Bajaj Dominar 400 Exhaustive Performance Review : Not a Dram of Islay Malt But…

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Added in: Bajaj Auto

I am a malt connoisseur, I must admit. And while I have been abstaining from drinking, well relatively, for a few months now, I generally love the smoky, heavily peated singles shipped straight out of the Scottish island of Islay. Go ahead, burn my rug with a Lagavulin, Bowmore or a Caol Ila over the floral aromas of the Speyside or Lowland malts. I have manned up to the strong nose and after taste of the Islay malts, I tend to believe arrogantly.

But I am a relatively poor guy, and downing a few drams of the choicest smoky singles isn’t something I can afford as everyday business. Now since I’ve traditionally loved getting high rather regularly, that could sometimes be a problem.

After an exhilarating day of riding through the deserted twisties of the relatively less known ghat that descends down from Mahabaleshwar towards Satara, I came back to the hotel shivering with cold. Mercury had decided to go mining in Mahabaleshwar, and I was supposed to attend a poolside party with a half sleeved cotton T-shirt being my only insulation.

It turned out a fine evening, though. And no, there wasn’t any Islay malt on offer. But the happenings through that day compel me to tell this story. Here goes…

Getting comfortable

As I twisted the ignition key and brought the engine to life, I instantly resonated with the very familiar, Bajaj sound emanating from the Dominar 400’s engine. It’s quite unmistakable, and for many, should be reminiscent of the big Pulsars of yore, the staple of which we grew our biking muscles on.

The stance is comfortable and you’d instantly feel at home in that saddle. It doesn’t matter whether you’re hopping over from the ubiquitous Splendor or the rare MV F3 800 that we rode only a couple of days back. Friendly and welcoming, that riding position would go great lengths in widening the beefy motorcycle’s allure. It’s just the right balance between being slouched over like a reptile or sitting erect like a giraffe over your motorcycle. During my extended ride, I realized that the stance, along with that comfortable seat made me want to ride it more and more, as the elements that typically induce tiredness were totally factored out.

Another thing I absolutely loved about the setup was its manageable seat height. It helps, a lot, when you take this piece of kit off the road. Despite its 182 kg kerb weight, the Dominar never felt too intimidating to prevent me from trying to hike my unpaved way up a hill.

Also, unlike most other times when I ride a motorcycle a fair bit and exchange some pleasantries before getting flirty, this time, I was to lean it over right from the word go for some action photographs. So I hopped over, wrung the throttle, and leaned it over the very first corner I undertook.

Now, I have an issue with upright riding positions, and I typically take my time getting playful with tall ladies. This one, though, winked at me at the first glance. Despite the relatively upright riding position, I dipped it, slid my behind slightly off the saddle and it kept its line like a laser guided weapon.

The point being, the rather high set handlebar and the not-as-rear-set foot-pegs aren’t a hindrance if you wish to make this bike go like a low flying missile around a corner. With a well carved out knee recess and a fantastically well balanced riding position, the Dominar would be as comfortable dipping from side to side around a canyon as it would be travelling interstate.

The powerplant

Bajaj insists that the Dominar’s powerplant doesn’t share much with the KTM 390 unit except for the engine block. Everything, from the head, to the cooling jacket to the con-rods and the pistons is different, they assert. Well, it better be if this one’s selling at such a discount over the former, or Mr Rajeev Bajaj should get the equivalent of a Nobel Prize in charity.

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Whatever they’ve done with that engine, though, it’s turned out a charmer. And much as I hate it, I would like to get done with the dirtier bits first. To be clear, this one isn’t the most refined engine you’d come across. Not in the way it idles, not in the way it sounds and not in the way it feels when you bash it up.

It’s got that gruff, rather mechanical, trademark Bajaj sound to it. It’s nice and throaty, but it does have a hint of metal grinding against metal, which the Japanese guys so often mysteriously manage to eliminate. Get astride, rev it hard, and some vibes start filtering in  under your loins post 5000 revs, followed shortly by some pulsation at the foot-pegs as well. The beats increase mildly in intensity thereafter, but after some time, the kick from that motor takes over and you’d invariably forget about the vibes. In alcoholic terms, this is where you’d have downed your third.

Alcoholically, too, the Dominar is absolutely addictive in the way it inebriates you 5,000 rpm onwards.  It starts gushing out a torrent of an invigorating intoxicant, and leaves you wanting for more every time you hit the peak at 9,500 revs, where the taps close shut, and you have to move towards the next outlet.

