Technology vs Heritage – Zero Electric vs Royal Enfield Combustion

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Technology vs. Heritage - International Motorcycle Show at Long Beach

How They Compare:

Compared to Zero’s bikes the GT is a dinosaur. Its 535cc single cylinder engine can’t compete with the Zero SR’s lightning fast electric powertrain but why would it have to?

Royal Enfield and Zero are two motorcycle companies with completely divergent approaches. Royal Enfield can rely on the fact that they already control one of the largest motorcycle markets in the world thereby minimizing their risk when introducing a bike like the GT, that they hope can expand their reach into international markets.

2014 Zero SR
2014 Zero FX

Zero on the other hand does not have the luxury of a safety cushion, instead they have to trust that electric bikes are the future of motorcycling. Clearly they are well on their way to developing the technology that will be key to their success, but in their way stands cost issues and the task of convincing the everyday motorcycle enthusiast that electric bikes are the way to go. As of now in the eyes of the average motorcycle consumer the idea of an electric motorcycle remains somewhat of a novelty. With the price tag of a premium motorcycle and the uncertainty that comes with a new technology, Zero has yet to break into the mainstream market.

Royal Enfield’s close proximity to the Zero made for an interesting contrast between old and new. Standing on the showroom floor, to your left you have a familiar brand with classically styled machines and to your right, Zero, who claim their bikes have “the most advanced electric motorcycle powertrain in the industry.” While both companies offer vastly different products their end game is the same, mass appeal. So far Zero’s customers have mostly belonged to the baby boomer demographic but moving forward they hope to prove that there is a place for an electric bike in everyone’s garage.

On the other hand, Royal Enfield has established at home that their product is a bike for the masses but has yet to demonstrate that on an international level outside of their base market.

2014 Royal Enfield Continental GT
Royal Enfield Classic 500 kick-starter

So What?

The juxtaposition of Royal Enfield and Zero Motorcycles displays at the show encourages you to think about the role each company plays and about the bigger picture with regard to the future of motorcycling. Royal Enfield relies on the fact that there is a customer base that appreciates what came before, that doesn’t want the latest and greatest but rather, desires what works and what is classic. While Zero is aiming to push electric motorcycles to the forefront of motorcycling while overcoming preconceived notions about what electric motorcycles can and cannot do. The path of both of these companies has greater implications for the future of the motorcycle industry as a whole. Will companies like Indian and Royal Enfield, that rely heavily on tradition, fall by the wayside as motorcycle technology advances or will companies blazing trails like Zero hit impassable roadblocks in an industry that is deeply rooted in heritage and history? Only time will tell.

Do you think there is a middle ground? What about companies like Triumph that offer both classic bikes and more contemporary ranges? Let us know in the comments section below.

  • mickedard

    Can we get some information on cold weather performance?

    • grindz145

      Anything below freezing, I would stick with your gas bike (I have a dedicated winter-beater for these occasions) Otherwise you’re in pretty good shape. The EV motorcycles don’t have cooled and heated batteries like some of the more sophisticated cars do(Tesla), but also so much less to go wrong.

      • Richard Dort

        Actually they do. Brammo’s Empulse has built in heaters for the batteries, and they worked pretty hard on the passive cooling for them as well.

        • grindz145

          Ahh, good to know thanks. It’s nice to have on a cold fall morning.

          • Bill Manewal

            Yeah, you can jam your freezing fingers in between the battery packs and feel the warmth! (Don’t try this on an exhaust pipe!)

        • grindz145

          Hey I just found this: Suggests that they don’t actually have an active heating element in the battery pack. Do you have more information on this?

          • Richard Dort

            I didn’t know where on the site it talked about the heaters, only on the Brammoforums, which Brammo doesn’t run themselves. So I shot a quick e-mail off to their Director of Product Development. Here’s what he had to say:


            That’s an outdated FAQ from the original Enertia that used Valence lithium-iron phosphate batteries. We’re in process of a full website re-design, so our current website is not really getting much love. I’ll mention this though so the information gets corrected.

