Zero Motorcycles: The electric revolution on two wheels
Ever been in a car that can accelerate from 0-60mph in less than ten seconds? It feels pretty quick, right? Get that figure down to less than five seconds, and you’re in a different league altogether: that’s supercar territory.
With that kind of acceleration, you wouldn’t expect to find a battery-powered motorcycle pulling alongside. But you’d be sorely mistaken: the world’s largest manufacturer of electric motorbikes, Zero Motorcycles, has just entered (or rather re-entered) the UK market with a range of machines that can show many supercars a clean pair of heels in a 0-60 sprint.
by Paul Hood
Alphr was among a handful of media brands invited along to the UK launch to test-ride the latest models in the Zero family. Supercar acceleration in familiar motorbike form, and with zero emissions? Tell the truth, it sounded too good to be true.
As someone who’s been riding motorbikes for more than 20 years, I had no real idea what to expect – I’ve never even seen an electric motorbike on the roads before. In traditional bikes, the engine is the centrepiece. And when it comes to motorbike engines, the bigger the better. Motorcycling is as much about sound as it is speed; the exhaust note often tells you a lot about the character of a bike. With no muscle-bound engine to look at, no familiar rasp of cylinders and pistons, I feared something might be missing.
Surprisingly, the range of models from Zero Motorcycles are refreshingly familiar in form to ‘traditional’ motorbikes. The frame is similar in geometry, and the wheels, front forks, handlebars, switchgear, instrument cluster and seat are all as you’d expect. The space where the engine normally fits is taken up by a rectangular battery compartment, but the styling does a good job of keeping the appearance sleek, rather than boxy. The electric motor is tucked away more or less out of sight – it’s located just in front of the rear shock absorber, directly in front of the rear wheel. It drives the rear wheel via a belt drive, and is surprisingly compact – smaller than a football.
Things become less familiar when you turn the key. There’s no noise. Not even a whir.
The instrument cluster and lights switch on, but that’s it. Total silence.
Throw a leg over, twist the throttle, and the bike starts rolling forwards. Silently. Twist the throttle a little further and you can tease an audible whir from the motor, the bike surging forward in the way you might expect a magic carpet to. Rapid and noiseless acceleration on a wave of torque. It feels unnatural at first, but once you become accustomed to the silence, the absent thrum of a combustion engine, there’s only one natural impulse – to put that sub four-second 0-60mph time to the test.
Introducing the Zero family
But first things first: a little more detail about these new machines. There are effectively three base models in the 2017 range, each of which are available in a more powerful ‘R’ spec version.
The Zero S (S for Streetfighter), is about the same size physically as a typical 600cc naked streetbike such as Triumph‘s Streetfighter or Yamaha’s MT 07, though it weighs in about 10% heavier than either of its traditional counterparts.
In standard ‘S’ spec it delivers a maximum of 109Nm of torque, and 44kW of net power (equivalent to about 60bhp). The SR model pushes these power and torque outputs up to 146Nm of torque and 52kW of power (around 70bhp).
For the uninitiated, you can take my word for it: the max torque figure, in particular, is mighty impressive. 146Nm of torque is nearly a third more than current 1000cc superbikes such as BMW’s S1000RR or Yamaha’s YZF-R1.
Next up is the Zero DS, or Dual Sport. A slightly bigger front wheel and chunkier off-road style tyres give a more upright riding position, making it slightly roomier than the Zero S, with the seat height raised by 35mm.
Owners who prefer the Dual Sport-styled machine can also choose from two models, the standard DS or the higher power DSR version. Power and torque outputs are identical to the Zero S and Zero SR respectively. The version I rode comes with optional extras, which include adjustable screen, engine bars and a rear top-box.
And, finally, the Zero FX model, a Super-Motard-styled machine, is designed mainly for shorter rides or for terrain where a lighter machine makes more sense. It uses a much smaller battery (about half the size) and weighs in at a meagre 131kg, compared to the other models’ 185kg weight.
On the road
After a few minutes of riding and getting used to the absent engine noise, I started winding the throttle open; every flick of the wrist took me by surprise. Where petrol engines need to build revs to deliver their maximum torque, electric motors deliver 100% of their torque instantaneously. In Sport mode, the full-power ‘R’ spec version of the Zero S and DS bikes accelerate from 0-60mph at roughly the same pace as a Porsche 911 Carrera S. These are seriously rapid bikes. You can dispel any thoughts of two-wheeled milk floats straight away.
Also, you can forget about gears – as all of these bikes use clutchless (and gearless) direct drive transmission, there’s nothing for your left hand or foot to do. And if you’re worried about having such brutal amounts of acceleration at your fingertips, Zero have a solution for you: the mobile app lets you tailor the maximum top speed or maximum torque to your tastes.
With the exception of the way they deliver their power – and the absence of a petrol-engined roar – they ride in a very similar way to their traditional counterparts. All of the key aspects of handling – steering, suspension, brakes – are the same as you’d find on a non-electric motorbike.
The key questions answered
Q: How much do these bikes cost?
A: From £10,490 to £15,690 depending on the model and spec. You can find the full model range, including specifications and prices here. It’s worth noting that ALL of the bikes in the 100% electric Zero Motorcycles range qualify for the UK government grant of £1,500, which reduces the price by 10-15%.
Q: How long does the battery last?
A: 85-110 miles with mixed riding, or up to 125 miles with the optional extra ‘power tank’ battery. You can find more info about the power tank here.
Q: What about charging?
A: All of these bikes use a standard 3-pin plug and lead, which comes supplied with the bike and can be stored in the cubby hole in the area you’d normally expect to see the petrol tank. A full charge (from a completely discharged battery) takes seven to eight hours, depending on conditions. Customers can buy a fast charger for around £700 which cuts the standard charging time in half.
Q: What’s the deal with servicing?
A: Barring consumables, there isn’t any. That’s one of the big potential selling points of these machines. They come with a two-year manufacturer warranty, and a claim that the both the electric motor and the battery should be good for around 300,000 miles. In other words, far longer than the normal lifetime of any traditional petrol-engine bike. Clearly, consumables such as tyres and brake pads will need replacing as part of a standard service cycle, but the motor itself has only one moving part. Low servicing costs are a major part of the attraction of electric vehicles: there’s no oil to change, no spark-plugs, air filter, timing chain, valves and so on.
Are electric bikes ready for the primetime?
If you’re a lover of Harley Davidson or a sports-bike fiend, it’s unlikely that you’ll replace either with an electric bike anytime soon. The shuddering engines and distinctive exhaust notes are the heart and soul of traditional motorbikes – electric bikes lack that visceral, physical appeal. Many of my biker friends only use their bikes at the weekends, but they cherish them for their engines, the exhaust note, and the hours spent tinkering with them in the garage.
It’s the opposite side of that coin where electric bikes come into their own. For the Monday to Friday commute, especially in cities, bikes such as the Zero S and Zero DS with their ultra low running costs and maintenance schedules make a lot of sense. Adoption might be slow, but having ridden these bikes, I’d predict they’ll become a much more common sight in our towns and cities before long.
Which one would I choose? For me, it’s the sheer oomph of the Zero SR (with Sport Mode enabled, naturally) that appeals most. A key appeal of ‘traditional’ bikes is to know that if we come across a Porsche 911 at the traffic lights, we stand a good chance of beating it to the next set. After all, it’s the little victories that matter.
Head over to the Zero Motorcycles website where there’s full detail on all of the tech aspects of the bikes in their range