The Royal Enfield Meteor 350 goes up against the Honda H’ness CB350 and the Benelli Imperiale 400 for the title of the best single-cylinder retro motorcycle of 2020.
Published on Dec 29, 2020 07:00:00 AM
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The Meteor has the most comfortable seats, but it is the shortest of the three and the pillion will appreciate having a backrest.
The Honda H’ness is accommodating for both, rider and pillion, but could do with a more supportive seat.
The Imperiale’s seat is spacious, but the pillion foot pegs are set back and quite high, which result in the knees pointing upwards.
There are motorcycles and then there are motorcycles that make you want to unwind, relax and cruise at a sedate pace. The pleasure of riding them isn’t in chasing the horizon, but rather cruising towards it while soaking in the vistas. It’s for this simple pleasure, as well as its immense brand value, that Royal Enfield’s 350 platform has garnered such popularity over the years. Now, with the all-new Meteor 350, Royal Enfield is looking to offer a similar experience to the emotionally fuelled buyer in this segment. Except, it isn’t going to be as easy as before, as it faces competition from an unlikely opponent – the Honda H’ness CB350. The Japanese manufacturer has stirred up the segment with its take on a retro-themed motorcycle and they’ve done so with a close eye and ear on Royal Enfield. Will Honda succeed in beating Royal Enfield at its own game? Or will our previous king of the segment, the Benelli Imperiale 400, manage to fend off these two behemoths? The stage is set.
Walking up to these three motorcycles parked next to each other, one can’t help but notice their similar, yet different approaches towards design. Each represents retro in their unique manner, which, by the way, is inspired by their respective predecessors.
The Royal Enfield Meteor 350 is the descendant of the Thunderbird 350X and it exudes a very similar flair in its styling, especially in this base Fireball trim. The 19-inchfront wheel, raised handlebar, fuel tank and low seat lends it the appearance of a Bobber; while the blacked-out engine cases and exhaust contrast with the yellow hue of this motorcycle. For those who desire a smattering of chrome on their retro-themed motorcycle, the Meteor’s Stellar and Supernova variants are the ones to choose. The top-spec Supernova also gets dual-tone paint, a windscreen, backrest and tan-coloured seats for that quintessential retro look. And if even that doesn’t float your boat, Royal Enfield’s ‘Make it Yours’ customisation programme offers a claimed five lakh possible custom combinations.
The Honda H’ness CB350 looks quite handsome in the flesh, inspired by the many CB motorcycles from two or three decades back (CB stands for City Bike). Some of the design elements that immediately attract attention include the large tank, round LED headlamp, matte-chrome fenders and the horizontal LED tail-light. The Y-shaped alloys compliment the modern-classic design and on the whole, the H’ness CB350 looks universally appealing. The DLX Pro variant will get you dual-tone paint and dual horns, replete with chrome covers.
Move your gaze to the Benelli Imperiale 400 and its design appears to be the most biased towards the classic end of themodern-classic scale. It is the only motorcycle to offer chrome spoke wheels and tube-type tyres. The shape of the 12-litre fuel tank (vs 15 on the other two), the spring-loaded rider’s perch, and bulbous fenders are an ode to the way motorcycles looked generations ago.
Good looks aside, the new Meteor 350 shows a marked improvement in Royal Enfield’s quality and finish levels, an area where the previous 350 platform was found lacking. From the way the bodywork is put together, to the tactile feeling of the rotary switches and the stitching on the seats, the Meteor 350 is a sign of RE working on feedback. Honda, meanwhile, needs no flowery prose to sing praises of its quality, as it is a given on motorcycles that wear this badge. That said, the varying shades of chrome, silver, grey and matt black are spread across the bike and don’t look very cohesive.
Speaking of cohesion, the rubber tank pad on our Imperiale test motorcycle was beginning to peel off and the black coating on the exhaust header pipes was showing some pitting. These are small but noticeable quality niggles with the Benelli and I’m also not a fan of the way some of the wires are left in plain sight, instead of being neatly tucked away like in the RE and Honda.
Another area where the Benelli is left behind by the two motorcycles is features. It’s the only one with a rev counter, but it doesn’t get a USB charging port like the other two bikes, and Bluetooth connectivity is out of question. While that’s fine, considering it is a retro-styled machine, you can’t ignore the fact that the competition offers more for less money!
