Motorcycles Zero S Electric Motorcycle Test Drive

Published on July 6th, 2009 | by Susanna Schick

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Zero S Electric Motorcycle Test Drive

Zero S

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The US electric motorcycle market is a niche within a niche. Motorcyclists still represent a tiny fraction of the traffic mix in the country where the automobile is king. While most motorcycles get better mileage and have lower emmissions than most cars, they still run on gas.

There are very few electric motorcycles on the market, even fewer being mass manufactured. The one that comes closest to performing like a “real” motorcycle is the Zero S. This 17hp machine with 60 foot pounds of torque is actually more enjoyable than some of the gas-powered bikes in the same horsepower class I’ve ridden. The massive torque of an electric motor makes the Zero the envy of all low-power motorcycles.

Zero S

The author plugs in after the test drive.

Taking advantage of the opportunity to reach over 60,000 motorcycling enthusiasts at once, the test ride was held during the MotoGP races at Mazda Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey, CA, not far from Zero’s Santa Cruz headquarters. On Friday we had to sign up for Sunday slots, and by Sunday they had a long waiting list and promised to extend the test rides until the batteries ran out. There was always a crowd at their booth, showing that many motorcyclists are curious about going electric.

Because my daily ride is a gas-guzzling 166hp 1000cc beast, I chose instead to base my comparison on the 125cc 4 stroke scooter I had rented in Spain for two weeks. This was an important mental shift, as electric motorcyles have automatic transmissions, like modern scooters. Occasionally I found myself reaching for the nonexistent clutch, wanting to shift into neutral. The lack of engine braking was hard to get used to, especially in a downhill turn with lots of gravel, where normally I would’ve relied on engine braking. Another rider complained the throttle was too abrupt, but I found it to be smoother than many gas-powered bikes. It’s just a very responsive throttle.

The silence was and still is my greatest concern, being of the “loud pipes save lives” school. Yes, excessively loud pipes are obnoxious, but since most US drivers don’t see motorcyclists, whatever we can do to get attention helps. The silent problem was immediately evident, as the gate keeper had his back to us and didn’t notice us until we honked. I also neglected to close the throttle completely as I came to a stop because I was so used to hearing my engine tell me when it was at idle. That just meant I had to use more brake, which worked out fine. All that aside, I did enjoy riding in silence more than I thought I would. It was very peaceful, at least, in an environment where I didn’t have to worry too much about being seen.

The Zero handled the short ride down and back up a windy road perfectly well, and the massive torque really helped when accelerating uphill from a stop. It’s very light and responsive, and I hope to have a chance to try one out on the racetrack to really see how it handles. It was clearly the perfect city bike, though. The S is their street version, and Zero’s first models are all for off-road riding. So the S is not that far removed from a dirt bike, with its high, narrow seat and wide handlebars, which puts the rider in a great position for city riding. Being 6′ tall and 145lbs, I was perfectly comfortable on the Zero S, but the seat height might be a bit much for shorter riders.

Because my commute via motorcycle is half the time it would be via public transit, I’d much rather ride the Zero to work than the train. At highway speeds, and with a top speed of 70mph, the Zero S can last about 25 miles on a charge. Of course like any EV, lower speeds bring longer battery life. Zeromotorcycles.com provides more detail, including locations of demo rides, and an explanation of the federal tax credits and state rebates available for buyers. What remains to be seen is how easily one can find an electrical outlet where they park.


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About the Author

Susanna is passionate about anything fast and electric. As long as it's only got two wheels. She covers electric motorcycle racing events, test rides electric motorcycles, and interviews industry leaders. Occasionally she deigns to cover automobile events in Los Angeles for us as well. However, she dreams of a day when Los Angeles' streets resemble the two-wheeled paradise she discovered living in Barcelona and will not rest until she's converted the masses to two-wheeled bliss.



  • Kyle

    Love the idea. I think for the most part motorcycle enthusiasts are value driven buyers (except the Ducatistas…) so bikes like this will start having traction in their market once they can make economic sense to prosective buyers. You mentioned a 125cc scooter, Kymco currently has one on the market for $2k. At 50 mpg I’ve bought a lot of gasoline to gap the $8k difference in purchase price.

