Zero’s new motorcycles don’t ride like bicycles anymore

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When I first rode the Zero X two years ago at Glen Helen, I was basically riding a weirdo chassis stuffed with a giant battery box, then fitted with bicycle parts and an electric motor. When we tried out the Zero DS and S models in Brooklyn last year, Zero had just figured out how to get the throttle response to act with the same kind of variable input as an ICE, steady throttle finally equalled steady speed. Could this year’s restyling and beefed up components really make that much of a difference? In a nutshell, sort of.

The clear winner in the lineup is the 2011 Zero MX. At $9,489 the Agni-powered MX is still on the pricey side and it won’t replace your thumper. Not by a long shot. That said, the MX is now a seriously fun machine for trails and small motocross tracks. If you ride dirt, have backyard trails or a nearby lot at your disposal, you should be looking at this bike.

Yes, it has obvious limitations with range that varies from 30-60 minutes based on how hard you ride. But, in terms of Zero delivering a machine that is engaging, fun to ride, and capable of tackling tough terrain that challenges the rider, the MX is fantastic.

No, it’s not the prettiest dirt bike with that giant white battery box, but now the chassis has real suspension, brakes, wheels, levers in all the traditional places, etc. The bike doesn’t clank, bottom out and groan through the ruts and the landings like the Zero X used to do at Glen Helen. It fact, the MX doesn’t make that much fuss at all.

Halfway through the second lap of the trails course that was set up, I stopped treating it any more gentle than the Yamaha WR250R I rode last month. The Zero MX isn’t as powerful as the WR250R, but the MX makes up for that with a curb weight of only 196lbs. In fact, the harder I rode, the less I paid attention to the fact that I was on an electric bike. The reminders came when jamming the brakes to back out the rear and set up for a hard turn. I kept panicking that the engine had stalled because it was so silent, without any of the engine vibration or sound I’m used to feeling that tells me I’ll have power to drive out of the corner.

Power from the 2kWh battery was always there, I just had to get over my knee-jerk reaction of planting my foot to save me from flopping over. By the last laps, I was going hard enough to throw it down the hill on a gravely, arced descent. There’s no way to tell if the bike is or isn’t still running after a crash, so I quickly learned to hit the kill switch before grabbing the bars to pick up the bike. Good times, right?

Unless you don’t do dirt, of course.

Right off the bat, this year’s DS is clearly better than the previous generation. The upgraded componentry, the revised dash and a “soft” carbon-fibre belt drive specially developed by Gates for Zero all combine to make the bike very smooth and whisper quiet on the road. All you hear from the bike is the electric whir and the tires on the pavement. Silently rolling through suburban developments and the hilly backroads in a pack of 10 bikes was definitely eery.

While the Zero DS is a viable form of transportation and better looking thanks to a light restyle, I can’t really say it’s incredibly fun or good looking. Then again, I don’t think I’m the target buyer for this bike. Sure, the Agni motor is good for 39lb/ft of torque at peak though it will spend most of its time at 19lb/ft of continuous power. The DS will cruise at 70mph and get you to work and back with a range of 43-58 miles. With a curb weight of 297lbs., sitting on the bike doesn’t feel terribly different to other dual sports. It holds its own well enough in the corners at speed, though the chassis did get a touch of the butterflies if the pavement gets wobbly.

With the federal tax credit, the bike starts at $9,455 and gets even cheaper if you live in places like Colorado. Basically, if you’re wanting to get into bikes but are either intimidated by traditional motorcycles or hate the associations that come with being a noisy biker and just want something to get you back and forth, then the DS and S models are an attractive alternative.

The problem is that even writing that last sentence makes me feel like I’m reviewing an appliance.

The new XU model that’s based off the X platform and intended for city use is in the same predicament as the S and DS models. Weighing 219lbs. with a seat height as low as 29.8 inches the bike is diminutive and unassuming. Again, the XU is functional transportation that’s offered as a viable alternative to traditional ICE-powered bikes and cars. It has a range of about 25-30 miles and can hit 51mph. The stature feels pretty similar to the Honda CRF230. But, with an MSRP that starts at $7,995 it’s not the cheapest. Neither is that 50lbs removable battery box the lightest to heft into the apartment or office for a charge. Especially without handles.

So basically the company is steadily developing proper motorcycles finally, the little motocrossers are rad and all the street bikes are a major improvement but still kind of beige, right? Yeah, pretty much.

