the GT were almost uniformly positive. In a day of riding with Lal and a dozen-plus other journalists in the hill country outside Temecula, California, I found the GT to be a capable low-speed, sporting motorcycle with excellent handling and a huge fun factor. In 175-odd miles of hard riding, not one of the bikes in our crew so much as hiccupped, and squeezing every ounce of performance I could out of the 535cc single still returned 52mpg for the day’s ride. I was impressed by the GT’s brakes and suspension dynamics, and it didn’t matter that it wasn’t powerful. In fact, it was fun precisely because of its modest power, which forces the rider to really work it to get the most out of the GT.

That one day was fun, but we were interested to see if we’d enjoy it as much after a month of riding.

We got our wish, taking delivery of a new Continental GT to ride at our pleasure. Over the course of a few months, we put over 1,000 miles on our GT, riding it in a variety of settings ranging from urban cruising to commuting, running back streets, two-lane country roads and four-lane highways. We rode it on dirt roads, in the rain, and in temperatures ranging from 30 degrees F to 85 degrees F to see what it’s really like to live with.

What it isn’t

So what do you get for the money? If you’re interested in the new GT, it’s important to understand what it is and what it isn’t, and it definitely isn’t a road or touring machine. It’s certainly capable of 70mph cruising, but running at that speed for anything more than a few miles is not what you’d call effortless. Royal Enfield claims 29 horsepower at 5,100rpm for the GT. That’s not exactly powerful by modern standards, and it means keeping up with traffic on the super slab requires lots of planning. Level roads are no problem, but when hills approach you have to wring the thumper hard, because you lose speed rapidly as you climb. 70mph suddenly drops to 65, then 60, and when the world around you is going 80mph it can be a little nerve-racking.

Worse yet is the vibration at 60-65mph, a common speed on secondary highways. At those speeds the single is turning an indicated 3,000-3,500rpm. That puts it in its sweet spot torque-wise (max torque is 32.5ft/lb at 4,000rpm), but it also happens to be where the single produces the most vibration, hopelessly blurring the mirrors, not to mention the speedometer and tachometer. The vibration-induced numbing in the rider’s hands gets so bad you have to either slow down and drop the revs under 3,000rpm or speed up and get them over 4,000rpm. Either end of the spectrum gives relief, but either way, steady-state “high speed” cruising is not the GT’s strength.

What it is

Where the GT shines is on small, two-lane roads where road and engine speeds change frequently. Working through the gears, keeping the engine on the boil for short blasts before easing the throttle to work through a turn and set up for the next short bit of straight road, the GT feels like a different machine. The vibes are still there, but since you’re constantly working through them they don’t tire you like they do running on the highway. It’s surprisingly sure-footed in tight turns, and you can enter a corner with more speed than you might expect. It’s hard to get into trouble, because if you think you’re going too fast, the excellent brakes will haul you down to speed rapidly. Likewise, the engine’s modest power makes it almost impossible to get in trouble powering out of a turn, and its reasonable torque makes it feel faster than it actually is. Those same mid-revs that tingle on the road suddenly feel strong.

It’s also a spectacular urban machine, perfect for short hops to the store, coffee shop or bar, where it always draws lots of admiring glances. There’s no arguing that Royal Enfield got everything right in the styling department — the GT’s café racer profile is nigh on perfect. The paintwork is excellent and the chrome (even if some of it, such as on the turn signals, is plastic) shines. Our bike’s yellow bodywork looks great with the yellow springs on the Paioli shocks, and the yellow stitching on the black seat is the perfect touch, giving the GT a custom, high-end look.

The rearset foot controls look and feel the business, and the hand controls are simple and logical. The starter spins the single effortlessly, and while we experienced some hard starting in cold weather the thumper otherwise fires up almost instantly, requiring only a little warm up before moving off: Fuel injection has its benefits. Clutch effort is very light, and the transmission never balks, never grinds, and never misses a shift, whether going up or down through the gears. Neutral was occasionally hard to find at a stop, but that only happened when the engine was hot, and even then not frequently.

The suspension is better than anything Royal Enfield has offered before. Gas-charged Paioli piggy-back reservoir shocks look after the rear suspension, while the front carries 41mm telescopic forks. The ride is definitely on the stiff side, which might be an issue for some. Adjustable damping on the rear shocks (they’re adjustable for preload only) would help, as it’s the back end that delivers the harshest jolts. The front forks do their job very well, giving predictable and smooth control.

Some reviewers — including Cathcart — were less than impressed by the brakes, but we were hard pressed to fault them. They’re nicely balanced thanks to the combination of a dual-piston single Brembo disc up front and a locally-sourced single-piston disc rear. And like the GT I rode in California, our long-term bike proved frugal to run, returning a low of 50mpg on a particularly windy day and averaging 58mpg in our 1,000 miles of running. Riding the GT hard doesn’t appear to influence mileage one bit, because it doesn’t seem to change whether you’re flogging it on local back roads or cruising sedately around town.

We didn’t have a single mechanical issue with our GT, something we couldn’t say about the Bullet we had back in 2005. This is an important machine for Royal Enfield, because it proves the Indian company can build reliable and capable machines for riders wanting a good looking, easy to own and easy to ride motorcycle that also delivers the key attribute of any good motorcycle, fun.

After a month and 1,000 miles of riding, we were still happy to throw a leg over the GT, proving to us that it’s a machine that returns the goods, day after day. MC

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