The Royal Enfield 350 cc motorcycle is the stuff of legends. From the 1950s and well into the second decade of the 21st century, the 350 cc Royal Enfield has been the mainstay of the Royal Enfield brand's model portfolio. And over more than four decades, it has been built on just one cast iron, pushrod engine, which saw its first complete update only around the turn of the milennium. First came the 350 cc aluminium AVL engine, in 1999, with the classic right hand side four-speed gearshifter in the Royal Enfield Machismo 350 AVL. The same engine was then used with a five-speed gearbox with left-hand-side gearshifter in the first-generation Royal Enfield Thunderbird 350 AVL, a bike that spawned a whole new generation of fans.
Going ahead in technology, and in an effort to modernise its engines, Royal Enfield introduced the unit construction engine, or UCE, in 2009, with an integrated gearbox, in both 350 cc and 500 cc variants. The new generation Thunderbird 350 also got an UCE 350 engine, which was also extended to other models in the family, including the Bullet 350 and the Classic 350, which incidentally turned out to be Royal Enfield's bestselling model, and continues to remain so.
And now, in 2020, Royal Enfield has introduced the all-new Meteor 350, the replacement for the Thunderbird, which has been positioned as a global product, with global aspirations, and built around an all-new engine, chassis and design. So, is the new Meteor 350 actually the most contemporary and future-proof Royal Enfield 350, which will likely sail to overseas markets to support Royal Enfield's global ambitions? We spend a few days with the newest Royal Enfield 350 to get a sense of what it offers and if it has the goods to deliver. The Meteor 350 is offered in three variants, with the base Meteor 350 Fireball priced at ₹ 1,75, 825 (Ex-showroom), the mid-spec Meteor 350 Stellar priced at ₹ 1,81,342 (Ex-showroom), and the top-spec Meteor 350 Supernova variant priced at ₹ 1,90,536 (Ex-showroom).
All-New 350 cc Platform
The Royal Enfield Meteor 350 is built on an all-new 350 cc platform. So, it gets an all-new engine, built around an all-new chassis, and it's a product of Royal Enfield's global team, with inputs from the UK Technology Centre team, and the engineering team at Royal Enfield's R&D centre here in Chennai, India. The Meteor 350 is said to have taken over 3 years of development, but built with one ambition - to retain the character and feel of Royal Enfield's 350 cc single, but also to give the new Meteor 350 the refinement to reduce vibrations, make the gearbox more precise and smooth, and introduce the next-generation Royal Enfield cruiser as a product fit to be sold around the world.
In terms of engine architecture, the new 349 cc, single-cylinder, air and oil-cooled engine has some significant and noteworthy changes. Displacement has gone up from 346 cc to 349 cc, with an increase in bore from 70 mm to 72 mm, but stroke has been reduced from 90 mm to 85.8 mm. More importantly though, for the first time for a Royal Enfield 350 cc single, the pushrod architecture has been done away with, and the new engine uses a single overhead camshaft, and employs a gear primary drive instead of chain. In numbers, the new engine makes just about 1 bhp more than the older engine, but maximum power of 20.2 bhp is achieved at 6,100 rpm, compared to 19.1 bhp of the older UCE 350 at 5,250 rpm, effectively widening the usable rev range. Peak torque has gone down from 28 Nm at 4,000 rpm to 27 Nm at 4,000 rpm, but Royal Enfield says the new engine offers a wider torque spread, across the rev range, starting at around 2,400 rpm, all the way to over 4,500 rpm. The engine also uses a primary balancer shaft to reduce vibrations, a known 'characteristic' even in the UCE 350 engine.
The gearbox is still a five-speed unit, but the shifts are smoother, and the gearbox employs an overdrive 5th gear for effortless highway cruising. The clutch is light, and the fuel calibration, ignition and light clutch actuation all come together to make the new Meteor 350 an immediately likeable motorcycle, even at city speeds. There are no false neutrals, no notchy shifts, and the engine refinement comes across even from the slightly muted 'thump' the moment you fire up the bike with the new period correct, rotary starter switch. The chassis is all-new too, and now employs a twin downtube frame, which is said to be tested over thousands of kilometres, over multiple geographies and different terrain.
Straight off the mark, the new Royal Enfield Meteor 350 feels all-new. The first thing that strikes you, and impresses immediately, is the refinement. There's no clatter from the engine, and the engine revs smoother and freer, even when cruising steadily at city speeds. Refinement levels have improved tremendously, even with the two-valve engine, and considerable thought and engineering effort seems to have gone to reduce vibrations, something which had been the Royal Enfield single's Achilles Heel. Throttle response is crisp, fuelling is spot on, and the engine's response, even at speeds under 60 kmph, feels more eager, more sprightly than the UCE 350 it will replace.
