The Throttler Magazine staff didn’t know what to expect as we rolled into Brooklyn to pick up our Zero S test bike at Carbon Negative. We found the eco-minded scooter & motorcycle boutique nestled on a quiet street in the gentrified and chic Williamsburg neighborhood, absolutely crawling with beautiful people. So far, things were going better than we would have predicted.
Things got even better when we first examined the Zero S, and eventually it stunned us by exceeding almost all of our expectations.
Before we even rode the bike at speed, the 54 hp (40 kW) power-plant impressed us with its smooth power delivery. You see, we needed to load the bike into our pickup truck for the long ride home – a ride longer than the Zero’s battery range. There was only a steep ramp available, and pushing the 387 pound bike up the ramp was looking dicey. Instead, we switched on the ignition and walked the bike, almost silently, up the ramp under power. Loading in this fashion was effortless and easily controllable, belying the exhilarating performance we’d later enjoy from the computer-controlled propulsion system.
Earlier versions of the Zero used a speed controller to accept and process the input from the throttle – essentially a drive-by-wire switch with which you send your request to the computer. There’s some trust involved in any drive-by-wire system, and some understanding of what’s going on is just as helpful on an electric bike as it is on a vintage classic. Current versions (no pun intended) use a torque controller in place of the earlier speed controller, allowing more precise and predictable response to throttle inputs. The availability of this gentle dial-a-torque system would prove as helpful when crossing my dew-soaked lawn in the morning as it was on the tight loading ramp in the busy city. Wheel spin is best avoided, since this bike is always in top gear. Twist the throttle all the way and you are summoning 68 ft-lb (92 Nm) of torque, rightNOW.
We were taking the Zero out of its element, out of that busy city, to the country. We’d been told that the city is where this bike shines in efficiency and in performance. We unloaded the bike on the Connecticut Shoreline, and took it out on some winding roads. Our initial reaction was one of amazement at the novelty of the silence coupled with rather impressive acceleration. Then we discovered that the switch was still in Economy mode. We clicked it into Sport mode, fired up a 900cc Triumph Thruxton chase bike, and found out what this electric bike thing is all about.
It’s like magic.
The launch is well-controlled, if not soft, as there’s no clutch to dump, nor is there a gear selector…instead the speed just builds at an enormously gratifying rate, all the way to an indicated 96 mph, which everyone on staff here achieved. Roll-on power is the strength of this system, no matter your road speed. Twist that demand switch and hold on. Passing regular traffic is almost too easy. And exiting corners, stringing a series of tight corners together, has never been smoother. Why? It’s because you are always in the correct gear. No matter your speed, you just ask for more – a little more, or a lot more – and you get it right away. With belt drive directly from the motor to the rear wheel, there’s also a complete absence of driveline slop. It’s a fluid experience, whizzing down the road so silently that you can listen to the texture of the pavement.
Now, the silence of the bike is an area of controversy. Purveyors of the loud-pipes-save-lives school of thought are quick to dismiss the whole package. I have never subscribed to the loud pipe school, for a number of reasons which could be the subject of a whole different essay. I think Zach from Carbon Negative said it well. “If you’re counting on them hearing you, you’re probably doing it wrong.” Beyond that, I’ll add that the silence allows you to hear what’s going on around you. Without your own exhaust note to cloud your awareness, everything is just a little easier to perceive, including the traffic around you. The silence of the bike ranks among its greatest assets. Although, I should add that animals seem to scatter at the approach of the high-pitched whirring machine that’s hurtling out of the dark. They can hear it, and they don’t like it.
Smooth, fast, almost silent… what more could you ask for? How about the greatest conversation starter ever? Buy one soon if you want to experience this benefit, because only early adopters will get the flood of questions and the joy of seeing puzzled looks on people’s faces. Pull in anywhere, and somebody will notice this bike, walking right by that row of $50K Ducati’s and MV Agusta’s without a glance, as this thing is UNIQUE. Not for the rather conventional styling, but for the silence that fills the space where the noise goes. If you want to see people fall over themselves while literally chasing the bike across a field, take it to an antique motorcycle show. Pretty women will even trade a ride for a kiss, and we know this to be fact.
The price for all this attention though, is a slew of questions that might eventually get tiring. If you aren’t a people person, this might not be the motorcycle for you. But these questions can’t be avoided, especially here.
How much does it cost? It’s not cheap…$13,995 to $15,995 depending on your battery choice – plus the usual shipping, taxes, dealer prep. and registration. Sure, you can buy a lot of conventional motorcycles for that money, but people will walk right past those bikes to check out the novel electric machine. And the economy of this purchase comes on the back end. This was demonstrated when we tested the range of the battery, then calculated the cost of the fuel. Our informal and unscientific poll found the majority of consumers put off by the bike’s price, which in some states may be offset by tax credits and other incentives. Only a handful of respondents seemed pleased or nonplused by the price.