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The gearing plays its beautiful role here, allowing you to surge ahead in an uncannily thrilling yet progressive manner. Just wring that throttle and you’d surge ahead of most things on wheels without having to worry about the engine speed. Even on the short- medium straights of Mahabaleshwar, the Dominar was a proper hoot to accelerate ahead of fast moving objects in a blink. It’s a properly distinguished experience from the 250s you have ridden – a good way to prep up for superbikes.

So while the journey from 5000 to 8000 revs delights you, putting the world in a blur faster than any other bike in the price segment could ever imagine, it’s what happens next that makes you fall hopelessly in love with this beast. Post 8000 revs, and all the way up to its 9500 rpm limit, the Dominar 400 comes alive with a throaty, angry yowl that instantly discharges a shot of adrenaline to your head. It’s a lovely soundtrack for a single, and you’d rev the life out of that engine to keep getting to that point over and over again. Twist it, wow! Drop a gear, lean in, woot! Race out, repeat!

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As I howled my way down those enticing streets of Mahabaleshwar flanked by trees swinging to a chilly, crisp breeze, in a milky, moonlit night, I generously admired Bajaj in my heart for having managed to create this sort of an exhilarating experience. And I kicked the gears down relentlessly, with the lovely slipper clutch forgiving my brutal acts one after another, as though asking – is that all you got? And I attacked the next one with even more vigour, falling a bit more in love with this inexpensive piece of kit with every passing corner.

The beauty of it all is that the performance is so bloody usable – it’s perfect for our conditions. Sure, the Dominar has its limitations when looked at from the premium end of things. However, for the 150-250cc class rider, the Dominar opens a whole new window of motorcycling. For its price segment, the Dominar is an uncannily passionate hoot, and the beautiful balance of practicality and excitement this engine strikes is something you really have to experience to believe.

Having said all of that, the absolute low end of the motor isn’t as strong as we’d have imagined. You do experience some knocking in higher gears at 3,000 revs or thereabouts. Thankfully, the blokes at Bajaj understand and acknowledge that part. The motor was tuned for mid-high performance, than low-mid range, they assert – and we’d agree.

Playing perfect foil to that motor is the six speeder transmission unit that delighted us with its smoothness and lightness and a fluid, yet clicky feedback. No worries whatsoever on that count.

Crunching some numbers

The Dominar is a fairly fast machine for the twisties, and it’s impressively quick on the open highways too. Driveability, however, is as equally important aspect for an accomplished everyday machine. The Dominar, as mentioned above, is prone to knocking below certain revs. To give you a clearer picture, here are the speeds, revs, and gears below which the engine exhibits some spluttering traits

  • 4th Gear, 35 km/h, 2750 revs (only 500 rpm slabs on tacho, but you can figure it out looking closely)
  • 5th gear, 50 km/h, 3000rpm
  • 6th gear, 60 km/h, 3000rpm

So basically, to drive smoothly, you have to keep the bike in 3rd gear for speeds below 35 km/h, in 4th gear below 50 km/h and in 5th gear below 60 km/h

The top speeds achieved in all gears, as indicated by the speedo are provided below

  • 1st gear : 53 km/h
  • 2nd gear : 76 km/h
  • 3rd gear : 99 km/h
  • 4th : 125 km/h
  • 5th : 147 km/h
  • 6th : 160+

A vital thing to observe here is that the third gear finishes up just one km/h short of 100, at 99km/h, which means you will need that extra fraction of a second to engage the fourth gear before breaching the 100km/h mark, which would affect the bike’s 0-100 km/h performance. That’s purely for academic purposes though, and wouldn’t have any effect on the bike’s performance in the real world. Talking of academic purposes, Bajaj claims a 0-100 km/h timing of 8.2 seconds for the bike. Just to put things in perspective, here we have the 0-100 timings of some other comparable bikes

Mahindra Mojo

0 – 60 kmph: 3.60 seconds

0 – 100 kmph: 9.60 seconds

KTM 390 Duke

0 – 60 kmph: 2.60 seconds

0 – 100 kmph: 5.60 seconds

Yamaha YZF-R3

0 – 60 kmph: 2.90 seconds

0 – 100 kmph: 6.00 seconds

Honda CBR250R

0 – 60 kmph: 3.80 seconds

0 – 100 kmph: 9.20 seconds

Benelli TNT25

0 – 60 kmph: 3.80 seconds

0 – 100 kmph: 10.80 seconds

Touring / Open Highways

After relishing the Dominar 400 through the beautiful roads meshing the peaks of Mahabaleshwar, we descended down to the pristine Bangalore highway to test it for its ability to scale the land at a rapid pace. Bajaj terms the Dominar as a Power Cruiser, and we wanted to see if we could attest to that claim.

