Zero motorcycles – California launch

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Words: Costa Mouzouris. Pics: Zero Motorcycles
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Visually, nothing seemed out of place. Riders ahead of me braked before turns and leaned into bends, some of them hung a knee out towards the apex. They accelerated onto straight stretches, some tucking in for a few extra clicks of top speed.

Audibly, however, everything was amiss. The fluid movement of the machines lacked a soundtrack; there was no sound of pistons a pumpin’; the characteristic change in tone of an internal combustion engine as the bikes sped up and slowed down was absent.

Only the mild hum of the bike beneath me gave some indication that we were on something motorised.

Coming to a stop, fellow journalist Kevin Ash from the U.K. rolled his motorcycle silently beside me. “It doesn’t feel natural, does it?” he said.

“Nope, nothing about it does,” I replied.

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The XU (in the foreground) is the newest addition to the Zero line.

Following a horde of silent electric motorcycles along twisty rural back roads in northern California seemed as odd as watching a movie with the sound muted.

Welcome to the product launch of Zero’s latest street bikes.

ZERO SUM GAME

Zero founder Neal Saiki (who recently left the company to compete in a contest to build a human-powered helicopter) was a bicyclist at heart, and this reflected on the early motorcycles he built. He scoured bicycle parts suppliers for many of the components used to assemble the firm’s earlier machines.

The company, which has sold about 1,000 electric bikes worldwide to date, set a goal to make the machines feel more motorcycle-like.

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The Zero S and DS share this beefy frame.

To help achieve this goal the company is making some management changes, including just recently replacing CEO Gene Banman, whose background includes working for Intel, Sun Microsystems and NetContimuum (all computer-related companies), with Karl Wharton, who comes from Triumph Motorcycles.

They also hired Abe Askenazi a year ago to head its engineering department. Askenazi has lots of motorcycle-designing skills, having worked as an engineer for Buell Motorcycles until Harley pulled the plug on the company last year.

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Some Zeros have street lighting as standard, on the dirt verions it’s optional.

Numerous improvements have been incorporated into Zero’s 2011 models (83 per cent of the components used across its range of five bikes are new), probably the most important being in the battery management system, which now monitors current, as well as voltage draw.

This has greatly improved ride performance, as the previous system monitored only the voltage, which caused the battery level meter to fluctuate greatly when riding at high speeds and caused the safety systems to kick in prematurely when the voltage reading appeared to be too low, cutting power to the motor and forcing an unplanned stop by the side of the road.

We’d noted this when we tested a Zero S in 2009. Power would return to normal after a few moments; rider confidence not so much.

STREET CRED (the DS and S)

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Zero engineer Abe Askenazi, formerly of Buell Motorcycles, has greatly improved the look of the S (shown) and DS models. They look and ride more like motorcycles, but will they spark the interest of motorcyclists?

Although these bikes are geared to different uses, the DS (dual sport) and S (street) are essentially the same bike with some differences in suspension and wheel sizing. For 2011, they see a 12 per cent hike in battery capacity which increases the maximum range from 80 km to 93.

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The sound of silence… belt drive is a new addition on the S and DS models. However you can get a chain option on the DS if you want to take it into the dirt.

Another change is a move to a maintenance-free belt drive, which has eliminated the chain and the associated whirring of the previous models, making the machines incredibly stealthy. A chain is optional on the DS if someone intends to focus more on off-road riding where a belt would be a bit of a liability.

Wheel sizes on the S have been increased, going from 16 inches to a more common 17 inches. The DS, however, is a bit of an enigma, as it has taller dual-sport suspension (and subsequently taller seat height), but uses an unusual 17/16-inch front/rear wheel combination.

The DS shares most of its components, including the swingarm, with the S to keep costs down, and according to Askenazi, a 17-inch rear wheel with a dual-sport tire wouldn’t fit on the DS and it would have required a time-consuming redesign (the S uses sporty low-profile rubber).

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The front brake is more motorcycle-like but still lacks feel.

Other improvements include larger, more powerful brakes, made to Zero’s specs by bicycle brake manufacturer Hayes. Also, redesigned bodywork has been refined and better integrated into the machine, and adjustable suspension has been recalibrated for improved comfort and handling.

The new monitoring system is much more stable and the Zero S tester I rode and never threatened to quit while holding the throttle pinned at an indicated 100-plus km/h (top speed is rated at 108 km/h). It did, however, instill a bit of anxiety in me when the battery meter began flashing a low-level warning a mere 10 kilometres into our ride.

The meter indicated the battery was about three-quarters full at the beginning of the ride, which should have been more than enough to cover the 16 kilometre test loop that Zero had set up for us.

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The Zero’s light weight makes it particularly nimble on winding roads.

