From producing motorcycles for the British Government during the First World War to serving the Indian Army post our nation’s independence, Royal Enfield, the oldest surviving motorcycle brand in the world has a terrific legacy behind and a cult following in India and countries it’s exported to. Post acquisition by the Eicher Group, Royal Enfield has aggressively promoted its motorcycles as a lifestyle product and a touring tool. With other manufacturers busy playing their commuter trump cards with no dedicated product to cater to the touring segment- RE successfully transformed the brand into one synonymous with motorcycle touring.
The early 2000s witnessed the dawn of the Karizmas and Pulsars which despite a cubic capacity deficit were quick and easy to ride motorcycles. Though never intended for the touring segment, these motorcycles owing to their versatility caught the fancy of long distance riding enthusiasts. Apart from the Lightning 535, most of the models in the RE lineup appeared similar and had similar tech, before the company launched the Thunderbird 350. The lean burn AVL engine seemed a big leap for the Chennai based firm despite not having much success on the Machismo 350, unfortunately the motorcycle retained the not so appreciable traits that one generally associated with the Royal Enfield brand back then. The new AVL aluminium engines, although new in many ways, still didn’t quite rid the brand of the ‘archaic’ tag associated with its products.
9 years later in 2009, a landmark decision as regards technology was made by Royal Enfield to switch from a semi-unit motor setup to Unit Construction Engines (UCE) and this time with twin spark plugs labeled as the Thunderbird Twinspark. This marked a complete change of strategy from Royal Enfield. Once known to pump in majority of its spends into product promotions but dragging along the same gear under the skin, this time efforts were being made to create motorcycles that fused modern technology with the old-world charm of a retro motorcycle.
The efforts put in were evident when Royal Enfield rolled out its Classic series of motorcycles, much to the joy of RE fans and followers. Dealerships were swarming with bookings and waiting periods stretched to eternity. It would have been perfectly normal for Royal Enfield as a manufacturer to sit back and continue basking in the glory of their new launch, but they refused to rest on their laurels. The new Thunderbird 500 alongwith a 350 variant was already in the pipeline. Spotted in spy pics across various locations throughout the country, it made the Thunderbird 500 the most awaited motorcycle from the Royal Enfield stable. With the official debut in the month of October 2012, the big new ‘Bird attracted eyeballs from all corners- thanks to its clean and flowing design. The Thunderbird 500 featured in various Royal Enfield events throughout the country and even appeared in the Bollywood flick “Jab Tak Hai Jaan” ferrying King Khan and Anushka Sharma only adding to its brand value.
Even a quick glance on the Thunderbird 500 is enough to let you conclude that it’s a completely new motorcycle. If the launch of the Classics was Royal Enfield’s leap of faith, the Thunderbird 500 launch is the fruition of their newfound confidence in newer tech. Dr. Venki Padmanabhan’s (CEO, Royal Enfield) statement during the launch citing Royal Enfield’s attention to the needs of riders and providing features for long distance riding is amply reflected in the motorcycle. Goodies such as projector lamps, twin disc setup, fuel injection, a large fuel tank, an extremely comfortable saddle etc. makes the new Thunderbird 500 a touring ready motorcycle. The emotional aura that usually surrounds a Royal Enfield motorcycle now coupled with modern underpinnings made it an irresistible ride. We have been rubbing our hands in anticipation for an exhaustive test ride since its launch, and we’d say it was a long wait. So was the new Bird worth our wait? We find out in our Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500 Review!
STYLING & FEATURES
Upfront the single beam projector lights with daytime running LED angel ring adds the glamour quotient to go with the function and should leave most RE fans grinning ear to ear. The beefy 41 mm front forks with generous travel and 280mm twin piston caliper disc brakes impart an imposing stance to the bike.
The visually annoying gap between the tank and the cylinder in the earlier TB350 is thankfully gone and the bike now looks better proportioned. The fuel tank has glossy finish paint, with a matt finished cylinder and polished cooling fins – looks classy and attracts your attention first. Adequate dose of chrome on the forks, along with matt black texturing lends the big-bird a retro-modern look. I haven’t been a fan or follower of Royal Enfield motorcycles, but couldn’t help fall in love with the way this bike looks. Park it at a distance and I can guarantee a fleeting first glance will invite a definite second look. The only grudge (might sound as nitpicking) is that RE could have placed the tail light a tad lower on the rear fender rather than hiding it away in the gap – somewhat on the lines of Harleys which have number plates mounted over the rear lights.
