As much as you might have been told before setting off for the first time on an electric motorcycle, nothing can prepare you for the strange sensation of near silence as you open the throttle on the Zero S and accelerate away. Zero Motorcycles are one of the more successful mainstream electric motorcycle manufacturers and their Zero S attempts to strike a happy medium between performance, price and range. But does it tick off all those aspirations or is the technology still not mature enough for the mainstream?
Zero Motorcycles was first established in 2006 and has quickly become a name synonymous with more mainstream electric bikes alongside the likes of Brammo. The Zero S is classed as a naked, with minimal fairings and a fairly upright riding position and has been available since 2009. Almost every year, Zero makes major advances with the bike and the bike that you can buy in 2014 is leaps and bounds ahead of the original machine.
Unlike it’s main competitor, the Brammo Empulse, the Zero S does away with a clutch and therefore has a single gear. Using what Zero calls a clutchless direct drive, it does create a small compromise as the one gear needs to be a jack of all trades. But with full torque available from the get go and full power nearly the same, that’s not really a big deal. In additoin to making things simpler (and cheaper), doing away with a gearbox and clutch also means a reduction in maintenance – in fact the Zero S entire powertrain is maintenance-free.
The electric motor in the Zero S has an output of 54hp @ 4,300 rpm and 68 lb ft of torque at, well, all RPM. That’s a fantastic amount of torque in comparison to the actual horsepower of the bike and it’s instantaneous availability is one of the great advantages of electric motors. But all that torque in the world can’t make hide that low power figure. It’s only marginally more than the learner friendly Honda CBR500R (50hp @ 8,500 rpm) and gets dwarfed by the Yamaha FZ-07 (74 hp @ 9,000 rpm). I know we’re comparing apples and oranges in a way, but when the Honda and Yamaha cost $6,299 and $6,990 respectively while the Zero S is $15,345, those comparisons need to be made.
Starting the bike is another exercise in quirkiness. Turn the key, put up the world’s ugliest kickstand and you’re away. No starter button to press. I did find however that sometimes there was a lag between putting up the kickstand and when the engine was ready to go. The sound of the electric motor is great in my opinion, especially when you make it work hard. All those sound effects you remember as a kid growing up become reality now, the whine has a definite futuristic feel to it and I received a lot of strange looks from motorists when I filtered between their cars.
Claimed acceleration figures are 0 to 60 mph in 5.2 seconds which is around what a Ninja 300 will do. Unfortunately, it feels even slower than that figure and it’s already fairly pedestrian for a two-wheeler, especially one at this price. A big part of that is probably the lack of noise. A howling engine that overwhelms your senses plays a big part in the sensation of speed. Without that it just seems like you’re accelerating slower than you actually are. Where it lets you down from a standing start it makes up for when you’re at speed though.
When at cruising speed, the torque of the electric motor becomes apparent. A twist of the throttle will see you going from 40 mph to 60 mph in less than 2 seconds and similarly from 60 mph to 80 mp in under 3 seconds. Not only is that impressive, it’s extremely practical for city riding. It makes overtaking far easier than a bike of this power should be capable of. And combined with the decent ergos of the bike, makes it great to filter in heavy traffic with.
And city riding really does seem to be this bikes specialty. Sure, you can take it into the mountains for a squirt through the curves (as long as they’re close enough), but I question if that’s your main objective why you’d purchase this bike. A Ninja 300 is as quick and has better handling than the Zero S. The Zero is however effortless to ride. No clutch, no gears, instant power when it’s really needed and a comfortable riding position.
I’d almost go far as to say it’s a motorcycle designed for scooter riders. And if that sounds like an insult, I don’t mean it as such. But at this stage, this to me isn’t a motorcycle for motorcycle riders. There’s no where near enough performance, and without better speed and acceleration the bike feels really lacking given it’s characterless personality. And that has nothing to do with the limits of the technology. Check out reviews of the Zero SR and you’ll see fairly consistent praise for its more powerful engine. But costs are obviously still an issue and hence what we have with the Zero S.
And it’s not just the engine that seems to have suffered from price constraints. The bike seems solidly made but I can’t shake the feeling that it seems somewhat cheap. That’s probably not helped by the black and yellow color scheme of the bike I rode. For the price it just doesn’t scream quality. As mentioned before, the kickstand is horribly ugly and I disliked how the front brake line seems to be so exposed instead of being hidden like on almost every other modern motorcycle – it reminds me of a children’s BMX. The seat padding is also thin and would definitely start hurting after a while in the saddle.
On the plus side I found the rear view mirrors excellent, providing a huge amount of adjustment for almost any sized rider to see behind them. The instrument cluster is clear and easy to use and the overall riding position is quite a nice place to be. The grips however are rather hard and I also found the rear brake pedal a bit too far forward of the foot pegs. Yes, I’m being pedantic but this is a $15,000 plus bike we’re talking about here.
The elephant in the room is of course the range. Claimed range for the middle of the road Zero S which has a 12.5 kWh battery is 115 miles of combined city and highway riding. That’s not terrible, but it’s not great either. And like fuel consumption figures, you can guarantee the reality is not as impressive. You can opt for a bigger battery which extends the range to 141 miles, but that bumps up the price up to $17,840 plus increases the weight of the bike by a substantial 44 lb, making it even slower.
While we tested the 2014 model, the 2015 model will get upgraded suspension, ABS brakes (which haven’t even been available as an option previously) and better rubber, but the motor remains unchanged.
I went away from riding the Zero S somewhat underwhelmed. No doubt the Zero S is made to a price point and that means an underpowered engine. Which is a shame because otherwise it’s a decent bike – just not an exhilarating one. The Zero SR, which starts at $17,435 would definitely be the bike to choose and is a proper example of what a modern day electric motorcycle can achieve.
|Engine||Z-Force 75-7 passively air-cooled, high efficiency, radial flux permanent magnet, brushless motor
|Power||54 hp (40 kW) @ 4,300 rpm
|Torque||68 ft-lb (92 Nm)
|Gear Box||Clutchless direct driv
|Front Brakes||Bosch Gen 9 ABS, J-Juan asymmetric dual piston floating caliper, 320 x 5 mm disc
|Rear Brakes||Bosch Gen 9 ABS, J-Juan single piston floating caliper, 240 x 4.5 mm disc
|Front Suspension||Showa 41 mm inverted cartridge forks, with adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
|Rear Suspension||Showa 40 mm piston, piggy-back reservoir shock with adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
|Wet Weight||408 lb (185 kg)