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.
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.