With the new Thunderbird 500, Royal Enfield has stuck to its tried and tested tough formula. Amit Pandey drives the bike with a thump

Royal Enfield’s Thunderbird saga started a decade back with the launch of the first thoroughbred cruiser in 2002. This cruiser then became the first model to be powered by the company’s new Unit Construction Engine (UCE) in 2008. Royal Enfield unveiled the latest in the line-up, the Thunderbird 500 at this year’s Indian Auto Expo. So what’s the latest offering from the stables of RE like? We took the new 500 for a ride on the Bangalore-Ooty highway and here are our first impressions.

Royal Enfield has always treated the Thunderbird sub-breed as more of an experimental playground, so as to not dilute the Bullet and Classic brands. As a result, once again, this is the motorcycle that introduces a number of new features that will test the waters for future models. The Thunderbird headlight now features a projector lamp and the rear-view mirrors have been redesigned. The instrument console houses chrome-rimmed, rounded twin pods displaying an analogue speedometer and tachometer, and also sporting a digital odometer, trip meter, fuel gauge and clock. The backlit dials are legible and stylish. The handlebar grips feel decent and the well-weighted clutch and front brake levers have a solid and meaty feel to them. The switchgear now also includes a hazard warning switch, another first for the Enfield.

With its capacity increased to 20 litres, the fuel tank now looks massive but well-proportioned, and the fuel filler lid is now offset to the top of the tank. Another distinctive design element is the engine and transmission case being black in colour now. The saddle is also redesigned and you now have the option of removing the pillion seat to make room for luggage, which can be tied down to bungee anchors. The 500 also gets a pillion grab rail, revised exhaust, redesigned LED tail-lamp and, not-to-be-missed RE logos on its foot pegs. Overall fit and finish has improved in small measure, but still isn’t good enough for a premium bike like the Thunderbird.

The latest Thunderbird borrows its 499cc, single-cylinder, air-cooled, four-stroke engine from the Classic 500, complete with twin spark plugs and Keihin fuel injection. The engine comes to life with a single push of the starter button, belting out the trademark Royal Enfield thump. There’s ample low and mid-range power, but the motor’s outputs of 27.2bhp at 5250rpm and 4.17kgm at 4000rpm simply aren’t enough for an engine of this capacity. That’s just 7.4bhp more than a 350cc Twinspark engine, and that much horsepower can these days be had from engines less than half this size. Although the bike can reach a top speed of 130kph, it feels best ridden between 80-100kph, the engine feeling stressed at anything over 110kph. The five-speed gearbox uses a one-down, four-up shift pattern.

Get in the comfy rider’s saddle and you will notice that the rider footpegs have been moved ahead to suit longer riding sessions. Corresponding changes have also been made to the handlebar, improving reach and ergonomics. The front telescopic forks are now 41mm in diameter, up from 35mm on the earlier model, and dual gas-charged rear shock absorbers are deployed. Ride quality could be better on the new 500, feeling too stiff for a cruiser motorcycle. Heavy handling has always been a Royal Enfield bugbear, and has been addressed on the new bike.

The Thunderbird 500 employs a single downtube frame, with an oval-section swingarm used at the rear. The wheelbase has been reduced by 20mm to make the new motorcycle easier to handle in traffic and on sharp, steep turns. There’s also a 240mm disc brake at the rear, which works with a 280mm single front disc to improve stopping power.

On the highway, the new 500 returned 29.9kpl, which combines with a larger fuel tank to increase the new motorcycle’s range.

However, Royal Enfield needs to address the long waiting period there is for just about all its models. According to Royal Enfield officials, the company plans to commence operations at its second plant by March 2013, after which this situation should ease up.

With the new Thunderbird 500, Royal Enfield has stuck to its tried and tested tough, muscular formula. But where they’ve done really well is in making upgrades to this cruiser that help it stay abreast the changes in the rapidly evolving Indian motorcycle market. However, at a time when there is more widespread access to competent international products, the manufacturer would have done well to make the upgrades more significant. Also, with the Rs. 1.66 lakh price tag (ex-showroom Mumbai), one would expect more bang for buck.