However, it proved just enough to get me back on fumes, or more appropriately, residual electrons. Zero’s techies attributed this to the system “learning” the charge cycle and said that more charge cycles would improve the range.

After riding the new Zero DS and S, I found that there’s still room for improvement. The brakes, although more powerful than before, still had a wooden feel up front and were overly sensitive in the rear. And the bodywork, though more flowing and more attractive, didn’t match the fit and finish of even entry-level bikes.

Some of the bikes had lopsided rear fenders – not a catastrophic styling faux-pas but not becoming of machines hovering around the 10-grand mark either (prices are $10,495 for the DS and $9,995 for the S).

THE X FACTOR (MX, X and XU)

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Lights and mirrors can be added to the X for $500 (shown in both forms), and to the MX for $450, making them street legal.

Zero’s MX and X represent the company’s off road offerings (though both models are available with optional street legal kits for about $500), but are now joined by the new for 2011 XU which is essentially a lowered version of the X with street tires.

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This is a handy new feature on the X models, allowing remote charging of the battery.

Unfortunately there were a limited amount of XU models available for testing and I didn’t get a chance to sample one.

All the ‘X’ bikes have been upgraded with easily removable power packs, allowing owners the convenience of taking the battery out of the bike for an indoor charge if an electrical outlet isn’t immediately available outdoors.

It also allows owners the option of swapping out battery packs when depleted, should they opt to buy a spare battery pack.

The smaller, lighter battery pack in these models reduces weight (specs below), but it also reduces range by about half. While this isn’t so much a problem if you’re riding on a closed course, which is the MX model’s forte, on the road you’re really limited to the daily commute.

Zero had laid out two off-road courses at a riding ranch; one a short trail loop though the woods, the other motocross track. These layouts emphasized the greatest benefit of these electric dirt bikes: their silent operation.

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Handling on the dirt was similar to a gas-powered trail bike, silent operation wasn’t.

At any one time, except during the lunch/charge-up break, about a half-dozen Zeros were circling the courses, and I can guarantee that the neighbours, whose homes could be seen about 200 metres across the road, had no clue that a bunch of moto journos were thrashing the machines next to their back yards.

That silence also made my jaunt through the woods a rather surreal experience. Without a two-stroke buzz or four-stroke drone reverberating through the trees, the off-road experience took on another dimension. Breathing echoing in my helmet and tires thudding over bumps comprised the main auditory stimulation when sliding and jumping about off road.

The MX, which uses the more powerful Agni motor found on the S and DS models (the X and XU use a lower output Mars motor), had good speed once you built momentum. However, there was one sharp, bermed uphill corner on the trail course that taxed the MX bike if you lost momentum, the bike struggling to gain speed again even with the throttle to its stop.

Aside from that section, though, an entertaining pace could be maintained and with a full battery charge good for about 30 minutes of hard riding, that meant you could lap the course about 10 times, which both exhausted the battery’s reserve, as well as this rider’s stamina.

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Terrorize your neighbours by endlessly blazing your local trails. Actually, they might commend you for respecting their peace and quiet and invite you in for some tea. Or not.

The MX model is more of a trail bike, with lower output but slightly longer range. Still, you’d be wise not to waver too far into a trail, however, as a dead battery isn’t as easy to replenish as a dry fuel tank.

ARE WE THERE YET?

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A full charge from empty takes four hours, an optional quick charger ($595) cuts that time in half.

The limited range is the biggest hurdle electric motorcycle makers must overcome. Although Zero also offers an optional J1772 charging receptacle for public charging-station capability and wall outlets are abundant and in moments of desperation can be found in any building, topping up a Zero’s battery takes up to four hours.

You can cut that time in half by purchasing Zero’s optional quick charger, but you’re still looking at a two-hour break before being able to access the full available range, which is achievable under ideal conditions, though they don’t include sustained highway speeds.

One area where the electric power does really shine is with the company’s off-road bikes which you could ride in your back yard at midnight and never get a complaint from your neighbours. There, the range isn’t so much of an issue and if you run out of electrons you won’t be stranded in the deep dark woods or at the side of the 401.

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Sure, a Zero is fun in the twisties, but it’s better suited for navigating the urban jungle.

Despite how far Zero have come, I also found the machines to be paradoxical. While Zero is making efforts to make them sportier and more motorcycle like — factors aimed at enticing riding enthusiasts — electric bikes are fundamentally more likely to appeal to thrifty, environment-conscious commuters.

That type of rider would probably trade the beefy race-bike-like aluminum frame and inverted fork for simpler, inexpensive components, on machines with better weather protection and some storage space for the daily ride to work, and not for a sporty romp through the twisties.

