With gasoline prices out of control and the country going greener by the day, despite their typical lack of range we felt it was high-time that Rider test an electric motorcycle. Among the many startups in recent years, Zero Motorcycles, based in Scotts Valley, California, seems to be the most well-positioned to bring practical electric bikes to the masses. It has been manufacturing them since 2006 and currently offers five models, the X and MX motocross bikes, and the S, DS and XU street-legal machines. The S model has been around since the 2009 model year, is the most pure-street and boasts a number of upgrades for 2011.
Some of my lunch breaks are spent scooting around town running errands—picking up an item or two at the grocery store or swinging by the ATM—and our test electric Zero S was the perfect vehicle for doing just that. Almost perfect—because unlike a typical gasoline-engined motorcycle, there’s nothing in the way of built-in storage space…unless you count the cylindrical cutout through the frame that houses an 80-inch power cord for charging the battery from a 110V outlet.
Maneuvering deftly through traffic and riding around on a clutchless, one-speed, silent motorcycle was easy as pie. It caught some folks off-guard with its graceful, stealthy approach, and nonmotorcyclists seemed to be more accepting of it, maybe because of the no-noise factor, or simply because it’s different. Approximately one-third of the Zero’s 294-pound weight comes from its ginormous Z-Force Li-Ion Power Pack battery tucked into the aircraft-grade
aluminum alloy frame. The battery takes about four hours to charge, or cut that time in half with the optional quick-charge kit. Estimated cost is less than 50 cents per charge.
Claimed horsepower is 25, almost equal to the parallel-twin Kawasaki Ninja 250R and single-cylinder Honda CBR250R tested in our May issue—and the Zero S weighs less, so this bike can move. Turn the key, the fan kicks on briefly to suck air in through cooling holes, and then…silence. Flick the kill switch on. No sound…no motor pulsing…is it “running”? Twist the throttle and there’s instant power—off you go, gliding surreptitiously down the street. Throttle blippers could get in trouble since the Zero will take off with just a touch of the throttle. At slower speeds, sometimes we hear a faint whining sound, possibly a function of the new belt drive that replaces a chain for 2011.
Seat height is on the high side at 32.8 inches (a 2-inch shorter seat is available for $299.99), but the Zero is narrow, and with no cylinders or cases to work your legs around, your feet make a beeline straight to the ground. There are no accommodations for a passenger, and claimed carrying capacity is 300 pounds. The one-piece seat is lean as well, like one on a dirt bike, and is 8 inches at its widest point. The seat placed me upright, tilting me slightly into the wind, and its firm padding is only comfortable for short distances.
And short jaunts are realistically what you’ll be doing anyway. Zero’s claimed 58 miles to a charge is on the optimistic side, unless you can limit riding to a relaxed, constant 25-30-mph cruise. On my first outing, I took surface streets for 4 miles, going 35-40 mph, and then headed out on the highway at 70 mph, pinning the throttle once to see top speed (74). When the “fuel” gauge indicated half a charge remained, I turned around and headed back to electricity. With 23.1 miles showing on the tripmeter, the last two bars on the gauge started flashing. You can squeeze out more miles by riding very, very slowly. I rode at 10-15 mph until the bike finally quit at 32.6 miles. Surely, your body weight has an impact—theoretically, the less weight the Zero has to pull, the farther it should go.
So one morning, on my commute of almost all highway miles, I skipped breakfast and wore my lightest riding gear. Unsure if the bike would make it the 24.5 miles at 65-70 mph, I kept it at 55-60 mph for the first 11 miles, watching the speedo (and mirrors!) since I couldn’t judge my speed by engine feel. At that point the gauge indicated more than half a charge, so I upped it to 60 mph, and then wicked it up to 63 for the last three miles. The last two bars on the gauge started flashing at 23.9 miles just as I exited the freeway for the home stretch up the hill.
Fortunately, I live just a few miles from a series of curves, so with a fully charged battery when I left home, there was still plenty of juice left to storm up and down some steep twisties several times. Then it was home to recharge, and do it all over again…ride, recharge, repeat. Getting the Zero leaned over far and transitioning from left to right was a breeze because the bike is such a lightweight—I almost felt like I was astride my mountain bike. With rake and trail at 22.7 degrees and 2.8 inches, this spry little guy turns in sharply.
I felt confident in the Bridgestone Battlax tires’ grip; a 110/70-17 front and 130/70-17 rear wrap around fetching metallic-red rims. A two-piston hydraulic disc brake in front and one-piston hydraulic disc in back stop those tires quickly, and brake lever feel is strong and consistent. The rear brake does a fine job slowing the bike—a good thing in downhill curves since, with just one speed, there’s no relying on engine braking. The suspension is adjustable, and while it felt a bit harsh on the freeway, it was firm and compliant in turns and kept the bike planted.
Zero claims that the battery will last for 1,800 drained-to-full charges. At 25-40 miles per charge, that would get you 45,000-72,000 miles from the Power Pack before it needs replacing; estimated cost for a new one is $3,000. Retail for the Zero S is $9,995, and it qualifies for a 10 percent federal tax credit, in addition to other incentives offered by some states.
We were impressed with the S’s power and agility, and it gets high marks for its green factor. The zero-emission Zero S is a great commuter bike…if you only have to go a short distance. Its biggest downfall is range—we consistently drained half the battery in 10 miles going 65 mph. It is great for getting around town in densely populated areas, squeezing between traffic on a backed-up freeway or plowing down a rural back road. It will appeal to riders who are vehemently opposed to loud pipes, those who want to sneak out of the house quietly and those into saving Planet Earth. The Zero S would fit right in with actor and environmentalist Ed Begley, Jr.’s solar-powered home and electricity-generating bicycle that toasts bread. If that’s also your philosophy, hop in your Chevy Volt and head down to your Zero dealer.
For more information visit www.zeromotorcycles.com
photography by Mark Tuttle[This 2011 Zero S road test was originally published in the September 2011 issue of Rider magazine]