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In a straight line, the Dominar felt equally impressive. With its meaty 43mm front forks and wide 150 section rear tyres, it felt rock solid at well above triple digit speeds. Acceleration, as mentioned before, is rapid for dealing with highway traffic and you have ample punch to surge ahead with a mild wring of a throttle.

While my colleagues descended down the Mahabaleshwar ghats in our long term Tata Tiago at a gingerly pace, I was blasting my way to Satara, trying to control this rather wild urge to ride all the way to Goa. The Dominar did feel fast, and more importantly, comfortable enough to lend me that reassurance that it’ll haul me to a distant beach in a matter of a few hours.

The Dominar is perfectly at home in the 120 km/h territory and doesn’t feel stressed even nudging 130. Post that point, the wind blast does demand a proper helmet and a firm grip on the bars. Climb up a bit more, and a strong gust of crosswind might just make itself felt every once a while. I’m being finicky here, though, as the authority with which the Dominar plants itself in a straight line, made my expectations soar really high.

The Bangalore highway is a rather pristine stretch of tar, and you do get some really good straights with visibility of a couple of kilometres at certain points. Barrelling down this road isn’t a tough ask, and the Dominar would kiss the limiter in 5th without much effort from the rider. Sixth gear is tall, though, and takes its time climbing the revs. It’s not a cog to try and achieve a top speed in from a practical standpoint.

The sixth gear is really responsive above speeds of 90 km/h, and reacts instantly to throttle inputs. Cruising between 90 and 130 km/h on open roads, you’d never feel the need to drop a gear, with enough punch in reserve to handle the swift moving traffic and surge ahead with gentle rolls of the wrist. For stronger reaction at speeds below 90 km/h, it’s advisable to drop a gear or two and shoot ahead in an unusually fast fashion.

The Dominar is a capable tourer, and naturally encourages you to ride it for long distances. It’s comfortable, fast and reassuring. I see a lot of youngsters using this one as their pan-India exploration tool in the coming months.

Suspension, handling and dynamic ability

While it doesn’t have the tasty inverted front forks exhibited on the CS400 concept, the Dominar does get a meaty pair of 43 mm front forks and a 10 step rear monoshock with dual springs. Even so, the Dominar is a price warrior, and while it’s offering some serious performance for the money, some cost cutting was inevitable. As mentioned before, the upside-down forks have been replaced with conventional telescopic front units, while the exotic aluminium swing-arm has given way to a stamped steel unit. That swing-arm looks solid though, and the finish and build around that bit reeks longevity.

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With the rear suspension set to 4, we found the ride to be on the stiffer side. Though the taut body made it an absolute hoot to throw the machine down, pick it up back again and repeat the drill endlessly with no apparent wobble or mushiness to be felt. The sturdy perimeter frame along with the beautiful weight distribution makes the Dominar utterly enjoyable around the bends.

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The 150 section rear / 110 section front MRF Revz tyres offered exceptional grip, amplifying our confidence in this machine to a great extent. We hurtled our way up and down like rioting louts at the spectacularly quiet road leading to Satara. All this while, those tyres dug their fangs in the well laid out, dry tar, deep enough to make us go faster at every consecutive corner. On our way back to Pune, after the Khambataki tunnel, we used the unusually fast sweeping curves to check the bike’s stability, and found ourselves leaned over at speeds well above the triple digit mark without any element of doubt or fear filtering in.

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Braking, thanks to that massive 320mm disc up front and 230mm disc at the rear is really sharp. The front brake, in particular, in conjunction with the sticky tyres, offers a solid bite. Dual channel ABS comes in handy, specially when your grab a handful when a surprise pops up. I loved the sharp feel of the front brakes, though at a few occasions, the lever suddenly went stiff even while feathering it. It was somewhat unusual, and while it didn’t hamper the braking performance during our test run, having experienced it more than once did manage to put a hint of doubt in my mind. That little gripe apart, the Dominar performed fabulously in the braking department.

The chassis-suspension setup on the Dominar is absolutely steller, and is a quantum leap for Bajaj as regards dynamic ability of their bikes.

For everyday use, though, while negotiating bad roads, the default setting might be too stiff for comfort. One might want to bring it down a couple of notches for a relatively softer ride which handles the potholes better.

LED Lights / Night Illumination

In terms of the sheer intensity, the throw and the capability to light up everything that they encompass, those LED headlamps are exceptional. That LED setup is definitely the brightest set of headlamps of any Indian bike. We tested their capability to the hilt through the night, and loved them for their power. And while they are fabulous for city riding, or on the highways, there happens to be a small problem with them.

