Royal Enfield Himalayan 400 road test: turn that page

Royal Enfield’s first-ever overhead-cam engine with for the first time a gear-driven counterbalancer to remove vibration

Royal Enfield built its first motorcycle in 1901, which today makes it the world’s oldest motorcycle marque to have maintained unbroken production throughout its life, with its 350/500cc ohv Bullet models continuously manufactured for longer than any other motorcycle in current production. Well over half a million of them were built in 2016 alone in response to a two-month waiting list in its Indian home market, where 96% of RE production still ends up. But in March 2016 Royal Enfield tore up the vintage-era template for that ongoing success story, by introducing the Himalayan – albeit at first just for its Indian home market.

Powered by the company’s debut overhead-cam engine, housed in its first-ever monoshock chassis, it shares no parts with any preceding Royal Enfield model. In launching it, Royal Enfield’s dynamic CEO Siddhartha Lal was attempting to carve a new dual-purpose niche sector in the Indian market – one that compatriot company Bajaj Auto had stayed well clear of, in spite of its tie-up with the world’s leading offroad manufacturer, KTM. For in spite of the awful state of Indian roads outside the main cities – and in them, too! – local riders have refused to embrace street enduro or adventure touring motorcycles complete with long-travel suspension when they’ve been offered to them – until now.

For thanks to some canny advertising and social media momentum, not to mention word of mouth once owners began receiving deliveries, Royal Enfield has a hit on its hands in the form of the Himalayan, thus justifying Siddhartha Lal’s gamble to “try something different”, as he puts it. This in turn has spawned an interest in the model from overseas markets, especially Europe and the USA, for which however RE’s engineers have had to develop a Euro 4-compliant version coming later this year that’s fitted with ABS and fuel injection, rather than the carburetted model that’s also devoid of ABS sold for the past year in India and, as of March 2017, in its first export market for the bike, Australia. The chance for me to try out one of the most interesting motorcycles yet to be developed by an Indian manufacturer, representing a new page in Royal Enfield’s product portfolio, came thanks to RE’s largest dealer in Australia, Mid Life Cycles in downtown Melbourne.

Mid LIfe owner Michael Catchpole sold ten examples of the Himalayan in just the first two weeks of its availability Down Under, where its retails for a killer AUD $5,990 price complete with two-year unlimited mileage warranty, and two-year roadside assistance package. Compare that to Kawasaki’s venerable KLR650 selling at AUD $8,099 which has been the king of the simple-yet-effective single-cylinder adventure bike market in Australia for so many years, and it’s evident that the Indian bike can give the KLR a run for its money in spite of its smaller engine.

“Based on our experience, the Himalayan has quite a wide demographic in terms of customers,” says Michael Catchpole. “Some are very experienced riders looking for a smaller and lighter all round motorcycle, whereas there are others who haven’t ridden an adventure bike yet, but want to. They’re frankly a bit intimidated by a BMW R1200GS or Honda Africa Twin, and want something simpler, smaller and easier to use. Thanks to the low price, several are younger riders who are relatively new to riding and intend to use the bike for urban commuting and general weekend riding. But we have a couple who’ve bought a pair of bikes from us who are taking them almost straight away to their country property, and will use them for general road and offroad riding on gravel roads - not bush bashing as such, though when you see what people do with the bike in the Himalayan mountains, it’s obviously OK at that, too!”.

The Himalayan’s LS410 air/oil-cooled two-valve single-cylinder longstroke engine measuring an undersquare 78 x 86 mm for 411cc was specifically designed to accentuate availability at lower revs of its 32 Nm/3.26 kgm/23.60 ft-lb of torque topping out at 4,250 rpm, with a good proportion readily on tap before that. Peak claimed power of 24.5 bhp/18 kW is delivered at 6,500 rpm and transmitted via a five-speed transmission with oil-bath clutch. Another key ingredient not found on any previous Royal Enfield motor is the single gear-driven counterbalancer positioned in front of the crankshaft, aimed at resolving the vibration issues of RE’s Classic pushrod singles. Service intervals are an extended 10,000km between oil changes.

