The Royal Enfield Thunderbird has been around since 2002, first launched with an AVL 350 cc engine, and later on in both 350 cc and 500 cc formats with the current UCE (unit construction engine). The Thunderbird is not Royal Enfield's first cruiser-style model though, and it was in fact an evolution of the late 1990s Royal Enfield Citibike and the Royal Enfield Lightning 535, both of which used the old cast iron engine with a right hand side gear shifter. A lot has changed for the Thunderbird over the years, but the overall silhouette has remained the same, with cruiser-style, pulled back handlebars and an easy riding position, even though the underpinnings are shared with the rest of the Royal Enfield models.
Now, in 2018, Royal Enfield has introduced the Thunderbird X, in both 350 cc and 500 cc variants. It's positioned as a custom-inspired model for urban use, ostensibly to provide a factory-custom to Thunderbird owners who have long been customising their bikes with alloy wheels, different handlebars and custom paint schemes.
The basic design of both the 350 X and 500 X is the same, although both the 350 and the 500 have different colour schemes to differentiate them. And it will continue to exist along with the standard Royal Enfield Thunderbird 350 and Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500.
The new Thunderbird X follows a 'blacked out' custom theme. So, the engine is blacked out, with a new handlebar, also finished in black, blacked out front forks, blacked out headlight dome, black side panels and a 'chopped out' rear end without the pillion back-rest. And of course, it now gets new colour schemes to give it fresh appeal. The Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500 X is available in two shades - orange and blue, and dramatically named 'Getaway Orange' and 'Drifter Blue'. And the Thunderbird 350 X is available in white, and red (similarly named 'Whimsical White' and 'Roving Red'). The X also gets a single-piece seat (quite like the first generation Thunderbird, but with new seat material) and alloy wheels (the first on any Royal Enfield), shod with tubeless tyres (again a first on a Royal Enfield).
Our test bike is in the Getaway Orange shade, and it's striking to look at, from a distance. From some angles it looks sleeker and leaner than the standard Thunderbird, and somewhat resembles the 'modern classic' look identifiable with similar bikes of British origin. Up close though, fit and finish and build quality are a let-down. The orange fuel tank looks bright and cheerful, but the finish on the lower part of the fuel tank is crimped and uneven.
The handlebar is now flat (compared to the pulled back cruiser-style handlebar of the standard Royal Enfield Thunderbird). The seat is also new now, with a single-piece design and the tail has been sharpened up with tucked in grab rails on either side. The seat also gets colour coordinated stitching (a nice touch), and the wheels also get a colour coordinated stripe around the rim. The brakes are discs at both ends - a 280 mm front and 240 mm rear - but there's no ABS on offer, even as an option.
How does it ride then?
Ride quality is pliant and the Thunderbird 500 X will take on most broken patches and minor road imperfections and potholes while maintaining its composure, so that hasn't changed. The new riding position makes the front end feel a bit more communicative and also makes you want to ride the Thunderbird X in a slightly more 'sporty' fashion. But the footpegs will scrape if you get too adventurous around a corner and the engine isn't happy revving freely through the gears. And yes, the engine is the same as the Royal Enfield Thunderbird 500's, as are the chassis and suspension. The 499 cc single-cylinder air-cooled engine pumps out 27.2 bhp at 5250 rpm and peak torque of 41.3 Nm at 4,000 rpm.
It's a familiar feeling as soon as you get on the move, but the new handlebar gives you a slightly 'different' feel and makes for a slightly more eager handler, even though the chassis, rake and suspension remain the same. The engine is torquier as before, pulls cleanly and gets you to decent highway speeds, with the speedometer needle hitting 120 kmph and more. But there are familiar downsides.
Like its cruiser cousin, the Thunderbird X doesn't like being revved, 3500 rpm or thereabouts, and 90 kmph is the sweet spot. Anything more, even if you're revving through the gears, the vibrations begin to dampen your riding experience with rattles and judders on the handlebar and footpegs. And the rear view mirrors vibrate wildly and became useless soon after; no amount of trying to adjust them in the proper position allowed us to get a clean view, so that is a disappointment for a brand new motorcycle. Brakes are wooden and despite discs at both ends, lack any bite or progression to speak of, and that leaves you with little confidence when you want to shave off speed in a hurry.
Who's this bike for then?
The Royal Enfield fan - period! The Thunderbird 500 X will get you approving looks from a lot of folks on the street - including the local tea shop owner, commuter on a small displacement motorcycle, and even three wheeler drivers. Even an Uber driver rolled down his window at a stop light to admire and comment on how good the bike looks. So, if you're in the market for a new motorcycle, and have about 2 lakh rupees in your budget, and you've always been inclined towards a Royal Enfield, by all means take a look at the X. At that price, you have the UM Renegade Classic, and even the Royal Enfield Classic series as options. And if you're still undecided about what 'type' of bike you are going to buy, you can even consider the TVS Apache RR 310 in that budget. But that's another story altogether.
The Royal Enfield Thunderbird X is no cruiser, but you sure can go touring on it, and what it brings to the table are fresh looks and appeal. It looks slightly more proportionate than the standard Thunderbird, and has that 'modern classic' look of a Bonneville Street Twin, although build quality, fit and finish are some qualities Royal Enfield definitely needs to focus more on. At heart, the Thunderbird X is still a Royal Enfield, with all its qualities, niggles and 'character,' if you will. If those are traits you're willing to live with, the blacked-out look, alloy wheels, tubeless tyres and attractive paint schemes may give you even more reason to consider the Thunderbird X.
Watch RE Thunderbird 500 X vs TVS Apache RR 310 Comparison
(Photography: Azam Siddiqui)