By Gabe Ets-Hokin, Contributing Editor

Electric motorcycles have arrived


That’s what I said to myself in my helmet as the 2011 Zero S I was riding spent its last electron and coasted silently to a stop, less than 10 miles from where our short press-launch ride loop had started. To be fair, I was in the third wave of journalists riding the bikes that day, and they didn’t start the ride with a full charge… but 10 miles? A gas-powered bike would barely be warm.

Fast forward just two years and:


That’s what I said to myself as my bright-yellow 2013 Zero S rolled past yet another exit on Highway 24 on the way to Walnut Creek. I had left my house in Oakland earlier that evening, ridden to downtown San Francisco, and then on the way home, wondered how far it would go. The digital “fuel” gauge indicated nine bars of 11 remaining as I approached the CA-24 exit in Oakland, so I shrugged and blasted up the long uphill section to the Caldecott tunnel.

I wasn’t going to baby the bike on the way there – I was riding like I ride my personal ride: fast and aggressive, holding my position in traffic to stay clear of the drunks, the distracted, the inattentive and the just plain mean that roam the freeways at night. With the “Sport” mode engaged, the Zero accelerates like a middleweight Twin and has no trouble keeping ahead of most anything else on the road. We passed the Lafayette exit; now the little bars were disappearing every few miles. Number six blinked out of existence just before I passed the “Walnut Creek 3 Miles” sign.

Minutes later, the Walnut Creek BART station entrance was in front of the Zero’s bright, clear headlamp. Five bars – less than half of the battery gauge – remained, and range anxiety reared its ugly head. Would I wind up calling the AMA for a tow? I decided to slow it down, trailing 100 yards behind an obvious drunk driver in a Suburban weaving gently in his lane between 55 and 60 mph. Ten miles down the road, I was back at the Caldecott tunnel, facing a long downhill back to Oakland – with three bars remaining. I decided to pin it in Sport mode all the way home. As I waited for my garage door to open, the gauge was blinking the last two bars – enough for another 10 miles of freeway travel, but 50 miles was more than enough to tell me electric motorcycles may have come of age. Had I held it at a steady 70 mph, I probably could have gone 70 miles – two miles past the Central Valley University town of Davis, just 11 miles short of Sacramento.

Mr. Harley briefed you on this bike’s capabilities last year, but here’s what you should know: This is a brand-new motorcycle and a far cry from the cruder 2010 Zero DS we tested. Almost every component has been touched by the new-stick, from the battery to the frame to the motor. The 2012 models were heavily refreshed – and offered a lot more range than the 2011 (which offered a lot more range than the 2010, and so on) – but still shared some components with earlier models.

No more. The 19.5-pound aluminum frame is new and makes the motor a stressed member – the swingarm is stiffer, and passenger pegs are now standard. The bodywork is all new – lovingly penned by talented industrial designer Matt Bentley – and incorporates a big space behind the steering head (can’t call it a “tank” anymore, can we?) for a removable soft storage bag, held in place by a helmet lock. Wheels are 17-inchers, sized for bias-ply rubber (IRC Road Winners, a 110/70-17 in front and 130/70-17 in back). Simple Nissin brake calipers, two-piston in front and one-pot in back provide braking, and suspension is handled by Taiwanese manufacturer Fast Ace. The inverted 38mm fork offers adjustable rebound and compression damping, and the rear shock is three-way adjustable.

The battery and motor are all new. The ‘Z-Force’ brushless electric motor is handsome, with gold-anodized cooling fins, and is also maintenance-free. Zero says it has the windings built into the outside casing for better heat dissipation, which means the added weight of liquid-cooling is unnecessary. Zero claims it makes 54 horsepower and 68 lb-ft of torque – and that extra power needs more juice, so for 2013 there are two battery options: an 8.5 kilowatt/hour (kWh) pack and a super-sized 11.4 kWh box that costs an extra $2,000 but also offers 20% or more range. Those numbers, by the way, are maximum capacity – nominal capacities, a more realistic way of talking about battery capacity, are 7.5 and 10 kWh, respectively.

