First ride: Royal Enfield Continental GT review

Affordable and authentic café racer is impossible not to like

CONSIDERING there’s supposed to be so much interest in them, you don’t see many café racers on the road. The simple reason is they’re inaccessible. Where can you actually buy an affordable one?

From October there will be a new answer to that question: from Royal Enfield.

No type of motorcycle is measured more by looks than a café racer. So the Continental GT is a success the moment you see it. There were 43 bikes and riders on the launch yesterday, including journalists from across Europe, and I didn’t find anyone with anything bad to say about its appearance. “It looks great,” said everyone.

At £5,200, it would have been easy for Royal Enfield to ruin it with shortcuts. They could, for example, have given it some cheap chrome mirrors on stalks. It wouldn’t even have looked that bad.

The fact it has mini aluminium bar-end mirrors is a sign of the commitment to the cause. You can’t see much in them but that’s unimportant.

The components aren’t necessarily expensive but they all look the part. The piggy-back Paioli shocks (which look a bit like Öhlins), the Brembo front brake caliper, the skinny aluminium foot pegs with hero blobs, and the beautifully finished paint – everything says authentic café racer. It could be mistaken for a bespoke replica of the 1965 Royal Enfield Continental GT it's based on.    

The bottom yoke has a lumpy surface which doesn’t speak of precision engineering but there’s not much else to give the budget away.

With the styling and price this good, only a terrible ride would make the GT Continental dislikeable. And it’s not a terrible ride. 

It’s got the same single-cylinder air-cooled engine as other models in the Royal Enfield range but upgraded from 499cc to 535cc. Like the others, the Continental GT is made in India.

The firm says it’s the “lightest, fastest, most powerful Royal Enfield in production”. Don’t get too excited. It makes a claimed 29.1bhp and 32.4lbft of torque, as compared to the Classic 500’s 27.2bhp and 30.4lbft. The claimed kerb weight is 184kg.

But it’s pleasant enough, pulling cheerfully from under 3,000rpm. The redline is at 5,500rpm, by which point power has tailed off and everything’s gone a bit vibey.

You wouldn’t want to tour Europe on it. At an indicated 80mph, the engine’s at 4,500rpm in the highest of five gears and the vibration through the bars is becoming finger-numbing.

The suspension’s on the firm side and, coupled with the thinly padded seat, was making my bum a bit numb after an hour or so, too. But a comfy bum isn’t what you get a café racer for.

The brakes are good – two fingers was all I ever needed on the front lever – and the handling felt competent. The route the launch ride took from the Ace Cafe in London to Brighton wasn’t exactly MIRA’s ride and handling circuit but the GT was composed in what fast, sweeping bends there were.

At times, with the vibey bars and bum-pounding seat, it felt crude and to a degree it probably is. Equipment includes a fuel gauge but not much else. It doesn’t have ABS. Once or twice, after idling in stationary traffic, the engine died when I opened the throttle.  

But the crudeness is part of the authenticity, which is what makes it fun. Barrelling along a dual carriageway, with my chin on the tank and a line of identical bikes ahead, I felt like a ton up boy on the North Circular. Except of course I wasn’t doing a ton. A decent speed, let’s say, but not a ton.

If you want a bike that actually can do a ton, you shouldn’t spend your £5,200 on this. You should get something completely different for a similar price, like a KTM Duke 390, Honda CBR500R or Suzuki SV650.

But if you want an affordable, authentic, stylish café racer, that’s engaging to ride, full of charm and will make people smile, then I doubt you'll find anything on the market as tempting as the GT Continental.   

Model tested: Royal Enfield Continental GT

Price: £5,200

Colours: Red

Availability: October 2013

Watch our video review of the Royal Enfield Continental GT