Benelli Imperiale 400 vs Jawa vs Royal Enfield Classic 350: Road Test Comparison
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Has the Classic 350’s reign as king of the modern classics finally come to an end?
Words by: Zaran Mody
Photography by: Eshan Shetty, Vikrant Date
The retro motorcycle segment in India has an undisputed leader at the moment, and that is Royal Enfield’s Classic 350. It is the Chennai manufacturer’s best-selling model and has experienced exceptionally strong sales figures over the last few years. But part of its success is down to the fact that it hasn’t had any direct competition to deal with in all this time.
Over the last year, though, with the massive slowdown in the Indian auto industry, the model's sales have dropped. To make matters worse for RE, at the same time, the new Jawa was introduced - an undoubtedly beautiful and true-to-original modern homage to the bike that gave the Bullet a hard time back in the 60s and 70s. Now, with the the Benelli Imperiale 400 being launched, Royal Enfield has even more trouble on its hands. Can it still reign supreme? We find out as we put the three motorcycles up against each other in a comprehensive road test comparison.
The Classic 350 has the oldest design here but it has aged like fine wine. Things kick off with the signature round headlight that still comes with a hood overhead and two pilot lamps alongside. Moving rearwards, the bulbous 13.5-litre fuel tank adds a lot of substance to the motorcycle, as does the engine itself, proudly on display underneath. A touch of bling is added by the chrome engine side covers and exhaust system.
The springed rider’s seat looks delightfully retro, and the Classic looks best without the pillion seat, when its sleek, long rear mudguard is entirely visible. The theme of roundness extends from the headlight to the tail-lamp, indicators and mirrors too. Overall, the Classic is a very handsome looking motorcycle, and testament to this is the fact that despite being sold in such large numbers and becoming commonplace on our roads, we still feel the urge to turn our heads and look whenever one passes by. The bike given to us by Royal Enfield was the Signals Edition of the Classic 350 in the Stormrider Sand livery. This variant has a slightly different design approach, with its matte brown paint and blacked out engine and exhaust giving it a more brutish appearance.
Another ‘old’ design here is the Jawa, with this resurrected version looking uncannily similar to the original two-stroke 250. The Jawa is considerably more compact than the other two motorcycles here and has the lightest curb weight too, at just 170kg. It is well packaged and put together, and the attention to detail seems to be the best in this segment. Tasteful branding and neatly executed, well-placed logos across the motorcycle are the sort of thing usually seen a few segments higher, and they greatly increase the perceived quality of the Jawa.
The teardrop-shaped headlight pod is the highlight of this design to my eyes, closely edging out the chrome/maroon 14-litre fuel tank. Chrome is something that is present in abundance on the Jawa, with the engine covers, exhaust pipes, mirrors, rear shocks and wheel rims all getting the same treatment. Unfortunately, the chrome has a bit of a dull, blurry finish, especially on the tank, and the reflections aren't quite as clear as we'd like. Despite this, the Jawa is an achingly beautiful motorcycle overall and captures your absolute attention every time you lay eyes on it.
The first thing you notice when you walk up to the Imperiale is its sheer size. This is the longest, tallest and heaviest motorcycle here with the largest wheelbase too. It is an imposing bike with a lot of road presence and is sure to turn heads at traffic lights. This impression of largeness can be greatly attributed to the 19-inch front wheel and tall, wide handlebar. Despite being the largest motorcycle here, it gets the smallest fuel tank, at just 12-litres. The tank is finished in a dual-tone paint scheme and also gets black tank grips.
The theme of blackness continues underneath because in India, the Imperiale gets a blacked-out engine and exhaust system. This creates monotony and looks a little unimpressive. The rider's seat is springed like the Classic, but it is also wide, which is why despite having a low seat height of just 780mm, the Benelli feels like a tall motorcycle from the saddle. All things considered, the Imperiale probably isn’t as pretty as the other motorcycles here, but that's not to say that it's unattractive in any way. It adopts a subdued, understated approach towards design, and its appearance will speak to those who are looking for that sort of thing.
Build quality was an issue on all three motorcycles to varying extents. The Royal Enfield feels crudely engineered and put together in general, and seems like it is a generation old now, which is the truth. The Jawa had massive amounts of moisture build up on the inside of its instrument cluster. We also spotted some rust on the frame and the front fork developed a squeak when going over sharp edges. Equally alarmingly, one of the rear indicators came loose and ended up hanging limp, pointing downwards. The Imperiale feels well put together and was the most problem free bike of the three, with only a mild rattle emanating from the instrument cluster.
Climbing aboard the Classic 350 can feel a bit strange if you've never done it before. The low handlebars create a large downward reach with your arms, and the footpegs are quite forward set too. Upshifts would be next to impossible if it wasn't for the heel-shifter, with the footpeg position making it a task to get the front of your foot underneath the toe-shifter. The riding position is adequately roomy and quite upright but feels a bit awkward and takes some getting used to.
