Monday, December 29, 2014

Royal Enfield Bullet: Hate it or Love it-But you can't ignore it!

There are two kind of bikers- those who love Royal Enfield products (collectively known as bullets) and those who hate it (and prefer faster, more agile bikes, mostly from Japanese makers like Honda, Kawasaki etc)

Recently a blog post by  Akhil Kalsh attracted lots of attention and criticism for detailing several  reasons why the author thought he wouldn’t buy a Bullet, ever. This post also quoted another similar post by Yogesh Sarkar. When I read Akhil’s post, I could agree with most of the points but differed on a few. I wanted to respond, but felt it may not be right without experiencing a bullet. I have ridden few Royal Enfield products for super short span, borrowed from friends but recently I had a long enough ride in a bullet. Rented a RE Dessert Storm for 4 days from Bengaluru based Wicked Ride and rode for about 1000kms. Of course 4 days/1000kms is not long enough to judge a bike, but it gives fair enough time to experience the bike and assess it on various critical parameters. Based on my above Bullet ride experience, I am responding to 8 reasons listed by Akhil as to why he would never ever buy a bullet. 

1 Bullets have very low top speed: I agree.
I rode a RE Dessert Storm, a gold coloured variant of otherwise black & while bullet 500. It had 500CC engine, three times bigger than my Apache 160. But Dessert Storm’s top speed was pathetic. I could touch 100kmph with comfort, but starts to vibrate terribly thereafter. If there’re a runway like long straight empty road it is possible to push the bullet to 115-120kmph, but vibration and discomfort didn’t let me sustain that speed. Official top speed for Dessert Storm is 130kmph. I am not sure if that is tested on real roads with actual wind resistance and other stuff. I guess it is tested on the RE test bed, in which the bike remains stationery, only wheels rotate against the rollers on the floor. (Note: Each RE engine is hand tuned and hence there could be minor difference in their performance. )

Probably 10 years ago a top speed of 100kmph was fairly adequate, as either the roads were bad or too much traffic never let you accelerate. But today most of the highways are nice, wide and often let you ride at 120-130kmph or more at least for short durations, if not for entire journey.  Apache 160 can touch 110kmph easily, so a 3 times bigger engine bullet is expected to go a bit faster.

Yes, official speed limit in India is about 85kmph or so, but that is never practical and seldom followed. (If everyone is serious about implementing them then why manufacture cars and bikes that can go twice as fast? Ban the sale of such cars)

Reasons for RE’s poor top speed is partly its inefficient old tech engine and mainly the heavy weight of the bike it needs to pull along. When on a long ride, I might enjoy slow ride for first 50kms or so. After that I would prefer to reach my destination in reasonable time and spend time on other things like taking rest, site seeing etc. So personally I would prefer a bit faster bike, than going super slow on a bullet all day long.

Speed is a relative thing, but I feel Bullets should be made to go a bit faster in comfort. Today even 150-180cc bikes have better top speed than any RE Bike.

2 Bullets are Unreliable: Not entirely.
Earlier Cast Iron engines were indeed unreliable. But modern bullet engines are fairly reliable. During my 4 day, 1000kms journey I didn’t face any problems. Self-start worked fine in first attempt even after an all-night cold. No maintenance needed, no breakdowns. Only weak point is radial tyres, which is covered under another point. Also most of the small town mechanics can fix a bullet. But if other modern bikes like KTM/Kawasaki/CBR etc breaks down, small town mechanics may not have the know-how, tools and spares to fix them. Shipping the bike back to authorized service centre might be the only option.

It is also true that few decade old Royal Enfield bikes are still operational. Most of the competition hasn’t been around that long to assess their durability.

3 Bullets make lots of noise…Yes
Yes, they do make noise. Many villages seemed to think bullet runs on diesel, because it makes sound similar to their diesel pumpsets and generators. But then, I don’t have a complaint on this aspect. It is sort of defining characteristic to the bullet.  It also helps others to take notice of the bike. 
4 Bullets have really Bad brakes: Not really
I find Dessert Storm’s braking power adequate to its speed. Thunderbird comes with rear disc, but dessert storm has drum brakes in the rear, but I could stop it when I wanted and within the distance I wanted. Of course had the top speed been 150kmph, I would definitely vote for more stronger braking power.

5 RE bullets give poor mileage: Not true.
During my 4 day, near 1000km ride, I got an approximate 33 kmpl on the 500cc engine (not precise calculation, add +/- 2 kmpl) . This is with most of the distance covered in above average speed, at about 80-100kmph. I have heard the 350cc bullet classic gives around 50-55kmph, which I think is fair enough. Modern bullets give a mileage at par with their competition. (but competition is lighter and faster)

6 Bullets are very heavy: True.
Royal Enfield has launched Continental GT, which is much lighter, despite having same heavy engine. Other Royal Enfield bikes are heavy and are difficult for one person to lift if they fall down or get stuck in mud.
Some say this makes the bike more stable at high speed. I would agree if that high speed is 150kmph and bike is capable of surviving cross winds because of its weight.  Even 180-200cc bikes can sustain 100-110 kmph easily without getting toppled over, so Bullet’s extra weight is hard to justify. It only wastes engine power, making the bike slower and less fuel efficient.