            The Enertia Plus, Empulse, and Empulse R batteries all have internal cell heaters.

            [. . . ]


            B R I A N W I S M A N N


            BRAMMO, Inc”

            And here is the link to the thread on the Brammoforums:

            • grindz145

              Awesome Richard thanks!

    • protomech

      Take a look at these threads on the brammo and zero forums:

      At cold temperatures (< 0C), power is reduced somewhat and typically you lose some amount from the "bottom" energy of the battery pack. The Empulse has cell heaters which can help warm the battery up when it's plugged in, but both the Zero and the Brammo bikes like to start from a warm environment.

      I rode my 2012 Zero all year round last year (temps down to 20F or so) and never got stranded (longest ride 50-60 miles), but the energy gauge was a little wonky and I saw top speed reduced from 85-90 mph to 75-80 mph.

  • drivin98

    The photo labeled “2014 Zero SR frame” is actually pictures the Zero FX. (Which uses a different frame.)

  • Ken Lindsay

    The classics will continue to dominate over electric sales for years to come. Until Electrics cost of ownership is below the ICE bikes or ICE bikes are regulated out of the market, it will be an uphill battle for market dominance. That said, I’ve been salivating at the promise of e-bike as each year goes by.

    Also, once they figure out how to (road) tax e-bikes, that’s going to be a HUGE blow to e-vehicles.

    • protomech

      Road tax is about 18 cents per gallon (or about 5% of the cost). 15k miles on a 50 mpg bike will pay $54 in federal highway taxes, out of a total fuel bill of ~$1000. That’s not a huge deal in the grand scheme of things.

      EVs certainly dodge that road tax now, as do the biodiesel brewers and anyone else using fuel not specific to road use. GPS tracking devices could record miles driven, but they’re clear invasions of privacy. Probably the simplest thing would be a _reasonable_ estimate for annual miles driven and just tack that on to the annual tags & title taxes.

      • Ken Lindsay

        I think I saw a sign on the gas pump here in San Diego that tax was $.35/gal plus some other taxes that added up to almost $.50/gal. Its been a few months since I paid attention to that, but it was shocking when I saw it. Also, most bikes get mileage in the 20-30s when you are on the throttle for fun. Now, I realize that isn’t how most commuters operate their bikes, but if we are honest, part of owning a bike is being able to accelerate faster than any car at the stoplight. My little 450 can get anywhere from 25-45 mpg. I don’t drive it very often so I don’t have to service it but once a year. Keeps those costs in line. On my old bike, all I did was oil and chains. I checked the valves myself and they never needed adjustment…
        Also, while service will be super low on an electric bike, charging stations, batteries and motors can fail. People are scared of those costs. If there was a leasing program to get people over the initial fear of those parts breaking, it might give the industry a shot in the arm.
        I think that during registration, you could write down your miles from last year, do the math and send in a check. However, it will still be an annoyance to consumers. Its kind of like how you have to fill up that urine additive to diesels, it makes some not want to own a more fuel efficient vehicle.
        No matter, I will own an electric bike at some time. I like the idea of them. Even if the cost of ownership is lower over 10 years, its the initial cost that’s keeping me from jumping in. That, and technology is changing so rapidly that I don’t want a bike that will have an outdated controller in 5 years that cannot be replaced. Motors, not worried about those. Batteries, yeah. Packaging down the road will be a concern. I might be able to get something with the right KWHr, but will it fit on my bike and still look stock? Dunno…

        • protomech

          It’s definitely an annoyance – and it’s head-scratching that government would subsidize EVs with one hand while creating special taxes for them with the other (never mind state vs federal, and different departments.. this should not be a consumer problem).

          Reliability of EV technologies will have to be proved by demonstration .. and hopefully absent media spin. That’ll just take time and miles.