The seat is comfortable and low giving you firm footing on both sides but manually maneuvering the motorcycle is a tough task due to its weight as well as the way it is distributed. The pillion seat is the roomiest and most comfortable here with the largest vertical distance from seat to pegs. However, it is a little on the soft side and this can become a source of discomfort on longer rides.
Swing a leg over the Jawa and the motorcycle seems to shrink around you. Everything is well within reach and all the controls fall easily to hand (or foot, as the case may be). The footpegs are a bit rear-set, and this combined with the slightly low handlebars puts you in a mildly aggressive, confidence-inspiring riding position. The single-piece seat is the lowest here but is too short in terms of length to comfortably accommodate both rider and pillion. It is also completely flat and offers no real support to its occupants, and can become uncomfortable over long rides.
Combine the lack of seating space with the absence of a backrest, nearly unusable grab handles and cramped footpegs, and being a pillion on the Jawa is a rather unpleasant experience indeed. Also noteworthy is the utter uselessness of the instrument cluster, both due to the angle at which it is placed as well as the low contrast design.
As soon as you get on the Imperiale, you feel like you could do a full day of highway riding without fatigue. The rider's triangle is very spacious and the tall handlebars make you feel like you're sunk in and sitting in the motorcycle rather than on it. The footpegs are wide and forward-set, putting you in a relaxed, armchair-like riding position. However, the pegs do get in the way when manually manoeuvring the bike. The rider’s seat is raised at the rear and pushes you forwards but the flat portion of the seat base can feel small for larger riders.
The pillion seat is fairly roomy, but tall rear footpegs mean that the pillion will feel a little cramped. The rear grab rail is easy enough to hold on to, but be prepared for some vibrations there when at speed.. The backseat experience overall, though much better than the Jawa’s, still isn’t a match for the Classic’s. The twin-pod instrument cluster is well laid out and clearly legible from the saddle.
Technology & Features:
Being retro motorcycles, these three are supposed to feel as analogue as this digital era will allow them to be. That being said, the Benelli gives you the most creature comforts here, with a tachometer, fuel gauge, two trip meters and a gear position indicator. It is also the only motorcycle here that comes with hazard lights, a thoughtful touch by Benelli. The Imperiale is also fuel-injected, unlike the Classic, which should give you a little peace of mind in cold or rainy conditions. Dual-channel ABS as standard is a must-have on a 205kg bike with only a single front disc, and we're glad Benelli hasn't skimped in this area. The headlight is woefully ineffective at night, and it will certainly need some form of auxiliary illumination if you plan on riding after sunset.
The Jawa does get a fuel gauge but we found it to be extremely erratic and inaccurate. It misses out on a tachometer, gear position indicator and trip meters, but is the only motorcycle here with an LED tail-lamp. Its halogen headlight is also the best in this company, closely edging out the Classic 350. While the bike we got was the single-channel ABS version with a rear drum brake, the Jawa is also available in a rear disc, dual-channel ABS variant.
The Classic 350 is the most bare-bones of all the motorcycles here, but importantly, it does get dual-channel ABS. Aside from that, you get warning lights for low fuel level and ABS, and that’s about it. There is no tachometer, no trip meter and no gear position indicator.
Engine & Performance:
On paper, it looks like this segment of the review should be a walkover for the Jawa, but things are not quite as they seem. You see, in this genre of motorcycles, the engine serves the purpose of putting you in a tranquil and relaxed state of mind, allowing you to absorb your surroundings, while also transporting you towards your destination at a reasonably brisk pace when required. While the fuel-injected, liquid-cooled 300cc DOHC motor on the Jawa is easily the most powerful and technologically advanced unit here, one can’t help but feel that it is a misfit on this bike.
The short stroke architecture results in a motor that feels highly-strung, and cruising at highway speeds is never a relaxed affair. This is made worse by the fact that the engine isn’t very tractable, and struggles to hold low speeds in high gears. This means that when riding in the city, you can’t rely on torque to carry you around, and you really need to work the gearbox to keep the bike at ease. What is more uncharacteristic for a modern-classic motorcycle is the exhaust note, which is thrashy and quite generic.
The 6-speed gearbox is the slickest shifting here, which is just as well because the short, closely-stacked ratios mean that you have to work the box quite a bit. Once again, this isn’t ideal on a motorcycle that should theoretically provide a stress-free and laid-back motorcycling experience. Of course, in terms of outright performance, this is easily the quickest accelerating motorcycle here, both from a standing start as well as in-gear. In fact, it requires only half the time of the Royal Enfield in the sprint to 100kmph, but quarter-mile timings aren’t what these bikes are about, and Jawa has clearly missed the mark as far as the nature of the engine is concerned.
