So, you want a new, retro-styled street bike under five grand? I have good news and bad news for you.
Bad first: Your list of options in this class is awfully short. As for the good, Royal Enfield decided to export their all-new Meteor 350 to the United States, so that little list now includes this small heritage model. Nice to see something fresh in a space dominated by repurposed powerplants and halfhearted nods to actual vintage style.
It’s a crying shame that you just don’t see many cheap and cheerful retros in dealerships today. Riders shopping small cruisers get the Honda Rebel 300 ($4,599) and the antiquated Yamaha V-Star 250 ($4,499). As for standards and nakeds, Honda offers the CB300R ($4,949), while Husqvarna’s Svartpilen and Vitpilen 401 models (both $5,299) are within range if you’re flexible on that five thousand dollar budget. Those are your new-with-warranty options, aside from smaller brands (CSC, SYM, etc.) and whatever unsold stock you could find of discontinued models like the Suzuki TU250X.
The Meteor 350 demands consideration as the cheapest ($4,399 base) and most original offering in its class for 2021. Their most direct competition may come from Triumph’s partnership with Bajaj for a small-displacement retro, but the Meteor has a huge head start: the Baj-umph has been delayed until 2023.
According to Royal Enfield CEO Siddhartha Lal, motorcycling is splitting into two major segments — “commuters and big, fancy motorcycles” — and he wants Royal Enfield to explore the space between those two extremes.
“Our core philosophy [is] making simple, pure, old-school, gorgeous, fun motorcycles,” Lal says. They’re off to a strong start with recent releases like the 650 twins and the Himalayan mini-ADV. After the Bullet and Thunderbird models were retired, Royal Enfield developed the Meteor as a modernized replacement that retains the look and feel of older models. The Meteor name actually goes back to a twin they built back in the 1950s.
Meet the Meteor
The heart of the Meteor is its 349 cc, SOHC engine and its classic Royal Enfield thump. RE claims 20.2 peak horsepower at 6,100 rpm, and 20 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm. The engine gets a five-speed transmission, fuel injection, and a two-valve head. The cylinder sits bolt upright, like RE mills of the past. The long-stroke 350 isn’t a sleeved 410 out of the Himalayan, surprisingly. It looks like the 650 twin from the side, although the similarities are only surface-deep, as the two do not share any significant parts. Oil changes and valve checks are every 3,000 miles after the initial 500-mile check-in. At least the valve cover is easy to access, and the adjusters are dead simple screw-and-locknut jobs.
The double-cradle frame wears a 41 mm fork up front and twin shocks in the back with preload adjustment. Alloy wheels measure 19 inches (front) and 17 inches (rear) with a single disc brake on each and dual-channel ABS. Tires are conveniently tubeless. They’re made by CEAT, one of India’s largest manufacturers of tires.
The Meteor 350 comes in three trim levels and a variety of paint options.
- Fireball, a base model with plain paint options and basic badges. Black, red, or yellow.
- Stellar, a small bump in price gets nicer paint options plus a passenger backrest, upgraded badges, and a chrome exhaust.
- Supernova leads the range with the Stellar's features plus two-tone paint and a windshield.
I had the choice between a matte black Stellar and a yellow Fireball. Yellow is an underrated motorcycle color, and in person, it was an easy choice for me. I used the Sunshine Express as my daily rider for a few weeks, and it went a little something like this.
“Hoooo weeee, haven’t seen one of thems in a long time. That yours?” asked an older gentleman as I finished my early morning coffee on the steps outside a diner on the Pennsylvania-Jersey border. This would be the first of many similar encounters with my time on the Meteor. The Royal Enfield name still carries some weight with riders who remember the Bullets of old. I gave the guy a quick rundown of the bike’s story and his eyebrows shot up into his hat when I mentioned the price.
“Huh! Maybe gotta get me one, then,” he said as he walked in for some joe of his own.
Straddling the Meteor instantly channels the bike’s “Cruise Easy” tagline. The styling and seating position are somewhere between standard and cruiser. The rider sits upright and relaxed with a generous handlebar bend and mild forward controls for plenty of legroom. The seat itself is scooped and low, with a seat height of 30.1 inches. My test bike was about half an inch lower than that with the optional Low Ride seat. RE also offers a plush touring saddle and a range of seat covers to change up the look. Most riders will have no issue getting their feet down at a stop.
The Meteor has the stance and visual presence of a much larger motorcycle. Some small retros, especially the TU250X, the V-Star, and the old Rebel 250, are easily identified as little bikes. Royal Enfield avoids that distinction with its seat height (a good three inches over the Rebel 300 and V-Star), substantial four-gallon tank, and oversized headlight. The “big bike” feeling carries over into the riding position with that wide handlebar and forward foot controls.
