There are motorcycles and then there are motorcycles that evoke emotions, with a spoonful of nostalgia thrown into the mix. They captivate you with their elegant, old-school design whilst bringing back the sheer joy of cruising down the road, chasing sunsets. Modern-classic bikes are, hence, quite appealing to many a motorcyclists’ senses and that explains why Benelli India is betting big on its newest launch – the Imperiale 400. The issue, however, is that it ventures into a segment where buying decisions are largely influenced by sentiments, aspiration and prestige, followed by the price tag – it sure has its work cut out. Though it may be a tough battle, the Imperiale 400 has a lot going for it, beginning with the styling.
Setting the tone
The first thing that strikes you about the Imperiale is its well-rounded and proportionate design. It sticks to the modern-classic styling handbook to the T but, at the same time, manages to carve an identity of its own. Elements such as the round headlamp, indicators, wire-spoke wheels and the teardrop-shaped fuel tank are reminiscent of motorcycles from the 50s and 60s. Adding to the period-correct look are the split seats, with a spring-loaded rider’s perch and an oval tail-lamp sticking out of the rear fender.
The twin-pod instrument panel looks great as well; I don’t think I’ll ever tire of watching a pair of needles swooping across a dial because it manages to evoke some of that old-school feel.
And for those of you who are already dreaming of riding this Benelli up the high mountain passes in Ladakh, that large, 19-inch front wheel should make it easier to tackle broken roads or sections where none exist. The only thing you'll have to bear in mind is that these are tube-type tyres, so fixing a puncture will be both, time and physically consuming.
Overall, the Imperiale's design will appeal to most tastes and I believe that has to do with Benelli's decision to refrain from throwing a bucketful of chrome all over the bike. The blacked-out engine and exhaust pipe adds the necessary contrast, in my books, and too much chrome would have taken some of the premium motorcycle aura that the Imperiale exudes.
And it's not just the looks alone but also the way in which the Imperiale has been put together that makes the motorcycle appear as if from a segment above. Nothing seems to be sticking out like a sore thumb and even though Benelli has localised a number of components, there are no cheap-feeling parts or glaring cost-cutting measures that'll make you look away.
Hop on to the rider's seat, set 780mm off the ground, and you instantly get a sense of straddling a large motorcycle. That mainly has to do with the wide handlebar and seat. With the foot pegs set forward and right next to the engine casing on either side, the resultant riding position is relaxed, and ready for you to spend long hours in the saddle. That said, the only niggle I had was with the angle of the adjustable brake lever as it was a little far out, even when set to be the closest it can to the bar. But I was willing to overlook this as soon as I thumbed the starter because, boy, was I in for a surprise!
Matter of the heart
The Imperiale's 374cc, four-valve engine develops 21hp at 5,500rpm and 29Nm of torque at 4,500rpm. Now, these figures are in the same ballpark as the competition, but what really surprised me is the refinement levels that Benelli has managed to achieve. After all, you mustn't forget that there's a big piston moving up and down that air-cooled single cylinder. As a result, there's a gentle vibration at idle, but as the revs climb, with astonishing pace for a big single, it smoothes out; crucially, at highway speeds. Cruising between 80-100kph was unexpectedly relaxed, with minimal vibrations creeping in through the pegs, handlebar and seat. That's critical for someone who's looking to ride the Imperiale over long distances, as numb hands, feet and aching shoulders certainly won't be the order of the day. That's not all; the motor is also adept at tackling city traffic with equal ease.
But here comes the caveat. If you are expecting the engine to offer a really strong bottom-end grunt from the word go, you'd be disappointed because the engine only comes alive post 2,500rpm. So, initially, it may not seem too punchy, but let the revs climb beyond that mark and the motor redeems itself by offering a strong surge, all the way to the 6,000rpm redline. In fact, the engine is so happy to rev that it'll spin beyond the redline, with the limiter only cutting in at 7,000rpm.
Paired to a smooth 5-speed gearbox, the motor is quite tractable in the city, while the 5th gear felt adequately tall for a comfortable cruise on the highway. In all, the engine is most-definitely the biggest highlight of the Imperiale 400, but a competent drivetrain would've been pointless if the ride and handling was uninspiring. And that's where the motorcycle's suspension setup and weight distribution play their part.
Poring over the spec sheet and looking at the 205kg kerb weight makes the Imperiale appear portly. However, the weight distribution is so good that you barely feel it when you lift it off the stand. The engine – nestled in the tubular, twin-downtube-cradle chassis – is pushed as far towards the centre of the motorcycle as possible. This helps in relieving some of that front heavy feeling that you'd associate with such a kind of motorcycle. Aided by the leverage offered by a wide handlebar, it was easy to point and shoot past all the traffic in the city. Once out on the highway, the 1,440mm wheelbase offers great stability at high speeds as well as around long, sweeping corners. On the flipside, the Imperiale isn't eager to change direction and that's expected, considering the length of the wheelbase. Nevertheless, it's quite planted around corners, with the wide tube-type TVS Remoras offering sufficient grip at lean.
And while the handling is predictable, it doesn't come at the cost of ride quality. Even though the suspension is on the softer side it's not wallowy at all. The biggest relief, though, is that the twin gas-charged shocks at the rear didn't bottom out even while riding over the sharpest of bumps and potholes.
However, attempting to apply the brakes over such terrain sends the ABS into panic mode, intervening way too abruptly and consequently increasing the braking distance. Better calibration would certainly help, given the poor state of our roads.
There's no denying that Benelli seems to have pulled all stops at coming up with a compelling motorcycle in this segment. It has the looks, the right proportions, but more importantly, an engine that's calm at speeds that really matter for such a genre of motorcycles. It's what makes leisurely crusing or wafting down the road a pleasurable and memorable experience, just like the old days.
And while it may be too early to talk about ownership costs or reliability, this Benelli is one that can't be overlooked if you are in the market for a classic motorcycle.