Reality rarely lives up to expectations. Hollywood films, your favorite team’s title odds, your kid’s Ivy League prospects, etc., etc.. The rule also applies to motorcycles. So, when Royal Enfield unveiled its new Meteor 350 in November, 2020, I casually classified it as a budget-friendly beginner bike. Just three months later, the Indian brand announced that it already sold 10,000 units of the neo-classic cruiser.
Critical acclaim quickly followed the positive consumer reception when the Meteor 350 earned India’s Motorcycle of the Year award in March, 2021. With the hype machine in overdrive, I had to revisit my expectations for the retro-modern. Could a sub-$5,000, sub-500cc cruiser really be that good? Fortunately, Royal Enfield let me find out firsthand when it dropped off a brand-new Meteor 350 in Supernova trim.
The root beer-brown paint sparkled under the Southern California sun. Straddling the 30.1-inch seat left a generous bend at the knees. Lifting the 421-pound bike off the sidestand was effortless. However, a full day’s ride revealed the Meteor’s true strengths and shortfalls, its overachieving tendencies and underperforming features. Yes, some expectations were unmet, but others were exceeded.
Judging by pictures, I assumed the Meteor 350 would have a compact cockpit. Most small-capacity cruisers lack the spacious accommodations of their oversized relatives, so I was pleasantly surprised with the Enfield’s ergonomics. The slightly forward mid-set pegs not only bent my knees at a 90-degree angle but also perfectly positioned my knees to clench the gas tank. No, the mids didn’t stretch the rider triangle to La-Z-Boy proportions, but it opened it enough to increase comfort and control.
One feature that took me by surprise, however, was the heel/toe shifter. Royal Enfield didn’t exactly focus on it in its promotional content, but it certainly impacts the rider’s body position. Meteor owners can technically upshift with the toe shifter, but the angle practically renders it useless for anything but downshifts. For that reason, I frequently rested the ball of my left foot on the peg in order to engage the heel shifter while I rested my right heel on the peg so I could activate the rear brake. That skewed position didn’t lead to discomfort but it’s definitely worth noting for interested buyers.
Over time, the heel upshift/toe downshift paradigm became second nature, but it certainly took some practice. Luckily, the gearbox cooperated, making the whole endeavor much smoother. Engagement was predictable, positive, and never resulted in a dreaded false neutral. The shift mechanism could benefit from more prominent engagement feedback (a ‘thunk’ instead of a ‘click’) but it never left me wondering whether I actually changed gears or not. Clutch actuation at the handlebars was light as well (for a cruiser), and helped to decrease the learning curve.
Thanks to their moderate pullback, the reach to those handlebars also felt natural. At five feet, ten inches with a 32-inch inseam, my dimensions fit the Meteor 350 well. The cockpit isn’t exactly spacious and you don’t have all the room to scoot forward or backward, but it wasn’t uncomfortable by any means. When I first saw Royal Enfield’s new cruiser, visions of a circus bear on a trike came to mind. Someone my size wouldn’t need to worry about replicating that image, but anyone above six feet might want to throw a leg over the Meteor before ordering one.
If you do fit the pint-sized cruiser, its sharp handling will quickly teach you the benefits of that compact design. With a 55-inch wheelbase, the Meteor happily dove into corners and tackled side-to-side transitions with aplomb. Of course, the peg feelers touched down more than once, but that only occurred when pushed to the limit. Surprisingly, the budget-conscious CEAT road tires held up better in the throes of spirited riding.
The 100 (front) and 140 (rear) tires contributed to the Meteor’s nimbleness, but at times it could border on twitchy. Given the small-capacity cruiser’s use case, it could benefit from a little more wheelbase/stability, but it wasn’t bothersome enough to ruin the ride. Similarly, the non-adjustable 41mm fork and preload-adjustable dual rear shocks outperformed the spec sheet. The suspenders held the road well in a corner and delivered substantial feedback for the Meteor’s speeds.