Turn the key, and the bike’s semi-digital dash blinks on, along with the Tripper navigation pod. You’ll find all the essentials at the dash except for a tachometer. The cable clutch is decently light and smooth. As the Meteor settles to a chipper idle, it snaps more than snicks into first, and you’re off.
Riding the 350 is more like watching for a meteor cross the sky than it is riding the fiery space rock itself. This motorcycle is gentle, gentle, gentle with a healthy helping of grunt for its displacement. This would be a wonderful first bike or second addition to someone’s garage. That’s not to say that a budget-minded rider couldn’t use it as a daily. The Meteor’s a bit porky at a claimed 418 pounds wet, although it carries its weight nicely. The engine wants to give its trademark thump more than it wants to rev out. Cruise easy, my friend. The engine’s torque bias means it resists stalling and constant gear-changing.
The suspension is compliant and probably better than the Himalayan’s for most of the U.S. market. Our fair state’s roads can become obstacle courses after winter has its way with the macadam, so I spent equal time dodging potholes to test the bike’s maneuverability, and deliberately hitting them to upset the suspension. The Meteor passed both tests. That 19-inch front wheel rolls bumps and dips with ease. The bike also performed admirably on dirt B-roads, so if you like to bop around back lanes while you ride, thank Royal Enfield’s customers in India, who frequently take these things to remote places on their tours.
The Meteor is happiest puttering along up to 55 mph on a winding rural highway. It’s not bad in cities, either, where its thin profile and tractable power make short work of commutes and errands. Speeds over 60 mph start to tax and vibrate the little mill, which will keep pulling up to around 70 mph. Save up for a ‘shield-equipped Supernova or an aftermarket solution, if you’ll be hitting these speeds regularly.
Also, pay attention to the engine! While flogging the Meteor down an open stretch of road that cuts through one of our state parks, the bike began to buck and stutter. My earplugs blocked almost all of the engine’s sound, and without a tachometer, I didn’t realize that I was banging the poor bike off its rev limiter. Sorry, Sunshine Express. On the positive side, the stock muffler is downright stealthy if you want to sneak a midnight ride without waking the neighborhood.
The disc braking is linear and beginner-friendly, if a bit wooden, up to the point of ABS intervention. Speaking of ABS, it’s the most notable part of the Meteor’s stopping equipment. Engage the brakes to their limits, and the Meteor consistently hauls itself to a halt without any juddering from the ABS pulsations. This may come across as numb to experienced riders, but I think there’s some value in rapid braking that won’t alarm beginners. Quality ABS on cheap motorcycles is a win for all of us. If I had the bike for more time, I would have tried a set of aftermarket pads in the Bybre calipers to sharpen up the brakes. (I did try the old trick of leaving a zip tie on the front brake overnight with some improvement.)
As Spurgeon wrote in his review of the Himalayan, Royal Enfield deserves credit for the extras they include for the price point. The crown jewel of its add-ons is the Tripper navigation pod that connects with your phone over Bluetooth using the Royal Enfield app. Here are the basics: The display works like an extension of your phone’s screen. This means it doesn’t have any brains of its own, relying instead on your phone’s GPS connection and processing power to relay basic directions to its little backlit display. Fire up the app, connect to Tripper, choose your destination using the interface (powered by Google Maps), and turn-by-turn directions are ported to the screen for the rest of your ride.
Connecting the Tripper system becomes much easier after the initial pairing because the devices remember each other. Tripper uses arrows of different colors and flashing intensities to intuitively guide the rider. I was impressed with the system overall, and I was glad to get my phone off the handlebar and into a waterproof pocket of my jacket instead. I hope we’ll see other manufacturers roll out their own devices like Tripper, and Royal Enfield will miss a huge opportunity if they don’t add this feature to their other motorcycles. Several European manufacturers should be ashamed of themselves for delivering worse navigation solutions on motorcycles costing several times as much as the Meteor.
The Meteor’s handling is neutral as a vanilla cone. The fork has enough rake to it that it stays planted while motoring along, though not so much that it becomes a burden at low speeds. I had to turn around many times in some small-town streets while shooting photos for this article, and I can say that the Meteor can U-turn with the best of its class. Out of town, the Meteor tips easily into turns and holds its line while you enjoy the thump-thump that won Royal Enfield its reputation. The hardworking counterbalancer smooths out vibes across 90 percent of the rev range. Again, I don’t have a tachometer to reference, but the mirrors do a little dance about halfway up the rev range, smooth out for a while, and then a buzzing vibe returns to the grips and pegs towards the upper limits. All very tolerable.
