Lifestyle

One Year (Or More) Later, The Royal Enfield INT650 Remains A Captivating, Romantic Ride


Following my initial review of the Royal Enfield INT650 in August of 2020, I did what most journalists should never do, at least for those on a budget: I put one in the garage on a permanent basis. That’s typically a bad idea because it seems there’s always something better around the next bend in the motorcycle market. But against the odds, I think I made the right call this time.

Owning that thing you just evaluated can be a trap for those of us that review motorcycles, automobiles and related tech items as the garage fills with toys while our meager bank accounts drain away. But in truth, despite reviewing a long list of motorcycles over the last year (or so), only the INT650 resulted in an effort to give a review machine a permanent home, so strong was my reaction. And a year-plus later, the charm of the INT650 continues unabated.

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I was hoping to publish this story last year after a true calendar year of riding the INT650 and my other review bikes, but as we all know, things happened. Like many people, I hunkered down with my family for the pandemic, especially after my spouse, a health care worker, fell ill from Covid. She has since recovered, but it took nearly a year, and some symptoms remain. Then, I suffered multiple severe injuries in a non-motorcycle crash that kept me out of the saddle for over five months. So in actual riding time… it’s been about a year.

That Special Something

I was initially skeptical of the new 650 P-Twins from Royal Enfield, a brand that began life in Britain as Enfield back at the turn of the 20th century, and after folding in the U.K. in 1967, it carried on in India, where they essentially continued to construct the same bikes, nearly unchanged, for decades.

Like some sort of modern time machines, Royal Enfield’s iconic Bullet and other models were barely changed from year to year and then decade to decade, likely because it wasn’t like a lot of changes or updates were really needed. The Enfield Bullet was (and is) the Jeep of India, its dependable, over-built 350 and 500cc air-cooled single cylinder engines pok-pok-poking across the vast country’s countrysides and cities, where every part was well known, easily sourced and spares are abundant. For many in India, the Enfield Bullet is motorcycle religion, much as Harley-Davidson cruisers are in the U.S. I had questions about the bike long-term: Would the INT650 be reliable? Rideable? Even relatable for this American owner? The main thing I loved about vintage bikes I owned in the past was riding them, not burning endless hours working on them. But my review bike seemed like a sweetheart, so I took a chance.

Change is inevitable, even for an institution like Royal Enfield. As the 21st century approached, the motorcycle maker was bought up by the Eicher Group, a large agricultural equipment maker with expansion plans for the Royal Enfield brand, and the powers that be began to modernize production with features like fuel injection, disc brakes and other modern touches. But on balance, the Bullet remained the Bullet. Then, Royal Enfield was discovered (or rediscovered) by the wider world as Eicher began to develop international markets, especially since the new bikes could now pass international emissions and safety regulations. Riders looking for a simple, affordable, non-threatening bike with undeniable retro style began to snap them up, and Royal Enfield, flush with Eicher’s backing, bought iconic frame-maker Harris Performance and began to look at new model designs, including a faster, sportier parallel twin based on RE’s stylish 1960’s hot rod, the twin-cylinder Interceptor. In 2017, the INT650 – or Interceptor 650 outside the U.S. market – debuted, joined by the mechanically identical but more cafe-styled 650 GT.

I love vintage bikes, as they are time machines of sorts to a simpler type of riding without computer-aided anything, but they are also “vintage” when it comes to barely-there drum brakes, suspect electrics, unreliable reliability and maintenance requiring encyclopedic levels of arcane knowledge. Stuff breaks on old bikes – a lot. And performance pales compared to modern bikes, although I’m OK with that. But the new INT650 suddenly seemed to fulfill a fantasy product niche I saw rarely addressed by most other modern bike makers: A truly vintage-style motorcycle mixed with modern technologies that was comfortable, reliable, affordable and, in truth, not from a major world-dominating motorcycle maker. On my first ride aboard the INT650 I received, I was absolutely smitten. What magic was this?

The 445-pound Interceptor/INT650 features an air-cooled 647cc parallel twin that pays homage to its namesake, but is also strongly reminiscent of the BSAs, Nortons and Triumphs of the era. And while Triumph has punched out their modern P-Twin classics to 900cc and more, Royal Enfield stuck with the old-school 650cc displacement, which was considered a serious “big bike” back in the day. Now, it’s a good starter size for many riders, or a just-right displacement for vintage bike lovers like myself. Fast? The INT650 won’t embarrass any modern sportbikes in terms of performance, but that’s not the point, of course, even though twisting the throttle to the stop does result in grin-inducing acceleration. And like those old vintage bikes I love so much, the INT650 is a very mechanical motorcycle. In an era of electrification (and I own an electric car), the INT650’s motor is a syncopated cacophony of ticks, tocks and other joyful noises, but it’s also a smooth runner thanks to some modern counter-balancing technology.

