There is no denying that cafe racers continue to trend in the United States' major urban areas. Cruisers still dominate overall sales, but you can't throw a rock in Los Angeles, New York or San Fransisco without hitting a Bonneville, vintage CB, or BMW.
Since this is the current trend, a little company (well, not little) out of India named Royal Enfield has been pushing into the American market for the last few years with a number of models, including the Continental GT.
Does this bike have the chops to compete? Is it worth your money? What are the highlights and what does Royal Enfield need to improve on this bike? What should you expect and consider? I will try to answer these questions based on my experience.
For two months, I pushed the GT through the canyons, used it as on and off the highway commuter, around town errand runner, and bar hopping machine. I also took it up the coast to Santa Barbara and back for the day.
Let's begin with what is good about the Royal Enfield Continental GT.
Right off the bat you're going to notice the styling on this bike. Designed by Xenophya Design Studio in the UK, the British influence and classic lines are readily apparent: two simple gauges, unobstructed view of the engine, Triton inspired fuel tank, classic round headlight, and Lucas style taillight.
For a small cafe-racer, the ergonomics are sublime. The cut-out sections in the tank, the ability to slide back into the rear cowling and keep myself as narrow as possible when splitting lanes is fantastic, and that’s saying something for someone of my height (6'5").
I do wish the rear seat cowling could be removed to include the option for a passenger—something similar to the Triumph Thruxton. The top fork mounted clip-on handlebars add cafe styling while remaining surprisingly upright. There's an almost perfect balance between a cafe/standard seating position with the GT.
The GT handles incredibly well and is lightweight despite it’s 406 lbs curb weight. It also happens to be quite forgiving and a blast to take into corners. There were a few times I almost got a knee down, but didn’t because I wasn’t wearing a race suit.
The stock equipped Pirelli Sport Demon's provide excellent grip and make for a planted yet comfortable ride whether in the canyons, on the highway or around town. Just above the rubber, Braking on the GT comes from a Brembo 300mm floating disc, 2 piston caliper up front and a 240mm disc, single piston floating caliper in the back. Stopping power is adequate, but the front forks are soft and dive heavily under intense braking. The rear Paioli reverse piggyback springs look damn good and never felt inadequate or soft. I always felt like the back end was well planted when throwing the bike around no matter where I was riding.
Shockingly, the stock muffler produces a soul loving exhaust note. The dual tone horn also blares loudly enough to inspire some confidence when out and about and also alerts drivers to your presence.
Fuel economy on the Continental GT is pretty damn good. For a 3.56 gallon tank, I was able to manage almost 165 miles on a full tank. It cost me about $11 at the time (California gas prices) to fill up. While a little nerve-racking toward the end, I managed a full round trip from Santa Monica to Santa Barbara on one tank.
The GT comes standard with a center stand, which is a very nice addition for chain maintenance and other repairs you’ll make on your bike. I only used the stand once but knowing it's there is a bonus.
At $6,000, the Continental GT is ridiculously affordable for a brand new cafe-styled bike. For those not wanting to worry about the used motorcycle market, the Royal Enfield Continental GT might be a good place to start, especially if you want a cafe-styled motorcycle.
The Dark Side
Now for where the Continental GT falls short and leaves room for improvement.
The folks at Royal Enfield and owners of this bike are going to hate this section, but it needs to be said. I'm not being a hater for hating's sake, these are real concerns I have after living with and riding this bike.
1. When you style a motorcycle to emulate a cafe racer you expect some kind of mirrored performance. If you're purchasing the Continental GT for that reason you're going to be very, very disappointed.
Performance and power are not adjectives I would use to describe the Continental GT. The 535cc, single cylinder thumper produces a tad under 30 horsepower, and the need to hammer through the five speed gear box faster than a three toothed alcoholic hillbilly puts away a mason jar of moonshine.
2. In each gear along the rev range, there's this window where you think, “Oh yes, here is where the power comes in," but no...you're greeted by the redline and rev-limiter at a measly 5500 rpm. I cannot tell you how many times I yelled "F**K!” inside my helmet. It took a couple days (almost a week) until this became a non-issue, but now and again it would recur and cause almost homicidal levels of frustration.
3. The instrument cluster is pretty and serves its purpose. Analogue dials, odometer, two tripmeters, and fuel gauge. Where it becomes frustrating is the MPH figures are unreadable due to small font and relentless vibration at-speed. KPH figures are prioritized over MPH on the dial and because this bike is being sold in America, I would expect Royal Enfield to cater to their market.
When I first jumped in the saddle and began barreling down the 405, I glanced down to see how fast I was going. 140?! Seriously? No. Even though it made me feel like a total badass, Royal Enfield...fix this for US production bikes. Flip the readouts.
4. Throttle response and rider input is...um...vintage. Not that hipster, Echo Park, interpretation of vintage, I mean it really feels and behaves how you would expect an old bike to behave. The engine itself is over 40 years old with some fuel-injection slapped onto it, but nothing about the throttle and power delivery feels sharp or tuned. Delayed, uneventful, and tame are the most appropriate adjectives.
5. Vibration is absolutely brutal. It’s not bad on the body or in the saddle, but where it stings is in your right hand. I had the same experience with Classic 500 when I did a first ride review a couple months back.
