2020 Royal Enfield Meteor 350 road test review
In the October 2020 issue of OVERDRIVE, we wrote about a single-cylinder 350cc Royal Enfield that trumped a comparatively larger displacement modern classic with its overall experience. For this issue, we again have a single-cylinder 350cc from Royal Enfield. Coincidence much? While the displacement figure and the engine configuration is identical, there's a world of a difference between these two engines and also the two motorcycles that they power.
Among the motorcycles that have spearheaded the growth of Royal Enfield as a dynamic motorcycle brand, the Thunderbird, launched in 2002, played a big role. It not only helped change the perception of RE as a manufacturer who can make only one type of motorcycle - the Bullet - but also invited a new class of riders ranging from the younger generation to those who had often shied away from the brand. The Thunderbird became India's first thoroughbred cruiser powering the long-distance dreams of many out there. After having served for close to two decades, the Thunderbird twins were discontinued due to the cleaner and stricter emission BSVI norms coming into effect. However, that was not the end of the road for this one.
The cruiser is back as Royal Enfield has given it a shot in the arm with an updated design, based on an all-new platform powered by a new 350cc powertrain and complemented by modern connectivity features. Much like the flagship twins, RE has revived one of its popular yesteryear model names for its latest cruiser, calling it the Meteor 350. Does it have what it takes to carry the legacy of Thunderbird ahead?
Looks different compared to the Thunderbird?
"Is that a modified Thunderbird?", asked one of the onlookers at a traffic signal. That's a justified question as the Meteor 350's design shares a strong resemblance with the Thunderbird 350X aka TBX. Our test motorcycle was the top-spec Supernova trim that comes with chrome treatment on the mirrors, indicators and the exhaust. It also features a touring screen and machined alloys along with a premium dual-tone paint finish, all of which makes this trim of the Meteor 350 look distinct compared to its predecessor, also commanding greater presence over the other variants, Fireball and Stellar, that come with solid colours and basic design black alloys much like the TBX.
The Meteor 350 does look impressive when seen from multiple angles with the wide and relaxed handlebar, voluptuous yet compact fuel tank and the twin-seat design. The overall styling does look much more premium than what is seen in this segment. To my liking is the contrast between blacked out machined alloys, engine, fenders and the chrome detailing that is seen throughout the motorcycle.
The only area where I feel the TBX looked better is the rear, as the custom inspired tail light on the Meteor 350 just doesn't go with the overall theme and looks a bit oddball when seen in some angles. I'd definitely prefer the single-piece LED unit of the TBX over this.
Does the build quality of the Royal Enfield Meteor 350 feel premium?
The Meteor 350 is the first Royal Enfield motorcycle to feature TFT display, that has replaced the tachometer pod seen on the TBX. Also, the speedometer pod now features semi-digital LCD unit with crisp displays that shows the information on the fuel, time, gear indicator, trip and odometer, all of which can be accessed through a button placed on the switchgear.
The TFT unit is for Royal Enfield's Tripper Navigation, which will be standard fitment on all the variants. One needs to pair a smartphone (iOS/Android) to this device to use navigation. During our tests, there were niggles in the navigation system. However, RE has assured that the test motorcycles have the beta version of the application and the final version will not have these issues.
Further, RE will also introduce call alerts in future updates. The switchgear build is impressive with rotary dials for ignition and lights. Further, the paint quality throughout the motorcycle along with the strong build of the fenders, footpegs and even the pillion support make the Meteor 350 feel more superior to the Thunderbird X.
Got the signature RE "Vibes"?
The Meteor 350's single-cylinder 349cc air-cooled engine has been built from the ground-up and features SOHC instead of the push-rod system seen in the previous model. When compared to the Thunderbird 350X, this Meteor 350's unit makes a tad higher power output of 20.2 PS at 6,100rpm and generates 27Nm at 4,000rpm, paired with a 5-speed gearbox.
"This is not a Bullet!", said an RE customer when I asked him to crank up the motor. Having owned a Thunderbird for a couple of years before upgrading to the Interceptor 650, the gentleman said that there are no vibrations in this engine, something that you usually associate with Royal Enfields. Agreeably so as I had felt the same when I was testing the Classic 350 BSVI. However, the Meteor 350 is like no other single-cylinder Royal Enfield motorcycle as the engine feels extremely smooth at idling.
