What is it?
A nod to the stripped-down cafe racers that zipped around London in the 1960s, the 2021 Royal Enfield Continental GT 650 is a new bike with throwback style and a warmly rumbling heart — an air-cooled, 648cc parallel twin engine.
Is it new?
Yup, but it’s been in the works for a minute. Royal Enfield announced its first twin-cylinder bikes since 1970 — the INT 650 and the Continental GT 650 — in the fall of 2018. The third editions of both bikes hit dealers this past fall, and we finally got some seat time in November 2020.
What makes it special?
If I may be shallow for a moment, one thing that really stands out about this bike: its looks. The compact curves, bubbly gas tank and shiny chrome are simultaneously gorgeous and delightfully retro. They combine to recall a simpler time, when we didn’t need fancy electronics, touchscreens and GPS to saddle up and hit the open road. You know a bike has nailed that vibe when multiple people ask how old your bike is — and are gobsmacked when you tell them it’s new.
This Continental isn’t all-show-no-go, though. While a 648cc engine may seem small for a brand like Harley-Davidson or Indian, it’s actually Royal Enfield’s larger classically styled bike. Headquartered in Chennai, on the Bay of Bengal in eastern India, the brand is best known for the iconic Bullet — a single-cylinder bike available with 350 or 500 ccs. (Chasing the Bullet, a charming, evocative 22-minute documentary about the bike, is free to watch on YouTube, but I digress.)
Royal Enfield’s engineers put a lot of time and thought into crafting the perfect little-big engine — one with flexible power delivery, packing plenty of pop both out of the gate and at higher speeds. The twin purrs so beautifully, I found myself giddily grinning the moment I first heard it.
I’d be remiss not to mention one other distinguishing feature: brand-new, this bike starts just under $6,000. No matter your predilections, that’s one hell of a value play.
How does it ride?
Despite the old-school styling, the Continental is designed to be ridden aggressively. It’s still a café racer, after all. That became abundantly clear as soon as I swung a leg over the 31-inch-high bump stop seat; the racing-style clip-on handlebars and slightly set back foot pegs immediately put you in a leaned-forward position, and the back of the gas tank is scooped out, letting you tuck your knees in to become even more aerodynamic.
Thankfully, the bike has the goods to live up to the promise of this geometry. Yes, the engine is just over a third the size of the one in the first bike I reviewed for Gear Patrol, the 2019 Indian Chieftain Limited. But at 435 pounds, it’s also just over half the weight.
Translation: the power-to-weight ratio is refreshingly snappy. Within minutes of rolling out of a Brooklyn garage, I was swooning over the way it sprang to life every time I twisted the throttle. Very torque-y, if that can be a word.
The light weight, small size, smooth Brembo ABS disc brakes and tight, responsive steering also make this bike incredibly nimble. Even with those stalk-y, stock-y mirrors, I found it easy to dart and dodge through congestion. That’s enormously satisfying when you’ve got somewhere to be — and/or a passenger you’re kinda-sorta-maybe trying to impress with your riding prowess.
It’s less sexy to talk about, but the bike’s proportions lead to some impressive gas mileage — up to 70 mpg, which means its 3.3-gallon tank can take you far beyond the city lights. That said, you might not want to venture that far afield: without a windshield or gas gauge, the Continental is clearly much more at home on urban streets than sprawling highways.
On another note, a couple of small beefs. First, the suspension (4.5 inches of travel in front, 3.5 inches in back) is decent, but not overly forgiving. It can definitely beat you up a bit on excessively bumpy or potholed roads.
Second, I’m not exactly a big dude, and yet the shifter peg felt weirdly small and flimsy. Like many classically styled bikes, this one only tells you when you’re in neutral, not any of the other gears. I tend to like that quirk, but in this case, I struggled to get a feel for which of the six speeds I was in, due to the way this little peg jumped around whenever I pressed it down or flicked it up. A good shifter should be a mix of solid and flexible; this one leans a bit too far toward the latter.
Anything else stand out?
One thing I will always love about café racers is their nice, long seats. In my experience, it’s super-comfortable for passengers — quite preferable to the goofy, frog-like position a sport bike often puts that person in.
And it’s handy for transporting cargo, too. While testing this bike, I had to transport a couple of large duffel bags to a coat drive across town. Throwing one over my shoulders and Rok-strapping the other to the back half of the seat made this seemingly arduous task into a sweet little joyride. Just another reminder that vintage-looking bikes can be pretty damn practical, too.
What’s it cost?
The Black Magic and Ventura Blue gas tank models start at $5,999, while the Dr. Mayhem and Ice Queen editions start slightly higher — $6,249. All models come with a three-year unlimited mile warranty and roadside assistance.
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