Road test: Royal Enfield Continental GT review

With a range of new Royal Enfields on the way, we give the firm's current flagship another look

AN interesting year lies ahead for Royal Enfield. At least three new models are expected using two new engine platforms including a parallel-twin.

The Indian firm is opening a development facility in Leicestershire and recently acquired British chassis maker Harris Performance, who designed the frame in the excellent Continental GT.

But how excellent is it? With a new adventure bike due using a modified Continental GT chassis, and a new range coming with help from Harris, I thought it was a good time to have another go on the flagship café racer.   

So I took RE up on an offer of joining a ride on Continental GTs from the firm’s shop in south-west London to the Goodwood Revival in West Sussex, via Brighton.

A 7.30am start at the shop, breakfast in Brighton then on to Goodwood. Three hours’ riding in total according to RE.  It felt like more. One thing the Continental GT can never be called is a mile-eater. It has that ability I remember in two-stroke 125s of making 50 miles seem like 150. Of rattling you until your retinas shake loose and battering you as though it’s tenderising a steak with its thinly-padded seat.

There’s no pretending it’s not a good-looking machine. I don’t think I have heard or read a single dissenting voice on that point. That classic horizontal line made by the frame tubes and tank. The simple one-colour paint job. That café racer bum stop. Those piggyback shocks in a similar shade of gold to Öhlins.

But it reveals itself as a styling exercise under closer scrutiny and that impression is strengthened by riding it. Its aim seems to be to achieve the right look on a budget, not to actually be good.

It’s a costume, just as much as all the period outfits at the Goodwood Revival, but one that rolls.

The aluminium bar-end mirrors look a tiny bit too modern, not quite as traditional as the rest, which deliberately apes the 250cc Continental GT of the ‘60s. The mirrors look like they’ve been added by a custom builder who’s losing his eye for detail. And they don’t work. It’s like viewing the road behind through a slightly tinted compact. One of them rotated on the bar at motorway speeds.

Budget shortcuts are evident. The engine will not start at all with the side-stand down, even in neutral. You have to sit on it or put it on its centre-stand. I think we can assume this reduces production costs in comparison to a side-stand cut-out switch that kills the engine only if it's in gear. 

The single-disc front brake is not bad, with enough power, but the rear is vague and a look at the pedal offers an explanation. It’s stubby, inducing your foot to push down on the arm as well as the pedal itself. That arm, and its hinge at the base of the foot-peg, permit too much lateral movement, so a push doesn’t transmit directly enough to the caliper. It seems cheap.

In its favour, the riding position isn’t uncomfortable. It won’t give your hands pins and needles. It’s sporty-upright, closer to an R3 than an R1, with the clip-ons mounted above the top yoke.

And to be fair, the vibration at motorway speed didn’t seem quite as bad I recalled, having ridden it at the launch in 2014. At 80mph in the highest of five gears, its vibey but bearable, and it will hold that speed easily, showing 4.500rpm on the analogue twin-dial dash, with the red line at 5,500. It’s only the accumulative effective of a long ride that leaves your brain rattling in your skull.

The suspension is firm but not especially well damped, unforgiving yet still bouncy at times. It gives the bike a sporty but unsophisticated feel.

Despite this model’s careful styling, there doesn’t seem to be much pretence of sophistication from RE. The firm sees a gap in the adventure bike market for rugged simplicity, which the single-cylinder Himalayan aims to fill.

Simplicity is part of the Continental GT’s identity and appeal too. It’s supposed to be unsophisticated. It’s a period look and a period experience. How else would it make you feel like you’ve travelled back in time to a golden age of motorcycling? It’s a single-cylinder, four hard springs and a responsive chassis.

It’s quickly chucked into a lean, your knees gripping the uncomfortable bottom edge of the tank. It feels very small and light. The steering verges on twitchy, easily unsettled, but that ensures its responsiveness.

At 29hp, it’s the most powerful machine currently available from the Indian firm, as well as the biggest, at 535cc (36cc more than the rest). It’s the same basic engine design as found in the rest of the range but tuned for a little extra. It makes 32.4lbt – a higher number, you’ll notice, than the power figure.

Overtaking on the twisty roads around Goodwood took some planning. You can’t blast past a whole row of cars in one go, but the Continental GT has a generous enough spread of go to make good fun of darting from one gap to the next.

By the time I’d ridden back to the Royal Enfield store in south London, average fuel consumption was 75.3mpg, calculated from a receipt. That means a range of over 200 miles from the 13.5-litre tank.

I was knackered, and it was interesting to get back on my own bike, a Suzuki SV650. Some will say it’s not a useful comparison; the two aren’t competing for the same buyers. I think it’s revealing because they are so different, and nearly the same price - both are listed at £4,999 but Royal Enfield’s price includes on-the-road charges while Suzuki’s does not.

The SV makes more than double the GT’s power. It’s got two front discs instead of one. It doesn’t shake your bones. It’s comfortable. It’s got a fairing. The GT stalled after starting from cold, and by the end of the day the neutral light had packed up. It’s a world apart from the Suzuki technically.

So this is the sacrifice necessary to get the Royal Enfield’s period look and character at the same price. This is the cost of the period image.

That’s fine if you’re happy to pay it. Personally I’d really like a Contintal GT in my own garage. But only as second bike, next to the one I use every day.  

Model tested: Royal Enfield Continental GT

Price: £4,999 on the road

Engine: 535cc air-cooled single

Power: 29hp @5,100rpm

Torque: 32.4lbft @4,000rpm

Kerb weight: 184kg

Frame: Twin downtube steel cradle

Tank capacity: 13.5 litres

Seat height: 800mm

Colours: red, yellow

Availability: now

Watch our video review of the Royal Enfield Continental GT

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