How far can you go on a charge? This depends. And again the Zero shines in the city, where it maximizes efficiency and boasts 137 mile range (claimed) with the big 11.4kWh battery. Take that same battery up on the highway and run it 70mph, and you can go about 70 miles. This is directly in contrast to gasoline vehicles which show their best economy on the highway. It’s better in the city, but it might be best on the twisty back roads where I did my range testing of the battery. Starting with a full charge, I mixed a little around town traffic with three or four miles on the highway, then I found a tightly winding country road and started doing laps back and forth, riding as hard as traffic and prudence would allow. With a big grin, I rolled home with one bar flashing on the fuel gauge, parked it with no bars showing and humorously, a flashing gas pump icon. I had thrashed the bike for 82 miles of hooliganism, all of it with the switch in Sport mode.
Here’s where we stop and do some math. A full charge on the 11.4 kWh battery takes about 10 kWh, which in my location costs me about $1.40. That works out to about 1.7 cents per hooligan mile. If gas is $3.80/gallon, that works out to about 223 mpg. That’s hooligan mpg, mind you. Those inclined to use economy mode can dial in governed top speed, maximum torque delivery, and regenerative braking via Bluetooth and a smart phone application. The regenerative braking has one setting for “engine braking” only, and another that’s in effect when the brakes are applied. We really wish we had spent more time fiddling with the app, but we were too busy riding the bike. It was really that much fun to ride.
Similarly, we didn’t change any settings on the fully adjustable FAST ace suspension. Perhaps we should have, as there were mixed feelings about the suspension from different testers. Brakes too, standard Nissin single discs, seemed a bit light-duty considering the machine’s performance. But perhaps more brakes would require more rubber, and much of this trade-off must be concession to control weight and cost. The suspension made some mild clunking noises, which at first alarmed us. We wonder if all motorcycle suspension makes such noises, and we just never hear it over the drone of our own engine noises. The refined driveline lays bare even the mildest harshness elsewhere in the package.
And to be fair, we were flogging the chassis pretty hard…(We’re long-time motorcycle journalists, not part-time reporters on some eco-TV show or blog. – Ed.)
More questions, right? The big one – how long does it take to charge? This is where nobody loves the answer. It takes almost 8 hours at a regular 110 volt household outlet to charge the big battery. So, you can charge it overnight. Or you can charge it over a regular 8 hour work day (but check with your boss – it is $1.40 each time, after all). With no emissions, you may even be able to park the bike indoors. There’s an optional charging accessory which allows the user to plug into two household outlets (on two different circuit breakers) and thereby cut charging time in half with a 220 volt charge. Those lucky enough to live where CHAdeMO charging stations are available can equip their Zero to be charged in around one hour. These optional charging accessories are not inexpensive, but may be decisive factors for certain users and their lifestyles.
People wondered about the expected lifetime of the fully-recyclable Lithium Ion battery. The 8.5 kWh battery is claimed to have a 232,000 mile lifespan. The 11.4 kWh battery boasts a 309,000 mile lifespan. It seems that shelf life might come into play before most riders could accumulate these miles. There is a 32 pound difference between the two battery sizes.
Battery technology has always been the key to the viability of electric vehicles, and it will remain so as the area that’s ripe for the greatest leaps in improvement. Increased range relative to size and weight, shorter charging times and maybe even reduced cost are all realistic advances for which we can hope. The cost of the battery is a significant factor in the price of any Zero model.
Nobody really asked us what we’d like to change, but we’ll tell you anyway.
We’d improve the weatherproofing on the spacious and handy removable cargo pail, which proved inadequate in a lightning charged downpour. Really heavy rain; yes, we did that.
We’d move the Economy/Sport switch from its clumsy location to the handlebars, and add some kind of confirmatory indicator to the instrument cluster. We learned the hard way that a switch up to Sport mode might not register with the controller until the rider backs off the throttle one time. An unwelcome governed speed can be a very dangerous thing.
Some sort of parking brake would be a nice feature, as the bike will roll away if you park it on a hill without using some curb to your advantage.
We’d move the rear brake to the empty clutch position on the handlebars right away (there’s a kit available).
Finally, we’d be eager to fit some rubber other than the modest OEM tires from IRC.
It’s all about the battery range. It always has been, ever since the first futuristic articles I read in Popular Science decades ago. We’re at last there, at the edge of the future, looking in and forward. This smooth and silent, cool-running and vibration-free motorcycle exacts so little fatigue from the rider, and its effortless performance delivers so much fun. This is a bike you could ride all day, a bike you’ll want to ride all day. And the sad part is we can’t. Not yet.
Today’s electric motorcycle won’t replace most riders’ gasoline motorcycle, but it is a reasonable choice to consider if the range fits your riding profile. In fact, it’s an excellent choice if you can fit it into the way you ride. Here at the office, we miss the bike already. It’s the kind of bike that will bend the needle on your fun meter, and start a whole bunch of conversations too. If you are lucky enough to live near a Zero dealer, do yourself a favor and take a test ride into the future.
Home Page: http://www.zeromotorcycles.com/
Find a Dealer: http://www.zeromotorcycles.com/locator/
Very Special Thanks To:
CARBON NEGATIVE for the Zero Motorcycle Support