          I’d like to see Tesla, Zero, Brammo etc commit to offering upgraded parts in future years. This should be easiest for Tesla – since they’ve consistently used 18650 cells in the Roadster and the Model S, it should be relatively easy to produce a Roadster pack with updated chemistry (+20-30% more energy, lower cost than the original pack).

    • gasdive

      The cost of ownership is already lower for an electric than it is for many (not all) petrol bikes. All of the high performance trail bikes (which sell very well) have TCO 2-5 times higher than a Zero. There’s basically no servicing at all for a Zero, while the hot trail bikes need a new piston every 10-15 hours. The sticker shock puts people off, but they really are much cheaper to run due to the lack of service.

  • Clint Keener

    The Continental GT was pretty nice in person. Much better fit and finish than I was expecting.

  • Mykola

    How timely; on Sunday I cut the motor and coasted down a long slow winding downhill road to remind myself what it felt like when I demo’d a Zero S in 2011. I am eager to own and ride an electric bike (likely the Zero S right now) as soon as I’m comfortable with the loan/down payment.

  • Nathan Haley

    I think it’s odd how people always say the gas bike is the “simpler” one while the electric bike is the crazy high-tech complicated jumble of spaghetti-wires waiting to fall apart and leave you stranded in the middle of nowhere. Electric motors are outstandingly simple, with only one moving part. Even though the batteries, electronics, etc. are very advanced, they’re also solid-state, so it’s not like they vibrate loose. A gas engine, meanwhile, has complicated intake/exhaust valves, rods, cams, gears, fuel injection (or a carburetor) and a million other parts chugging along in a steampunk-like box – and they all have to work together with mind-blowing precision or it grenades. I guess it all depends on how you define “complexity”.

    • Ryan Mayo

      I agree. When I say I want a simple bike, that doesn’t mean I want old technology, it just means I don’t want 10 way traction control, electronic throttle, stereo’s, power windscreen. etc. It’s why I like the Honda 500s so much, they are just a simple honest motorcycle.

      • ThinkingInImages

        Simple is a matter of perspective sometimes. I’d say the RE is a pretty simple motorcycle. There may be a lot of “hard parts” but it’s a single cylinder engine.

  • Jonathan Ward

    I’ve never really been a fan of cafe racer designs, much preferring the Enfield Classic. Zero is quite interesting, and I’d be more than happy to buy one. Unfortunately Zero pulled out of the UK earlier this year due to lack of sales, which is totally understandable. The average UK motorcyclist, in my opinion, isn’t willing to do more than laugh at the idea of electric bikes. Which is a shame. I believe the motorcycling community should embrace change, and accept that our fossil fuel resources won’t stay cheap(ish) forever. Anyway, hopefully it’ll be the same as ABS, people hate it, hate it, then actually see it can be quite useful.

    Anyway, back on point. Classic bikes will always exist. Of course the concept of classic bikes will change as time passes, but fundamentally everybody yearns for ‘that bike’ they wanted years back. I think electric bikes will slowly increase market share in commuter markets but won’t overtake sales of petrol for a long time yet. But who knows, things could change.

    • Chris Cope

      You’ve touched on one of my great frustrations about riding in the UK. It is dominated by the older generation, and not just the older generation in terms of age but in terms of thinking. Roadside cafes, racist/sexist humour, duct-taped everything. Ugh. I was sad to see Zero giving up on us.

      But, on the other side of the argument, electric bikes really are a challenge for such an urban people. Many people in the UK don’t have a garage in which to store and charge a bike.

      • Jonathan Ward

        Definitely, old generation thinking rules just about everything bike-wise in the UK. I’m guessing it must be quite a bit different in the US! Yet, if you look at the demographics of motorcycle owners in the UK it’s pretty clear why. 50 something last time I checked? With the European Union’s 3DLD licence changes, that’s set to rise even more.

        I agree with your second point too. Most people I know don’t have a garage to charge their bike, and neither do I. There must be some way around that. Hopefully one day in the not so distant future Zero will come back – I wanted to have a peek at their latest generation models at Motorcycle Live this year which is when I discovered they’d packed their bags and left. Damn them!

