How Do Electric Bikes Compare to Gas Bikes?

What if Octavia Butler’s dystopian vision depicted in “Parable of the Sower” came true tomorrow? We’re already almost out of water in California. What if gasoline suddenly becomes so expensive that people have to walk everywhere? Yet electricity would be cheap and plentiful, as it is becoming with solar and wind power. What if it was easier to plug in than gas up? Which electric motorcycle available today would be the closest match to your current motorcycle?

As the cost of gas continues to rise and the cost of electricity and batteries continue to shrink, electric vehicles are moving toward cost parity with gas vehicles. Yes, the total ownership cost is higher, but not by much when comparing fuel and maintenance costs as well as sticker price. Tesla is making huge bets on batteries, from building them in the USA to possibly developing a 500 mile (for a car) Graphene battery. Graphene batteries are touted as the next generation for EV batteries, and electric motorcycles won’t be far behind in using them.

Schick on Energica Ego
The author on the Energica Ego. Photo courtesy of CRP.

Energica Ego Superbike

Let’s start at the top. If your current ride is a Ducati Panigale, you will not only require an Italian replacement, you’ll also be happy to get around on foot while waiting until they deliver these bikes sometime in 2015. The Energica is exceptionally well made, handles beautifully and has excellent range. It costs about as much as a Panigale and should be able to give the average canyon carver their usual 100 mile day in the twisties. Read our full review here and my take on it here.

Terry Hershner's 200 mile 2012 Zero S. Range extender courtesy of Craig Vetter and 12 extra kWh in batteries.
Terry Hershner and his 200 mile (highway) range 2012 Zero S. Range extender courtesy of Craig Vetter and 12 extra kWh in batteries.

Zero S & SR

These are the biggest selling electric motorcycles today. Thanks to their less-than-horrifying MSRP, improving quality and excellent dealer network, many people have chosen Zero. The SR is their sportiest bike, but you literbike riders may find yourselves wanting an Energica more than a Zero.

The SR has almost the same horsepower as a Triumph Street Triple, 67hp vs 68hp. However, the SR has twice as much torque (106 ft-lbs vs 50 ft-lbs). All that torque makes daily city riding infinitely more fun, and on any Zero made after 2012, it’s easily adjustable with the smartphone app. Though why anyone would ever want less torque is inconceivable.

Once, on my Zero FX, I tried dropping the torque and top speed. I was worried about range, but it’s not worth it. I prefer trying to keep my speed within practical range than not having the ability to go faster if I need it. The SR and the S are identical aside from the power and range. They have the ergonomics and suspension of a standard like the Triumph Street Triple or even the Suzuki SFV650. So if you’re looking for a more upright ride, and don’t mind scraping pegs, this is the bike. It’s also good for longer commutes, with a highway range of up to 106 miles. The SR retails for around $19k with the power tank.

If you’d like to save $6,500, and don’t mind losing 38 ft-lbs of torque, 13hp, and 42 miles of highway range, the 8.5 kWh Zero S is the bike for you. Like all Zero’s, it’s a great starter bike because of the single-speed transmission and adjustable torque.

A couple of Brammo Empulses relaxing at Deus. Photo by Susanna Schick
A couple of Brammo Empulses relaxing at Deus. Photo by Susanna Schick

Brammo Empulse

The closest competitor to the Zero SR, the Empulse is a proper sportbike. The build quality and suspension are much better than the Zero, and it looks pretty cool too. The range and power are comparable to the base model Zero S, but the chassis is better. $4,000 better? That depends on what you’d like to spend replacing the stock Zero components with Marzocchi forks, Sachs shock and Brembo brakes, all top brands used on the Brammo.

This is the bike for you if you like the distinctive café racer look of a Triumph Thruxton, albeit a more futuristic version. It’s also for any rider who insists it’s not a motorcycle unless it’s got a gear shifter. The Empulse has a 6-speed transmission as clunky and finicky as any neo-vintage Brit bike. It’s not horrible, it just takes a little getting used to.

The Zero FX in its natural habitat. No green sticker needed. Photo courtesy of Zero.
The 2014 Zero FX in its natural habitat. No green sticker needed. Photo courtesy of Zero.

Zero FX

I’m going to skip right past the Zero DS. Yes, the DS has twice the range of the FX. Yes, it’s designed as a dual-sport. But I’m biased. I loved riding the FX so much I bought one for myself. It’s all I want to ride now. Sure, it only gets about 30 miles on the freeway, at about 70mph. I’d have a higher average speed (and less range) if it didn’t start to overheat after 20 minutes at 85mph. The warning light comes on to urge you to slow down a bit, but everything is fine. City range is closer to 80 miles, riding in the only manner conducive to survival in LA, brutal aggression.

The FX is designed as a dirt bike, but with a set of S wheels. It’s the perfect city or supermoto bike. The popular KTM 500 EXC puts out about 50hp and 33 ft-lbs of torque, while the FX delivers 44hp but double the torque at 70 ft-lbs. The KTM is 34 lbs lighter than the stock FX at 242 lbs. The 500 EXT, though not as popular for supermoto as the 450 SMR, is actually available and street legal in the US. I spoke with Orange County KTM and was told the $11k KTM 500 EXC is easy enough to convert for supermoto with about $2,000 for some good 17” wheels and a set of tires. The $12k Zero FX can be fitted with Zero S wheels and a nice set of tires for $1500, or more for nicer wheels.

You may have read my review of Shelina Moreda’s dirt camp here and our story of the Hell on Wheels MX race here. That was my first MX race ever, and I loved every minute of it, except the chipped brake pad (which I still haven’t gotten around to fixing). I ride this bike every day. I used to own a Husqvarna SMR450, which I dubbed "the vibrating wedgie" because it was horrendous above 40mph. The FX is smooth at any speed.

The Zero FX in street trim. Granted, I spent a lot of time hanging around chatting once I got there, but at least I was in good company.
The Zero FX in street trim. Granted, I spent a lot of time hanging around chatting once I got there, but at least I was in good company.

There are many other electric motorcycles around today, but most are still not quite available. The Brammo Enertia, Brammo’s first consumer model, is still available at dealers, although the Plus is far outselling their base model. The Mission is available to order from dealers and Lightning are available to order from the factory. BRD is still pre-order only, and shy about their torque specs, one of the biggest perks of riding electric.

Of course the big one to look out for is Harley Davidson’s LiveWire. While it’s a shocking (truly, for lack of a better word) announcement, veteran moto journalist Mark Gardiner explains here why it’s a brilliant strategy on their part. Even though it’s entirely possible that most hardcore Harley enthusiasts will walk to Sturgis before they’ll ever ride an electric motorcycle, the kids whizzing by them on LiveWires will be having a blast getting there.

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