Ready to ride, the Zero S weighs in at 355 pounds for the 8.5, 387 for the 11.4. Those small numbers – heavier than prior Zero models, but still about the weight of a 250cc-class sportbike and 83 pounds lighter than the Brammo Empulse R – combined with a new, low and narrow (but comfortable for an hour or two) 31.3-inch seat, means the bike is easy to handle around town. Operation couldn’t get any easier – turn the key, flip the kill switch to "run" and wait for the green light to illuminate on the Koso instrument cluster. Depending on which ride mode you’ve selected – Sport or Eco – the throttle response is either mellow or energetic, but always linear (and now I can no longer say, “like an electric motor”) and smooth. There is no clutch, and the huge belt-driven rear sprocket seems like a good gearing choice.

The instruments are functional, with a tachometer (that has almost no meaning – I stopped noticing it), charge meter, speedometer but no clock.

As an urban errand-runner, the Zero is tough to beat. No clutch, no gears and a reasonable steering lock means it’s low-impact and easy to maneuver through tight spaces. Acceleration in either mode is more than ample for light-to-light drag races. On bumpy pavement, the suspension can be wanting; the damping felt overwhelmed and transmitted jolts through the seat. A nit I can pick is the lack of a locking trunk like Honda’s NC700X – the soft bag is spacious and handy (although it won’t fit a helmet) but not secure. An accessory rack with Givi trunk ($600) is available.

Take it to a winding two-lane road and you can see the value of going electric. Roll on and off the throttle and focus on your lines through the turn – no need to worry about shifting or throttle response. Both Sport and Eco mode offer engine braking – obviously, you get a lot more from Eco – which makes the experience feel familiar to those of us raised on four-stroke sportbikes.

The brakes are much better than prior iterations of the Zero S. They won’t win any awards and notably lack ABS – a big ding against a product best-suited for commuting fixed distances on busy highways and byways. (Why no ABS, I asked Scot Harden, Zero’s VP for PR. Cost, he said: $600,000 or more to tool up for it. But he said it will be mandatory by 2016, so the company is working on it.) But the bike is fairly light, so there’s a surprising amount of feel, bite and power from the front binder, though I was happiest using a four-finger squeeze. The rear was weak, surprising given the bike's supermoto DNA.

The suspension is also a limitation, but I’ve ridden much worse: Fast Ace is primarily a supplier for mountain bikes and mini-motos, but a lot of thought and development went into developing it for this application, so it could be worse. Zero does offer a Fox shock upgrade. The other limitation may be the comfortably low footpegs, which can drag if you’re really aggressive, a possibility with the surprisingly good IRCs. The aggressive steering geometry – short wheelbase, steep rake – lightweight and narrow bias-plies makes the bike easy and fun to pilot, and I was again surprised about the grip these tires (the same as the Ninja 300’s) offer.

Still, it’s not an electric GSX-R, but what I think of as the Zero’s competition – middleweight Twins like Suzuki’s SFV650 or Honda’s NC700X – don’t offer MotoGP-level suspension and brakes either. It’s useable on the open road, fun to ride around town, even more fun in the twisties, and easy to operate. What you want to know is how economical it is, how far it will go, how fast you can ride it and how long it takes to charge.

This is where this review diverges from most e-moto reviews, as the 2013 Zero S doesn’t need many excuses. Like I said in the introduction, the Zero S ZF11.4, when ridden at a steady speed in the Eco mode, can carry a 140-pound rider (thanks, My Fitness Pal!) around 70 miles at a steady 70 mph, exactly what Zero claims. On another journey I held the speed constant between 55 and 60 mph (a nerve-racking task on a California Interstate) and went 38 miles on 40% of the bike’s charge – with some practice, 100 miles at (slow) freeway speeds may be possible. Riding like grandma on Librium is no fun, true – but knowing you have that kind of range makes shorter trips a lot more fun, as you can waste battery power with quick acceleration and higher speeds worry free.

