Aug 24, 2012

Riding Electric

Back in September of 2011, MMM reviewed the Zero DS. One of the better writers and a solid sportbike rider, Ben Goebel, wrote the review and it was, mostly, positive. I was jealous, not of the review (and the money Ben made from that review) but of getting to ride the Zero under review conditions (meaning, he got to play with it for several days). Every time Zero sent out a media notice, which always includes offers to ride a bike, I replied that I wanted to do just that. The last time, I got a response not just from the Zero media department but from a salesman at the Hitching Post in Fridley, MN. The salesman, Travis, and I played phone tag for almost a month before I gave up and rode to the store yesterday. He was out to lunch, I waited.
Photo by Zero Marketing

Ben is, apparently, longer legged than me. The DS (dual sport) model has a 35.3 inch seat height and looks intimidatingly tall. So, I went for the S ("street" or "sport," I think) model (33.1" seat) for my test ride. While waiting for Travis to arrive, I looked the bike over. Zero's manufacturing mixes an interesting combination of refined and coarse detailing. The frame is a piece of modern art. The plastic looks modern and appears to be typical of today's standards for bodywork. The kickstand, on the other hand, looks like a high school machine shop design. There were other parts that seemed inconsistent with the overall design, but the kickstand kept coming back to remind me that Zero is a very small company.

Photo by Zero Marketing
The brush-style motor is another small company reminder. It looks fragile, unnecessarily exposed to the elements and kind of dainty. Travis told me that it is designed to run underwater (a Euro- requirement) and is relatively weather-resistant, but that is should always be blown dry after exposure to water to prevent contact and brush oxidation. My intent for any motorcycle would be to commute to work, regardless of weather, and having to take time to dry the motor after riding to work isn't an option. I don't like work well enough to leave with that kind of spare time.

Zero's marketing lit says, "Imagine instant torque and power from a standstill. Imagine smooth acceleration as you throttle out of turns. Then, imagine never needing to stop at a gas station or be burdened with any scheduled powertrain maintenance. Not only is this possible… it’s available now." With that in mind, I set out to explore "instant torque and power from a standstill." Since electric motors can deliver monstrous power from starting RPM, that's what I expected. What I got was 25-50cc scooter acceleration from 0-15mph. There is absolutely no sensation of power from the early throttle rotation. My now-abandoned-by-the-assholes-at-Victory Polaris Electric Scooter has more oomph from take-off. Seriously. Once the bike gets moving, there is more happening but it is never particularly exciting. In Ben's review of the DS, he said "From a standing start, full throttle acceleration feels like riding a 125cc conventional motorcycle to about 35mph. By 45 to 50mph the ZERO pulls hard enough to get all of your attention; akin to a 250cc conventional bike near redline. On the class 5, the DS lit up the rear tire in a big way at 45 mph- once the mass had gotten rolling. Head down sideways, flat on the tank and exhaling, delivered an indicated 71 mph." The DS must be geared differently, although both bikes exhibited about the same top speed (In a long straight, I managed a speedo-indicated 69mph without going "flat down on the tank.") If the S-model resembles a 125cc bike, it would be the lamest 125 I ever rode.  For the first 50 feet, my Polaris scooter would kick the S-model's ass. I can do wheelies on the Polaris. No worries about that on the S-model. Likely, the lack of clutch and other safety issues convinced Zero to make the street model more easily controlled. I've helped design and build a primitive electric scooter and an electric VW Karman Ghia and I know how much torque a well-designed electric motor can provide. The Zero isn't even close to pushing that limit.

The 2011 models are, of course, obsolete. The 2012 models have new brush-less motors, larger batteries, a different frame and suspension, 114 mile range (opposed to 50 miles on the 2011 model), new bodywork, new brakes, and practically every other aspect of the bike has been upgraded; including the price. The Hitching Post price for the bike I rode was $10k and the 2012 version is $12k. Dealers will be unloading the 2011 models for cost or less, so your price tag may vary. In fact, it better vary.

Riding the electric bike is an exercise in getting used to something new. The rider position reminds me of Buell bikes. You're "on the bike" as opposed to being "in the bike." The seat feels more like a perch than a seat and the big battery adds to the top-heavy feel and response. Nothing turns like my WR250X, so comparing the Zero to what I rode to the dealer is unfair. Still, the Zero weighs about 300 pounds, sits about the same height as the WR, has similar practical applications, and costs $3,000 more, so I don't feel particularly biased in making some comparisons.

The handling felt stiff and marginally responsive at low speeds. The lack of low speed torque complicates tight low speed maneuvers. The brakes are fine, exactly as expected with a bike of this style and size. High speed (65mph) handling is ok, but not spectacular due to the high COG and frame geometry. The seat is OK  The controls are good quality and where you expect them to be except the missing clutch and shifter. I didn't ride in the dark, so I can't report on the headlights.

Overall, I can't get past the mild performance. I'm a 250cc four-stroke rider, so I'm not expecting a rocket but I do expect some kick to the acceleration. None was there. Without that, I can't be won over or lost by other details.


  1. Thanks for the information. Would you mind testing the 2012 S model to see if it is improved?

  2. I'd love to test the 2012 S model. Even more, I'd like to try out the X model, if I could figure out how to get on and off of that 34.4" seat height.


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