        • ThinkingInImages

          I’m part of the “old generation” but on this side of the “pond”. I’m open to new tech. I’ve also reached an age where a motorcycle is less about the “quick thrill” and more about an overall package – more so the daily ride motorcycle. There has to be a level of “practical” and “functional” to the daily ride. It sounds amazingly dull and often it is. There’s no thrill about traffic and lousy road surfaces.

          The truth is most modern motorcycles and scooters are as reliable as a toaster, even with all the tech and parts. Outside of the occasional oil change and fuel up, the biggest chore unique to a fuel powered motorcycle is – I don’t know. I’m trying to think of something unique.

          Setting aside the aesthetics, the cost, and all the things that make fuel powered motorcycles interesting, it still comes down to that one dull aspect: it’s easier, and more reliable, for me to gas up than charge up.

          • Jonathan Ward

            I agree. Convenience will probably prevent a large-scale uptake of electric vehicles in their current form. After all, it is much easier to visit a petrol station before a long journey than faff about with battery charging times.

    • Justin McClintock

      E-bikes will flourish once there is some industry standardized swappable battery. Until then, they’re decent for folks who live in very urban areas and don’t take long rides, but fall short if you want to take a ride out in the country. I can fill the tank on any of my bikes in 3 minutes if I’m out long enough. With an electric bike…yeah, not so much. I see that as their #1 issue.

      • Jonathan Ward

        I don’t think there’ll ever be a swappable battery, but I do think there needs to be a standardised charging adaptor. For example, there’s an e-charging station in a multi-storey car park near me, however I couldn’t use it for a Zero because the adaptors aren’t compatible.

        That, I believe, is one of the major drawbacks to electric vehicles. Too many proprietary designs. The mobile phone industry has only just learnt that lesson and hopefully soon, the electric vehicle industry will too.

        • protomech

          Zero offers optional adapters for both J1772 (AC) and CHAdeMO (fast charge DC) .. so the standardized adapters exist. They’re just very expensive and (for the J1772 adapter) nearly useless because it is no faster than charging on a standard 110v outlet. Zero needs to offer a charging solution that at least can pull 30A from J1772.

          170 miles – or even 88 miles on the highway – is well within the range of the majority of American commutes. Put another way: if you commute 90 miles/day, then in the typical year of 250 work days you’ve put in 22k miles JUST on your commute. There certainly are people who commute longer – the census bureau states that approximately 3% of commutes are “long-distance”, exceeding 50 miles “as the crow flies” .. but for virtually everyone else, electric bikes have enough range to ride both ways on a commute.

          Agree about the bikes being better suited for commuting than long-distance leisure and touring .. and that’s all down to charging time, not to range.

          • Jonathan Ward

            I stand corrected!

            • protomech

              It’s definitely true that charging an EV, and a Zero in particular, is still a very immature process.

  • Chris Cope

    Arguably, Zero and RE are quite similar in that they both offer bikes that have sub-par parts and sub-par performance, and both sell an idea of something more than the actual thing.

    • Justin McClintock

      Good point. Throw Ridepart’s favorite commute, the CB500X in the mix and see how they fair against it.

  • ThinkingInImages

    Interesting comparison and there’s a place for both types of motorcycles in general. Personally, based on aesthetics alone, I’d go for the RE. I simply enjoy looking at it. Having a “thing” for singles, I’d enjoy riding it, too. I can appreciate it for what it is.

    I can see the possibilities of the Zero – but It’s fundamentally a two wheeled flashlight. I’m sure it moves nicely and does almost all the things that a two wheeled vehicle does. It just sounds and looks different.

    What it really comes down to is day to day practicality and that’s where the RE wins – or any scooter or small, fuel efficient, motorcycle wins. To put in in modern cliche terms: an electric motorcycle in “on the grid” and a fuel powered motorcycle is “off the grid”. It’s easier to find a gas station than an outlet. It’s faster to fuel-up than charge-up.