Swing your leg across and you’re greeted by the analog-digital combo blue backlit instrument cluster with both kmph and mph markings. A clock (thankfully), fuel gauge, battery warning sign, service reminder, twin tripmeters and average speed indicators showcase graphical data on the digital dash. I wish the indications were a tad brighter as it’s nearly impossible to read the neutral or side stand indicator in daylight. An offset refueller might look out of place first, but aids practically.
The rubber quality of the handlebar grips is good and offers decent hold and comfort. The switchgear though ergonomic to operate could have been finished better with smoother edges. Hazard switch is a valued addition, unfortunately it’s a tedious (read impossible) task to reach with your gloves on. Mirrors are decent and offer adequate view of the trailing vehicular movement. The choke lever on a fuel-injected motorcycle was a surprising addition – but we never felt the need to use it.
A split seat makes way on the TB500 with the rider’s seat providing great levels of comfort hard to find on any other Indian manufactured motorcycle. The seating position is upright with pullback handlebars set at just the right position to feel like a prince astride his throne. Sadly the same cannot be said about the pillion seat which feels rather firm. The height of the pillion backrest has been reduced compared to the earlier TBTS350. The grab rails are comfortable to hold onto, but with the kind of performance the motorcycle offers and the upright seating posture of the pillion, one won’t really feel the need.
The lousy looking commuter-ish design footpegs have been replaced by a more modern set finished in silver grey with embossed RE branding. The gear lever has been smartly pivoted into the pegs with toe and heel shifters. A chunky rectangular box swingarm, twin piggyback gas-charged rear shockers, 240m single pot caliper hidden underneath the saree guard conclude the rear end story.
A Royal Enfield motorcycle has always been something more than what meets the eye and with all the delicious toppings on the new Thunderbird, it was time to put the bike where it belonged- the highway!
ENGINE AND GEARBOX
Plug the key into the ignition slot and the self check happens at a leisurely pace, same goes for the fuel pump. Thumb the electric start and voila, it starts at the first crank! I somehow can’t ever forget those days of frequently pulling the decompression lever to get this mammoth thumping – all thanks to the UCE, no such rituals here. The tacho needle hits 2000 revs on cold start and returns to the 1500 mark once warmed up. Pretty high an idling rpm I’d say for a lazy, torquey thumper. A reasonable dab (with a slight clunk) on the gear lever gets the burly beast rolling. The gearbox isn’t exactly slick – we weren’t expecting it to be silky smooth either, but not as notchy as we had assumed it to be. The toe shifter resulted in better gear-changes than the heel. The generous torque can be experienced at every shift, but don’t expect the long-stroker to hurry through the rev-graph. Seems like the motor has a life of its own and no amount of downshifting would give the needle that sense of urgency. It will build momentum at nearly the same pace, no matter what gear you are in – probably hinting at a closely spaced gearbox particularly the first 4 cogs, with the 5th being on the taller side. It does become an annoying factor when you feel the need to overtake at higher speeds. But that’s not how you ride an RE.
With 5250 rpm set as a limit for maximum horsepower (27.2 bhp) and 4000 rpm for maximum torque (41.3 nm), the Thunderbird loves to cruise between 3000 to 3500 rpm singing its happy thumping tune. Twirl the throttle a bit more and the engine starts protesting. The motorcycle gets more vocal, vibes will amplify at the pegs and the handlebars. One might still tolerate the newfound drama till 4000 rpm, anything over is ‘exasperation’, though we couldn’t help maxing it out at 115 kph riding two up. Keep it pinned at 90 kph which comes up at 3500 rpm and it delights no matter if you are carrying an elephant as a pillion.
The first stretch of road on our journey was the Mumbai-Ahmedabad highway, offering straight stretches for a good distance to conclude that the TB is indeed meant to cruise in utter comfort. The weight advantage works with an assuring straight line stability and highway cross winds hardly seem to perturb the motorcycle even when being overtaken by bigger vehicles such as the Volvo buses doing their surprisingly high speeds. Acceleration is very linear and as mentioned, no amount of downshifting would give you that instant kick. Performance isn’t the TB500’s strongest point though and don’t understand RE’s well enough if you try kickdowns anticipating an instant and pronounced surge. The ample low end torque will keep things happy and sorted. If you’re looking for a 100-120 all day cruiser or something that would overtake other vehicles with a rush, the Thunderbird isn’t your kind of motorcycle. Being a Royal Enfield, the sensation is unlike any other motorcycle. The leisurely and relaxed feel of the engine within its comfortable operating zone would keep the rider happy and contented in a Zen-like fashion rather than delivering an outright adrenalin rush.