The 2011 Zeros are vastly improved over the previous models, and with a recent investment of $26 million U.S. from private investors, you can bet they’ll improve further still. But for now, they’re still ultimately a work in progress.

SPECIFICATIONS/COMPARITOR


Bike
Zero DS Zero S Zero MX Zero X Zero XU

MSRP

$10,495
$9,995 $9,495 $7,995 $7,995


Motor type
Agni air-cooled, DC axial flux, permanent magnet Mars air cooled, DC radial flux, permanent magnet

Range
93 km 93 km 30-60 min. 30-60 min 48 km


Top speed
108 km/h 108 km/h NA NA 82 km/h


Final drive
Clutchless single speed, belt drive Clutchless single speed, chain drive

Tires,
front
110/70-17 100/80-17 70/100-19 90/90-19

Tires,
rear 
130/70-17 110/90-16 90/100-16 110/90-16

Brakes,
front
Single 310 mm disc with dual-piston
caliper
Single 220 mm
disc with dual-piston caliper

Brakes,
rear
220 mm disc with single-piston
caliper

Seat
height
908 mm (35.8″) 832 mm (32.8″) 871 mm (34.3″) 845 mm (33.3″) 808 mm (31.8″)

Wheelbase
1,430 mm (56.3″) 1,410 mm (55.5″) 1,410 mm (55.5″) 1,410 mm (55.5″) 1,380 mm (54.3″)

Curb weight
(claimed)
135 kg (297 lb) 135 kg (297
lb)
89 kg (196
lb)
84 kg (185
lb)
99 kg (218
lb)

Colours
Black or white Red or black White/grey graphics White/red graphics White

Warranty
Two years

1 COMMENT

  1. I like the idea of an electric motorcycle – but at roughly 10 grand a pop, they are just not affordable. I can buy a 125cc-200cc bike for less than half the price….

    If the big Japanese four start mass-producing e-motorcycles and can get the price down to something more reasonable, I might open my wallet.

  2. @ LP – no, gasoline seeps benignly and without the aid of other energy sources directly from the tar sands to the gas pump, which is why it is so much better than electricity.

  3. ” Give it a few more years, every generation of technology improves the batteries, motors, software, and soon there may be another choice on the market for people like us.”

    I could not agree more, will wait with bated breath for that day.
    End of rant…

  4. Polaris has an electric side by side that is marketed towards government agencies and contractors (provincial/state parks, municipal works depos) that seems to have a good range and power. (I know, the design of the UAT permits a storage space for big batteries and motors) if there were a cheap electric car with a 150 km range or so, able to maintain 100k on the hiway and about the size of a smart car i would consider one. I could leave for work, do some errands, pull out my Kenworth, park the car in my spot and use the plug in for the trucks block heater to keep the car charged up. When i get home a full charge awaits me. As for a motorcycle, if they can get it to 250km range, and a 120km top speed, and cheap, say 5-6 grand, yeah, i might do that to. Unless i have a long ride planned, i usually just bomb around town a bit, hit Tims, grab a few side roads, let the stress of the day fall away. (sound familiar anybody?) A lot of the times i come home with only 100-125kms racked up. If you look through Kijiji you will see a slew of 10-15 year old bikes with only 30k on them, sounds like a whole bunch of people took a lot of 100km. At the very least it would compete with an 8grand Italian scooter. point of my rant? Give it a few more years, every generation of technology improves the batteries, motors, software, and soon there may be another choice on the market for people like us.

    ivan

  5. Chevy Volt – I forgot.
    Do I smell a CMG project ?
    Honda E300 generator, a BIG 12V slot car motor and one of ‘Arris’ old motorbicycles – yeah baby !!! :upset

  6. “Can someone explain to me why that concept couldn’t be put to use on a physically smaller scale like an automobile or motorcycle ? Is it because of the size required to make the payback worthwhile ?”

    Chevy Volt.

  7. ” There seems to be a perception that electric motors don’t have the power of IC engines. Seeing as electric motors have 100% of their torque at zero rpm, and all our railroad locomotives have their wheels turned by electric motors, this myth of inadequate performance should be dispelled.”

    No question, electric motors are the cat’s *ss, the trick is finding a way to get the electricity into them efficiently. That’s why current generation locomotives have a big, honkin’, high efficiency diesel generator to power them. Can someone explain to me why that concept couldn’t be put to use on a physically smaller scale like an automobile or motorcycle ? Is it because of the size required to make the payback worthwhile ?

