In this battle of retro roadsters, which one gives you a more chilled-out riding experience?
As delightful as the new Royal Enfield Classic 350 is, it is no longer going to remain a lone warrior in the sub-400cc retro roadster segment, something which the previous-gen model was for most of its 12-year lifespan. Competition from rivals has intensified, with the biggest threat coming from the Land of the Rising Sun. Or rather, its Indian arm with the Honda CB350, first with the H’ness and later on with the RS models.
While we have the latter on test here, the two Honda CBs share 90 percent of their parts, so the differences in our observations aren't going to be vastly different. Did Honda do a good enough job in outdoing the new Classic 350? Or does it still have to play catch up?
- Now each firm’s design team has worked hard to stay true to their brand identity. Yes, the CB350 RS and Classic 350 are both retro motorcycles but don’t look anything like the other.
- For the CB350 RS, and even the H’ness, Honda’s style team has tried to recreate the simplistic design of the 1970s CB750, one of the bikes that put Honda on the map. The H’ness looks quite like it with its subtle cool tones and abundant bling. The RS’s dark mood, meanwhile, gives it a slightly sporty touch.
- If Honda sought inspiration from the 70s, Royal Enfield went further back in time to the 50s for the next-gen Classic. The silhouette, details and elements are just like the outgoing model. But everything is new. The irregularities have been ironed out. No more loose wires hanging about or welds being an eyesore.
- The panels are finished in a nicer manner. Panel gaps are consistent and tighter. Paint quality is leagues better. And nobody does chrome better than RE.
- But having said that, and even though there’s not as marked a difference between the two in terms of fit and finish as it was in UCE times, the Honda is definitely the better put together motorcycle. The switches seem to have been lifted off its larger-capacity models.
- Choosing one of the two purely on the basis of design is not fair because both are different flavours of ice-cream, it is just that one is like chocolate chip and the other butterscotch.
- Royal Enfield has stuck to its guns, giving the rider an upright riding posture. There have been minor tweaks made from the older bike to lend it a comfier stance.
- On the RS, the rider sits on the saddle with a bit of forward arching to get to the bars. There’s just a hint of sportiness in the ergonomics with the pegs positioned slightly rearwards.
- Thanks to it being 16kg lighter, moving the CB350 around in parking lots and propping it up on the main stand is a lot easier than the Classic. Even the pegs are positioned in such a manner that they don’t bash into your shins, which happens a fair bit on the Classic.
- The Classic is the more comfortable motorcycle. The plush suspension tune (which we shall come to soon) and the thicker seat foam cushion your bottom well when going over the rough stuff.
- Even pillion riders will enjoy spending time on the Classic. The pegs aren’t higher set, the seat is well-padded and there’s a sturdy grab handle to hold on to. On the CB350 RS, you are huddled up to the rider. It is okay only for short city rides, though, as the higher-set rear footpegs lead to minor leg cramps, especially if you are on the heavier side. And lastly, there’s nothing substantial to hold onto.
ENGINE & PERFORMANCE
- Honda took RE’s UCE mill as reference and produced its own thumper that makes slightly more power and a lot more torque. Surprisingly, RE’s J1-349 makes less power and torque than the older UCE mill. But it revs harder and cleaner, which makes it faster than before.
- The CB350 definitely gets off the line quicker and is a livelier bike. It zips through traffic and can sustain 100kmph with ease. The major issue, though, is with the gearbox. Tall gear ratios make commuting a task as you have to be in the right gear always. Although gear shifts are slick and the clutch could literally be operated by your pinky finger, there’s just a lot of work involved in keeping the Honda in the sweet zone.
- The Classic’s chill zone starts from the moment you thumb the starter, or rather twist the rotary switch in this case. It is easy, laidback and has a different attitude than the Meteor, with which it shares its engine. It pulls away from low speeds in higher gears effortlessly and even overtaking traffic isn’t that much of a task.
- This new Classic sustains higher speeds better than before and even when you have to slow down, you simply need to roll on the throttle to regain lost momentum. In a similar scenario on the CB, you will have to go down a cog or even two. The fifth gear is ridiculously tall. In fact, on a couple of occasions we found the motor to lose a little steam when shifting up from fourth to fifth.
- Even the connection with the throttle is vague and inconsistent on the RS. It doesn’t feel seamless and linear as the Classic.
- Thankfully, the Honda is the more fuel efficient and smoother engine. The larger tank on the Honda gives it quite a big boost in terms of highway range, extending your saddle time by over 140km or a couple of hours. In typical Honda fashion, the engine feels ultra-refined, almost numb. The only presence of the engine functioning is its exhaust note, which is loud and exciting at first, but becomes a bit irritating rather quickly.
- The Classic’s new bubbling exhaust note is richer and evocative. You fall in love with the new-age thump which grows louder as you feed more gas and also lasts longer.
RIDE & HANDLING
- Both motorcycles have strong and solid foundations that make them capable handlers. Despite weighing more than the Honda, we found the Classic offers better rider connection in the twisties. It is sure footed and doesn’t wallow when pushing hard. There’s also enough cornering clearance on hand to carry enough lean and speed around a corner.
- While the Honda is also eager to corner, its wider rear tyre, slightly narrow bars and longer wheelbase forces you to put in a bit more effort to tip it into bends or to flick from one side to the other.
- It also doesn’t feel as planted as the Classic. Out on the highway, the front end starts feeling light and a little jittery at high speeds. The Classic, meanwhile, remains rock solid as it glides over bumps and ridges, with only the sharpest of road imperfections filtering through to the rider.
- While Royal Enfield has improved the braking hardware on the Classic 350, and it performs better now, it still has room for improvement. The brake bite isn’t as fierce as we would have liked. However, there’s plenty of feel at the levers, allowing you to modulate your brake input quite precisely.
- Lesser inertia and a larger disc helps the Honda shed speed faster than the Classic. It is able to chomp down on speed rapidly. But what it lacks is lever feedback as you aren’t able to gauge brake modulation that well.
- ABS modulation on both motorcycles is fairly neutral.
PRICE & VERDICT
It is shocking how clear cut a winner the new Royal Enfield Classic 350 is. It might be slower, less fuel efficiency, and heavier than the Honda CB350 RS. But the bottomline is that the chill vibe that you seek from retro roadsters is available in abundance on the Classic. It can chug along fuss free within the city, and can manage respectable highway speeds without breaking a sweat. And it does this without any harsh vibrations that were so prevalent on the older model. It is light on its feet and remains composed over every road obstacle.
Plus, there’s no discounting the vast network of dealerships and service centres that Royal Enfield has which Honda’s Big Wing touchpoints might never come to match. Lastly, it is the RE brotherhood and folklore, which was one of the main reasons why the company has done so well in the past years and with this new Classic, we are sure will do even better.