The entire Royal Enfield Meteor range has a separate pod next to the main cluster, called the Tripper screen, that pairs with your phone via Bluetooth and shows navigation directions using the Royal Enfield app. It is pretty accurate, as it has been developed with Google, and I’m totally for it, considering my aversion to keeping an expensive phone on a handlebar mount.
Honda’s Bluetooth technology – Honda Smart Voice Control System (HSVCS) – is only available on the DLX Pro variant and is more feature-rich in comparison. Besides navigation, it also alerts on incoming calls, reads out messages or plays music via the Honda app. The caveat here is that you’ll need to invest in a Bluetooth helmet headset to optimally utilise the system. Besides these differences, the common features between these three motorcycles include hazard warning lights, dual-channel ABS and side-stand-down engine cut-off.
Just like their individual approach to styling, their ergonomics are different as well. The Meteor has that typical Thunderbird-like, feet forward, laid-back cruiser style that doesn’t take long to get used to. The shape of the seat and foam density is spot on and I have to admit that this is one of best seats that I’ve experienced on any Indian motorcycle. At 765mm in height, the seat is very accessible for short riders as well.
Hop on the H’ness CB350 and you are seated on a wide, single-piece seat with an upright riding position, courtesy of the pared back handlebar and the neutral position of the foot pegs. However, unlike the Enfield, where you sit into the motorcycle, on the Honda, you get a feeling of being seated on top of it. The seat height, at 800mm, is also the tallest in this test, but as it tapers towards the tank, it should be okay for short riders to flat-foot. That said, an ergonomic glitch that did annoy everyone was the angle of the heel-and-toe portion of the gear shifter. It is raised too high on both ends, which makes it cumbersome to use, and we resorted to shifting with just the toe.
The Benelli’s perch is wide and accommodating too, and you are seated in a similar upright position as on the Honda. The only difference is that the foot pegs are placed notably higher, especially for the pillion, and that results in a truly retro, yet mildly awkward seating position.
Motorcycles in this segment are defined by the character of their engines, the way they deliver power, and the sound of the accompanying exhaust note. It adds to the visceral experience of riding them, and so far, Royal Enfield has been charming its loyal customers by offering that. The good news is that the Meteor 350’s all-new engine continues in the same vein as its predecessor, with a similarly kind of tractable nature.
The slow-revving, 349cc engine, with a SOHC setup (a welcome departure from RE’s pushrod actuated valve system) delivers power in an unhurried manner, and this is evident in its acceleration times. The Meteor is the slowest motorcycle here by quite a margin, but it’s still vastly quicker than the bike it replaces, even though outright speed was never on the menu of the RE. What it offers, instead, is a steady stream of torque, flowing out as soon as you wind on the throttle. The gearing is also optimised, so you don’t have to work the 5-speed gearbox to stay in the powerband. In fact, when it comes down to roll-on acceleration, the Meteor is quicker in some areas than the other two motorcycles. But numbers are only one part of the story. For all my love of fast sports bikes, I couldn’t believe that I was enjoying my time on the Meteor, with the speedo needle hovering between 80-90kph and barely any vibrations to speak of. I think that has to do with the motor’s ability to connect with the rider at an emotional level, with the sweet mechanical sound emanating from the exhaust only adding to the experience. Royal Enfield has thankfully managed to preserve its characteristic thump, while meeting BS6 emission norms. But, and this is a big but, it isn’t as loud as the H’ness CB350’s exhaust!
The Honda sounds similar to an RE, with a pronounced thump and raspiness to the tune. However, it is easy to tell that it is more of a meticulously engineered sound, without any mechanical feel from the motor to complement it. Could Honda have come up with its own soundtrack? Maybe. But it certainly does play to the ‘thump’ loving category of customers, no matter how uncharacteristically Honda it may sound.
What remains characteristically Honda is the engine refinement, and the company has done the best job here of quelling vibrations from the big single, even at high speeds. The engine has the most power (0.1hp more than the Benelli), but also trumps them when it comes to peak torque, which is 30Nm at just 3,000rpm. Considering this and the fact that it is the lightest motorcycle here, at 181kg, there is no surprise that it is the quickest motorcycle in our acceleration runs. It’ll also get to 120kph with relative ease. The one drawback, and it’s a pretty significant one, is the unusually tall gearing that Honda has chosen. The engine dislikes being under 70kph in fifth gear and even picking up from low speeds in second, say while crossing a speed breaker, is met with protest. Clearly then, working the reasonably slick 5-speed gearbox is going to be the order of the day with this motorcycle, especially in traffic.
