Royal Enfield Desert Storm 500/Classic Chrome 500 in ICB’s comprehensive road test and review!
I consider myself somewhat of a Royal Enfield technology evangelist, more so since I just sold my Machismo LB500 weeks ago after experiencing the motorcycle for over a couple of years, across varied terrains. Every other day, we have a series of queries on IndianCarsBikes’ comments/Ask Experts section, asking for advice whether the new UCE engined Bullets are better than the cast iron or AVL engined ones and more often that not, I find myself directing the eager answer seekers to our comparison story, comparing the Cast Iron, AVL and UCE engines.
In a nutshell, UCE engines are vastly better than both CI and AVL engines, and no there are no two things about that. But if you want to read about my experience on a brand new Royal Enfield Desert Storm 500 for close to 1,000 kilometers in a no-holds-barred ICB comprehensive road test, you must hit the jump.
I got astride a brand new Royal Enfield Desert Storm 500, on a surprisingly hot for November, Mumbai morning, with 61 kilometers on the Desert Storm’s clock. Before the odometer read 70 kilometers, I was doing a heady 120 Kph on the Desert Storm 500, throwing caution to the wind. And no, I wasn’t stranded with a seized or struggling engine even after close to 1000 kilometers of ham fisting. Would I have indulged in such antics on a new cast iron Bullet or even say, an AVL engined Bullet? Hell no, would be my straight answer. But the confidence that the UCE engine gives a rider is something that both a dyed-in-the-wool bulleteer as well as Royal Enfield newbie would revel in.
That the Unit Construction Engine designed by Engines Engineering of Italy is the strongest part of the package, would be an understatement. This engine is what is selling Royal Enfields by the truckloads with the ancient Royal Enfield factory struggling to meet the ever increasing demand, it is only fitting that the UCE engine is the prime focus of this road test, as much as the overall Desert Storm package is. The high amount of vibrations were a little disconcerting on the Desert Storm that I was riding but with barely 61 kilometers on the odo, I attribute the vibes to the fresh engine that requires some breaking in to settle down.
As I clocked more and more kilometers, the engine became noticeably smoother although the vibes at idle were noticeably higher than my LB500 or even say a cast iron 500. While the UCE engine is definitely on the noisy side, this is due to the high idle speed that the engine runs on, often close to 1,300 rpm. Lower that by two hundred rpm or so and you’ll have a much more silent engine. Good friend Lijo of Overdrive, had ridden all the way from Mumbai to Goa on a Classic Chrome 500 and I jumped saddle to gauge why the Desert Storm I was riding felt vibey. Lijo’s Classic Chrome 500 felt noticeably smoother. Two factors were responsible for this. One: Lijo’s motorcycle had clocked over 2000 kms. Two: Lijo’s motorcycle still ran the long bazooka muffler instead of the upswept bottle muffler than my Desert Storm featured.
The upswept muffler, while giving rise to some vibes, especially at idle and the top of the rev range, also seems to liberate a pony or two, as I experienced with the distinctly quicker acceleration of the block and quicker response during roll on speeds. Oh, so I was finally in Goa enjoying the winter sun, er, there are only two weathers in Goa, warm and hot. In a warm Goa in November, the Desert Storm 500 felt just at ease, with the narrow Goan roads actually proving to be a hoot to ride on. I wouldn’t be this confident on say the Electra 350 or even the Thunderbird TBTS, but the Desert Storm with its low seat delivered great handling around the narrow Goan alleys.
Although heavy to turn in, speeds of over 60 give the Desert Storm 500 a poise and agility that its other cousins will ind hard pressed to match. I encountered none of the high speed weave when I was ham fisting the Desert Storm on the NH4 on my way to Pune, enroute Goa. So, Royal Enfield has indeed worked on correcting the swing arm troubles that the early Classic 500s were prone to and the Desert Storm was rock steady at an indicated 135 Kph I achieved on a slightly downhill section just below the Khambatki Ghat on NH4, and the motorcycle was rock steady with absolutely no weaving or instability of any sort. The change in behavior may be attributed to the offset on the front forks being done away with and this seems to have made a huge difference in high speed handling.