Enfield has seen fit to give 47-horsepower twin in the INT650 a lumpy 270-degree firing order for a sonorous soundtrack (especially with some aftermarket pipes), and added such modern niceties as a six-speed gearbox, an oil cooler, a slipper clutch and fuel injection. Yet it still looks as retro as ever, with twin rear shocks, a black tube-section cradle frame, and the perfect seat/tank line front to back. A round headlight, braced motocross-style chrome handlebars and good old round, analog clocks (driven by digital data) complete the look. Along with my long-departed Norton Commando and Honda CB400F, it’s the best looking bike I’ve ever owned. Everywhere I go, this stylish motorcycle gets attention.

But I don’t ride it for that attention, although it’s a nice bonus. I love my time in the saddle of INT650 because it’s just plain fun to ride, and with some key accessories, it’s even fun to ride a long ways. In town, the clutch is smooth in city traffic, making stoplight takeoffs easy. The INT650 is relatively svelte and slices through traffic. The single front Brembo “ByBre” disc brake is large, powerful and provides good feedback, with another disc out back, both with ABS. Thanks to frame design influenced by Harris Performance, the INT650 has what I consider excellent road manners, even when things get curvy.

Again, this isn’t some full-bore track bike, but get it on a twisty road and it is surprisingly agile and fun. The rear shocks are adjustable for preload while the front end has no adjustability, but it tracks and turns with particular confidence as set up by the factory. I can certainly scrape the pegs if I get really aggressive, but I have found that my most enjoyable rides on the back roads are when the bike is flowing through the corners, the engine in the meat of its powerband, singing a staccato mechanical aria as I power out of turns full throttle and then rev match for the downshift heading into the next corner. On the boil, the INT650 engages all your skills and senses, just like my vintage bikes used to do. It’s just a better (and safer) overall experience.

And that’s the beauty of a 650cc engine not tuned for the moon: Twisting the grip to the stop results in satisfying noise and acceleration, but it doesn’t try to launch you into orbit like so many bikes do today. There are all kinds of “performance” metrics we judge motorcycles by, but really, how much it can terrify you isn’t the best reason to buy a particular model. Ridden foolishly, the INT650 can certainly get you into trouble, but to me it’s more like a loyal riding coach, pushing me to carry just a bit more speed, smoothness, and confidence through the next section of bends.

Get Outta Town

No matter what bike I have, I always like to see what kind of long-distance capability it possesses, and in 2021 I kitted out the INT650 with a few touring togs, including some crash/highway bars, a firmer Royal Enfield touring seat (thankfully identical in appearance to the stock seat), adjustable mirrors, saddlebags, a small fly screen and a few other bits. Overall, the appearance of the INT650 stayed the same, and I mounted a long, multi-day trip on the bike out to Eastern Oregon.

With its natural seating position, flat bars and willing motor, the INT650 was a capable, comfortable touring platform. On the open road, the six-speed transmission is well-spaced and properly geared for tooling down the open road at legal speeds plus a bit more. The 3.6-gallon gas tank has just enough range, as gas stops were a good chance to stretch after two hours and change at speed across Oregon’s wilder areas. While I’ve owned and ridden many luxurious touring bikes, I prefer a much more “basic” approach along the lines of the late Ted Simon on his Triumph as he circled the globe in the 1970s. With the rise of modern adventure bikes, a similar adventure seems almost easy (it’s not), but if someone suggested (and financed) a ‘round-the-world expedition on some INT650’s, I would not hesitate. Luxurious? No. Capable? Definitely.

Problems I’ve encountered? None, really, outside of a balky starter button that still worked with a second or third push. It was replaced under warranty when I brought the INT650 in for its initial post-break-in tuneup, which consisted of a valve adjustment and some other checks for about $450. Otherwise, not a single hiccup and the paint, shiny surfaces and other operating gear looks and works as good today as it all did when it arrived.

It’s mid-March in Portland as I write this, and the weather has been stereotypical of Oregon since November: rain, fog, some snow, dark at 5pm. But there’s a short window of dry, sunny days with temperatures in the 40s and 50s coming up, and I’m looking forward to slipping the INT650 out from under its motorcycle cover and waking it from its winter slumber. I may just ride it across town to a favorite restaurant or to see my parents. Or I may loop around Marine Drive along the Columbia River, and then hop over to the twisting Columbia River Historic Highway to take in Multnomah Falls as it gushes with winter runoff. It doesn’t really matter where I go (as long as I’m fairly warm that is) as I know I’ll be smiling as the INT650 ticks down the road, a cadent burble trailing behind me as I look for an excuse to open the throttle.

A Fun Future

It’s rare to find a material object in our retail-cycle modern world that consistently brings joy, and I’m happy to have found one in the INT650. I started riding motorcycles decades ago for the fun of it, and the Royal Enfield INT650 brings me back to that simple, sublime feeling of contentment on every ride, mixed with a bit of excitement and pride. It know it goes against the grain to say I found my “dream bike” for $6,000, but motorcycle riders know it’s not about how much you spend on the bike, it’s more about how it fits you, mentally perhaps more than physically. On the Royal Enfield INT650, I feel the fun of riding come through loud and clear, and I’m looking forward to many more rides on my dream bike for many years to come.

For 2022, the Royal Enfield INT650 returns relatively unchanged, with small updates and some new color to choose from.



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