While some weight can be shed by replacing mud guard and other body parts with plastic, most of the weight is in the engine and chassis, changing which will take huge investment, which RE is not likely to make in near future.

Bullet’s traditional customers, those in 30-35years of age or more, reasonably built and have been dreaming of bullets for long since their child hood might enjoy all these characters of bullets. But most of today’s youngsters seem to prefer  faster, more agile bikes. Check in any college campus- for every 1.5 lakh+ bike that roles in, how many are bullets and how many are from competition. Or ask those who bought a CBR/Kawasaki or KTM recently if they ever considered a bullet. Most likely that these younger customers do not prefer a bullet. Unless Royal Enfield adapts to latest technologies and makes bikes more appealing to younger crowd, their existing customer base will soon vanish.

Police department used to buy lots of bullets for its officials. But today I see most of the police staff ride a Pulsar or Apache. (Gujarath police even bought a few Harley Davidsons, so much for Make in India campaign). In my opinion all these indicate reduced preference towards Bullets in comparison with cheaper, better and more practical alternatives. Gone are the days when offer goers opted for a scooter, few bought Hero Hondas and those who were rich and well-built bought a bullet. Bike customers have more options today than they had a decade ago and RE needs to give people enough reasons why their bikes are better.

Imagine how it will be if Royal Enfield can launch a variant of Thunderbird with liquid cooled FI engine, alloy wheels, tubeless tyres, ABS, a top speed of say 150kmph etc. They can give stiff competition to Harley Davidson and win new customer base. I am sure none of the existing customers would complain either.

7 Bullets have spoke wheel with tube tyres- Agree
I fully agree. I rode all 1000kms keeping myself prepared for the worst case scenario if one of the tyres go flat and I might have to seek help. Every town I passed I kept an eye for tyre pucture shops, whose service I might need. Fortunately I had no flat tyres. That doesn’t mean bullet’s spoke wheels and tube tyres are very reliable. Replacing them with stylish alloy wheels and tubeless tyres could have been the simplest improvement Royal Enfield could have done, without any huge investments. Tubeless tyres could have made the whole bike more reliable for long rides. If Harley can make it, I am sure RE can as well, if only they make up their mind. 
8 Royal Enfield bikes have long waiting period- not true
Royal Enfield has started their second factory near Oragadam and waiting period is expected to come down. Not sure how much this has contributed to lowering waiting period. The main bottleneck seems to be the two brothers who hand paint the fuel tanks… The capacity of whole company is limited by the availability and ability of these 2 guys to paint the tanks. If die-hard fans think this hand job is fashionable, let them wait. But I am not sure if everyone cares for this. RE should try selling machine painted bullets or bullets with only plain colour without any additional hand paint work, if such bikes can be taken to market much earlier to waiting customers.

I called few RE showrooms in Chennai today- I was told Thunderbird will be available in a month's time and most of the models will be available in a few months. So unless you are very particular about a colour, variant etc, waiting period is not too much.

Overall, with my 4 day, 1000kms ride, I am not really impressed with the bullet. At least, it is not my kind of bike. I would go with lighter, faster and more agile bikes than a Harley or Bullet. Royal Enfield was always slow in catching up with technology. I hope they do catch up soon and enhance their offerings, don’t get stuck with old school of thought and sentimental feelings. Let us take an example of Mahindra & Mahindra- once they had only jeeps- rugged vehicles low on comfort and features but high on utility, offroad and durability. Mahindra didn’t get stuck to that. They did launch modern offerings like Scorpio, Xylo, XUV500 etc which were feature rich and modern enough at par with competition. M&M still has Thar and Boleros for those who prefer rough & tough ones. So RE should follow a similar path where the bikes are upgraded in terms of features and technology, while retaining the core DNA.

That is my thought on bullets. You’re welcome to express yours through comments. Valid data points and constructive criticism is welcome. However please mind your language. Certain offensive terms deemed acceptable elsewhere in internet may not be Ok here. Such comments might be moderated.

Read Srini's review of Thunderbird 500


specs buffy said... has its true charm like the gopuram...massive and ethereal!

Akhil Kalsh said...

Agreed :) REs will need to evolve if they wish to survive. People will see through the bullshit sooner or later.

Shrinidhi Hande said...

@Akhil Thanks for dropping by

@SB: Thanks

Hemendra said...

like they say about iphone, its not phone if its not iphone. For me, its not a bike, if its not bullet.

Shrinidhi Hande said...

