Riding Royal Enfields in Baja

Joe Berk and a friend tour through Baja south to Guerrero Negro to see whales and to review the new Royal Enfield INT650.

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by Joe Berk
The Royal Enfield 650 INT and 500 Bullet next to a gray whale skeleton in Baja.

Royal Enfield INT650

Engine: 648cc air/oil-cooled SOHC parallel twin, 78mm x 67.8mm bore and stroke, 9.5:1 compression ratio, 47hp @ 7,250rpm (at crankshaft)
Top speed: 115 mph (est.)
Fueling: Bosch multi-point sequential fuel injection
Transmission: 6-speed, chain final drive
Electrics: 12v, digital electronic ignition
Frame/wheelbase: Dual downtube steel cradle frame/55.1 in (1,400mm)
Suspension: 41mm Gabriel telescopic fork front, twin Gabriel gas-charged piggyback shocks w/5-stage adjustable preload rear
Brakes: Single 12.6 (320mm) disc front, single 9.4in (240 mm) disc rear
Tires: 100/90 x18in front, 130/70 x 18in rear
Weight (dry): 44.4lb (202kg)
Seat height: 31.7in (804mm)
Fuel capacity: 3.6gal (13.7ltr)
Price: Starting at $5,799

I’ve always thought Royal Enfield singles were beautiful motorcycles, and the idea of a resurrected and modernized Enfield 650 twin was mesmerizing.

I love riding in Baja (see MC’s Destinations from November/ December 2008, November/December 2013 and July/August 2019), and with the above in mind, I contacted Royal Enfield North America with a proposal: Lend us two motorcycles and my good buddy Joe Gresh and I would take them through Baja and write about the experience. Enfield was on board in a heartbeat.

Our plan was for a seven-day, 1,300 mile trip from southern California to Tecate (170 miles), Tecate to San Quintin through the wine country (180miles), San Quintin through the Valle de los Cirios to Guerrero Negro (264 miles), a day in Guerrero Negro to see the whales, then an easy ride home. We’d experience freeway riding in California down to the border, the magnificent Ruta del Vino through northern Baja, and a similarly awesome La Carretera Transpeninsular (Baja’s winding Transpeninsular Highway) all the way down to Guerrero Negro (our turnaround point 500 miles south of the border, where we’d visit with the whales). The two Royal Enfields were impressive, each in their own way. We weren’t able to give the Bullet a fair shake (more on that in a bit), but I still liked it. The new 650 Interceptor is a perfect motorcycle (more on that in a bit, too).

The Bullet

The 500cc single-cylinder Bullet is straight from the 1950s (albeit with electric starting and fuel injection). Jet black with hand pinstriping and a tall, exquisitelyfinned and polished single, the Bullet is stunning. There’s no take-the-fairings-off-and-I-look like- a-washing-machine nonsense here. This is a motorcycle where the motor is the focal point. You know it when you see it and you feel it when you start it. It’s not fast, but it’s fast enough, and the riding experience is uniquely soothing. The Bullet has a speedometer and an odometer, but no trip meter and no tachometer (you can almost calculate rpm by counting thumps and using a wristwatch). There’s a fuel warning light but no fuel gauge. There’s a check engine light (which iskind of funny, because this motorcycle is all motor … yep,the engine’s there), a turn signal indicator, a high beam indicator, and a neutral light (all of which are nearly impossible to see in daylight). Cruising between 55 and 65mph (the Enfield’s sweet spot), the speedo needle obscures the odometer, rendering it useless as a fuel gauge. The ignition key switch has two positions (on and off, labeled “IGNITION” just in case you don’t get it).

The Bullet’s fenders are enormous, deeply valanced and steel. The frame is a massive tubular affair, with portions so ample my bungee hooks wouldn’t fit. Triangular black locking cases add to the vintage feel, the left one holding the fuse box and tools, the right providing access to the air filter. The Bullet comes with a decent tool kit (that’s the good news), which we actually had to use several times in Baja (that’s the bad news). Another keyed metal cover protects the huge battery but allows access to the terminals. The front brake is a disc. The rear brake on the 2016 model I rode was a drum brake, which was adequate but not great. The newer Enfield 500s have ABS and disc brakes front and rear.

Enfield specs the Bullet’s fuel tank at 3.5 gallons. On the long stretch from Catavina to the Pemex station 20 miles north of Guerrero Negro (exactly 110 miles, with nothing but magnificent scenery along the way) the low fuel light indicator started to flicker 100 yards shy of the gas station. Gresh saw 75mpg riding down to the border, and I got 72mpg riding the Bullet home. I don’t know how many miles are left when the fuel light flickers, but I suspect that like most bikes, the low fuel light suffers from premature illumination. The Bullet was surprisingly comfortable, more so than the Interceptor and most other motorcycles. The seat was hard and the step in it prevented moving around during long hours in the saddle, but the ergonomics worked for me.

Our Bullet was a 3-year-old press bike (a 2016 model) that had been brutally abused and neglected. It had a persistent miss, it was a quart low on oil, the chain was rusty, the spark plug lead was corroded, the kickstand interlock intermittently actuated and the battery was on life support. We topped off the oil and lubed the chain before we left; the other problems emerged deep in Baja. In the Bullet’sdefense, it was easy to revive after each breakdown. Some say the adventure doesn’t start until something goes wrong; by that measure, the Bullet was every inch an adventure bike.  Having said that, I still liked the Bullet. It had character and it got us down to Guerrero Negro and back. Royal Enfield knows they erred by giving us a decrepit Bullet, but it wasn’t their fault. In my opinion responsibility falls squarely on the dealer (one that is not Royal Enfield North America’s usual press fleet manager). Enfield still took responsibility, but the dealer simply didn’t do as RENA directed. That’s good to know about Royal Enfield, and good to know about that particular dealer.

