Can retro hipster chic cut it overland? Paddy Tyson considers…
I walked outside to the chrome be-decked air-cooled twin, which had carried me between cafes in provincial towns the day before, plonked my throw-over panniers on the seat and was struck with the realisation that I’d just created a tourer. This Royal Enfield personifies ‘multi-purpose’ while being anything but utilitarian. It looks great, sounds wonderful and seems to do everything asked of it.
As retro may have become the new post-modern or somesuch, so a simpleton like me just basked in the joy of experiencing the truly familiar motorcycle. If it wasn’t for the fact the brakes retard, the lights illuminate and there’s a complete absence of fluid dripping from every conceivable component, I might indeed by transported back to my younger days.
So here it is, the long-awaited and very competitively-priced Interceptor 650 twin from Royal Enfield, half of the pair of models sharing the same platform. The ‘Continental’ is its café-racer sibling. We were fortunate to have a brief first ride on the Interceptor in California when it was launched to the world’s media over year ago, but it’s taken some time to get hold of one longterm so that we could actually go somewhere and experience what it’s like to travel with.
You may wonder why we’d even want to travel with an Interceptor when Suzuki offer V-Stroms, BMW’s GS series exists and Ducati make the technologically marvellous Multistrada, but surely riding this Interceptor off into the sunset has got to be the closest we can hope to come to emulating Ted Simon’s RTW ride in the 70s. So if you’ll permit me to dream, I’ll just pull on my flying jacket and grab my umbrella… Oh, and then there’s the ten grand saving over a big bike like a GS, that will pay for most of your global journey, as this machine retails for less than five a half grand.
But I’ll start with the name. It’s silly. Both Interceptor and Continental are names with pedigree in Enfield’s back catalogue – I get that – but things have moved on since a 45 spun for 3 minutes while ton-up cafe racers tried to kill themselves, and they’ve now got the names the wrong way round. The bike on test here shouldn’t be called the Interceptor. If you have produced a machine with demonstrable ability to cross continents, surely you are missing a labelling trick not calling it the Continental, while the Interceptor could wear the clip-ons…
And I say that because this uber-retro bike may ooze hipster chic, but it is also one of the easiest-to-ride bikes I’ve ever used. I don’t like coffee even if it does cost £10 a cup, but I love the light-weight feel of this chassis and the sense of strength the engine exudes as it delivers its fairly paltry 47hp. It’s smooth, torquey and perfectly suited to touring, especially in the ‘rest of the world’. The fuelling provided by the Bosch injection is glitch-free and provides super roll-on grunt from under 2,000 rpm. This torque is available throughout the rev range reaching its 52Nm peak at 5,200prm which just happens to be 75mph in top. That means that if you need to eat some miles on a highway the beating heart of this beauty is right on song and happy to tackle any headwind or overtake you may need. Everyone, regardless of experience, will get on with this bike.
This is Enfield’s first 6-speed gearbox and they’ve clearly worked hard at it. The sales patter says “…the result is evident in the optimum shift feel, reliability of engagement, quiet notch-free selection and perfect ratio spacing” and in truth, I’ve nothing to add. Except perhaps that the neutral light is linked to the kill switch, so if you’ve just turned the key on you might spend an age trying to find an indicated neutral before starting…
The twin cylinder, 8-valve, 648cc engine produces a beautiful burble through the twin upswept chrome pipes whether you are powering through some uphill twisties or lost in an urban jungle. The tank certainly isn’t big at 13.7 litres, but here’s the good news: over the time we’ve had it the Interceptor has been ridden hard and soft, with luggage and without and the average fuel usage has been 64.3mpg, with a best tank of 69.1mpg. That’s a 200 mile range without the pain of maxing a credit card and what’s more, the relatively lowly 9.2:1 compression ratio means this bike will run on fuel much worse than is available in Europe. But be warned, the chunky authentic fuel cap is removable and easy to drop in the dust, which will provide hours of fun, and the metal tank takes a long time to fill. Please note you must use the centre-stand to achieve anywhere near capacity, as the fuel gauge will happily remind you half a mile further down the road when it finally registers the new load.
Although we’ve covered a couple of thousand miles together so far, I’ve only had the opportunity to do 270 miles in one sitting, but the general ergonomics have proven themselves something I could live with on a big trip. So too the lights, switchgear, pleasingly clear clocks and accessible 804mm seat height. But not everything is perfect in this department, as the seat could do with a gel pad for bigger mileages.
There is precious little by way of ‘equipment’ other than mirrors and a centre stand, both of which were clearly designed by people who actually use motorcycles which is wonderful. In the display there are two trip meters, however those same designers have obviously decreed a timepiece to be superfluous. The footpegs are narrow and not great for standing on, but you could easily change them before a big trip.
The chassis is generally competent and the Interceptor belies its 200kilos, feeling nothing like that in use. There is 88mm of travel at the rear and 110mm at the front, and ground clearance for a road bike is good at 174mm, but the whole plot can get quite out of shape if you meet bumps mid corner. The twin rear shocks are easy to adjust for pre-load through 5 settings (C-spanner and handful of tools sit snuggly behind the righthand sidepanel) though remain crude, and there’s no adjustment up front on the 41mm forks. Of course there is no real need for adjustment when forks are set-up well, but these seem to be crying out for better valving to reduce the chopping mid-bend. This is clearly one of the areas that has helped enable that low retail price.
The 18” wheels at both ends look the part and the geometry seems lazy for relaxed use, but I can’t help feeling the front end is ‘over-tyred’ if such a phrase exists. Initially the front seems to fall in, mimicking the sensation of having lost 10lbs of air pressure, and there is a feeling of there being too much rubber up front. 100/90 is hardly big, but something a little thinner may not overwhelm the meagre suspension so much.
The tyres themselves (130/70 on the rear) are an Indian-made pair of Pirelli Phantoms with a classic period design apparently developed specially for the Interceptor. I think changing them might just begin to transform this bike and its suspension as they track road irregularities badly and this is exacerbated in the wet to the point of being quite unsettling.
The brakes are Bybre (from Brembo) and again perfectly suited to the bike though when I collected this particular bike with 1,500 miles showing, the front disc was significantly warped. ABS is standard but if you are off road and wish to disable it, it seems you just need to make the rear wheel rotate faster than the front for a couple of seconds. Until you next switch off the ignition and it resets, the ABS will be disabled.
The smooth, fuss-free power delivery, effortless gear changing, wonderful noise and sheer simplicity of an air-cooled twin means this bike is an almost accidental overland hero. The Interceptor is lovely to look at and a joy to ride yet can sit unostentatiously in any environment so you can blend in a bit more as you travel. It’ll plod all day through back roads but happily maintain 75 – 80mph when required. Routine maintenance is every 6,000 miles (after an initial 3,000 service) and couldn’t be easier; just look where those spark plugs are for example!
Most of us here at Team Overland have had a go, and the adjective that keeps coming up is ‘pleasant’, but never in a derogatory way. It makes you relax, notice the scenery and wear your happy face. If Royal Enfield offered the option of hard or soft luggage, touring seat, crash bars and intermediate tyres all for less than six grand, who in our overland community wouldn’t be interested? It’s little wonder this was the UK’s best selling bike in June 2020.
And now YSS are producing a kit to transform that front suspension…