Comparisons

Bike shootout: Is the Bajaj Dominar 400 the best motorcycle for touring?

Dominar

We pit the Bajaj Dominar 400 against the Royal Enfield Thunderbird 350 and the UM Renegade Commando to see which among these is best for touring

Images: Rohit G Mane

If you have a soft spot for Royal Enfield and have been hating Bajaj’s #HaathiMatPaalo videos, we recommend you to stop reading this story rather than throwing choicest of expletives at @abhibhi (me) on Twitter. This story will not celebrate neither RE’s glorious past nor worship their ‘twin’ future. That said, it can’t be denied that RE found a sweet spot in India. A country where the vast majority of leisure bikers can only indulge in touring. For decades, the motorcycles coming from Chennai have ruled the touring roost, becoming the first to conquer the heady heights of Ladakh. Something of a biking Holy Grail now. Every Tom, Dick and Suresh’s wet dream is to head to Ladakh on an RE. It’s a craze that led RE to actually name their adventure bike Himalayan. But I digress and the smell of change is already in the air. For REs are no longer the only machines with touring cred. Enter the UM Renegade Commando. Propah American cruiser styling, laidback easy riding posture and a 280cc heart. It may well be the foil to RE’s choke hold on the motorcycle tourer’s aspirations. But there is also Bajaj’s new Dominar 400. Ajinkya, our in-house Bajaj fanboy, reckons  the Dominar is the best sub – Rs 2 lakh touring bike in India. In fact, he traded in his Chennai made RE Himalayan for his current machine from the Bajaj plant in Chakan, Pune. Now I’m not a big fan of the Bajaj but it does have an excellent frame and that first rate mill from the 390 Duke. Is it time for a new world order? There’s only one way to find out.

Bajaj Dominar 400The Dominar is the best package on paper, no second thoughts about that. You get the same 373cc, liquid-cooled motor from the 390 Duke, a 6-speed ’box with slipper clutch, discs at both ends with ABS and that solid perimeter frame. It is years ahead of the other two here. It might not be the product with the most finesse, but it definitely is the best finished product from Bajaj Auto’s stable. Besides, reliability is a critical factor when you’re touring. Long trips take a toll on on your bike and if not built well, frequent trips to service centres are guaranteed. None of the bikes here feel like they offer bulletproof (no puns please) reliability. Not even the Bajaj, even though it’s better built than the RE, which, despite its touring legacy, doesn’t inspire confidence on the reliability count.

The only all-digital console here

Reliability and fit and finish differences aside, the Dominar isn’t exactly in the same space as the Thunderbird of the UM. Bajaj would have you believe it’s a sports tourer. But is it? Yes and no. The engine is the most refined in this company even though vibrations creep in just after 4,000rpm. A minor glitch when you realise that this is the most powerful bike of the lot and makes 35bhp and 35Nm of torque. Just wring the throttle in any gear and the Dominar surges ahead without creating any drama. Tractability is excellent too and the tall sixth gear means cruising at 120kmph all day is no problem at all. Vibes be damned.

KTM’s 373cc motor in a friendlier state of tune

We’ve heard that the 2018 Dominar is slightly improved and Bajaj has worked on the NVH levels and even tweaked the ECU for a smoother delivery of the engine’s output. Straight line stability is excellent, thanks to its long wheelbase. It is a heavy machine and shows its weight when you’re manoeuvring through traffic.

XDiavel S or Dominar?

However, the moment the road opens up and bit and things start to turn twisty, the Dominar reveals itself to be the best handling of this lot, and by some margin. It takes a bit of effort to tip in but once cranked over, she sticks to the line and there is no nervousness when you power out of corners. Bajaj Auto has done an excellent job in terms of ride and handling and the perimeter frame is among the best of the lot. If you intend to go touring you will have to face corners and this is where the Dominar will put a smile on your face.

So, is the Dominar your best bet? It isn’t a stereotypical cruiser thanks to its dynamic nature. The riding position isn’t laidback like that of a traditional cruiser and that works in its favour, unless you’re old and have lower back trouble. But that doesn’t mean the Dominar is uncomfortable. The suspension is firmer to cater to corner carving fun but it blends the best of both worlds.

Most corner friendly machine of the three

As a matter of fact, Bajaj Auto needs to understand the traits of the Dominar and instead of positioning it against the Royal Enfield, they must place it as a separate brand like they did with the Pulsar, almost two decades ago. No Harley-Davidson buyer will choose a Ducati Diavel. And Ducati knows that. The Dominar takes inspiration from the Diavel but Bajaj needs to play its cards similarly for success. For the bike is certainly good enough to create a whole new set of consumers who will tour alright, but not on an RE.

UM Renegade Commando

The UM honestly is a bit of a wild card entry into Indian motorcycling. The brand has no history here and whatever little it has elsewhere won’t really help it sell bikes to a desi janta. Yet, going by the number of bikes we’ve been seeing on our Pune roads, they seem to be selling a decent number. In fact, at Rs 1.76 lakh, ex-showroom, they aren’t inexpensive either for a made-in-China product. Despite the news of discounts of up to Rs 50,000, there had to be some appeal to the bikes for them to be flying off the shelves. And that, got us thinking.

USB slot for easy charging

You are after all getting enough bike for that money with a liquid-cooled, 279cc, 4V motor that churns out a respectable 25bhp and 23Nm and comes mated to a 6-speed gearbox. The fact that it is the lightest of the trio also makes it the easiest to manage and it comes with a touring friendly 18-litre fuel tank for extra range. Very handy when you’re crossing between Tandi and Upshi with no fuel pumps between the two towns. The UM looks like a big American cruiser and sounds properly nice. It is certainly the most distinctive of the lot and has road presence. So, what’s not to like?