Like any of the modern Mopar muscle cars, you’d buy this vehicle over its competitors because of its looks and engine. The Meteor 350 has far more character than any of its Japanese competition. And unlike the Austrian machines making twice the horsepower, it has nothing to prove. No sir, this is a comfortable little motortooter that doesn’t mind going so slow that you can actually smell the roses. It’s easy to forget that back in the heyday of North American motorcycling, thousands upon thousands of machines with similar performance made motorcycling accessible to a generation of riders.
And if you don’t like the Meteor, Royal Enfield won’t be too upset. In a parallel to the KTM Duke 200 I reviewed last year, this model’s success doesn’t hinge on North American sales. Its core customers are the legions of riders in Royal Enfield’s home market, where a 350 single is a respectable full-size mount that could see extended touring use. My apologies to any of our Indian friends reading this article and wondering why a motorcycle like this is considered slow and small. We’re spoiled for speed and power here, that’s all. Even so, why shouldn’t Royal Enfield offer the Meteor alongside the 650s and the Himalayan? This rounds out their lineup, offers a replacement for the iconic Bullet recipe, and entices riders seeking vintage looks at half the price of Triumph’s cheapest offerings.
The Meteor 350 is a bang-for-buck powerhouse that could start your riding career or add something completely different to your garage. The Enfield name has more mystique than any of the major brands in this space, and those who appreciate RE’s history will be proud to ride the modern-day Bullet. Ridden within its limits, the Meteor puts fun first and remains competent right up to the rev limiter.
It’s a conversation piece, too. Other riders, and even non-riders, approach with all kinds of questions. Price gets ‘em every time. And with used motorcycle prices climbing, the Meteor might be the right bike at the right time for a wide range of small-bike shoppers.
In addition to some of the bike’s features I liked in the riding section, there’s one more perk of ownership worth a mention. Royal Enfield created a YouTube playlist with clear, easily followed video tutorials for every basic maintenance task on the bike, plus some troubleshooting. I think this is a brilliant, low-buck way to build essential skills while sweetening the pot for potential customers. It raises the same question as the Tripper system: Why aren’t more manufacturers doing this? Too bad the series does not include a video on valve adjustments.
If the Meteor’s best quality is its price, then its shortcomings are sacrifices that had to be made to stay affordable. The paintwork on my Fireball model was thin with some orange (lemon?) peel. The plastic fenders have a cheap look to them in some lighting, but at least they won’t develop flash rust after riding in the rain like the exhaust. Other questionable decisions included weird front brake line routing, an LED DRL around a halogen bulb, and so many engine fasteners that I started to think they were worried about something. The most offensive part of all was the fuel filler lock’s cover. It has too much wobble and feels like it could snap off easily while fueling up.
Other issues have to do with what's missing. A tach, or even a shift light, would be nice for those of us who wear earplugs. While we’re at it, a sixth speed, or final drive gearing that can attain 80 mph, would be appreciated. One final suggestion would be the addition of a belt drive. The 3,000-mile service intervals are disappointing, and if nothing can be done about that, then why not reduce maintenance elsewhere? Belt drive even fits the Meteor’s mini cruiser positioning. Kawasaki managed this in the 1980s with their 454 LTD.
Looking back on easy cruising
Here’s the thing: All the Meteor’s faults are forgiven in light of its price tag. What’s more, the riders who will turn up their noses at iffy paint, 20 horsepower and unruly hose routing probably aren’t interested in this motorcycle anyway. Buy a premium motorcycle from a premium manufacturer if you want premium fit and finish. Sure, Honda will deliver a higher standard of workmanship on bikes costing a few hundred bucks more at the expense of the Enfield’s soul.
Folks intrigued by this motorcycle won’t mind the moments of underperformance, because they place more value on the bike’s style and personality. The Meteor 350 rides exactly the way it looks. If you want a turn-key retro motorcycle with a warranty and a few modern luxuries, give the Meteor a try. It's a nifty way to go motorcycling without getting in over your head.
|2021 Royal Enfield Meteor 350|
|Price (MSRP)||$4,399 (base Fireball), $4,499 (Stellar), $4,599 (Supernova)|
|Engine||349 cc, air-cooled, two-valve vertical single|
|Claimed horsepower||20.2 @ 6,100 rpm|
|Claimed torque||19.9 foot-pounds @ 4,000 rpm|
|Frame||Twin downtube steel spine frame|
|Front suspension||41 mm fork, 5.1 inches of travel|
|Rear suspension||Dual shocks adjustable for preload|
|Front brake||Single two-piston caliper, 300 mm disc with ABS|
|Rear brake||Single-piston caliper, 270 mm disc with ABS|
|Seat height||30.1 inches|
|Fuel capacity||3.96 gallons|
|Tires||CEAT 100/90-19 front, 140/70-17 rear|
|Claimed wet weight||421 pounds (90 percent fuel and oil)|