HANDLING, BRAKING & RIDE QUALITY
After good enough distance of straightline cruising and post a heavy breakfast at Kamat’s Manor, the curve laden roads of Vaitarna served as testing grounds for handling traits of the Thunderbird 500. To start with, the bike doesn’t feel heavy as it looks or weighs. All the torque that we were hunting for in the motorcycle on the straight runs was finally discovered on the twisties. With ample twisting force at our disposal at the lower end, gear shift became just an option. With no variation needed in throttle input with a pillion aboard, this baby can swallow ascents with no need for downshifts – delightful for this kind of riding!
But we were simply being too kind to the motorcycle. It was about time we gave it that push through the corners. To reiterate, the motorcycle doesn’t feel heavy at all even while entering or exiting corners at reasonable speeds. You do realize that you’re steering a BIG motorcycle, while also being pleasantly surprised with its relatively lithe behavior. Twist the throttle and try hitting the curves at higher speeds and it starts getting nervous. The front feels light and understeers on spirited cornering. The tyres struggle for traction, specially the front resulting in running wide from the desired line of travel. The rear doesn’t impress much either with a chance of fishtailing looming large on the limit. The overly soft front diving during mid corner braking / correction wouldn’t delight the stupid fellow who’s just hopped off a Japanese 250cc machine and expects similar behavior here.
Though the TB500 isn’t exactly a corner carver, better compound tyres would have helped the bike’s poise. Considering the torque it generates, a wider profile rubber would have been a good option- both in terms of looks and grip. But given the present situation, it’s best that the brawny bird is ridden with its limits in the hills while your eyes soak the serenity of the surroundings.
Coming to braking, shod with 280 mm front and 240 mm rear disc brakes, the performance isn’t what we’d call sharp – but it’s progressive and makes no drama bringing the motorcycle to a halt. The feedback from the wheels is proportionate to the modulation on the levers and rarely will one overshoot a decided stopping point. Thankfully the rear disc actually works and adeptly complements the front. The front might be somewhat distracting during braking mid-corner, but fares well during hard straight line braking. One of the definite highlights of the motorcycle.
When it comes to ride quality, the Thunderbird is a delightful package for the rider. The front suspension is fabulous and glides over undulations with great finesse. In fact even speed breakers are dealt with handsomely by the long travel front forks. One cannot help but stare at the forks dancing up and down gracefully swallowing every bump put before them. The gas charged rear shockers are in stark contrast to the front though – they are stiff and we would have liked them to be softer.
The rider seat is one of the most, if not the most comfortable saddle you might come across on any Indian manufactured motorcycle. Broad, with supple foam underneath and the right shape keeps riders of all shapes and sizes comfortable and goes a long way in insulating the rider from jerks arising out of the stiff rear suspension. We doubt if any alterations are needed on the seat and one can hit the highways without second thoughts the moment the bike rolls out of the showroom. The more we rode, the more our fat posteriors appreciated the soft seat.
Going by pillion experiences on Japanese bikes, the Thunderbird by the look of it may initially appear the most comfortable bike ever for the co-passenger too. A relatively (as compared with 150-250cc Japanese sport bikes) broader seat with the backrest lends a lot of reassurance off the block initially. But the feeling doesn’t persist for long. The foam is stiff and the backrest starts hurting the lower back after spending some time at the pillion seat. Retaining the backrest from the earlier TB350 and a cushier foam material would have made a better case for the bike. As mentioned earlier, a softly sprung rear suspension would have helped greatly too. Summing up on the ride quality, the Thunderbird 500 is a comfortable ride indeed, but primarily for the rider. The pillion would be wanting to take frequent butt breaks when the rider would happily want to ride into the horizon. The pillion pegs while riding two up interferes with the rider feet when weaving through traffic.
Considering the cubic capacity, we had minimal hopes from the motorcycle when it came to mileage figures. In our 650 odd km trip which included riding through the usual grind of Mumbai traffic to highway cruising, from straight-line high speed bursts to the ghat sections – the big 500 surprisingly delivered 30-32 kpl. Not bad at all for its capacity, and with two-up! A 20 litre tank with that figure means a range of 600 km before your next fuel stop. With an easy going rider the figure would only increase! What more can one wish for?
…AND FEW OTHER BITS
Royal Enfield has delighted its followers with a lot of ‘firsts’ on the motorcycle which offers functionality to go with form and aesthetics. The projector lamp is indeed a great addition to the spec-list. It’s head and shoulders above most other motorcycles, but isn’t the absolute brightest. We tested the TB500’s lamp against the Pulsar 220s we reckon that the Bajaj is still the benchmark when it comes to illumination. We would love to suggest a cheap and effective remedy to the issue as long as it doesn’t void the warranty of the motorcycle. We had tried plug and play Philips Rally 80w H7 halogens on the Pulsar 220s without any need of a relay to great effect. A pair of these bulbs would cost you between 500- 550 bucks and increase your nocturnal vision by more than 50%. We believe that similar to the P220s, these lights should be a direct fit to the Thunderbird.