  • Kyle

    Love the idea. I think for the most part motorcycle enthusiasts are value driven buyers (except the Ducatistas…) so bikes like this will start having traction in their market once they can make economic sense to prosective buyers. You mentioned a 125cc scooter, Kymco currently has one on the market for $2k. At 50 mpg I’ve bought a lot of gasoline to gap the $8k difference in purchase price.

  • http://www.twitter.com/NomadRip James NomadRip

    Great write-up. I know you are as much of a gearhead as I am, so it’s good to see you had such good things to say about this one.

    Motorcyclists seem to tend to “poo-poo” all these electric motorcycles coming out, but I think they’re fantastic, and hope to see a lot more of them on the roads around town.

  • http://www.twitter.com/NomadRip James NomadRip

    Great write-up. I know you are as much of a gearhead as I am, so it’s good to see you had such good things to say about this one.

    Motorcyclists seem to tend to “poo-poo” all these electric motorcycles coming out, but I think they’re fantastic, and hope to see a lot more of them on the roads around town.

  • Sustainable Development

    Not another delusional rider who believes that “loud pipes save lives?” Having ridden motor, and holding a motorcycle license for thirty-eight years, it is the skill of the rider that makes all the difference. If you are lane-splitting, and driving once you enter a lane you as if you have all the road rights in the world then pre-invite me to your funeral. The aspect of a quieter environment is so appealing that one need only escape to the solitude of nature to realize how much it is taken for granted. Now, even the government wants mandate regulation on noise that must be emitted for “supposed” safety reasons on the upcoming electric automobiles. Thankfully, my community is waking-up to the virtues of less noise and a community group is effectively gathering in conjunction with our local police and we are sending a message to the “loud pipes save lives” crowd to go elsewhere or be cited. The Zero S will be welcomed…all others with illegally modified exhaust need not apply.

  • Sustainable Development

    Not another delusional rider who believes that “loud pipes save lives?” Having ridden motor, and holding a motorcycle license for thirty-eight years, it is the skill of the rider that makes all the difference. If you are lane-splitting, and driving once you enter a lane you as if you have all the road rights in the world then pre-invite me to your funeral. The aspect of a quieter environment is so appealing that one need only escape to the solitude of nature to realize how much it is taken for granted. Now, even the government wants mandate regulation on noise that must be emitted for “supposed” safety reasons on the upcoming electric automobiles. Thankfully, my community is waking-up to the virtues of less noise and a community group is effectively gathering in conjunction with our local police and we are sending a message to the “loud pipes save lives” crowd to go elsewhere or be cited. The Zero S will be welcomed…all others with illegally modified exhaust need not apply.

  • Rob

    First, I too am looking forward to more electric bikes — with more power and range. I like the look of the Zero S.

    Contrary to your opening statements, while some motorcycles get reasonable gas mileage, most bikes unfortunately have very poor emissions and pollute quite a bit more than modern cars. The monitoring and mitigation cars do (catalytic converters for example) adds too much weight and bulk for use on most motorcycles.

    Also, I find some of the details you mentioned in your article amusing. It reads a bit like a personals ad:

    - HWP (6′ tall @ 145lbs)

    - Likes to travel (trip to Spain)

    - Likes fast bikes (owns a liter bike)

    By the way, 2-strokes don’t have engine braking. Folks who remember those would likely find the two similar in that regard.

  • Rob

    First, I too am looking forward to more electric bikes — with more power and range. I like the look of the Zero S.

    Contrary to your opening statements, while some motorcycles get reasonable gas mileage, most bikes unfortunately have very poor emissions and pollute quite a bit more than modern cars. The monitoring and mitigation cars do (catalytic converters for example) adds too much weight and bulk for use on most motorcycles.

    Also, I find some of the details you mentioned in your article amusing. It reads a bit like a personals ad:

    - HWP (6′ tall @ 145lbs)

    - Likes to travel (trip to Spain)

    - Likes fast bikes (owns a liter bike)

    By the way, 2-strokes don’t have engine braking. Folks who remember those would likely find the two similar in that regard.

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