Similar, but different; we ride the Continental GT 650, the only café racer in RE’s stable.
We’re in California to ride the impressive new Royal Enfield Twins and we’ve already spent a day onboard the very impressive new Interceptor 650 that you can read all about here. On day two, we hopped onto the Interceptor’s very similar but also quite different sibling, the Continental GT 650. Here’s what you need to know.
Royal Enfield was quite right in calling these two motorcycles twins. That’s because they share a majority of components, including the frame, wheels, tyres, brakes and electricals. In fact, if you change the fuel tank, seat, handlebar and footpegs, you could effectively swap between the Interceptor and Continental, which is pretty neat. But for those of you who haven’t experienced it, a variation in ergonomics can make a world of a difference to the way a motorcycle rides and feels. And, at the end of the day, motorcycling is all about ‘them feels’, as my meme savvy friends would put it – so don’t discount the Continental GT as just another design as yet.
Those of you familiar with the previous Continental GT will want to stay tuned here as well, because even though it may look similar, the 650 is quite a departure in terms of rider ergonomics. The original 535 was more of a true café racer in the way it stretched you out towards the lower set bars. It looked cool, but the back and wrists quickly began to bear the brunt of it. The 650 has taken a few steps to address that. For starters, the clip ons are now higher up and the tank is also a little bit shorter. This means that you’re sitting closer to the ‘bars, which makes things a little more comfortable and sustainable over longer periods. But at the end of a five hour day on the road, the neck and wrists still got a solid workout.
So how does it all wrap up? Well, I think that the Continental is a great looking motorcycle, and to my eyes, even more so than the Interceptor. There’s the same old-school look with the glazed headlamp and rectangular indicators, but the tank, ‘bars and seat make quite a difference. Those big chrome exhausts make the rear very appealing, too. As with the Interceptor, the well-finished engine sitting below in full display makes for a large part of the eye candy, along with the nice aluminium wire-spoke rims. Unfortunately, an offset of those rims is that this bike comes with tubed tyres, which is going to be a pain when that inevitable puncture arrives. Now that Royal Enfield has the sheer scale of numbers with wire-spoke rims, it would be great to see it developing an affordable version of a tubeless-tyre-compatible rim. If RE already intends to disrupt the motorcycle market with these bikes, why not the motorcycle rim market, too!
What really helps with the café racer looks is the optional short seat with a hump at the back that our test bikes are wearing. The Continental GT will be sold as a dual-seat motorcycle as standard, but even the long seat has a mild bump built in which is reasonably supportive under acceleration. If you want the practicality of the long seat but the eye candy of a café racer, you can have the optional rear cowl, which also looks quite good. In fact, Royal Enfield has done a great job with the 40-odd accessories which will launch with this motorcycle, and they’re definitely worth looking out for.
Another clever usage of the term ‘Royal Enfield Twins’ is a shout out to the brand new parallel twin engine that these bikes share. And share they do, because the motor is in the exact same state of tune, right down to the gear ratios. After having ridden the Interceptor all day, the powertrain comes across as one of the most impressive features of this motorcycle.
Royal Enfield has upturned the table with this one and there are a number of features never seen before, headlined by a four-valve/cylinder configuration with a single overhead camshaft. The company set off with the objective to hit 100mph (160kph) and when the originally intended 600cc motor couldn’t make that as comfortably as the company would have liked, they bumped it up to the 648cc unit we have today. The final numbers are 47hp at 7,250rpm and a solid helping of torque – 52Nm that peaks at 5,250rpm.
Optional longer seat.
These are healthy figures by any standard, and CEO Sid Lal revealed how this was a whole new level of performance for the company. He talked about how having highly skilled personnel with years of experience working with top international manufacturers helped immensely with the development process. On this ride, I’ve seen some of the development riders and many of them are accomplished racers who’ve diligently spent the last two years running the test bikes brutally hard and breaking/fixing the engines till they got to the point that it has reached today.
That result is an engine that felt no worse for wear after I spent two days hammering it up and down the gears and coming tantalisingly close to that promised top speed mark a fair few times. The new 6-speed gearbox is a revolution, too, with clicky and precise shifts and not a single false neutral despite two days of clutchless shifting. Even the slip-and-assist clutch, another first for a Royal Enfield, encourages the kind of aggressive downshifts that you wouldn’t dare imagine on any previous RE motorcycle.