  • Jason

    Interesting. A local guy who is a family member of someone at Zero got an MX as demo model and got it plated. So it seems possible to slip one of the MX model through the DMV and maybe make a more capable little dual sport than the dual sport model itself

    I’d love to try one or have one for stealth trail rides. Heard they have a switch to lock the speed which technically qualifies them as electric bicycles for bicycle trails?

    If you could bomb some MTB trails without getting a ticket or being arrested that would be pretty awesome, 9,000 dollar awesome probably not but awesome still

    • tomwito

      Yeah but a high end mountaing bike can run you around $7,000.

  • smoke4ndmears

    fuel pump icon for charge level? only further illustrates that the whole thing looks like the ICE has been excavated and a battery box crammed in.

  • wwalkersd

    Brammo Empulse FTW.

    • zipp4

      I’m inclined to agree with you, in fact, I’ve pre-ordered one myself. However I’ve grown increasingly wary of all of their lofty claims. After speaking with a Zero sales rep, they are so skeptical of Brammo’s figures that a lot of people believe it may not even be capable of half the range.

      If you think about it, when is the last time you heard anything from Brammo about the Empulse? (Other than just showing more pics on their Facebook page.) No swingarm changes, non-GSXR forks, clip-ons…

  • Sean Smith

    Componentry you say? I had to see if this was a real word. Google’s first result seems to think so, and the Urban Dictionary entry that popped up second made me laugh.

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

      The second one is my favorite.

    • tomwito

      Funny!

    • Barry

      Hey, writing componentry pays for my motorcycle habit. Quit informing the clients!

  • http://www.ninja250blog.com R.Sallee

    I’d ride the shit out of these things.

    …If they were $2,500.

    • http://www.thisblueheaven.com Mark D

      The price will come down. After all, a brand new PC in the mid 90′s was about $2,500. And could barely run “Doom”.

      In 5 years I could see a cool little city bike like the XU having twice as much range, and costing half as much. Moore’s law is everybody’s friend!

  • Miles Prower

    Design-wise, the various elements of these Zeros seem so cobbled together — it’s as if Zero took a bunch of notebook sketches done by daydreaming 5th graders and digitized them into AutoCAD.

  • aadmanz

    “The problem is that even writing that last sentence makes me feel like I’m reviewing an appliance.”

    Grant, isn’t that how they got “the nicest people on a Honda” some 40 odd years ago? By selling it as an appliance in supermarkets? The price point of a Honda Dream was a bit more interesting, but still.

    • Scott-jay

      Honda also sold social ‘networking’, mobility and fun. Marketing across broad range of consumers.
      Get a little Honda… happy girl & a group of happy friends just seemed to go without sayin’.

      • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

        Those Hondas were also very intelligently marketed to women without the condescension seen in current advertising and product offerings. Tribal roses, anyone?

  • tomwito

    Your comment about the bike being silent going into the turn brought back memories of my dirt days. Vividly remember that scenario happening to me. But also made me wonder what happens if you’re on the highway, is there a light that tells you the bike is not working anymore?

    • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

      All bikes have a digital gauge telling you how much battery is left. The dirt bikes with the street kit have the dash pictured above and the strictly off-road bikes have a smaller read-out attached to the frame just below the steering neck.

      • michael.engle

        Is it funny/ironic to anyone else that the power icon is a gas pump?

        • http://www.brammofan.com Brammofan

          My Brammo Enertia has three screens to choose from that give you power information. I use purely numerical readouts, but the “graphical” screen has something that looks more like an AA battery lying on its side. It’s fully shaded when you’re at 100%, and it slowly un-shades as you use power. Plus, in the middle of the “battery” is a numerical percentage showing the current state of charge.
          I think the gas pump icon used by Zero might be ironic, but I have difficulty imagining them sitting around a table, chuckling about the suggestion to use a gas pump. I think it was more of a “let’s use something familiar.”

      • tomwito

        I meant if the battery is still charged.

        • http://hellforleathermagazine.com Grant Ray

          The vertical read-out on the dirt bike works just like a gas gauge from Full to Empty. Once it’s down to the last red light and the bike isn’t moving, you’re out of charge.

  • Barry

    I’d really like to ride one of these at a tight race track/shifter kart course. I think they’d be a hoot and a holler just for the novelty. Of course, you’ll need a 1.21 Gigawatt generator for the stack of batteries you’ll have to charge and swap, but it’d be something new.