This new-generation engine is installed in what by RE standards is an equally innovative frame designed in the UK by the Indian firm’s subsidiary Harris Performance, the British chassis specialist which was purchased by Siddhartha Lal in May 2015. The Himalayan’s tubular steel twin-loop open-cradle frame is Royal Enfield’s first-ever monoshock chassis, and carries a non-adjustable 41mm leading-axle telescopic fork up front which gives 200mm of wheel travel, while out back the tubular steel swingarm works a monoshock that’s only adjustable for spring preload, operated by a rising-rate link giving 180mm of travel. Brakes and suspension are made in-house by Royal Enfield, with a single 300mm disc with two-piston caliper up front, and a 240mm rear disc gripped by a single-piston caliper. Indian-made CEAT Gripp-XL dual-purpose tyres are carried on aluminium-rimmed wire-wheels, with a 90/90-21 front and 120/90-17 rear. Wheelbase is a contained 1465mm, and the Himalayan weighs a claimed 182kg dry, or 191kg on the road, with oil and a full 15-litre fuel tank offering a claimed range of 450km. It has a seat height of just 800mm, thus self-evidently appeals to a wide range of riders, especially shorter ones including women who’d basically need a stepladder to climb aboard some of the larger dual-purpose models from other companies. 

No such problem with the Himalayan, and at 1.80m/5’10” in height I found that I fitted the Indian-made dual-purpose model very comfortably, although for anyone much taller RE should offer a slightly higher seat to avoid cramping up their knees on a long ride. The footpegs have thick rubber inserts which when removed reveal a grippy corrugated offroad rest, but while these flip up a little stiffly they’re welded directly to the frame, which is surely a risky mistake for offroad use where they risk being broken off in a fall. I also found them a little short, so that standing on the footrests on a dirt road was slightly awkward, because my legs risked getting scorched by being too close to the engine. That’s a pity, because the Himalayan feels beautifully balanced both on-road and off, and is light and easy to change direction on, whether standing up on the pegs or sitting down on the seat. Some thought about crashes is evident by the way the footbrake lever is tucked inboard, and rises up and over the right footrest, so it’s a pity they welded these pegs directly to the chassis, albeit via a robust-looking boss.

But in tarmac use the Himalayan felt good, with the pulled-back handlebar falling nicely to hand in best cliché mode to deliver a very relaxed stance. It takes no time at all to feel at home on this bike, and t.he stepped seat is broad and quite comfortable with decent padding, though it’s relatively slim behind the fuel tank, making it easy for shorter riders to put both feet on the ground at rest. Rider ergonomics are good, and this new Royal Enfield is an excellent traffic tool - I can see it becoming a commuter and courier favourite in Western markets, especially at that price. It’s very light-steering and ultra-manoeuverable with that wide handlebar, a key ingredient in traffic-choked Indian cities where I bet it’s entirely at home. You sit high enough to see over car roofs in order to plot a course through traffic, plus the clutch is light to operate and is nicely progressive. The five-speed gearbox has a flawless operation – not something you’d have said about any Enfield transmission even five years ago – and the ratios are well chosen, with bottom gear not too much of a stump-puller, as often happens on Asian-built bikes where they have to cater for it potentially being overloaded with people and packages. Not here – this is a ‘normal’ transmission. 

The 411cc engine is very smooth to ride – there’s absolutely no undue vibration in normal use, though if you push the motor towards its 8,000 rpm redline, you do get some tingles through the footrests over the last thousand revs. It’s pretty willing, if not especially powerful or torquey, but it’s incredibly easy to ride, both in city traffic and on a winding lane out in the country. Only electric-start is fitted, which seems a bit optimistic – I’m not sure I’d want to bump start even a 411cc single with a flat battery on a gravel road, let alone in the foothills of Mt. Everest. However, assuming the battery is fully charged, the motor whirrs into life instantly, before settling to a low 1,000 rpm idle – probably chosen in the interests of frugality, since fuel consumption is such a key issue for Indian customers. This carburetted version with throttle position sensor picked up cleanly from low down, and would accelerate from 2,000 rpm wide open in top gear without a hiccup, nor any transmission snatch – it’s super-flexible in its response, albeit with a tinny-sounding exhaust note that doesn’t tick any aural boxes. Moreover, it was especially smooth in its pickup from a closed throttle – I hope Royal Enfield gets that right as well with the fuel injected version, this being its first venture into EFI. 

This made riding the Himalayan offroad at low speeds easy work, although with the smaller engine it gets a bit breathless on freeways, where the adjustable flyscreen offers some protection from wind and rain. Claimed top speed is 145 kmh/90 mph, but I didn’t have the spare day to watch it get there, and it’s happiest running at around 110 kmh/70mph, which is the absolute speed limit in much of Australia, so what the heck. Overtaking does require a little bit of forward planning, though, and you must change down a gear to obtain some momentum before you pass. In spite of the lack of top gear roll-on performance, the Himalayan fills its design brief perfectly – but I do think the 600cc version promised by Siddhartha Lal will tick all the missing boxes for Western markets, with added torque, a little extra power, and an insignificant increase in weight. 