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The vertically stacked LED cluster has most of its focus up straight. This means that around bends, especially those of a tighter variety, the spread of the light isn’t wide enough to illuminate the corners fully. While this isn’t a deal breaker, you do witness dark spots flanking the day-like illumination at the centre. And at times, when there is some harzard lurking in that darkness, this could be a bit of an issue.

You can check out the illumination of those lights in the video below

Can it off road?

By design, the Dominar isn’t meant to find its way through uncharted territories. Those tyres are focused on road, and would struggle to find traction over round pebbles, wet grass or even rocks. Regardless, we took the Dominar for some off roading; first to a rough terrain where we made it tread over rocks, sand, rough undulations and some steep mounds challenging its clearance. This was still the easier bit though as the area was essentially a dry flatland where managing the bike wouldn’t be much of an issue.

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Riding the machine with the stiffly sprung suspension, wide road-oriented tyres and a heavy frame, we did realize at times that the Dominar wasn’t exactly at home off the tar. It wasn’t exactly feeling banished either though. While the undercowl did scrape the mounds at times, the overall ground clearance was enough to see the Dominar through. While some more meat at the lower end of the rev range would have helped, the mid-range allowed for the clutch and throttle to be modulated for managing tricky sections.

We even made the Dominar climb its way to a medium sized hillock through a toturous route, just to be sure. This is where we realized that despite its muscular stance and 183 kg of weight, the Dominar is rather manageable. Even short riders wouldn’t have trouble planting their feet down. Sure, pedalling it in reverse calls for a bit more effort than your featherweight commuter bike, but the Dominar can be managed and pushed out by a normal human being.

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The Dominar isn’t meant to go off the road, but lose that undercowl, replace it with a bash plate, and get the stock tyres replaced with a pair of knobbies – and this one should take you to Leh without much trouble. In stock form, though, it has its limitations.

Here’s a little video depicting our little adventure off the road

Toys and instruments

Well, we would have liked a gear indicator and a trip computer on that jazzy looking all digital instrument cluster. But since this one’s priced so well, we wouldn’t exactly complain.

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LED lamps, slipper clutch, dual channel ABS, Auto Headlamp On – with all that kit on offer for that price, if we complain, it would be blasphemy, wouldn’t it?

Coming back to alcohol…

I was shivering like a wet puppy when I returned from the ride. With my half-sleeved t-shirt failing abjectly in helping me in any way possible, I made myself present at the poolside, as promised for the drinks session. An old friend waited for me there. He escorted me to the bar and ordered an extra large dram of Black Label, on the rocks.

As I downed one, the shiver gave way to some warm conversations. A few trips were made down the memory lane and the indispensable monument of philosophy was also given a customary visit. I wasn’t high on the choicest Islay malt, but high I surely was, and while the course was different, the intoxicated destination was the same nonetheless.

Black Label is a pretty good Scotch, I thought to myself. It’s smooth, is reasonably flavoursome and you wouldn’t risk a hangover with it. So as I got high, forgot the cold and kicked up my heels, I developed a new admiration for Black Label that night. It’s a really affordable elixir for the hearty guy who wishes to get high every day.

And then, I thought of the Dominar 400, and a smile spread across my face…

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Bajaj-Dominar-400-Riding-Gear-

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  • Well, I love Laphroaig too, and have sampled most of its varieties. About Bourbon, it’s great, but somehow not to my taste. The ones mentioned in the review still manage to be my poison.
    As for the Red, I think the ubiquitous 250s would fall in that category.
    Thanks for your thoughts though. Appreciate you taking time out.

  • Thanks for the appreciation and for the explanation, Abhijeet. That feel is rather unnerving at times, I am sure you’d agree.

  • SVK says:

    This is for the dram, as you have mentioned that you like peat smoked drams, then check out the laphroaig quater cask, laphroaig PX cask they are simply awesome & even bourbon for that matter, as you have tried the scot this time try bourbon the next time, which is not a serious hottie, but a chubby babe.

    Yup D400 can’t be the single malt, but its neither a black on rocks, rather its a Red (which is affordable & certainly good) with a cola.

  • Abhijeet says:

    A nice comprehensive review. Loved reading it.

    “I loved the sharp feel of the front brakes, though at a few occasions, the lever suddenly went stiff even while feathering it. It was somewhat unusual, and while it didn’t hamper the braking performance during our test run, having experienced it more than once did manage to put a hint of doubt in my mind.”

    The KTM 390 Duke does this too. This usually happens when one of the wheel goes over a pothole or other undulations. It is the ABS detecting wheel slip and kicking in inadvertently.