I'm astride the new Benelli Imperiale 400 heading east out of Delhi on NH 24, a highway on which I have made countless motorcycle journeys over the past two decades. Back in the day, NH24 used to be a tree-lined, two-lane highway with oncoming Uttar Pradesh Roadways drivers forcing lesser mortals on two-wheelers off the road and into the shoulder with their "get out of the way, or else..." overtaking manoeuvres. Today, the first 100-odd kilometres out of Delhi are largely six-lane. But it's still a familiar highway, and the Imperiale 400 purrs on nonchalantly, and for a moment, it feels almost all too familiar.
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It's a modern classic after all, with lovely retro looks, a single-cylinder thumper with just over 350 cc displacement, and around 20 bhp of power on tap. I settle into a steady 95 kmph cruise, and get nostalgic, in more ways than one, of rides from the past, some solo, and some with close friends, on this very same highway. A new flyover over what used to be a traffic gridlock on the highway quickly brings me back to the present. Today is a brand new morning, and even if the Imperiale 400 reminded me of other motorcycles in many ways, yet something feels noticeably different.
Design and Features
Now, modern classic motorcycles, with styling from the 1950s and '60s have been quite popular, not only in India, but across the world, over the past decade or so. The likes of the Triumph Bonneville, the Royal Enfields, all have a very distinctive, timeless charm. And that retro appeal seems to work, not just for born-again, nostalgia-driven riders, but even with relatively younger consumers in today's India. Think of Jawa, think of Royal Enfield, and you get the picture. Beautiful, timeless design, splashes of chrome here and there, and a very retro silhouette. And that is where the new Imperiale 400 fits right in. It's a design inspired by the Benelli Imperiale motorcycles of the 1950s.
It's definitely retro, and the design is unmistakably 1950s, with that vintage look and stance. The big round headlight definitely underscores the bike's '50s design lineage, flanked by two clear lens turn indicators, but there's no LED lighting. The dual, round twin-pod instrument console adds a nice classic touch, and the flat, wide handlebar, with the classic tear drop shaped fuel tank, further accentuate the Imperiale's retro design DNA. The split seats are wide with a sprung rider's seat - another retro touch.
But there are also modern bits, like disc brakes on both spoked wheels with standard dual-channel ABS. At the front is a single 300 mm disc with two-piston floating calipers, while rear braking is taken care of by a single 240 mm disc with a single piston caliper. There's a 41 mm telescopic front fork, while rear suspension is handled by twin pre-load adjustable shocks. The spoked wheels come in a 19-inch front wheel size and an 18-inch rear combination, shod with TVS tyres. The Imperiale's stance, even when standing still, is most certainly retro. Overall, it's a handsome bike, and if you are a fan of classic design lines, the Imperiale does begin to grow on you.
The Benelli Imperiale 400 is powered by a 374 cc, single-cylinder, air-cooled, four-valve, fuel-injected engine, which puts out 20.7 bhp at 5,500 rpm, and peak torque of 29 Nm at 4,500 rpm. It may be an air-cooled single-cylinder, but the engine will not shy away from being revved and purrs straight to the 6,000 rpm redline, without feeling strained, or out of breath. It's not quick by any standards, but the Imperiale 400 will hold respectable highway speeds, if you're the kind who's into long distance riding.
There are some vibrations like the Royal Enfield singles, and at anything above 3,000 rpm, you can feel some amount of vibrations creeping in, particularly on the footpegs, the fuel tank and on the seat. But the Imperiale's engine is noticeably smoother, and feels like it won't fall apart, even at high revs, and those vibrations aren't felt so much on the handlebar to give the rider a buzz on sustained highway riding. The Imperiale 400's engine will hit the 6,000 rpm redline easily, and can hit a top speed of around 130 kmph, if you want to go that fast. The five-speed gearbox isn't hard or clunky, and the gears slot into place with reassurance, something which is always welcome.
The Imperiale 400 has good straight line stability, and the suspension soaks up most road imperfections and undulations remarkably well. We got off the NH, and explored some sandy patches on the bank of the Ganges. It's no off-road bike, but the Imperiale 400 will quite capably take on moderate rough terrain. Out of the riverbed, we took a single-lane state road with varying surface types, ranging from broken and bumpy shoulders to a long-ish patch of mostly pothole-infested excuse for a road.
Overall, the Benelli Imperiale 400 has good ride quality. Not outstanding, but it does the job well, under most road conditions, including some broken patches which it managed to sail through at triple digit speeds, without the suspension bottoming out or the bike losing its composure. The only negative, at least on my test bike, was the feel of the brakes. Sometimes, the bite from the brakes felt weak, and there was no progression, but other times the bite from the front brakes felt all right. Mostly, there was no consistency in the feel of the brakes on my test bike, and better braking power always give you that little extra confidence when you're cruising at triple digit speeds on a two-lane back road.
On the way back into town on NH 24, I rode more than 100 kilometres non-stop, back through the same state back-roads, and then on a relatively faster run back through NH24. And that is when it hit me, that the Imperiale 400 could be quite an enjoyable companion on a relaxed ride taking in the sights. Despite the minor vibes, the engine never lost its smoothness, nor did it feel like it will fall apart, even after sustained triple digit speed riding. And that is what makes the Imperiale 400 feel noticeably different, even special, on this familiar road.
In the end, the Benelli Imperiale 400 looks period-correct, and has that nearly vintage appeal which makes it an attractive modern classic. It's available in a choice of just three colours - silver, maroon, or black, and in my opinion, it looks absolutely beautiful in any shade. It's not a performance bike by a long shot, but a retro classic, meant for easy, relaxed riding. If that is the kind of motorcycle you seek, it ticks all the right boxes. It has very good highway manners, if you're not in a tearing hurry to get anywhere. But it can still maintain triple digit speeds all day long, if you want, and the engine will rev all the way to the redline.
At ₹ 1.69 lakh (ex-showroom), the Benelli Imperiale 400 will take on the likes of the Royal Enfield 350, and the Jawa in India. Now, Benelli may not have the network strength of Royal Enfield, or the chrome-laden nostalgic 1960s appeal of a Jawa, but what the Imperiale 400 offers is something different, something unique and something even more retro, and as a motorcycle, maybe even better in some ways than its competition.
|Engine Displacement||374 cc|
|Engine Type||Four-Stroke, air-cooled, 4-valve|
|Maxmum Power||20.7 bhp @ 5,500 rpm|
|Peak Torque||29 Nm @ 4,500 rpm|
|Kerb Weight||205 kg|
|Ground Clearance||165 mm|
|Price (Ex-showroom)||₹ 1.69 Lakh|
(Photography: Azam Siddiqui)