The INT650

On to the new INT650, which I still call the Interceptor (I’ll explain in a moment). Enfield brought only a few of these bikes to the U.S. for certification, and we rode one on our Baja expedition. We are the only journalists to have taken it on an adventure ride of this nature. The bottom line first: The Interceptor is a quantum leap forward, taking Royal Enfield from the 1950s to the 21st century. I want one. It’s that good. Imagine a British twin (except it’s not British) with a SOHC 4-valve 650cc engine, counterbalancing,

Electronic ignition, air-and-oil cooling, electric starting and the appearance of a 1960s OHV Enfield. Add nicely curved chrome headers with finned clamps (like they used to have), big chrome megaphone mufflers, no goofy crossover pipes, and an exhaust note that is just perfect. Include beautiful polished cases suggesting non-unit construction.

The Enfield guys got it right, but they didn’t stop there. They included a slick 6-speed gearbox, ABS disc brakes, and a fit and finish dramatically more refined than anything we had in the 1960s. There’s a classic teardrop 3.6-gallon fuel tank, wire wheels, a big chrome headlight, and a tach and speedo that almost say “Smiths.” Get all that straight in your mind, and you pretty much have the new Royal Enfield Interceptor (except it’s manufactured in India,not England). The styling is perfect. In my opinion, Enfield has out-Triumphed Triumph in being more faithful to the original layout, displacement and feel of a classic British vertical twin motorcycle.

From an instrumentation perspective, the Interceptor has all the good stuff I need and none of the stuff I don’t. The bike has a digital, bar-based fuel gauge in the left instrument can, an analog speedo and tach, high beam and turn signal indicators, an ABS light, and an odometer and two trip meters. I could see it all, even in bright sunlight. My father rode a 1966 Triumph Bonneville (which I managed to sneak out on more than a few occasions when I was a teenager), and throughout our Baja ride, that 50-year-old memory was how I measured the new Interceptor.

The Interceptor weighs 445 pounds (about 80 pounds more than the ’66 Bonneville, but the ’66 didn’t have catalytic converters, emissions control gear, electric starting, turn signals, an oil cooler, six speeds, and … well, you get the idea). The Enfield car- ries its weight low and it felt light and quick everywhere. The wheelbase is 55 inches, just like the ’66 Bonneville. Horsepower is listed at 47 (the ’66 Bonneville was 50), but the Enfield engine felt incomparably smoother and torquier than the old Triumph. Roll on the throttle and the Interceptor simply responded (I frequently thought I was in sixth only to discover I was in a lower gear). On Baja’s twisty Valle de los Cirios stretch, I didn’t have to downshift. Even with all the gear we carried, the Interceptor didn’t care. Loaded with all our stuff, top speed was an indicated 115mph in fifth gear and 110 mph in sixth (the Interceptor’s sixth is an overdrive). With just 847 miles on the odometer, we clocked a hair over 60mpg on the first leg of our trip; on our way home (with another 1,300 miles on the bike) we realized over 70mpg. The Interceptor never used any oil.

The Interceptor has single discs front and rear with ABS (there’s no deactivation switch). Gresh slammed the rear brake on a dirt road and you could see where the ABS actuated on and off in the bike’s track. The rear suspension is adjustable for preload, and as delivered, the rear shocks were in their medium position. Our preproduction bike had no tool kit, so there was no spanner to make an adjustment. I managed to bottom the rear suspension a couple of times but that was no big deal and adjusting the rear preload would have prevented it. Suspension travel is what’s needed on a street bike. The wheels are 18 inches front and rear. Handling was impeccable. The bike felt stable and it cornered well

I guess I need to find something to criticize, but I will tell you doing so isn’t easy. The left side of the bike is crowded around the foot peg and the gearshift is too short and low (I guess it could be adjusted up). On the plus side, shifting was slick and effortless, there was no clunking, and the bike almost changed gears telepathically (it was that smooth).

The tank emblems are gorgeous, although there was a very slight curvature mismatch where the leading edge of the emblem met the tank. While I’m on the fuel tank, its 3.6 gallons and the bike’s 70mpg fuel economy promise a range somewhere north of 200 miles. The bike ran equally well on regular or premium; we mostly used regular because that’s what was available deep in Baja. I like the Interceptor name, but the bike will be known as the INT650. I’m guessing that’s because a certain other motorcycle uses that name (that bike is usually red). That seems somehow unfair because Royal Enfield had the Interceptor name long before you met those nicest of people on a — well, you know.

The Interceptor’s $5,799 MSRP is a new motorcycle value benchmark, I believe, particularly when considered in light of the bike’s features and stellar build quality (let’s hope the dealers don’t muck it up too much with inflated setup and freight charges). In 1966, a new Triumph Bonneville cost $1,320. Take that 1966 price, adjust for inflation, and it becomes $10,298 today. Buy a new Enfield 650 and you’ve already saved $4,500. At least that’s the case I’m going to make, and I think my wife will go for it. MC

Want to know more about riding in Baja? Pick up a copy of Berk’s Moto Baja!

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