But the motor is equally happy being ridden at a calm and docile pace. This thing is all about the torque and there is an ample serving of it available from just over 2,000rpm. Peak power is quoted at 7,250rpm, but that’s not a happy zone for the motor – 3,000 to 6,000rpm is. You could cruise effortlessly at 100kph with the engine at a smooth 4000 odd rpm or take it up to an almost equally calm and refined 120kph that comes at just under 5,000rpm. Vibrations aren’t a concern with this motor, but the 270 degree firing order, along with a balancer shaft creates some mild sensation in the bars and pegs at certain revs, which serve well to enhance the feel and character of the machine. That firing order also results in a very likeable, off-beat exhaust note. There were a couple of bikes running the optional SnS exhaust which isn’t fully ready yet but sounds fantastic. We may not get this particular exhaust in India, possibly due to homologation requirements, but more likely down to cost constraints. But Royal Enfield assures us that we will get some form of aftermarket exhaust back home, and I’m keen to hear what that sounds like.
Happily, no matter the speed, the engine remains easy and friendly. Power delivery is thoroughly linear and the throttle response is smooth and friendly at all points. This is one of the few international press rides I’ve been on when no one, as far as I could tell, dropped the motorcycle, and that’s quite revealing of how approachable this bike is. Royal Enfield also claims an efficiency of 25.5kpl from the motor in accordance with the World Motorcycle Test Cycle, which is plenty reasonable for what’s on offer. Engine heat is a complete unknown because it’s quite cold in California at the moment, but this is a big and wide air/oil cooled engine so there should be some heat, and the little metal guards that prevent your knees from grazing the hot fins must have found their way there for some reason.
The Continental GT, like the Interceptor, is a quick motorcycle, but it’s not a frenetic performer. A big part of that is down to the engine’s power delivery, but also playing a substantial role is just how heavy these bikes are. At 198kg for the Continental and 202kg for the Interceptor, both without fuel, these bikes are about as heavy as a Triumph Street Twin and even the Tiger 800. However, the most you will feel of the weight is while getting the bikes off the side stand and the reasonable seat heights (794mm on the Conti and 804mm on the Interceptor) mean that they are quite easy to manage.
As mentioned before, the Continental GT runs the exact same chassis spec as the Interceptor and the only difference is that preload on the suspension has been bumped up a little compared to the Interceptor.
Predictably, the Conti GT feels quite different and that's because the seating position is a lot sportier. It's not as uncomfortable as the old bike, but it's still very much a sport-bike riding position. As with most bikes that have solid mounted clip-ons, you feel a bit more of the engine through the ‘bars than with a rubber-mounted handlebar. The optional seat we were on also immediately comes across as quite firm, much more so than the Interceptor's. What I don’t like is that my legs don't come in contact with the sides of the fuel tank, but the bottom rim instead. Shorter riders reported that their legs don't meet the tank at all.
As a result of the riding position, you find yourself immediately pushing the bike harder in the corners and finding a set of winding roads becomes a very rewarding experience. The Continental still feels friendly and stable but it is more hunkered down and it gets you into attack mode quite easily. This is great fun, but it also goads you into pushing the bike harder than you would tend to with the Interceptor. And when you do that, you eventually come to the point where the suspension puts its hands up and the bike starts to wallow. But I noticed that this only tends to happen when you encounter some small bumps at really high speed corners taken at between 100 and 120kph. As for the feeling of the front end getting light at high straightline speeds that we discovered in the Interceptor, the Continental displays some of that too, but a little less, probably because of the lower leverage that comes with its clip-on bars.
And, like most café racers, therein lies the appeal and the off-putting side of the Continental GT 650. It's a fabulous looking motorcycle and that will attract half the customers. It's also great fun for a quick blast on a good road. But for everything else, the Interceptor shines brighter. It can be as quick as the Conti when you want it, but it's also much more of a pleasure to ride slowly and over longer periods. Us journalists at the ride had (and are still having) very animated arguments about which we'd have and clearly the answer to that is very subjective. To me, the Interceptor is the one it's got to be.
CEO Sid Lal confirms that the Continental GT will go on sale in India alongside the Interceptor 650 by the year end. India pricing is not out just yet, but Royal Enfield did just reveal exceptionally competitive pricing in the USA market. We expect these bikes to be priced at around the Rs 3 lakh mark in India (or possibly even lower!). At that point, they have the potential to properly shake up the enthusiastic motorcycling scene in our market. We can't wait to ride them on home soil!
2018 Royal Enfield Interceptor, Continental GT 650 image gallery