Hemendra: Some companies survive purely because of cult followers who but logic aside and follow the herd.

Anyways thanks for the comments.

Manoj Bhat said...

I recently bought a RE Bullet 500. Here are my points regarding this discussion.
1. An incident during my vehicle delivery - There was one more person who was getting his bike delivered the same day as mine. I was waiting for my bike, whereas he had already received his bike and was going around it. Suddenly he asked me how do I check the fuel level, Where's the fuel gauge? I told him, there are no fuel guages in RE bikes except couple of them. He seemed surprised. I did feel few people do lack complete information about the bike and buy it just for buying an RE.

2. Why did I go for RE?

Seating posture - I like this straight seating posture. I am not a fan of the inclined posture which is available in other bikes. I somehow find them uncomfortable during longer rides.

Look and feel - I like the bikes old school look. I am not a fan of the styling that few other bikes provide us with, which have very little detailing in the rear.

Wanted a cruiser - I rarely ride my bike over 80 kmph. I don't prefer to ride faster than that. Even during the longer rides I have undergone to my native which are about 450 km's in a day.

Pillion rider doesn't feel uncomfortable. Even he/she has a decent posture when they are riding with us. Especially important if I am taking my parents with me.

To sum up I would say - RE certainly has few improvements that need to be take up immediately. Secondly, people who are making a conscious decision when buying a bike (i.e, buy a bike that suits their needs and attitude and not for showing off.) Finally, the RE bikes are for a particular segment of bikers, who like it this way. So as long as they make that segment happy, I feel they will be doing a good job. For example, I am not a fan of buying a phone which would cost more than 15k. Hence I would simply say, iPhone is good for someone who finds it sensible in buying it irrespective of what I feel about it :)

Shrinidhi Hande said...

@Manoj Bhat

Appreciate your detailed comment. Yes, it appeals to certain class of people.

Enjoy your ride

sushant ahlawat said...

i was a die hard fan of yamaha and always into racing went to various racing dad was a big fan of RE, he bought his electra.nearly after a year of so i had to take his bike for service around 150kms away.i live in very remote area.that 300+kms trip was not what i expected and i hated it.but when i went on my yamaha back something was not i own my personal RE classic. its something about this bike the pleasure to ride it at 60kmph. in short its for a very different class of riders. gone to khardungla. RE is the best thing that has happend to me. why no one talks about other bikes they come and go. Boys ride bikes Men ride Royal Enfield.

Shrinidhi Hande said...

Thanks for your comment Sushant.

Have a nice ride with your RE

Parimal said...

A Royal Enfield Thunderbird Owner - Not part of any Bullet Club and not a Fanboy but quite happy with my bike. And I am not one of those who is enamored by the FEEL or ALL METAL, etc. still the numbers are speaking for themselves and hope that means something..

Shrinidhi Hande said...

Hi Parimal

THanks for sharing the report. Good to see their sales growing. But still RE market is about 2-3% only (they sell about 25-30 thousand units a month while overall two wheeler market sees sales of about 13 lakhs a month.- of course most of these are 100-150 cc bikes that RE is not interested in, but most 150-200 cc bikes have performance at par or better than bullet). I believe they can gain larger market share.

I wish them luck in 2015

PS said...

Well hey guys....what's with all the criticism.....well a true rider can ride, enjoy and appreciate all the differwnt types of machines.....and each segment got its own set of problems....Well and mmm....actually have not yet seen any real production tourer or sportsbikes.... All of them are wannabe of some bigger bikes so the whole argument thing is invalid.....if u like ur machine, respect other's likes too.....thts real biking attitude.....being bullish doesnt make u a man !!.... And lastly all of u have a look at Honda Goldwing......why not have something like this in india.....blend of latest tech of sportsbike and comfort of a tourer !!

Shrinidhi Hande said...

I think Honda Goldwing is available in India.. for about 30 odd lakhs...

If only it had a sunroof and AC I would have definitely bought it.. Hehe

mohanj said...

Hi shrinidhi I have read ur few posts on ur trekking ones , nice work keep writing on royal enfield I would like to say jus one thing RE is not a game for all ,Im a Die Hard fan of RE And I Own a thunderbird 350cc rather the I will say the bike owns me , Not everyone will love RE ,we ride every jan close to 2000 Kms and its a sheer pleasure which can be felt only RE users and its not a ordinary bike and it meant for diff purpose so comparing it with a bike wont be a precise thing to do

RAMSspace said...

hi all! its bullet...not bike...
though i know all drawbacks as i used pulsar for more than 6 yrs,,,

no bike will match bullet,cause its RE Bullet

Shrinidhi Hande said...


Maya stickers said...

Spokes add to the weight but spokes are always stronger and better balancer when compared to alloy wheels, too much weight can crack alloys

Shrinidhi Hande said...

True. But which is more desirable? Alloy with tubeless tyres or spoke with tube tyres?