In India, certain automotive products stand the test of time. For example, the mighty Hero Splendor, the Honda Activa and of course the Royal Enfield Bullet or Classic series. Since you’ve already read the headline and know the context of this story, let’s keep it to the Classic for now. The Royal Enfield Classic 350 sells well over 10,000 units a month. This is without any advertising spend and with minimal changes to the structure as a whole. Modern competitors came and left in the form of the Mahindra Mojo, Bajaj Dominar, Jawa, and Benelli. However, these failed to make even a pin-sized hole in the RE’s popularity. Cut to 2020 and the Royal Enfield Classic 350 is the sole warrior from the series, with the 500 being discontinued. Benelli wants to take a fresh stab at the quarter-litre-plus segment with its BS6 Imperiale. As an informed customer, which one should you buy?
Nothing much has changed in the Royal Enfield Classic 350. It still looks…err a classic design. There is an old-world charm about the bike and try as much you cannot ignore the retroelements. The headlamp is the round shape and has got two small parking lamps fixed on its sides. The instrument console has got an analog speedometer and a low-fuel indicator. Then there are the telltale lights like the indicators and the neutral. Both these are hard to tell in harsh sunlight. A good part is now that RE offers alloy wheels with red rim tapes as OE fitment. Customers can also opt for the spoke units. As far as the seats are concerned, there are split units loaded on springs. The taillight is again a circular unit.
In the Benelli, you again get a round headlight with those chrome mirrors. However, the Benelli looks bigger as well as a tad more better in design. You will see that there are a rev counter and a small digital read-out for the tripmeter, fuel, battery health, gear indicator. There are also other telltale lights added to the mix and one can actually read them even under bright sunlight. What’s more there is a hazard light switch as well. You get a better-sculpted tank with adequate knee recess and spring-loaded seats. The Benelli Imperiale 400 BS6 is shipped only with spoke wheels and carries a bit of tastefully done chrome as well.
Design is more like what you prefer but overall the Classic’s design tugs at your heartstrings.
The engine of the Benelli Imperiale is the same 374cc unit as the BS4 and hasn’t lost out on power or torque. It still makes 21hp of power and 29Nm. Start the engine using the electric-only starter and you realise that the motorcycle is quick to fire up. The best part is that the electric starter is a one-touch unit. Pull the slightly heavy clutch and slot into first and you feel that the 5-speed gearbox is a smooth affair. Mind you, this is a retro-appeal bike and hence the gearbox doesn’t like to be hustled around. That’s such a downer because the engine is not only smooth, vibe-free but also quick-revving. You will reach the 6,000rpm real quick. We got a test ride bike with hardly 50kms on the odo and the ensuing smoothness was unbelievable. In fact, the Benelli builds up speeds very quickly and reaching a ton or staying there the whole day isn’t a spot of bother at all.
There though is one glitch. When you are in traffic and shifting between first and second gear, the throttle response seems a bit inconsistent. Benelli engineers might have set the idle rpm a bit high for easy starts but then even when you roll off the throttle, the feel is a bit inconsistent. We’ve been informed that this is something that is fixed at the first service. So, we will give Benelli that.
As for the Royal Enfield Classic 350, the now-fuel-injected 350cc mill makes 19hp of power and 28Nm. The engine feels a wee bit refined than the BS4 but unfortunately carries forward the vibrations (the wrong kind). One can start the RE through the electric start or kick (good option). The Classic’s mirrors vibrate even at standstill. Slot the gear into first and you realise that the clunkiness of the BS4 unit is gone. However, the clutch is heavier compared with the Benelli and if you can attempt quick shifts with the Imperiale’s gearbox, this one outright protests. During the test, I also encountered false neutrals with the RE gearbox.
Throttle response of the RE is a bit laidback and it’s only when you wring it a tad more, do you feel that the motorcycle is accelerating. However, the fuel delivery was precise and there was no issues modulating the throttle in traffic. With the Classic 350, the sweet spot where there are minimal vibration is at 60-80kmph. If you want even lesser vibrations, then switch the engine off. Jokes apart, fast progress on the Classic 350 will be a strict no-no as the engine sounds stressed and the ensuing vibrations will hamper the will to speed.
The Benelli wins this round purely on the basis of its higher refinement and eager engine.
Both the motorcycles use the same suspension components – telescopic front forks and tubular dual shock absorbers at the rear. The Benelli seems a bit firm over potholes and road aberrations. In contrast, the RE offers a plusher ride quality – both for the pillion and the rider. It is no Himalayan but then the rider’s body will register a faint inkling that the front wheel has crossed a pothole. The seats of the Classic are better cushioned as well though doing long stints on the Benelli too will not cause a sore bottom.
Where the Benelli gains is the handling department. It is easy to maneuver in traffic, easy to pop on the main stand and then there is also the cornering capability. Neither me nor Pradeep found it hard to tip the Benelli on its sides. The Classic is a wee bit unwieldy in traffic and you feel the rear suspension being a bit squishy under hard cornering. It may be kept in mind that these bikes are meant to be ridden at a sedate pace given their near 200kg kerb weight or in the case of the Imperiale, over.
The brakes on both (RE comes with optional dual-channel ABS and rear disc brake) are tuned to be more progressive. However, the Benelli’s weight comes to the fore here wherein you end up squeezing the brake lever a tad harder than what you will for the RE. Speaking of brakes, the front lever can be adjusted for reach in the Imperiale 400.
I usually prefer a plusher ride quality as we aren’t getting any younger by the day. The RE wins my vote here, with the Imperiale pleasing in the handling department.
Whatever may be the outcome of this test, one thing is apparent. There is a certain customer base for the RE, much more to the tune of being fanatics. This crowd doesn’t like smooth engines and believe they are kings sitting on a perch. For them, the outcome doesn’t matter and the retort will be RE is RE. However, in our comparison test, the RE wins in terms of points. But the tables turn when you factor in reliability, longevity, and being aware that you are getting a much better product in the Benelli. Agreed, the Benelli service centres aren’t as many as the RE but the very fact that nothing fell or was loose or leaking during the test speaks volumes about the Imperiale’s build quality. Add to that the impressive warranty and service package – it is hard to go wrong. Post the shoot both the riders lunged for the Benelli’s keys and that is proof enough, isn’t it?
Price in India:
BS6 Royal Enfield Classic 350 – Rs 1,69,617 onwards (Dual-Channel ABS) (ex-showroom, Delhi)
BS6 Benelli Imperiale 400 – Rs 1.99 lakh (ex-showroom, Delhi)
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