That said, the Desert Storm 500 feels best at speeds of 100-110 Kph, when the thump becomes a heady thrum, with vibes still a few kph away from becoming intrusive. Talking of top speed, the Desert Storm is capable of a genuine 130 Kph even as the speedo indicated 140-145 Kph on certain sections of flat out riding on the NH4. For such speeds though, sticking it on 4th gear up to 120 Kph, close to the rev limited was the norm, before shifting to fifth for the final burst of velocity. I have never been one to let go of an opportunity to ride through the twisties as straight roads simple bore me. Soon, I found myself taking the detour to Mahabaleshwar instead of heading straight onto the NH4 to Goa. On a weekday, Mahabaleshwar’s twisties are just empty enough to get a peg down and before that could happen, the center stand of the Desert Storm 500 used to kiss the ground.
On the whole, the experience of the Desert Storm 500 on the twisties is something that is extremely enjoyable as the Royal Enfield loves most corners except the tightest ones. Guess, this has something to do with the motorcycle being designed in a country that has more twisted roads than straight ones, and yeah, I am talking about the United Kingdom. Going up the Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar Ghats, torque and oodles of it was what did the talking. Trust me you, if you want a motorcycle that breezes past inclines with an authoritative thump to accompany rather than screaming its bearings off, it is the Royal Enfield UCE500s you should be looking at.
The availability of a diesel car like torque band across the rev range, made the Desert Storm extremely enjoyable on the hills and this is something that Ladakh goers must take note of. Effortless is the word that can sum up the way in which the Desert Storm 500 clambered up inclines with nary a sweat and this torque was indeed what came into play when overtaking later in the day. Once I hit the monsoon ravaged roads down Mahabaleshwar leading to Poladpur and the NH17, the Desert Storm 500s build quality was sorely tested. Rattles were never a concern throughout although the Desert Storm somehow felt less solidly built than the tank like build quality exhibited by my erstwhile LB500.
Massive potholes later, all of them taken with no slowing down, the Desert Storm’s front fork gaiters began scraping under hard braking, in a sign of the damage done after all that hurtling across crater sized potholes. The suspension was a good compromise between firm and pliant and was almost the perfect set up for touring. This said, I got the feeling that my LB500 would have held better in such a situation although the Desert Storm’s fork gaiters exhibiting scraping could be a one off case. Other than this issue, everything stayed where it had it, remember we’re talking Bullets here, and that is actually a back handed compliment to Royal Enfield having improved putting together its motorcycles. No rattles or unseemly sounds or groans even on the day I handed over the motorcycle to Royal Enfield after 1000 Kms of hard riding will be highly appreciated by the tourers.
Braking however needs real improvement as the rear brake is almost useless for most cases of retardation, and is best used as a parking brake. A disc brake set up at the rear should be on the top of Royal Enfield’s to-do list. Often I found myself banging down the gears to stop in time. Talking of which, the gearshift quality calls for positive shifting and is nowhere near to what can be termed as slick shifting. But, once you get the hang if it, false neutrals are few and far in between. The front disc though highly effective is grabby and caution needs to be exercised on dusty or wet surfaces as a handful of front brake could easily lock up the front wheel.
The MRF Zapper tyres though are a vast improvement on the ribbed designs that other Bullets come with and provide decent grip on most surfaces and conditions. Throttle response was very crisp, and this can be majorly attributed to the fuel injection that the Desert Storm’s 500cc, long stroke single cylinder engine features. Jerking is a thing of the past with the Desert Storm’s ample torque making progress in fifth gear at speeds as low as 45-50 Kph a feat achieved without any knocking or engine strain. The fuel economy that the Desert Storm 500 returned after hard riding was around 27 Kmpl and when cruising on the highways at 90-100 Kph the motorcycle managed a very creditable 30 Kpl, which for a 500cc air cooled single is no mean feat.
So, a touring range of 350 Kms is what the Desert Storm will provide comfortably, with its 14 Liter tank capacity. Riding on the Indian highways is a very enjoyable experience as overtaking is a breeze with the torquey single galloping to 100 Kph from 60-70 Kph in no time. This wide spread of torque will be particularly appreciated by folks on dual carriageway highways, which still abound most of the Indian roadscape, as the Desert Storm’s 500cc engine torque delivery makes overtaking heavy vehicles a veritable breeze, even on the uphill sections as I found out on my sundown ride on the NH17. Quite frankly, this engine needs to be experienced first hand on highways to realize the true capabilities of the torque wave that you have all the way from idle to 120 kph after which progress gets a wee slower.