That’s not to say this 400 model isn’t fun to ride as well as practical, though, and the 21-inch front wheel makes it at home offroad, where the 220mm of ground clearance was more than sufficient for the use the bike will be put to – it’s not even a street enduro, but a go-almost-anywhere adventure bike. I didn’t like using the rear brake offroad, though - it was set up way too fierce in operation, and without ABS fitted (which you’d want to switch off for offroad use anyway) it was much too easy to lock the rear wheel on the wet roads I rode back to Mid Life Cycles on at the end of the day, or dabbing it gently going downhill offroad. Needs attention. The single front disc was OK in stopping the Himalayan, albeit without any luggage nor a passenger aboard, though you must squeeze both foot and hand levers pretty hard to get significant response on tarmac. But the front brake could be modulated nicely, and because of that I ended up using it all the time offroad to avoid the risk of locking the rear end. There was quite good engine braking, too – though you must be ready for the back wheel to chatter quite easily when changing down to first gear with no slipper clutch.

This being Royal Enfield’s first monoshock frame, and with experts like Harris Performance to show them how to do it, it was rather disappointing that the rear monoshock was pretty softly damped and rather harsh in use – there wasn’t the controlled progressivity that I was hoping for. It seemed to bottom out quite easily, too, which I could maybe have fixed with more spring preload. But the non-adjustable fork worked well, and I was pleasantly surprised by the CEAT Gripp-XL tyres. Considering that India has zero indigenous offroad heritage until now, these worked pretty well in the dirt, and weren’t too noisy to ride on the tarmac where they gave better dry weather grip than I‘d expected. But they were decidedly skittish in the rain, with the rear one easy to slide under power in the wet, while wheelspin under acceleration was also an issue on damp surfaces, and the touchy rear brake had me locking the rear wheel in the rain a couple of times. After that happened I was especially disappointed not to have switchable ABS on the Aussie Himalayan, especially at the front, as the Euro 4 version will assuredly have. Let’s hope RE fits Euro-rubber to the bikes sold abroad, remembering that this Aussie market Himalayan is 100% an Indian market model transplanted Down Under.

Quality of manufacture on the Himalayan seemed pretty good, and although the heat shields on the exhaust pipe look pretty crude, the rest of the bike is quite well put together. Wires and cables are tucked away nicely, and having visited RE’s ultra-modern Oragadam factory and been deeply impressed by the army of robot welders and the constant quality control checks, I wasn’t surprised at that – not as much as by the Himalayan’s instrument dash! This is pretty comprehensive for such a bike – and at such a price – and includes a tacho with redline commencing at 6,500 rpm (but it revs to eight, honest!), speedo with digital panel inset showing an odometer, twin trips, a clock, fuel gauge, and gear selected – and a separate compass! Well, there aren’t many signposts in the Himalayas, so in case you get lost, it’s the only way out…

The centre stand on the test bike comes fitted as standard, ditto the rear luggage rack, engine bash plate, copious clipping points for bungee cords, and the twin exoskeletal protective tubing either side of the fuel tank, which not only delivers some protection for it in case of a fall, but also provides a further receptacle for small luggage items to be clipped to. All this wraps together very well in a bike that has its own distinctive look – although the Himalayan is missing any hand guards, which I’d have thought was a must-have on a bike like this with aspirations of adventure. Plus the mirrors are spindly and badly shaped, thus don’t give a very good view behind you, although they at least don’t vibrate like they do on RE’s Classic singles, thanks to the counterbalancer doing its job so well.

Light-handling, accessible, practical and affordable, the Royal Enfield Himalayan 400 will surely capture customers in Western markets who for various reasons don’t want to buy one of the larger-capacity, more established adventure models already in the marketplace. Instead, it’s a simply engineered all-purpose motorcycle that isn’t extreme in either size, weight, performance or complexity – there are no digital riding modes here, no extremes of electronics, just a nice bike to ride that’s refreshingly old school, in spite of its ground-breaking specification by Royal Enfield’s standards. But it’ll soon have some competition from another Indian-built model – the BMW G310 GS launched at the EICMA Milan Show last November that’s scheduled to enter production in September at the TVS plant in Bangalore on behalf of the German manufacturer, while rumours persist of a Kawasaki 300 Versys, and an Africa Twin-styled 250cc Honda made in Thailand, as well as Suzuki’s promised 250cc V-Strom. It’s going to be getting crowded out there in Junior Adventure Land – but the Royal Enfield Himalayan is already a proven package that’ll be even nicer in fuel-injected guise for Euro 4, with the important addition of ABS. Bring it on!

Royal Enfield says the Himalayan’s mantra is “Accessible fun”. That sums the bike up very nicely….

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