Many motorcycles now offer on-the-fly mapping adjustments, but how many let you tune the modes from your smart phone? These bikes pair via Bluetooth with a smart phone, and the Zero app offers lots of functionality (download it and check it out at the App Store or on Google Play), including the ability to adjust top speed and regenerative braking in eco mode. You can also customize the display (you can only access the display while the bike is moving) to show all kinds of data, including distance to empty, battery temperature, current draw, torque and, yes, a clock. Zero provided me with a handy X-Grip mount from RAM that held my iPhone 5 securely in place, despite the jarring from the firm suspension.

How fast will it go? The Zero S does indeed rocket up to an indicated 95 mph top speed, 91 mph on my iPhone’s GPS app. Hold the throttle wide open too long and a “water temp” icon warning lights up, but Zero says that’s normal, part of the safety protocols, and doesn’t indicate battery or motor damage. That will also discharge your battery at a dizzying rate. But Lord, is it fun, and Harden tells me different gearing (or a higher-capacity Sevcon controller) could get the speed even higher.

Here’s what I know about charging. Mostly, it’s really, really easy. Pull into the garage, switch off the key, plug the cord into the little socket, and you’re done. After a few times you don’t even think about it. A little light on the dash flashes until it’s charged. If you sleep for 8 hours (which means you don’t have a young child at home), the bike will be fully charged and ready in the morning. Cut that time in half for every $750 quick charger you install, up to three – and you can charge in about two hours. Does your motorcycle fill itself with gas every time you park it in your garage? Turns out I live in a gas station with a clean bathroom, which is as convenient as it sounds.

Out and about, charging is a little more complex. Pull up to a public charge station and there’s nowhere for you to plug in that distinctive J1772 pistol-grip, unless you opted for the $400 optional socket. These stations will charge you up from dead in about 4 hours, although you can speed things up by plugging into the 110 outlet as well (and speed it up more by carrying a quick charger with you). If you’re at an elusive CHAdeMO stations (this is changing – expect 4000 CHAdeMO stations in the U.S. by the end of 2014, more if Tesla and other OEMs come to their senses) and you splurged on the $1,800 accessory, you could be on your way in under an hour with a 95 percent charge.

How much? A lot. The Zero S rings in at $13,995 for the ZF8.5, $15,995 for the 11.4 I rode. In California, state and federal tax credits pay you back about $2,400, but you’re still looking at a premium of about $6,000 if you figure (like I did) that the Zero offers performance pretty equal to a 650 Twin like the Honda NC700X or Suzuki SFV650, at least in the parts of the powerband where we spend most of our time. You can see that difference two ways: a guilt tax paid only by nerds and eco-nuts or a pre-payment of fuel costs for a dedicated moto-commuter who knows his or her commute will be the same distance every day. An SFV650 returning 43 mpg, ridden 15,000 miles a year, will use $6,000 of $4/gallon gasoline in about four years – but that doesn’t count the oil changes and other maintenance the bike will require in that time. My own daily rider – a 2010 Triumph Street Triple R – is thirstier, bringing the break-even point for a gashog like me to three years.

The Zero S (and by extension, the Zero DS, which is similar, except with shorter gearing, more suspension travel and a 19-inch front wheel) is now a mature product that doesn’t need a lot of excuses. It’s a functional solution for the roughly 185,000 Americans who commute by motorcycle but travel less than 30 minutes each way.* It’s also really fun to ride, with a character and user-friendliness you won’t find in a gas motorcycle. Harden told me there won’t be any big leaps in range, speed or charge times in the near future, which removes an excuse for not getting one.

The electric motorcycle, represented by the 2013 Zero S I rode, has arrived – really. It’s not perfect, or right for everybody, and it won’t replace the fleet of gas-powered bikes in your garage. But it’s great at what it does and is fun to ride – a real motorcycle worth a second look.

*The U.S.Census reported 294,000 Americans commute by motorcycle, and that about 34% of all commuters travel more than 30 minutes each way. I don’t know if the numbers correlate perfectly, so 185,000 may be optimistic, but more likely is conservative, as I would guess motorcyclists on average have shorter commutes than our car-enclosed brethren.