The LED tail lights look great during night time, but the intensity variation between normal and braking mode is very minimal. The reflectors inside the tail-lights are so well designed that the LEDs seem to be on during daytime even when they are not adding another issue i.e. it makes it difficult for the trailing vehicle to spot the lights during braking. Now the excellent reflectors of the tail lamps add another point to the wish list- the indicators looked extremely dull during daylight. A clear lens over a better reflector design would have made a huge difference or simply retaining the indicators from the earlier TB350 would have been a smart decision.
The tacho needle hits 2000 rpm during cold morning starts and settles down at 1500 rpm when the engine is reasonably warmed up, which is pretty high to our liking considering it’s a long stroker. But that’s not an issue really, the thing we found was this. Fuel injected engines are generally very precise when it comes to idling rpms, the Thunderbird was rather acting inconsistently when it came to this trait. The tacho needle would consistently flicker between the 1500 and 2000 mark at idling during stops. At times we wondered if this was really an FI equipped motorcycle or a carbureted one. But we never faced any issues otherwise, the motorcycle would always start at the first dab of the button.
Finally, we happened to spot a few hurried jobs. The matt silver paint at the heat shield bolting points seemed an afterthought. The engine coating had already chipped off from a few places and crude welding joints could have been smoothly finished. These aren’t deal breakers, but as a buyer, one would certainly expect more when paying for the most expensive motorcycle from Royal Enfield’s lineup. On a positive note, despite pushing the motorcycle to its limits we never witnessed a drop of oil leak from anywhere, not even oil spots along the gasketed lines.
Royal Enfield as a manufacturer deserves generous applause for having conceived the Thunderbird 500. As mentioned at the start of the review and considering the blind following that Royal Enfield commands – they could have simply packed their bags for a vacation post success of the Classic 350 and 500 series. The Thunderbird is a conscious effort by Royal Enfield to augment their stature as a manufacturer who in constant pursuit of refinement and progress and isn’t exactly shy of offering the golden feel of a heritage motorcycle with the right blend of technology.
The motorcycle does have a few rough edges that need to be ironed out, but observing the trend of-late from its Chennai headquarters, there’s not an iota of doubt that the products are only going to get better. The Thunderbird 500 exhibits that RE is marching in the right direction. Priced at INR 1,82,571/- on-road Mumbai, it’s the most expensive bike of the RE lot, it has to be the best machine on offer in India by the world’s oldest motorcycle maker. Great going RE! Keep up the progress
Styling and big bike feel
Better build quality compared to other Royal Enfield Motorcycles.
Comfortable ergonomics and fabulous ride quality for the rider.
Relaxed low rpm cruising
Quality of finish on certain parts
Average quality instrumentation & switchgear
Average compound tyres
Type- Single Cylinder, 4 stroke, Twinspark, Air cooled
Bore x stroke- 84mm x 90mm
Compression Ratio- 8.5:1
Maximum Power- 27.2 bhp @ 5250 rpm
Maximum Torque- 41.3 Nm @ 4000 rpm
Ignition System- Digital Electronic Ignition
Clutch- Wet, multi-plate
Gearbox- 5 Speed Constant Mesh
Lubrication- Wet sump
Engine Oil- 15 W 50 API, SL Grade JASO MA
Fuel Supply- Keihin Electronic Fuel Injection
Air filter- Paper Element
Engine Start- Electric/Kick
CHASSIS & SUSPENSION
Type- Single downtube, using engine as stressed member
Front suspension- Telescopic, 41mm forks, 130mm travel
Rear suspension- Twin gas charged shock absorbers with 5-step adjustable preload, 80mm travel
Ground Clearance- 140 mm
Width- 790mm ( Without Mirrors)
Height- 1205mm ( Without Mirrors)
Seat Height- 775mm
Kerb Weight- 195 Kgs
Fuel Capacity- 20 Ltrs
BRAKES & TYRES
Tyres Front- 90/90-19, 52P MRF Zapper FM
Tyres Rear- 120/80-18, 62P MRF Zapper C
Brakes Front- 280mm Disc, 2-Piston caliper
Brakes Rear- 240mm Disc, Single piston caliper
Electrical System- 12 volt – DC
Battery- 12 volt, 14 Ah
Head Lamp- Projection type headlamp, H7 55 / 55 W
Tail Lamp- LED lamp with position light guides
Turn Signal Lamp- Hazard Light