Gallery: 2021 Royal Enfield Meteor 350
The only weak link in the system was the lack of fast bump damping in the dual rear shocks. With only preload adjustment available, dropping a click or two could help the issue, but it could also introduce premature bottoming. Meteor owners may find it best to slow down at large bumps, perform evasive maneuvers, or check out the aftermarket options. Aside from that drawback, the suspension soaked up pavement irregularities with ease, allowing the rider to enjoy the satisfying buzz of the single-cylinder engine.
Royal Enfield’s air/oil-cooled, 349cc single finds a way to bridge single-cylinder practicality with the visceral feel of a V-twin. It carries the signature pitter-patter of a thumper at idle, but a twist of the throttle introduces a throaty exhaust note. That low-end thrum can easily capture the affections of any devout V-twin fan, but the sound and vibration never border on obnoxious. Along with replicating the tactile qualities of a cruiser, the little four-stroke is ultra-forgiving. Whether you’re lugging it around town or blasting away from a stop light, the tractable thumper is ready to play. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean it's equipped to do every job.
As the overlapping section in the Meteor’s Venn diagram, the engine has its pros and cons. It’s beginner-friendly but lacks passing power. It possesses rewarding haptic qualities but doesn’t pay them off with performance. At 20.2 horsepower and 19.1 lb-ft of torque, we can’t expect the 350 to be a bucking bronco. However, the engine’s most surprising drawback was the 75-mph top speed. Not exactly living up to the Meteor moniker, if you ask us.
With only five gears at its disposal and 421 pounds to haul around, that’s all the little thumper could muster. I’m talking full tuck and throttle pinned straight-line speed. Still, the Meteor couldn’t even touch 80 mph. That’s particularly disappointing given the fact that Royal Enfield equipped the cruiser with a 120-mph speedometer and the Meteor achieves 70 mph in fourth gear. In essence, the fifth gear operates as overdrive to reduce vibration on long hauls, but it’s never bothersome to begin with. I’d happily take more ponies instead, but that would also warrant improved brakes.
Now, we have to keep in mind that the Meteor 350 retails for $4,599 in the Supernova trim. That’s one heck of a bargain, but that price also comes with a few sacrifices. I just wish one of them wasn’t the brakes. The ByBre front and rear calipers work sufficiently in tandem, but the front brake delivered a spongy feel at the lever and lacked initial bite. At 20 horsepower, the Meteor shouldn’t need high-spec brakes in theory, but stronger binders would help it bring the 421-pound weight to a stop much quicker and more safely.
On the topic of safety, Royal Enfield equipped the Meteor 350 with its new turn-by-turn Tripper Navigation. Powered by Google, the system is aimed at reducing the user's reliance on a smartphone and simplifying the riding experience. Unfortunately, the app-driven system still requires a connection to a smartphone to operate the interface. Riders will need to download the Royal Enfield app, register, and connect their device to the Tripper pod before embarking.
Now, the system would be much more intuitive if it automatically reconnected with each start-up, but users will have to manually pair the devices before each ride. Even when connected, the half dollar-sized screen only displays the distance to and direction of your next turn. There are no street names or traffic conditions listed. No hazard warnings or re-routing options. In my experience, the spartan setup would have been manageable if the Tripper Navigation stayed connected long enough.
Before I even reached the first turn, my smartphone lost connection to the Tripper pod. After pulling over, reconnecting, and re-typing my destination, I was off again. Or was I? Yet again, before approaching the first turn, the connection cut. One last time, I repeated the process and placed my smartphone in my chest pocket for good measure. Maybe it lost connection in my pant pocket, right? Wrong. The Tripper system disconnected for a third time, prompting me to give up the ghost.
In the upcoming days and weeks, I will continue to put Royal Enfield’s new navigation software through its paces. With the company rolling out the Tripper feature on the rest of its range in 2021, its success is critical for the Indian brand. As someone that doesn’t trust his expensive smartphone to the whims of a handlebar mount, the Tripper turn-by-turn navigation pod was an exciting new feature on the Meteor 350. While the little thumper outpunched its weight in various categories, it’s safe to say that it left some expectations unmet.