  8. I think they are interresting…but not really practical, yet..once they figure out the battery life/recharge issues, they will make sense…

    As an urban run about, it would probably work now…a commuter even for most people…but if you don’t live in the city, or like to tour on a bike…a scooter or a motorcycle make way more sense…

    Yes, you could ride a Zero from Edmonton to Calgary but that is 300kms away, so probably three stops to recharge…and even if you can “quick charge” the bikes that 6hrs added to the trip…yeah, that’s not going to happen…considering the reality will be an additional 12hrs to charge the bike…

    Now consider that I am planning a trip from Red Deer to Vancouver…how long would that take? And like Costa, I would miss the sound of an engine…just me? I don’t think so…they should develop some kind of “electric vehicle” sound so that we can more relate to the vehicle…

    I just don’t think we are there yet, but we will get there…

    Later.

  9. There seems to be a perception that electric motors don’t have the power of IC engines. Seeing as electric motors have 100% of their torque at zero rpm, and all our railroad locomotives have their wheels turned by electric motors, this myth of inadequate performance should be dispelled.
    I did a little research into the amount of electricity required to produce a gallon of gas. I found it difficult to get a really good answer but some are suggesting it takes the same amount of electricity to produce a gallon of gas as it would take to power an electric car 30 miles or so. I found that interesting.

  10. To put things into perspective, some quick math reveals it would cost $2,900 to travel 112,000 km on the Zero S (cost to replace the battery pack after that mileage plus the cost of charging according to Zero’s $0.48 U.S. cost per charge claim).

    It would cost about $5,600 of gas (at $1,25 per L, 4L/100 km avg. consumption) to cover the same distance on a Honda CBR250R, maintenance items and tires notwithstanding.

    So, the difference is $2,700 in the Zero’s favour. BUT, factor in the higher purchase price of the Zero S and things swing in the Honda’s favour by almost $2,800. And the Honda is much more versatile as an everyday mount.

    For the moment, electric bikes aren’t about saving money and more about reducing greenhouse gasses. Not yet worth it for me, but maybe in five or so years…

  11. Nice review, this makes a lot more sense to me than electric cars, or hybrids for that matter. Put the battery to work dragging the person around without an extra ton of metal and glass.
    Most importantly these have the speed to keep up with traffic, I see folks on their 20km/hr electric scooters and shake my head a the apparent death wish of some of them.

  12. About the battery packs:

    They are expensive, Zero’s website lists a battery/charger combination for the X/MX at just under $3,000, so if you deduct about $500 for the charger, that’s about $2,500.

    Zero claims a battery pack should last 112,000 km before it reaches 80% capacity.

    As for disposal, we were told the battery pack is made almost entirely of recyclable materials. According to statistics presented by Zero, 99% of all car batteries are recycled in the U.S., compared to only 50% for aluminum cans, so the infrastructure for recycling batteries is well established, as it is here in Canada.

  13. Why don’t we discuss overall life of vehicle costs and overall carbon footprint?
    – Its a lightweight, dual purpose motorcycle. the difference in costs over lifetime and carbon footprint are moot.
    E-motors are simple, reliable, nearly maintenance free, etc. They are also very efficient, so while we all know electricity comes from somewhere (such a straw man, that one – naysayers always speak as if environmentalists are unaware of it), including fossil fuels, I would bet if it does not already it generally will result in greater efficiency overall even taking into account the energy required to produce batteries and to charge them.
    -At the risk of repeating myself, these batteries cost how much and we dispose of them how exactly ? I was told the life expectancy/cost for batteries in a Tesla was 10 years and $20K, how is that reducing anything ?
    See me in 5 more years when some of these questions have been answered, until then I’ll keep burning up old dinosaurs…

  14. Why don’t we discuss overall life of vehicle costs and overall carbon footprint? E-motors are simple, reliable, nearly maintenance free, etc. They are also very efficient, so while we all know electricity comes from somewhere (such a straw man, that one – naysayers always speak as if environmentalists are unaware of it), including fossil fuels, I would bet if it does not already it generally will result in greater efficiency overall even taking into account the energy required to produce batteries and to charge them.

  15. ” Soon battery stations stocking a number of standardized batteries (like the 5 fuels typically available at a gas station) will replace or be an adjunct to gas stations, and long distance riding on electric bikes will be possible. ”
    And when that day comes, we can revisit. Now let’s discuss cost of replacement batteries, method of disposal and where the electricity comes from in the first place ?

  16. A couple of years ago people said they’d never come to market. Then they came to market. A year or two ago people said nobody would buy them. People buy them. Now people say they cost too much and don’t perform well enough. Wait a year or two.

    Soon battery stations stocking a number of standardized batteries (like the 5 fuels typically available at a gas station) will replace or be an adjunct to gas stations, and long distance riding on electric bikes will be possible.

    The naysayers will continue to neigh.

    MM

  17. So, for something with the performance and handling roughly equivalent to a Honda CRF230, they want me to pay roughly double, extra for the turn signals and mirrors, and wait 2-4 hours to ‘fill the tank’ ?
    Roll another one…

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