Zero electric motorcycles prove quiet, efficient, and fun

Continued improvements add appeal to these electric rides

Published: June 21, 2014 09:00 AM

2014 Zero Motorcycles DS

Like electric cars, electric motorcycles are clean and efficient, but that’s not why people buy them. The real reason is that they’re a blast to ride, as we were recently reminded with some seat time on the latest bikes from Zero Motorcycles. Plus, unlike gas-powered motorcycles, they need very limited maintenance and there's little to go wrong. The concept is catching on, and even Harley-Davidson has developed an electric motorcycle.

We recently had a chance to ride the 2014 lineup from Zero Motorcycles at Consumer Report’s New York headquarters: the Zero S (in full police dress), Zero SR performance bike, Zero DS adventure dual sport, and Zero FX dual sport. The company has dropped the entry-level XU that we sampled last year.

All four electric motorcycles are offered with various battery sizes, combinations that suit a wide range of riding styles and budgets. The entry-level FX is available with a 2.8-kWh battery with a range rated at 27 miles in combined city and highway riding for $9,495. A larger 5.7-kWh battery, with a rated range of 54 miles, costs an extra $2,495. FX batteries are removable and swappable, adding unique appeal for an urban dweller who may not have easy access to an outdoor outlet for recharging. The FX we rode, with the bigger battery, has a 44-hp motor with 70 lb.-ft. of torque to power the 280-pound bike. Zipping 0-60 mph takes a reported 4.0 seconds—far quicker than almost all street-legal cars.

The more popular Zero S and DS come with an 8.5-kWh battery, rated at 79 miles of range for $12,995. For an extra $2,000, you can get an 11.4-kWh battery rated at 105 miles. To go even further, there is an optional “power tank,” a 2.8-kW accessory battery that cleverly fits into the tank storage compartment to give the bike an extra 26 miles of rated range for $2,495. Both bikes use a 54-hp, 68-lb.-ft. motor. Acceleration from 0-60 mph ranges from about 5 to 6.5 seconds, with the DS and bikes with larger batteries being a little heavier and slower.

The Zero SR comes only with the two larger battery options and a 67-hp motor with 106 lb.-ft. of torque that the company claims gives it acceleration of 3.3 to 3.9 seconds to 60 mph, depending on the battery. That’s supercar fast! The price is $16,995 to almost $20,000 with the power tank.

Learn more about riding in our motorcycle hub, buying guide, and in our reliability and owner satisfaction report.

2014 Zero Motorcycles DS

Plugging in

Scott Harden, vice president of global marketing for Zero, says that the cost of lithium-ion batteries has been coming down dramatically, and the company has chosen to spend the money on larger batteries with more range, rather than reducing prices.

But even with the bigger batteries, the bikes charge mainly on 120 volts. The standard charging setup is a simple 110-volt computer or TV cord plugged into a 1.3-kW onboard charger. That can charge the FX in as little as four hours. But if you get the DS or RS with the power tank, it can take as long as 11 hours. The bikes also come with a J1772 adapter to plug into any electric car charger. But it still operates at 120-volts, so charge times aren’t any faster. Zero offers an optional Chademo fast-charge port for $1,799 that can charge the bikes with a power tank in under 30 minutes.

Harden says range is key, and the company is working toward a 200-mile rating, up from the current 171 miles. Already, the Zero bikes can provide 100 miles in the real world, enough for many non-touring riders. In addition to range, we think as batteries get bigger, faster charging will be important.

The batteries are warrantied for five years, with a limit of 50,000 to 100,000 miles, depending on the model. The company-estimated service life for most bikes ranges from 213,000 miles to 385,000 miles—a huge distance for a motorcycle of any kind. (The FX ZF2.8 is an exception, with 79,000-mile estimated battery pack life.) The basic motorcycle warranty is for two years.

Ultimately, electric motorcycles inherently have a lot going for them. Compared to electric cars, range limitations are less of a factor, as most daily motorcyclists don’t travel as far as drivers. And the batteries are small enough that they don’t need expensive chargers.  In contrast to a traditional motorcycle, the low maintenance saves time and money.

2014 Zero Motorcycles SR

Riding electric horses

We took turns riding them all, collecting impressions from riders spanning from relative novices to expert riders on our staff. Everybody noted how easy the Zero Motorcycles are to operate. No gears. Just twist and go. And most were impressed with the torque and ample acceleration , especially on the SR. But several staff members also noted that the Zeros stumbled over bumps that comparably priced traditional motorcycles would have soaked up, despite suspension updates for 2014. Several wished the rear brakes were easier to modulate. Some of our advanced riders missed shifting gears, but admitted they could adapt.

A universal appeal is the quiet operation, with just an electric whir accompanying power output. For traveling through a scenic area, or leaving your neighborhood at an earlier hour, running near-silent is appealing. The downside is that pedestrians and bicyclists may not hear you coming, as demonstrated by a couple jaywalkers who stepped out in front of one rider. (This is also a challenge for electric cars and hybrids, especially in parking lots.)

Most riders said they thought that the SR, DS, and FX felt more refined than the basic S. A couple of testers noted the bikes’ wide turning circle, which could make parking and even figure eights in a DMV test a challenge. Other than that and the prices, their light weight, easy riding, and relatively little maintenance may make them well-suited for beginners and experienced riders looking for convenience.

Eric Evarts

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