Riding the Desert Storm on the NH17 at night with plenty of truck traffic to contend with, I was extremely pleased with the illumination the low beam provided. The great headlamp was instrumental in me enjoying the ride at night. High beam though, pointed at the tree tops thus proving more of a passing light. However, this should be sorted out with some adjustment and hence can actually turn into a positive. The mirrors however showed more of blurs than images once the speed hit over 60 Kph. So, this is something that you might need to love with as a big single, especially a non counterbalanced one, will exhibit enough vibrations to make the mirrors blur out most images at speed.
If you’re looking at the Desert Storm 500 as you’re ride predominantly for the city, we’d suggest against it as the Desert Storm’s 500cc engine feels best thumping along on the highway. This motor, being an air cooled one, requires plenty of air to keep cool and the urban traffic crawls aren’t exactly what the motor enjoys. Therefore, the Desert Storm 500 would do best as highway tourer where it will feel at home both on the long straights as well as the twisties. Coming to the Desert Storm’s touring credentials, I strongly recommend that you adjust the handlebar to a lower position and change the seat to a spring-less unit as the springed unit tends to sag on long distances, causing some discomfort to the back.
Folks who have adjusted the handlebar to a lower position and the seat to a springless unit have actually reported superb long distance comfort and this will perhaps be the first mod that you should do on your Desert Storm/Classic/Classic Chrome 500. Now, while that come as a surprise to everyone who feel that a Royal Enfield is a ready long distance mile mumcher right from the word go need to remember that the Classic’s ergonomics(and it shares this trait with the Desert Storm and the Chrome), is more suited for short city rides than long distance touring. Coming to the reliability of the Desert Storm over 1000 Kms of non stop ripping, I’m happy to share that the oil remained where it needs to be, inside the engine.
The hydraulic tappets meant that the motorcycle’s performance remained consistent even after hard riding. On the pre-unit construction engines, such hard riding would’ve normally resulted in the tappets getting loose. The Desert Storm 500, thus can take a fair share of abuse and still perform well. This is certainly a big positive for those who like to ride their Bullets hard and fast. On the whole, the engine will require much lesser maintenance than the older versions, which means that you will spend more time on the road than at our favorite mechanic’s garage, like one of Royal Enfield’s posters at the Rider Mania aptly read, a bike on the road is better than two in the garage.
Also, the chain tension remained taut while the engine got progressively smoother with the kilometers logged. The electric starter managed to start the motorcycle each time it was depressed, be it early mornings or late afternoons. I’m emphasizing all of this to indicate how reliable the Desert Storm 500 was right from the word go, across varied terrain from smooth blacktop to some very poor roads. So, the Royal Enfield Desert Storm, especially its Unit Construction Engine that runs on hydraulic tappets, is indeed a big leap for Royal Enfield and folks contemplating a motorcycle for the long and winding highways might consider this very motorcycle if high speeds of over 120 Kph and razor sharp handling is not what they’re looking for.
Let’s now look at the both the positives and the negatives of the Desert Storm 500, most of which is also applicable to the Classic 500 and the Classic Chrome 500.
* Gem of a 500cc UCE engine.
*Raw torque, and 42 Nm of it, is what talks loudest on the road.
* Brisk acceleration. If there is a muscle car equivalent of a motorcycle on Indian roads barring the CBUs, this should be it.
* Crisp throttle response.
* Good head turning ability and road presence. That translates into respect from heavy vehicles on the highways, perhaps due to the Bullet lineage.
* Good handling.
* Good high speed stability.(I’ve particularly included this to dispel doubts on this issue)
* No jerkiness exhibited at any rev point by the engine.
* Superb illumination by the stock headlamp, making highway riding at night a real pleasure.
* Grabby front brake and useless rear brake.
* Inconsistent build quality.
* Vibey with the upswept bottle muffler.
* Handle-seat geometry not great for long distance riding.
* Mirrors show more of blurs than images above 60 Kph.