    While electric motorcycles will improve and an ecosystem will/may be eventually built up – so will fuel powered engines. Already we’re seeing motorcycles with an emphasis on fuel efficiency that aren’t as dull as the crate they came in to ride. They’re practical for day to day use and have some edge to appeal to the enthusiast. Then there’s scooters. It’s not my type of two wheeler, but I can see that they’re getting pretty sophisticated. More importantly, they’re approachable. All these things make for an interesting challenge for electric motorcycles.

    I’m deliberately avoiding the whole “green” debate. It’s pointless. Simply put, based on current technology you need fuel powered machinery to create electric powered machinery. I suspect that will not change in my lifetime.

  • Jeff Witters

    As Wayne says “A good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

    Same is true for technology, everyone hedges their bets. Anyone who has ridden an electric bike knows the torque is intoxicating, but its a completely different experience.

    Get over the range issue and its an amazing ride.

    • Ryan Mayo

      Where I live scooters get free parking downtown, so I commute on a heavily modified Yamaha Zuma which I only used premixed gas for. So it took a lot more effort to fill up at a gas station so I only ever filled up at home. So it sort of gave me the feel for an electric, I had a range of about 85km, and with just local riding, I never had an issue.

      • protomech

        I bet if most people logged their rides for a month or two, they would find similarly.

        The majority of riding would be well served by electric motorcycles – not “someday in the future”, but today. Not all rides for all people, certainly – and charging on the go is sufficiently inconvenient that it will outright exclude the electric bikes for some number of people that frequently ride beyond single-charge range.

        But the speed is there. The ease of use is there. The reliability is good, and improving further. The fun is there.

        Costs, continuing to roll out local distribution/service, and charging are the hurdles that are left.

        • keewipete

          but… they are so boring… I mean… add pipes… oh wait… no pipes hahahaha

          • Bill Manewal

            Boring? My Empulse is 0 to 30 in one and a half seconds, corners like it’s on rails, splits lanes with the best of them, stops on a dime and sounds like a TIE fighter on takeoff. I can come hot into an intersection at 60 mph, kick it down into first gear, roll off the “throttle” and have the regen kick up a very enticing howl as she sheds speed to make a 90 degree turn at 25 mph and I’ve never touched the brakes while pedestrians stand agog with the “What WAS that?” look on the faces. I can take a Ducati 999 for the better part of a block and not wake up the whole neighborhood. All for a penny a mile and not send that penny to countries that are trying to shoot me. I’ve put 11K on her so far and have been bored only while charging at 1 a.m. in Bumf*ck California!

  • Ross Logan

    I love the ambition and ingenuity of the small, electric bike companies. But, I think it is going to take a big OEM who can design a well sorted bike and afford to sell it at zero profit (at least at first) for e-bikes to gain a real foothold in the market. The cost of e-bikes is killing sales of what could be very popular products.

  • roma258

    If I had to choose between the two, give me technology every time. We see what the obsessive focus on heritage results in (ahem Harley), so no thanks. Ofcourse most of us live in that middle ground somewhere between the cutting edge and 50 year tech, called the real world, so it’s all a theoretical exercise anyway…but electric motorcycles are an exciting new frontier and it’s cool to see American firms leading the charge.

    • Stephen Wuebker

      > “…leading the charge”

      I see what you did there.

  • Reid

    Does the Zero SR have radial tires at last?

    • Richard Dort

      No, but you can fit some Pirelli radials on.

  • titoito

    Hollywood Electrics in LA sells Zero Electric bikes & ships internationally as well.
    They also customize them to look as badass as requested (see modded 2013 Zero at VVMC Rally & in desert).

    Full Disclosure: I’m friends with the owner.

  • Bones Over Metal

    So if we merge them together, would there be a place in the market for a classic styled bike, like a Triumph or Royal Enfield with an electric drive train??
    I understand that would be a great engineering feat, but the best of both worlds.