You say, "Well, Sam, it’s a single cylinder thumper, it’s supposed to vibrate." I say to you, “Silence, fool!” This is 2015 and I have been on other single cylinder motorcycles very recently and I have not experienced this level of annoyance—Especially from a road going motorcycle.
Where I would expect this level of vibration is on a Harley with nearly double the displacement. Vibration is apparent almost immediately and within 30-40 minutes of riding, and you're really going to to be fatigued by it. I took the GT up to Ventura and back one weekend and it sucked. It sucked really hard.
6. ECU and fuel injection needs to be upgraded, refined, whatever. Even after fiddling with the idle screw, which is inconveniently located under the seat and only accessible with a screwdriver, the engine would continue to die at a stop. Feathering the throttle is mandatory. There were countless instances when I would be at a stop light and the bike would just cut out. Other times, I would pull in the clutch to get underway and the engine would die.
You know what…I've never been on a NEW motorcycle yet in my life where I wanted to throw my hands in the air and say “F**k it, I'm out. I'll walk home,” and leave the bike right there in the middle of an intersection for everyone to witness. There's no reason a modern bike bought new in 2015 should behave like this. What is more troubling is that I thought this occurrence was relegated only to me. I did some research and turns out this is an issue that other’s have experienced.
7. I'm also completely baffled by this "safety feature." When the kickstand is down and the bike is in neutral, which engineer made the decision to disable ignition and relieve the rider of the ability to run the bike at idle? Seriously?! Why?! How else am I going to look cool at the cafe while waiting for my ride to warm up?
When you get on a Triumph, Moto Guzzi, or Ducati Scrambler and look at what you're sitting on, you get the feeling that the designers and engineers took a moment to make sure powder coats looked clean and ensured wires shrouds were not exposed—or at least flush with connection points. When you buy one of the aforementioned bikes, you also know your extra $3,000 (the average you’re going to pay extra for either of those bikes over the GT) goes to these kinds of things. You're paying for more engine too.
I'm discerning of quality and the first thing I notice about anything I see and touch is its quality. The Continental GT, while beautifully designed and sexy from afar, loses points upon closer inspection. The parts just look made by the lowest bidder.
This leads into the last and final gripe I’m going to mention because my own negativity is making me depressed.
Back to vibration: You will need to check your bike periodically. In my two months of GT possession, the dual tone horn mounts experienced metal fatigue and snapped and the left foot peg assembly became insanely loose after repeated tightenings, as did the front clutch lever.
Finally, the piece de resistance, I returned home after a nice ride into the canyons to discover my license plate was no longer attached to the license plate mount. I guess it was as tired of the vibration as my right hand. Unlike me, it did give in and just say, “F#*k it, I’m out!” If you buy a Continental GT, go over every major bolt you can find and hit it with some blue Loctite just to be safe.
The kickstart is novel and great if the battery dies in which I can say it never did when I had the GT. I went ahead and used the kickstart and it worked the one and only time I tried it. After all I have dealt with on this bike, I guess it would be best to end right here on a positive.
But I'm not going to do that.
You know that blue-ish purple-ish color that sets in once you put a couple hundred miles on the bike? That happens on the headers of this bike, but it also happens on the muffler. I'm not sure it’s supposed to do that. When I say "I'm not sure," I mean to say I'm absolutely 100% positive that the exhaust muffler is not supposed to change color.
A Dim Light at the End of the Tunnel
Okay, fine, here's a positive:
I discovered the GT's "unicorn zone." What is this you ask? Well at any gear, at exactly 4500 rpm, the vibration from the thumping single cylinder seems to reach its mellowest point in the rev range. It still exists enough to where you're going to feel it on a distance ride. Some motorcycles come down to finding the enjoyable quirks.
The Royal Enfield Continental GT is far from perfect and has numerous “quirks” for a brand new motorcycle that costs $6000. If I had spent my money on this bike, I would be "Royally" pissed off right now. Royal Enfield is going to need to improve upon these faults if they're going to be a contender in the US market.
While the GT is the least expensive among other cafe-styled bikes, and better than the Yamaha SR400 (that bike scared the s**t out of me), the price comes at a cost, namely everything listed above. And I feel the engine itself is in desperate need of an upgrade or redesign. I get what Royal Enfield is trying to do here, but if I had a choice I would take their Classic 500 over the GT any day of the week just so I’m not confronted with having a disappointing cafe racer.
Many intermediate and advanced riders will find the Continental GT lackluster and disappointing, but honestly, for all its faults and headaches, I still like this bike. I know it’s hard to imagine me saying this, but here is why and also why it's a fantastic choice for beginners.
It looks fantastic. There are no motorcycles at this price point that look this good.
Because of its lack of power, solid ergonomics, ride feel and superb fuel economy, beginners can rest assured that the bike will not get away from them; therefore, it's a great platform on which to learn. New riders can focus on ride mechanics, body positioning and things to make them a better rider knowing that the bike will stay firmly planted on the pavement.
The Continental GT is as close as you will get to owning a vintage cafe racer without going out and buying a vintage cafe racer. All the failings and issues I experienced with this bike will introduce you to the wonderful world of motorcycling. You're likely to meet some amazing people in our community that will help you, answer questions, and show you how to fix things that are likely to go wrong. You will also quickly learn how to use a wrench and learn some basic motorcycle maintenance.
If none of these things sound appealing to you, go buy a Honda.
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