The Benelli’s 374cc single is another relatively rev-happy engine, and while it produces the most vibrations, they stop short of becoming annoying. Despite weighing 24kg more than the Honda, the difference in acceleration times between the two is surprisingly marginal. It also feels eager to lay its power down, in case you are in a tearing hurry to get somewhere, and with an indicated top speed of around 140kph, it’s also the fastest. At the same time, bear in mind that it isn’t the happiest sounding engine in the upper end of the rev range.
All of these motorcycles feature downtube cradle frames, telescopic forks and twin hydraulic shock absorbers. First up, RE’s new chassis for the Meteor does a commendable job of balancing ride and handling. High-speed stability is the best here and the suspension gobbles potholes and undulations with aplomb. Despite running a 19-inch front wheel, it also has the most communicative front end of all, and that boosts confidence in corners; although, it’s also the first to scrape its foot pegs. On the other hand, the light steering, tight turning radius and the best low-speed stability of the lot makes this large motorcycle the easiest to ride in city traffic.
|Price (ex-showroom, Delhi)||Rs 1.76 lakh onwards||Rs 1.85 lakh onwards||Rs 1.99 lakh onwards|
|Engine layout||Single-cylinder, air-cooled||Single-cylinder, air-cooled||Single-cylinder, air-cooled|
|Power||20.2hp at 6100rpm||21.1hp at 5500rpm||21hp at 6000rpm|
|Torque||27Nm at 4000rpm||30Nm at 3000rpm||29Nm at 3500rpm|
|Fuel tank||15 litres||15 litres||12 litres|
|Front suspension||Telescopic fork||Telescopic fork||Telescopic fork|
|Rear suspension||Twin shock absorbers||Twin shock absorbers||Twin shock absorbers|
|Front brake||300mm disc||310mm disc||300mm disc|
|Rear brake||270mm disc||240mm disc||240m disc|
|Tyre size (f/r)||100/90-19 / 140/70-17||100/90-19 / 130/70-18||100/90-19 / 130/80-18|
The Honda H’ness CB350 is equally good at handling bad roads, although it is slightly stiffer at the rear. It too is easy to flick through traffic and goes around bends with poise. A little feedback from the numb front end, however, would have been appreciated. As for the switchable Honda Selectable Torque Control (HSTC), it’s a nice feature to have, but traction control is not something really needed with this little power.
The Imperiale 400 is at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to the ride, with priority being a relatively plush experience. However, the trade-off is a bouncy ride, especially at the rear. This also makes it the least stable of all, particularly while riding on uneven roads at triple-digit speeds. The handling also feels the most vague.
The Benelli Imperiale 400, up until this year, was our pick in the segment, as it offered a nice mix of retro style, decent performance, and practicality. However, in light of this fresh competition from Royal Enfield and Honda, the Benelli’s appeal wanes. Also, at a starting price of Rs 1.99 lakh, it is the most expensive motorcycle here, and that isn’t helping its case either. The Imperiale 400 seriously needs a price correction to compete with the Meteor 350 and H’ness CB350.
The choice between the Honda and Royal Enfield is going to be tough and it’ll end up being a matter of identifying what your priorities are. The Honda is a very likeable motorcycle and its brand reputation, along with its light and easy city manners, will appeal to many. The H’ness will certainly tempt those who’ve already owned a Royal Enfield and are now looking for something different.
That said, there are pertinent questions about availability and the aftersales experience. There are presently only a handful of Big Wing dealerships that retail the H’ness, but the total number is set to rise to 50 by March 2021. Nevertheless, that’s a mere speck compared with the 1,692 retail touch points Royal Enfield has across the country. But buying a Royal Enfield isn’t just about the motorcycle, it’s also your ticket to entering a gigantic and evolved ownership community, something that both, Honda and Benelli can’t even dream of matching.
Besides those points, what really makes us gravitate towards the Meteor 350 is the fact that it offers the best easy-riding experience here, be it in terms of the effortless nature of the drivetrain, or the comfy and confident suspension setup. And if that’s not enough, there’s also the fact that the base Meteor costs nearly Rs 10,000 less than the base H’ness. The Honda certainly has its appeal, but the verdict is clear and the Royal Enfield Meteor 350 is the winner of the single-cylinder retro segment in 2020.
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