The gearshifts on the Meteor 350's five-speed gearbox are slick and precise, and feel marginally smoother and surer even than the slick-shifting 6-speed gearbox of the flagship 650 Twins; and that's saying something! Out on the highway, what is quite noticeable is that the new 350 cc engine feels livelier at speeds over 80 kmph. Maximum speed still tops out at 120 kmph, but the lack of vibrations, and the refined engine allows you to cruise effortlessly, for hours, even at 100-110 kmph, and that's a significant improvement over the UCE engine. In fact, you can keep the throttle pinned open, and not feel the new engine feeling stressed out. The only wishlist on the performance to us, is perhaps slightly better top end, to may be 130 kmph which would have made it just that much more entertaining.
The riding position is typical cruiser, and although the 765 mm seat height has been lowered, compared to the older Thunderbird 350, the forward-set footpegs, coupled with the low seat height make for a 'different' riding position. Ergonomically, the only issue I felt was that the new riding position didn't feel as comfortable as the earlier Thunderbirds, particularly the first-generation model. That, to me, is a miss, because the average customer would want to explore the Meteor 350's long-distance rideability. And the fact that it's only the riding position which will make the rider want to take breaks, long before the engine feels stressed out, or the fuel tank will require a refill, is something of a dampener.
The stiff rear suspension with the new double cradle chassis make the Meteor 350 sure-footed and planted, even when leaned over around a corner, or sweeping curve, but the tyres do not give the rider confidence to push harder. The hard compound rubber may offer more life to owners, but softer rubber certainly would have offered far better levels of grip. Every time I tried to push the Meteor 350 around a corner, the bike felt twitchy, with the wheels feeling like they will lose traction, and I had to back off. The new chassis does offer better dynamics, but the tyres sure are definitely a letdown. But, the 19-inch front and 17-inch rear wheel combination now come with standard alloys and are shod with tubeless tyres. And dual-channel anti-lock braking system (ABS) is standard. The 300 mm front disc and 270 mm rear disc combination offers adequate stopping power, which inspires confidence to shave off speed in a hurry.
The New Look
There's no mistaking the fact that the Royal Enfield Meteor 350 is the new Royal Enfield cruiser. In fact, in nearly a week of riding the Meteor 350 around the city and out on the highway, there were very few riders on other motorcycles who gave it a second glance. The silhouette is still unmistakably Thunderbird, and at first glance, the only differences, to the person on the street, seems to be the new colours, and the slightly different tail section; both perhaps coming across as the result of an aftermarket custom job, rather than being elements of an all-new motorcycle.
Look closer though, and the fit and finish has become a lot better, along with better components. The new, period-correct, rotary switches and the tapered hand grips exude old-school cool, but the pass switch takes some time getting used to. The instrument console is all-new with an asymmetric twin-pod, with the larger dial housing the analogue speedometer, and a small LCD console giving read-outs for trip meters, odometer, clock, fuel gauge and even a gear position indicator. The smaller pod on the right also displays a bigger read-out for the clock, but it also doubles up as the display for the turn-by-turn navigation, accessed through the Royal Enfield Tripper app with Bluetooth connectivity.
The turn-by-turn navigation works brilliantly, although the beta version equipped on our test bikes isn't production-ready yet. Other features on the app, like creating ride events, and the Make It Yours customisation feature have yet to be operational, something the production bikes will come with. We hope to get a working example of the Royal Enfield Tripper app soon, and a separate in-depth review of that, along with the different features will be updated as soon as we get hold of that. The Royal Enfield Meteor 350 Supernova variant we're riding is the top-spec variant, and comes with a standard windscreen, and pillion back-rest. The design more or less, looks good, but if there's one thing, which didn't quite get our approval, is the design of the tail section, including the rear fender and the taillight. Somehow, the tail section design felt out of place with the overall design of the bike, at least, to our eyes.
The Final Word
The Royal Enfield Meteor 350 will not just be a replacement for the Thunderbird 350 in India, but has been developed as a global product. According to Royal Enfield, it will be sold not just in India, but also in markets like Thailand, Europe and North America. The Meteor 350 has been developed with learnings and knowledge from the flagship 650 Twins, and that is apparent in the refinement levels and engineering. With smoother and livelier performance from the new engine, the new RE Meteor 350 is perhaps the best 350 cc engine that truly heralds Royal Enfield's journey into the 21st century, with ambitions to become the global leader in mid-size motorcycles.
With the same platform expected to be extended to the Royal Enfield Bullet 350, and the Royal Enfield Classic 350, the new Royal Enfield 350 cc platform gets a much-needed upgrade, not just in technology, but in features as well, to mark the beginning of a product which feels and performs like a true blue modern classic in the real sense. It still retains the easygoing, laid back character and feel of a quintessential Royal Enfield, yet has the refinement of a modern engine. If the new 350 cc platform is any indication, Royal Enfield could very well have taken the first sure steps to take its 350 cc single-cylinder engine well into the future, and to the world, to possibly even make easy, relaxed riding the 'cool' and 'in' thing to do.
(Photography: Kingshuk Dutta)