Riding the Meteor 350 in the city is a breeze as the motor makes enough power at lower revs and one can easily commute at speeds from as low as 20kmph to 60kmph. There is a mild buzz in this range felt on the handlebar and the mirrors but that is because of the thumping characteristic of the engine. RE tells us that getting the thump right was an important part of the engine development. In comparison to the more bassy TBX, the Meteor 350 has a sophisticated thump.
The engine's performance in the low, as well as mid-range, has improved drastically over that of the TBX with its smooth and linear power delivery. This, according to RE, has been achieved with the simpler SOHC unit, wherein the main focus was to offer a stronger low-end and mid-range performance without compromising on fuel efficiency. But the highlight of this engine has to be the bare minimal vibrations across the rev range, which is a result of a counterbalancer in the engine.
What we liked is the traceability of the motor at lower speeds of 40kmph at fourth gear as well as how effortless the engine feels at higher speeds reaching the ton with great ease, where it can comfortably settle on the highways. The only bit of buzz that can be felt on the handlebar and the fuel tank is at speeds close to 120kmph and beyond.
The gearing is nice and precise with smooth shifts. While the first gear is short, third and fourth are relatively taller with the fifth gear being the overdrive gear. The five-speed unit does an efficient job in the city. However, when you are cruising on the highways, there are occasions where the absence of the sixth gear is felt. In terms of fuel efficiency, the Meteor 350 returned 24.77kmpl in the city and 35.24kmpl on the highways, which translated to an overall full tank range of 350-400km.
An easy rider then?
In comparison to the TBX which had a more roadster like ergonomics, the Meteor 350 offers a more relaxed cruiser feel with its wider handlebar, the lower seat height of 765mm, forward-positioned footpegs and better-cushioned seats that are also spacious for larger riders. The same is the case for the pillion seat comfort. Even after having ridden for the whole day during our tests, there was no fatigue of any sorts, giving me the confidence of just tanking it up in Mumbai and heading to Goa for the weekend.
A big reason for that confidence is also the underpinnings of the Meteor 350, that has been updated from the single down tube of the TBX to a double-cradle frame. Additionally, with the smart use of well-built plastics instead of metal on the fender and other parts along with a smaller fuel tank, the motorcycle has shed 6kg over its predecessor.
Manoeuvring the Meteor 350 in the city through traffic is nice and easy. The suspension setup of telescopic front and a pre-load adjustable rear have been tuned to offer a comforting ride over bad roads and uneven undulations. That being said, the ride does not feel too soft but has the right amount of firmness that isolates the disturbances from the surface. Further, the ground clearance has been increased by 35mm which has made it more capable than before while riding on broken country roads. The wheelbase has been increased by 35mm improving the straight-line stability on the highways.
The Meteor 350's front biased weight distribution does not affect cornering the motorcycle at higher speeds, as the suspension setup offers enough confidence to lean the motorcycle further, but when you do that, the footpegs and at times the silencer too could end up scraping the surface. The motorcycle runs on Ceat Zoom Plus tyres that offer a wider contact patch and better grip compared to that of the TBX. RE has also increased the disc size of the brakes on the front and rear. While the front could do with more bite, the rear unit does an efficient job. Needless to add, dual-channel ABS comes as standard on all variants.
Should the Royal Enfield 350 be your upgrade?
Royal Enfield's intention with the Meteor 350 is the same as it was with the Thunderbird series, to attract a wide range of riders, both new and seasoned. We aren't too sure if RE purists would like the Meteor 350 sans the trademark vibey feel but for those upgrading from commuters and smaller displacement motorcycles, this will work for sure. In fact, it won't be too much of a surprise to spot many of these at Ladakh and other similar regions that are often visited by motorcyclists in the country.
Among the different aspects of the Royal Enfield Meteor 350 that will definitely strike the right chord with its target audience, first is the smooth 350cc engine, which is by far the best single-cylinder motorcycle from RE that I have ridden so far and second is the premium build quality of the components, that has left a positive initial impression.
The Meteor 350 has been priced at Rs 1.75 lakh, ex-showroom for the Fireball variant undercutting the base variant of the Honda CB 350 along with its other rivals Benelli Imperiale 400, Bajaj Dominar 400 and even the Jawa Perak. The mid-spec Stellar variant of the Meteor 350 will be available at Rs 1.81 lakh whereas for the top of the line Supernova trim will set you back by Rs 1.90 lakh, ex-showroom. While the Meteor 350 is definitely a huge improvement over the Thunderbird, if it stands taller among its rivals, is what needs to be seen.
Images: Sumit Gaikwad
2020 Royal Enfield Meteor 350 road test review video