2016 Zero DSR: Riding Toward the Future

Text: John M. Flores • Photography: John M. Flores

In the hills above Santa Cruz, the yellow diamond sign with the thick, curved black arrow pointing left says “20 MPH.” I roll off the throttle and the 2016 Zero DSR washes off speed like it’s a big V-twin, but instead of the bark of an engine under compression I hear the whine of the electric motor as it converts kinetic energy back into battery power.

Mountain Road

I’ve programmed it this way using the Zero smartphone app; it can also be set up like a two-stroke with no engine braking, or anywhere in between these two extremes. I squeeze the brake calipers with two fingers on the lever and the 19-inch front wheel digs into the asphalt. With the apex in sight, I push on the wide, vibration-free bars, and the bike quickly leans onto the edge of its contact patches. Handling is sharp—quick, linear, predictable, and just what is needed on these serpentine roads. The route straightens and I roll on the throttle aggressively, the bike squatting on its rear suspension as the rear tire hooks up and shoves me forward forcefully on an instant wave of torque. I smile and aim for the next corner. Corner. Rinse. Repeat. Without engine noise and shifting, I can concentrate more on my line.

Nestled among the redwoods and Douglas firs, I stop for lunch at iconic Alice’s Restaurant with its motorcycle-themed menu while the DSR noms on electrons from a nearby 120V standard household outlet. A full charge at 120 volts would take nearly nine hours, but I’m just grabbing some power (with permission from the restaurant) while I grab a bite. 

Lunchtime Pondering

From a distance, the DSR looks like just another dual-purpose bike. Others in the Zero lineup, like the S and SR, feel like 7/8th-scale motorcycles, not because they’re small (they’re about the size of ‘70s and ‘80s-era middleweight standards), but because modern bikes are so big. The DSR, festooned with nearly every available accessory (touring screen, topcase and rack, charge tank, handguards, RAM phone mount, 12V accessory socket, and more), feels like a full-scale ride. In capability and purpose it slots somewhere between bikes like the KLR 650 and Versys 650, but it’s much more expensive. Pricewise, it’s closer to the BMW S 1000 XR or Triumph Tiger Explorer. Fit, finish, and components are improved from previous model years, but it’s closer to the Kawasakis than the Europeans. The LCD dashboard displays a lot of information, but the secondary readings are either a bit small or I’m getting old and need reading glasses. Or a little of both.

Freeway Hustle

After lunch, I ride along the ridge then dip down onto the freeway for the run into San Francisco. The DSR crushes onramps, accelerating up to highway speeds as fast as anything I’ve ridden, thanks to 106 pound feet of torque. That torque is everywhere; the single-gear DSR can pass traffic easily. But I’m keeping one eye on the road and another on the “fuel gauge,” because as prevalent as charging stations are in California, they aren’t ubiquitous like gas stations. Traveling electric requires a bit of logistics planning, and I’ve been told, “Never leave your current charging station until you know where your next one is.” Solid advice.

Urban Jungle

I get off the freeway and hit the mean (more like slightly perturbed) streets of San Francisco. The DSR soaks up the bumps, potholes, and streetcar rails with ease. Befitting its dual-purpose mission, it has longer legs than its siblings, with seven inches of travel front and rear, and with dual-purpose Pirelli tires that can devour dirt roads with ease. At red lights, it idles like it’s off, without any vibration or heat crawling up my leg. And it’s silent; I can hear other people’s radios and phone calls. I can even hear myself think. When the light turns green, I go for the holeshot. There’s a milliseconds-long pause between launch and ferocious acceleration, kind of like the Millennium Falcon. I attempt a phantom upshift into second but my clutch hand grabs the air and my left boot remains unscuffed; old habits die hard. But one thing is certain—the DSR would make a primo exurban commuter assault vehicle, costing just pennies per mile and without the oil changes, chain lubing, and other necessities of a gas-powered vehicle.

Charging Ahead

I sit in San Francisco’s Union Square plaza, sipping a latte at an outdoor cafe as business folk and tourists share the sunshine and warm weather. Down below in the parking garage the DSR is charging in a spot normally used by electric cars, thanks to the bike’s optional Charge Tank, which Zero recommends for trips that involve multiple charges a day. Not all parking garages have electric vehicle (EV) charging spots, but luckily there are apps like PlugShare and ChargePoint to help me locate them and know whether or not they are currently being used. These Level 2 charging stations are the most common type in the country and can take the DSR from zero to 100 percent in about three hours. On this day, the DSR is not empty and I don’t need a full charge to get to my next destination, so I don’t have to wait as long.

This is the final hurdle for electric motorcycles. In many ways the DSR is already the match of gas-powered motorcycles, and in many ways already superior (instant torque, no heat, no vibration, minimal maintenance). If the DSR’s range and recharging capabilities fit within your needs, it’s an intriguing option. But while the 13 kilowatt-hour battery is a modern technical marvel and nearly three times the capacity from Zero bikes just five short years ago, it still provides less power than a half gallon of good old-fashioned dinosaur juice. But progress is fast, and at this point it’s no longer a matter of if but when. When will batteries compete with a tank of gas? When will fast-charging options compete with a gas pump? And when will prices be more competitive? If I eat salads and exercise, this will happen in my lifetime. It might even happen if I continue to eat bacon cheeseburgers.