Surprisingly peppy motor

Plenty. For starters, fit and finish isn’t up to the mark and the bike felt poorly put together. In fact, the instrument cluster on our bike was misaligned! Even the switchgear wasn’t working well as the horn refused work most of the times. Our test bike also had a fuel injection issue that almost led to the cancellation of the shoot. The nice folks at UM Pune helped us out with the repairs but that questions the reliability of the product. But it’s not all bad.

The ride and handling setup is really good and that proves it isn’t a bad motorcycle at all

The engine is surprisingly refined and peppy. Given the beans, the Commando glides ahead pleasantly. Vibes do exist but the situation isn’t so bad as on the Thunderbird and sticks to Dominar levels. The problem here is its tall gearing though. The bike hits 135kmph (very optimistic speedo) in fourth gear but post that there is very little movement. The sixth cog is overdrive and will help on highways if you stay ahead of the torque curve. The ride and handling setup is really good and that just proves it isn’t a bad motorcycle at all. The Commando is nimble and loves corners and is limited only by its foot pegs, which scrape way too soon. The dual cradle frame is taut and the suspension is slightly firm. It doesn’t bottom out over everything but will let you know what you’re riding over without any ambiguity.

Long wheelbase, yet agile

The Renegade Commando is affable and has a certain character that deserves your attention. It has its limitations in terms of reliability but all the bikes in this comparo are flawed. We are not sure about UM’s after sales experience and the reach is very limited too. However, the Renegade Commando is promising. It just needs a little bit of spit and shine and it’d be ready to take the fight straight to the REs’ backyard.

it looks the most cruiser-like of the three and purrs out an exhaust note that is music to most ears

Royal Enfield Thunderbird 350

Everybody who rode the Thunderbird 350 had to work really hard to keep up with the other two. There are two reasons for this. The RE hates to go past 80kmph and protests with vibrations that creep in through almost every panel and of course make you back off. Second, it is the most laid back of the three. Don’t get me wrong, the Thunderbird is one of the best handling REs out there; however its easy rider handlebar along with the 195kg weight make it a big ask when you plan to slice through corners spiritedly. But as RE fans say that it’s all about straight line ability and low speed tractability, so let’s take a different perspective then.

Ajinkya loves the Thunderbird! No, really

The RE is the most comfortable touring machine of the three if you are planning to never cross 80kmph. It has the laziest rider’s triangle of the trio, with mid-set pegs, swept back handle bar and a low seat. The 346cc long stroke engine is air-cooled and makes the least power of them all at just 19.8bhp (almost half of that on the Dominar). Its torque figure is healthier than the UM but max power and torque is produced at a lowly 5250rpm and 4000rpm respectively. The long-stroke engine gives it excellent low-rev luggability but anything above 3500rpm and the Thunderbird begins to show its age. It also feels the most laid back of the lot and the same reflects in its dynamic abilities. The front telescopic forks on the Thunderbird are sprung so softly that it dives heavily under hard braking and same is the case with the rear shocks that have just 80mm of travel. It tends to crash through potholes and jolts your back with a massive thud. Also, it is not intended for sporty riding and corners aren’t its forte.

Retro look is spoilt by blue backlight

It demands effort to stick to a line and spirited riding calls for big gonads. Finally, the brakes are really inadequate for a bike that weighs 195kg, lacking both feel and bite. But then you don’t expect to go too fast on a Thunderbird, do you? The Royal Enfield makes up for lost points with its old-world charm though. It looks the most cruiser-like of the three and purrs out an exhaust note that is music to most ears (though that’s completely subjective). It also gives you access to the largest touring community in the country which brings with it endless hours of riding with like-minded bikers and merriment when you’re not riding. And in any case the RE gang is really tight having been the recipient of a tow on two occasions.

Comfortable for both, rider and pillion

People go touring to channel positive thoughts and rid negativities in life. When you go slow, you obviously get to spend more time with yourself and reflect on life. And that’s what makes the Thunderbird the best tourer in the country. It helps you clear your mind at your own pace. As you struggle through corners you end up focusing on the valleys around you as you pluck some flowers on the way and even smell them. If that’s your mindset, if you’re in no particular hurry to get anywhere, do get yourself an RE and rest assured by the fact that 70,000 new bikers have that same thought every month.

Scraping the pegs is easy

Verdict

The Thunderbird 350 is the most characterful motorcycle here and has an old school charm that is hard to ignore. It feels the most dated of the three with its age old engine and vibey feel. However, if you are planning to get yourself a RE and nothing else we suggest you opt for the Thunderbird X. It feels more manageable thanks to a flat handlebar and comes with fewer chrome panels along with refreshing paint schemes, without losing any of its touring abilities.
The UM Renegade Commando is the surprise package here with its excellent dynamic capabilities and sprightly engine. If only UM worked harder on the quality issues and convinced more dealers to open their outlets, the UM could give the RE tough competition.

The Bajaj Dominar is a clear winner here by miles. It is the most modern package of the lot and comes with lots of gadgetry to keep you happy and safe too. It’s a pity that Bajaj Auto has failed to position it correctly. The Dominar has great potential and if it points the crosshair away from the RE and starts being itself, it does have great potential as there is no such package that actually exists in its segment. Ajinkya Nair, you were correct. Enjoy your saddle time on your little devil that’s out to dominate everything around it.

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