These days small-displacement motorcycles all too often get classified as starter bikes, which is a shame. While light, economical, approachable motorcycles are certainly a better choice for new riders than heavy, expensive, intimidating ones, smaller bikes also have a lot to offer experienced riders. Things like simplicity and purity. By stripping away a lot of nice-to-have but not need-to-have features, what you’re left with is the essence of riding.
And let’s not forget, Robert M. Pirsig, as recounted in his book “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” rode from Minnesota to California on 305cc Honda CB77 Super Hawk, with his son Chris on the back and laden with camping gear. They didn’t get there fast, but then again, it was more about the journey than the destination.
Royal Enfield, which celebrates 120 years of continuous operation this year, specializes in small to midsize motorcycles. For years it was best known for its classically styled Bullet, powered by a 500cc single. RE’s Himalayan is a 411cc, single-cylinder adventure bike, and its Continental GT and INT 650 are powered by a 648cc parallel-twin. All of the engines are air-cooled, designed for rugged dependability rather than outright performance.
For 2021, the Royal Enfield family gets a new addition — the Meteor 350, a light, affordable cruiser that takes its name from ’50s- and ’60s-era models like the Meteor Minor and Super Meteor. Available in three budget-friendly trim packages, variants include the base-model Fireball ($4,399) with a black exhaust system; the Stellar ($4,499), with a chrome exhaust and a passenger backrest; and the Supernova ($4,599), which adds a windshield and a two-tone paint scheme. Our Supernova test bike also had two accessories installed — a centerstand and wider footrests (accessory pricing is TBD).
Affordable motorcycles may be cheap in terms of price, but they needn’t be cheap in terms of features or style. Co-developed at Royal Enfield’s technical centers in Bruntingthorpe, England, and Chennai, India, the Meteor 350 strikes a balance between the brand’s British and Indian heritages. All of the models have standard two-channel ABS, cast-aluminum wheels with tubeless tires, a USB charging port and the innovative Tripper navigation system, which pairs with a smartphone app and shows turn-by-turn directions on a dedicated screen next to the large analog/digital instrument cluster. Like all Royal Enfields, they’re backed by a three-year, unlimited-mileage warranty with roadside assistance, and built in a state-of-the-art, ISO-9001-certified manufacturing facility in Chennai.
Our test unit was painted a rich, sparkling Supernova Brown with a black undertone. The teardrop tank, the black engine with machined fins and the high-gloss chrome badging, exhaust, mirrors and headlight bezel are classic and authentic, while the black alloy wheels with machined edges add a modern touch. Other than some unsightly wires and cables near the headstock, RE’s design departments have outdone themselves.
Powering the Meteor’s flight is an all-new air-cooled 349cc single with SOHC actuating two valves, an engine that’s as welcoming as can be. On Jett Tuning’s dyno it chugged out 18 horsepower at 6,200 rpm and 18 lb-ft of torque at 3,500 pm, with redline just past 6,500 rpm (there’s no tachometer on the bike). Those are modest figures by just about any measure, but modesty is one of the Meteor’s greatest virtues. At idle the single putts at such low rpm it feels like the bike wants to quit, yet the slightest bit of throttle brings out its distinctive “thump.” Sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
A throaty burble emerges from the chrome exhaust, never offensive, and the engine’s response is best described as polite. The thumper creates a mellow soundtrack while spooling up confidently and predictably. A balancer shaft keeps the whole operation smooth, from low to high rpm, while still allowing enough rumble to let you know whatcha got. A touch of low-end torque, a bit of midrange grunt and you’re zipping around with a smile on your face in no time flat.
The Meteor’s analog speedometer, which goes up to 120 mph, is a touch ambitious. Even on a steady downhill, 75 mph was the most I could muster, and it took a little while to get there. That’s okay. Wringing its neck on hurry-up-and-get-there freeways isn’t what this bike is about. What the Meteor lacks in top speed it makes up for in fuel economy. We averaged 67 mpg, which gets you 267 miles of range out of the 4-gallon tank.
The 5-speed gearbox has a light shift throw but can be notchy when tossed into first gear. The accessory wide footrests made shifting a little awkward, but standard equipment includes a heel-toe shifter, a nice nod to American heavyweight cruisers. The clutch pull is a tad heavy, but engagement is good and everything works together well.
Regardless of experience, riders come in all shapes and sizes. The Meteor 350 is one of those bikes that will inspire confidence in a wide range of folks. The wide saddle is comfortable and perched at a middle-of-the-road height of 30.1 inches — not crazy low like some cruisers, but not unnecessarily high like some standards. Midmount controls and pullback handlebars are perfectly positioned and allow for an upright posture with no pain points. Even our 6-foot-tall EIC and his 34-inch inseam felt right at home, and the bike didn’t feel diminutive.
Modest proportions, including a 55.1-inch wheelbase, a 423-pound curb weight (as tested; load capacity is 404 pounds!) and a low center of gravity, contribute to the Meteor’s neutral handling. It maneuvers gently with little input, tipping into turns predictably, letting any rider get their bearings. The 19-inch front and 17-inch rear wheels fit the cruiser theme and don’t impede steering response. At speed, the bike feels plenty stable, thanks in part to its stout double-cradle steel frame, and the windshield parts airflow smoothly.
A well-tuned 41mm fork and dual emulsion shocks, the latter with six step adjustable preload, do a solid job of muting road irregularities without transferring much to the rider. Cornering clearance is better than average for a cruiser, but I suspect most Meteor owners will log plenty of miles with nary a scratch on the peg feelers. The Meteor’s brakes get the job done, but are not particularly strong. Up front, a 2-piston Bybre floating caliper squeezes a 300mm disc, and bringing up the rear is 1-piston floating rear squeezing a 270mm disc, with ABS adding a valuable safety net. Using both front and rear brakes together is recommended to get full stopping power, with firm pressure on both lever and pedal. Mellow initial bite will be a boon for new riders.
Royal Enfield’s Meteor 350 has the kind of welcoming, carefree attitude that is sure to leave an impression, thanks to its gentle handling, approachable power and good looks. Whether you want to add another motorcycle to the stable, or you’re a new rider looking for a solid, user-friendly motorcycle on which to hone your skills, this budget-friendly bike will leave starts in your eyes.
2021 Royal Enfield Meteor 350 Specs
Base Price: $4,399
Price As Tested: $4,599 (Supernova trim; accessory centerstand and wide footrests TBD)
Warranty: 3 yrs., unltd. miles w/ roadside assistance
Engine Type: Air-cooled single, SOHC w/ 2 valves
Horsepower: 18 @ 6,200 rpm
Torque: 18 lb-ft @ 3,500 rpm
Bore x Stroke: 72.0 x 85.8mm
Transmission: 5-speed, cable-actuated wet clutch
Final Drive: O-ring chain
Wheelbase: 55.1 in.
Seat Height: 30.1 in.
Wet Weight: 423 lbs. (as tested)
Fuel Capacity: 4.0 gals.
Fuel Consumption: 67 mpg
Estimated Range: 267 miles