There’s a lot in the media right now about electric vehicles. Costa grabs Zero’s supermoto S model for a few days to see what all the fuss is about.
It was quite disarming to watch a pair of motocross bikes putting in some laps around a motocross track, jumping whoops and carving berms — in total silence. Even odder was when they left the track and a gaggle of gas-burning open-piped motocrossers reverberated the place — much to the dismay of spectators!
We were at XTown, about 45 minutes north of Montreal, for a press introduction to the Zero X motocrosser and the Zero S supermoto, Canada’s first street legal electric motorcycle.
Though we were invited to ride the Zero X in the large indoor track at XTown, it was the S streetbike that I had come to test on the surrounding roads. I was excitedly anticipating this ride as the only other two-wheeler I’d ever ridden that didn’t burn gasoline for propulsion was a bicycle.
However, a connector to charge the bike was missing, and my chance to experience electron-powered propulsion seemed to have been short-circuited.
Stephen Bieda, Zero’s Canadian rep, was very apologetic and promised to make up for the missed test ride opportunity. Never one to miss a chance to push my luck, I asked if we could have the Zero S for a few days for a proper test ride, to which Bieda agreed.
NO SPARK BUT PLENTY OF BUZZ
I picked up the Zero S at Ecomoto, a downtown Montreal shop specializing in electric scooters, and the city’s sole Zero dealer. This was a preproduction model, with items like the mirrors and seat due to be modified for the production units.
After a brief walk-around of the bike (and it was brief — there’s not much to explain on a bike that has no starter button, no choke, no clutch, no gears …) I got on and gassed it (zapped it?) silently on my way.
Of course, the first thing I noticed was the bike’s almost completely silent operation. The only noise intruding on the zen-like calm was some whirring of the drive chain which also made a tinny slapping sound against the swingarm when hitting bumps.
The second thing I noticed was the odd handlebar-to-seat-to-footpeg position, which made me feel like I was hovering over the bike rather than sitting on it. This is mostly due to the hard, high-mounted seat that provides a rather tall 900 mm (35 in.) reach to the ground; I was told that the production bike will have a lower, softer seat.
The bike I rode had a 300A controller, and acceleration from a stop was rather zippy, about as strong as a 150 cc four-stroke scooter, and easily capable of sprinting ahead of traffic. From 50 km/h to its top indicated speed of 85 km/h, it felt more like a good 250 cc single. The Zero S classifies as a sub-125 cc motorcycle in Canada so insurance cost will be minimal.
Production bikes will have a larger capacity controller, and are said to be able pull hard enough from a stop to lift the front wheel. Top speed is currently rated at 90 km/h; production models should be able to attain a top speed of 110 km/h.
One problem I experienced, however, was that at sustained speeds above 60 km/h, the electric motor would sometimes cut. I held 85 km/h for about 30 seconds before the battery level meter suddenly dipped to empty, a warning light in the dash flashed and the motor cut out.
Everything came back to normal after stopping for about 30 seconds, including the battery level, and I continued riding for several hours without a glitch, though I kept speeds below 60 km/h to be on the safe side.
Bieda attributed this to an overheating issue on the pre-production bike, and said Zero was currently getting the wraps on a cooling system that will be incorporated on production models to fix the problem. He didn’t elaborate on what type of cooling system it was, citing that it was a proprietary secret.
Handling on the 122 kg (269 lb) Zero S was ultra light, which is no surprise as it undercuts the tiny Honda CBR125R’s wet weight by 5 kg. The wide handlebar made handling borderline twitchy, though this isn’t an issue at the speeds the Zero is capable of, and it was quite useful at snaking through downtown traffic.
And snake through traffic I did. I felt so righteous riding a noiseless, zero-emissions motorcycle (okay, depending on where you live the electricity produced to charge the Zero’s battery might produce some emissions) that I felt almost invincible.
I zigzagged soundlessly between cars to get to the front of the line at traffic lights and got no glaring looks. Oh, and for the ‘loud pipes save lives’ crowd; no sound and I’m still alive.
The only issue with the lack of noise came in the form of Montreal’s fearless, suicidal pedestrians who seem to rely on aural warning rather than visual, and as a result I had to avoid a few jay-walking kamikazes that hadn’t heard me coming.
For a motorcyclist, 80 km on a full charge sounds like a meagre cruising range, but if you ride primarily in town, it’s quite adequate, especially since finding a wall outlet is easier than finding a gas pump.
I spent four days zipping about town on the Zero S, and that includes racking up about 120 km while running errands for two days, with an overnight charge. After one 50 km stint of strictly stop-and-go riding, the battery level indicator (those Zero guys have a sense of humour, identifying it with a gas-pump icon) still showed more than half a charge remained.
A fully depleted battery takes four hours to charge, although it’s much less than that if the battery isn’t completely empty.
HI-TECH, HIGH PRICE
It didn’t take long for me to be sold on the electric bike concept. Think about it: you’ll be completely oblivious to the wildly fluctuating price of gas, if you forget it running in your garage it won’t kill you, and that neighbour who wakes you with his lawnmower early on Sunday morning but looks at you with scolding eyes when you start your bike to go to work on Monday will become your best friend.
However, as a replacement for your motorcycle, it just won’t do, mostly because of its limited range, which excludes it as a candidate for blitzing back roads with your weekend riding buddies.
After my few days riding around Montreal, I’d say that the Zero S works best as an inner-city commuter bike. Even though it looks like a motard and it handles well enough to be a barrel of laughs on a tight, closed course, it’s highly unlikely a Zero owner would use it that way.
Zero could do well to look into making a version with a more cost-effective chassis. The aluminum perimeter frame is very well built and extremely robust, and would probably be more appropriately exploited wrapped around a 250 cc GP engine, on a racetrack. Having it bolted to a 4 kWh electric motor good for 31 hp is overkill.
The high-tech chassis no doubt adds significantly to the rather hefty $11,450 price tag which is certainly a main inhibitor to its viability as a street bike, but that’s the case with any electric motorcycle: it’s the technology that’s expensive, especially regarding the lithium-ion power cell, which on the Zero costs $5,500. And then you have to factor in the fact that battery life in Canada is up to seven years (that’s two more than California BTW, aided by cool temperatures and a short riding season).
Zero’s closest North American competitor is Brammo, which has just this week slashed the retail price of its Enertia electric bike from $11,995 to $7,995 U.S, but sadly does not yet have a Canadian distribution network set up. In Europe you can get the Swiss-made Quantya Strada electric dual-sport which sells for the equivalent of $12,900 Cdn.
The main selling factor is the fact that it’s electric. The company claims the Zero produces less than 1/8 of the carbon dioxide per mile — at the power plant — of a gas-powered motorcycle, and 1/100 the amount of nitrogen oxides. Those emissions would be near zero if you rely on hydroelectric power — but you get the point.
If you’re really intent on doing your part for the environment and decide to dish out the cash to buy a Zero S, one thing is certain: you’ll be smiling a whole lot every time you ride silently by a gas station — I know I did. Just keep an eye out for those suicidal pedestrians.
|Engine type||Brushless perm magnet, electric|
|Power (claimed)||31 hp|
|Torque (claimed)||62.5 lb-ft|
|Final drive||Single speed, chain|
|Brakes, front||Single disc with dual-piston caliper|
|Brakes, rear||Single disc with single-piston caliper|
|Seat height||900 mm (35.5″)|
|Wheelbase||1,415 mm (55.7″)|
|Weight (claimed)||122 kg (270 lb)|