MD First Ride: 2011 Zero Motorcycles

March 21, 2011

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2011 Zero S

“Our future isn’t tied to customary motorcyclists accepting or embracing us. Seventy percent of our customers are coming to two wheels because of what we’re not.”-Scot Harden, Zero Motorcycles

Harden told me that a few weeks before the official launch of Zero Motorcycles 2011 bikes, but the words resonated as I rode the new products. True to what he said, there is plenty that the bikes are not. For instance, they aren’t fast. They aren’t long-distance capable. They aren’t cheap. But that’s if you compare them to internal-combustion motorcycles. But this is arguably a new powersport category, one that can’t really be compared to existing niches.

Zero’s press event was held in Watsonville, California, about 12 miles south of its Scotts Valley headquarters. A motocross course and off-road trail were set up for the off-road models, and a 12-mile street-riding loop was laid outon the local roads.

I started out the street loop on the redesigned Zero S supermoto. Compared to its cruder ancestor I rode in [LINK: ]2009, it’s a very polished product. Fit and finish is much more like a mass-produced vehicle. The suspension (with a Fox shock in back) felt properly set up and developed, the brakes were better (but not great—still relatively wooden and weak) and the seating position (and seat) was more humane. The DS is similar to the S, but with different wheel sizes and longer suspension travel. Weight on both bikes is about 300 pounds (dry, of course—the only liquid on these bikes is brake fluid).

Performance was adequate for the Zero’s mission as an urban runabout. The electronics damp and smooth out the power curve, so that it felt a bit like a small gas-powered motorcycle, at least as far as amount of power went. It didn’t leap off the line, and opening the throttle to the stop didn’t bring the cool red-anodized front hoop into the air. Seventy mph may be possible, given a good downhill run (but you can practically watch the charge meter drop as you gun it), but don’t bet on it. And keeping up with urban traffic is no problem. I never felt like I was an annoyance to the local drivers, but given we were near Santa Cruz, the mellowest place in the world—they probably wouldn’t have been annoyed by a 1970 VW microbus with two flat tires, either.

What is remarkable about the Zero’s power is how smooth it is. Instead of the noise, heat and vibration you get from twisting the go-handle on a gas-powered bike, you get…nothing. No sound (except some whirring), no vibration. I found it disconcerting at first, as rolling off the throttle going into turns just sends the bike coasting, with no engine braking (regenerative braking would add too much weight and expense without benefit), but I adapted my riding style to it quickly. It’s just you zipping along, with the sound of the wind getting louder around your helmet. Even the slap and clank of the chain is gone, replaced by a silent carbon-reinforced belt. It’s sort of a magical experience that you can’t match with internal combustion.

My ride on the $9995 S and the $10,495 DS were very brief. The bikes don’t have the range to allow an extended press intro, and I was the last of three waves of riders that day. A 45-minute recharge was only enough for about a 9-mile ride. However, Zero claims a 43 mile range (measured by the EPA’s new UDDS mileage test), ridden in a relaxed, urban-commuter mode. So I don’t have real experience with the range—that will have to wait until I can get an extended test of the bike.

2011 Zero DS

Also available are four models of off-road machines. The $7995 X is a trail bike, with a smaller battery and frame than the roadsters. The $9495 MX is a motocrosser, equipped with a high-output Agni (the big-block V-Eight of the electric-vehicle world) motor. Both the X and MX are available in street-legal dual-sport versions for an extra $500. I didn’t ride the MX or X as they were intended to be ridden, but they are lightweight (about 200 pounds) have good suspension and look like lots of fun to jump, slide and plant in the mud.

Based on the X/MX chassis is Zero’s latest model, the $7995 XU. With smaller wheels, a low seat and the same battery pack as its dirtbike brethren, I found the XU to be more fun than the larger S and DS. It’s intended for denser, European-style cities, where lots of very short trips are the norm. It shares the smaller (50 pound) battery pack with the X/MX, and that means it can be quickly removed and carried into an apartment or workplace for recharging. That might have to happen a lot—although Zero claims a 25 mile range (by UDDS test), I was well below half-charge after a 10-mile loop (Zero’s engineers told me the battery gauge takes a few charges to “learn” each battery capacity, so my battery may have been partly discharged when it was installed in the bike I rode, which is why I’m not too worried about the disappointing range I saw on my test rides). The XU, with a 51 mph top speed isn’t as fast, but it accelerates nicely and the handling is as good as you’d suspect a 218-pound motorcycle’s to be.

We know what the electric motorcycle isn’t. So what is it? It’s really a whole new kind of transportation, and I see multiple advantages. First, for dirt-lovers, imagine having a full-sized motocrosser or trail bike that you could ride in your back yard, or for those of you with Texas-sized living rooms, indoors. In an era where we’re losing more and more public off-highway vehicle recreational land, this could be a way to revive the sport.

Second, it offers a new mode of transport to those who are yearning for an electric car but don’t want to spend $30,000 or more to get one. Zero’s management and investors believe there is a large, untapped market of non-motorcyclists who are intimidated by the speed, power, price and culture of motorcycling and are looking for something different. After all, most trips we make are well under 20 miles, and we can recharge while we work or sleep. And while it is time-consuming to charge, it is easy (just plug it in—the street models all have built-in chargers, and an available $595, 220v quick-charger cuts the charge time in half) and so cheap (a penny a mile, says Zero) it’s practically free.

Regardless of how you feel about e-motorcycles, the potential to bring new customers into the industry, which seems to be shrinking away, is welcome. And while performance isn’t impressive, advances in battery technology (which will probably be easily retro-fitted) have the potential to dramatically change that in the coming years. My rides on the Zeroes didn’t make me want to own one, but it did convince me it’s a serious company with a serious product.

2011 Zero XU

 Motorcycle Daily attended a manufacturer-sponsored event, to which selected members of the press were invited, to facilitate this report.

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