    • Brian

      I think “part” of the aesthetic of a classic styled bike is in fact the engine itself. Taking that out of the equation would result in more of a rat rod parts bike look IMHO, like the Cushman electric scooters of old. I think the electric machines fair better in their current modern framework to the look that their buying demographic wants. The RE or other classic styled machines beckon someone who likes the idea of how an engine works. If they actually work on their machinery, then they appreciate the accesability to that aspect too. There are many other visceral aspects that go along with it too. So it isn’t just a drivetrain, but that to me seems to be a signifigant part to it all.

  • gasdive

    Funny thing, I’m probably the only one commenting who has extensive experience with both these bikes (albeit previous models). The RE is far from practical. It’s top speed before something breaks is about 80 km/h, you’d be runover if you tried to use one in a western country. Of course in India everyone is trying to run you over too, but not because you’re going too slow. The Enfield will generally break something every day. We had 20 bikes in the group and 3 very busy full time mechanics and two spare bikes and there was often someone riding in the bus. The Enfield was desperately slow, rather heavy for what it was and amazingly uncomfortable (even compared to say an XR600 which was my ride at home at the time). The brakes on the Enfield 500 were a *nightmare* return to the 1960′s. They hardly worked when dry and when wet had about the same level of retardation as whistling loudly.

    My Zero is the polar opposite. The often criticised brakes are fine, stoppies available (after a fluid change). It starts every time. It’s quiet, light, great handling and slightly more comfortable than it looks (still not very comfy). It’s completely practical. I never have to detour or wait to fill it. I just plug it in when I get home. It’s a bit skitish at 100 km/h but has plenty of power to get there.

    For me there’s no comparison. I wouldn’t have the Enfield as a gift, I’d buy another Zero tomorrow if they still sold them in Australia.

    • David in Fort Lauderdale

      I appreciate your comment. Even so, my choice would be the reverse. It’s nuts, I guess, but if I wanted to get where I was going with zero (ha!) hassle, great brakes, adequate acceleration and so forth I would drive my wife’s Toyota. There’s more entertainment riding my Enfield. For one thing, it’s the old saw about it being more fun to ride a slow bike fast than a fast bike slow (in traffic). Of course, I was just riding to work, whereas it sounds as though you did some serious duty on an Enfield. When I broke down (and I did) I would just call the office on the cell phone and say I’d be in as soon as I fit a new clutch cable…

    • keewipete

      Wow!… I have had an Enfield for years… simple machines and reliable as mum’s cooking. NEVER let me down. One thing broke in 8 years… the horn. I have a stable of 7 bikes from the Enfield, Harley, Buell Yamaha RD’s BSA and a SR500 Yam… As for an Electric bike…. wellI wouldn’t have one if the manufacturer got down on his knees and paid me.

      As for the Enfield’s speed… my 350 cruises at 80 all day long… and 100 is easily reached. It’s never going to be a speed demon… Hey if I want to go fast I hop on the Buell (highly modded 145hp M2)

  • RideaTart

    I ride a Brammo and am a big believer in the practicality of e-bikes, at least as part of a 2 or more bike garage. How often do I exceed 75 miles of riding in a day? Only for recreational rides, never weekday commuting. So save the gas bike for weekend fun, use the e-bike to soak up the much less glamorous weekday miles, free from worries about stopping for gas or checking the oil level. Of course, this set up won’t work for everyone. But it can work right now for lots of people.
    E-bikes are still very expensive, but there an aspect of this that is psychologically kind of fun, because the more you ride it, the more you “catch up” in terms of what you’d be paying for gas not to mention other stuff.
    But there’s an aspect of e-bike ownership which is kind of a psychological let down, namely, that you can be virtually certain your expensive device will never be a classic, because in 5 years people are going to look at it as say “oh, a Zero S, how quaint but paltry (or is it poultry?) compared to my new e-bike with lithiom-titanium batteries that can get me from SF to LA on two charges.”


    one guy called my zero a high powered segway. seems like some people stick wholeheartedly to heritage