2010 Zero DS

The Zero DS takes a less is more approach in most aspects of its design. Just look at the dash for a hint: The Brammo instrumentation is more engaging as it allows the rider to cycle through a number of displays. One master display shows estimated range along with other data like power output in kWh. A second charts a bar graph of percentage battery remaining. Yet another screen shows real-time power use, which helps encourage conservative throttle input. Again Brammo’s claim of 42-mile range isn’t near our experience with the bike, more in the neighborhood of 25 to 30 miles.

The key to coaxing the most range out of either of the bikes is being gentle and consistent with the throttle. After a while its gets to be a game of sorts, like those hypermilers that resort to shutting down their cars to coast to a stop with a dead engine. Ease on the throttle, massage the speed up to a cruising pace. If there’s even a slight downhill in the road, roll off and coast. With no resistance from engine braking, it’s eye-opening how long it takes these bikes to coast down from 50 to 40 mph.

Make it back to headquarters for a recharge, again the two competitors show their differences. Like the starting procedure the Zero’s charging process is simple and quick: Turn off the key and plug into the wall. The Brammo requires more work: Turn off bike, twist key to steering lock, then twist to charge postion, press and hold tank button to enable charging mode, remove key to unlock seat, plug underseat charger into wall outlet. Where the Zero process is easier, it is also the most rudimentary with only an LED series of lights indicating charging status. The Brammo, on the other hand, offers a host of charging information including percentage charged, time to full charge and the option of watching a more indepth status for the various batteries.

When it comes to looks, those we queried about the Brammo’s stylings returned answers ranging from, “pretty cool” to “horrid.” (Certainly the folks at Brammo have upped the ante with its next generation Empulse.) Like it or love it though, the Enertia does bear a clear design function. It’s a commuter appliance plain and simple. The Brammo has a more thought-out user interface (with its starting and charging procedures almost too thought out), it also boasts a better fit and finish. The Enertia also houses some interesting features, like a USB jump drive that data logs rides. The USB provides diagnostic evidence for repairs, as well as data mining for the engineers as they analyze charging cycles and other information that will influence future designs.

The Zero is less refined from a design standpoint. As far as styling goes, the Zero fared worse than the Brammo. It looks like a bike wrapped around a square battery. Some components, particularly the instrument console, look thrown together. Others features seem to be solutions made out of necessity: For example, the charging cord is tucked away in the cylindrical holes in the frame. Yet the Zero designers did hit the mark with the frame and swingarm. And where the Brammo is a commuter only, the Zero serves its function too – a versatile dual sport.

The Brammo’s biggest edge is in price. At $7995 it retails a full two grand less than the Zero DS. Both rides will see their MSRP drop considerably with the 10% EV federal tax credit, as well as numerous state rebates or tax incentives (CARB (California) is willing to pony up a fat $1500). But that begs the question: How do you buy these bikes?

Each company’s distribution models is unconventional. Zero takes the middle man out of the equation completely, with an online direct shipping method. Brammo made headlines with its exclusive partnership with Best Buy, though that distribution model doesn’t seem to have revolutionized things (just go ahead and call up your local BB and ask for an Enertia…). Now Brammo is pursuing a more traditional dealer network, as well as take orders online. And its recent partnership with electronics giant Flextronics has it poised for global aspirations.

And what of maintenance? As far as cleaning the bikes go, both motorcycles are fit to operate in the wet and dirt. In fact, Zero claims its motor could still run after being fully submerged. With no oil to change and no valves to adjust, riders could either conduct basic maintenance themselves or at the local bike shop: oil up the chain every once and again, spoon on new tires as needed and change brake pads. For more critical issues, like motor and battery troubles, there is a two-year warranty from Zero, with Brammo offering one-year warranty for the Enertia (two-year warranty available for purchase to match the standing warranty for the batteries). Each company has trained technicians to service the bikes for serious motor and battery issues (it’s not advisable to work on the high-voltage systems without proper training).

At the end of our test, we found two bikes with similarities but distinct differences. The Zero delivers a more powerful motor and larger capacity battery, as well as more versatility with its dual-sporting capabilities. As an overall package, however, it’s rougher around the edges with disappointing brakes and so-so chassis giving it room for improvement.

The Brammo is a commuter bike, plain and simple, and for some urban riders it may be the best commuting tool out there. The motor and battery performance is lacking compared with the Zero, however, its chassis and overall design outclass its competitor. Hacking its MSRP down to $7995 is an eyebrow-raising feat that can’t be ignored.

While it’s difficult not to see past their limitations, riders shouldn’t judge these bikes for what they aren’t. Instead this first wave of electric motorcycle production has succeeded simply by existing. One thing of which we’re certain, rides like the Enertia and Zero DS have whetted our appetite for development wave number two.