While the 346cc air-cooled engine on the Classic does have its fair share of flaws, it packs in something that is completely absent on the Jawa. This motor just oozes character. We often talk of an engine as ‘coming to life’, but with the Royal Enfield, it does seem like the engine literally comes to life when you thumb the starter. The lazy, spaced out thumps gradually get packed closer together until the motor finally settles into a steady ‘heartbeat’ at idle. Bottom-end grunt is available in abundance and the healthy peak torque figure of 28Nm comes in at just 4000rpm. Unfortunately, the shove in your backside is rather short-lived, with power trailing off drastically at higher RPM. Of course, you’ll have much larger problems to worry about at this point, chiefly the crippling vibrations that make it nearly impossible to continue gripping the handlebars as the speeds build.
The short overall gearing on the 5-speed box means that highway cruising becomes troublesome beyond 80kph due to excessive vibrations. That being said, the engine does have a happy place at around 60kmph in top gear. Cruising around in this zone, vibrations are at acceptable levels and the motorcycle makes you feel rather special, in no small part thanks to the excellent soundtrack that accompanies you. The gearbox feels rather crude, and shifts are coupled with a loud mechanical clunk. There is a long forward reach to the shift lever and the throw is quite large as well.
The 374cc air-cooled engine is the Imperiale’s piece de resistance. This long-stroke motor feels utterly relaxed, incredibly smooth and seems to take everything in its stride. Power builds linearly throughout the rev range and the bike steadily gathers momentum almost in a locomotive-esque fashion. Cruising at 90-100kmph on the highway, the engine is largely vibe-free and barely seems to break a sweat. It is fairly tractable as well, managing to comfortably sit at 50kph in fifth gear, as a result of which city riding feels like a breeze too.
The gearbox has wide, very well thought out ratios which minimises the need for you to keep shifting. Owners will be grateful for this, because the lever has an excessively long throw, sometimes even requiring you to lift your foot clean off the peg in order to complete an upshift. The reach from the peg to the lever is quite long as well, and those with smaller feet will need to shuffle their left foot forwards to be able to change gear. When you do eventually manage to complete the shift, though, you will be pleasantly surprised, because this is a very smooth shifting and silent gearbox.
Ride & Handling:
It’s only logical that the lightest motorcycle with the shortest wheelbase should be the best handling bike here. And so it is that the Jawa reigns supreme when the road gets winding. It is a light-steering, agile motorcycle that doesn’t require much handlebar effort to manoeuvre. Flicking the bike from side to side is fairly easy too, and it remains quite stable under most conditions. However, a mild speed wobble does tend to develop above 120kmph which can be quite unnerving. The Jawa is also the best braker here, courtesy of a ByBre 4-piston caliper biting on a 280mm front disc. The lack of weight helps too, and the Jawa stops nearly 5 metres earlier than the heaviest bike here, the Imperiale, from 80kmph.
Ride quality on the Imperiale is a confusing affair. The 19-inch front wheel glides effortlessly over most undulations, but the twin shock absorbers at the rear feel quite stiff. They are preload-adjustable, though, so this issue can be mitigated to a certain extent. The upright ergos also mean that the Benelli feels at home when you stand up on the pegs and gas it through some rough stuff. The downside of the soft front suspension is that the bike does wallow a fair bit when thrown into a corner at speed. Benelli has given the Imperiale TVS tyres which are adequate on a clean, dry surface but tend to break loose a little earlier than we’d like on wet roads and loose surfaces. Hauling up a 205kg motorcycle is always going to be a hairy affair, and this is made worse by the fact that the Imperiale’s front brake lacks feel and progression.
Ride quality on the Royal Enfield is rather supple, with the suspension absorbing bumps adeptly and keeping the rider well isolated. The Classic also gets a 19-inch front wheel which helps it steamroll over undulations with ease and stability. The Classic’s weight is a bit of a hindrance, with the bike feeling heavy-steering and unwilling to change direction easily at both low and high speeds. That being said, it has the smallest turning circle here thanks to generous steering. Braking is sharper than the Imperiale but not as good as on the Jawa, with very little lever travel and not a lot of feel.
In almost every quantifiable aspect, the Jawa is the best motorcycle here, and by a fair margin. It is at home in an urban environment and will be a capable tool for your daily commute. If you’re looking for a modern motorcycling experience but also want retro looks, the Jawa should be your weapon of choice. However, for those of you who want an overall retro motorcycling experience, the Jawa lacks character and fails to deliver. This is made all the more saddening because it is the best, the most classic looking bike here - by a country mile.
The Classic 350 has tremendous emotional appeal and is still in some ways a very desirable motorcycle. But the fact of the matter is that it is now a decade old, and its capabilities feel severely limited in this company. Taking all these things into consideration, there is one clear winner here, and that is the Imperiale. It might not be the most special looking motorcycle here or the best performing, but it tugs at your heartstrings every time you ride it, you’re always planning your next ride before the current one is even finished. It is the bike you most want to be on, and for that simple reason, it is our pick of this segment.