2019 ZERO MOTORCYCLES: First Impressions of the Latest in Electric Motorcycles

Text: Jon Beck • Photography: Zero Motorcycles

It’s possible to sum up this bike review in three words: I want one. As someone who regularly shoots cameras that don’t use batteries, riding a motorcycle that runs exclusively on one is an interesting exercise. The Zero DSR is possibly the most technology-driven bike I’ve ever thrown a leg over, yet in the quest for fun, this machine distills it down to the rawest elements. While you can program it with a smartphone, you very well might forget to snap that selfie or post to social media once your hands grab the handlebar and your feet meet the pegs.

Torque

According to Zero, “The Zero powertrain delivers more torque than the most powerful 1000cc sportbike in production today.” This is a hefty claim coming from a relatively diminutive machine for the liter bike world. The experience twisting the throttle seems to bear out this claim however. Unleash the thing in Sport mode, and an excess of torque is completely evident. More than the raw output itself, how the power is delivered is perhaps the larger part of the experience. As the Zero lacks a clutch and gears, simply turning the throttle makes it go. On a bike with gears, you feel the peak output of each gear climb until the next one becomes necessary; with the Zero, it just keeps accelerating in a completely linear fashion. Experiencing an uninterrupted power curve from a dead stop to just cresting triple-digit speeds goes beyond even the most high-tech 10-speed automatic transmissions out there.

Tech

What goes into making a lithium-ion battery achieve the necessary performance to push one of these motorcycles around like this is well beyond the stuff of shade-tree wrenching. An impressive 116 lb-ft of torque is produced by the one moving part of the Z-Force powertrain, while achieving 90-percent conservation of energy efficiency. Control over the output can be customized with Zero’s free smartphone app. A mechanic’s stethoscope and shop light is replaced with a Bluetooth signal. Tapping on a small screen can affect changes to max torque, top speed, regenerative braking settings, and automatic remote firmware updates. Once the starter is thumbed and the bike clicks and whirrs to life, all of this tech fades into the background giving way to the fun mentioned earlier.

Range

Much like dino-fueled bikes, the question of range largely depends on terrain and riding style. Take any claimed MPG number and open up that same vehicle on a beach, the MPG will likely drop by a large amount. Rolling out of the hills north of Santa Cruz, CA, our small group of journalists, photographers, and company representatives hopped the Pacific Coast Highway and followed a private landing strip to a narrow, weathered trail leading down the cliff to the empty beach below. Up to this point, we had been riding mostly highway and some twisty pavement, playing around in some off-road lots, and riding a few miles of private forest trails with a caretaker of the land. 

When I looked down at the beach from the airstrip, my bike showed 52-percent battery remaining. Once down the cliff and into the sand, a whole new thrill started. Even with the street-oriented Pirelli MT60 Dual Sport Tires, the bike effortlessly drew lines in the sand. Heaps of the aforementioned torque was always willing to pull the bike more, and treading the limits of a high-side became the game. All this fun cost about 10 percent of the battery—when I reached my starting point, the gauge read 42 percent remaining. Comparable experience to watching your fuel drain while riding a 450 tapped out on a beach.

As with wheelspin, running top speed (the phrase “running in top gear” obviously doesn’t apply here) will also increase the rate of battery drain, although not as much it seems. Straight line runs at 100 mph cause the battery to tick off percentage points every couple miles or so. The brevity of this press event meant a complete charge cycle didn’t occur. Fifty-three miles was our tally for the day, and I had 18 percent remaining at its conclusion. Range is dramatically increased with an optional power tank, although I didn’t experience this option firsthand. For the purpose of this event, and for a typical daily commute, not having the power tank might be preferable. A 44-pound weight reduction is one advantage, but gaining the very convenient locking “glove compartment” in front of the saddle is arguably the bigger reason not to splurge when the additional range isn’t necessary. 

Experience

It’s difficult to decide on a category for this Zero. Well over 100 lb-ft of torque begs it to be put in the same class as vastly taller and longer big-twin dual sports. Oddly enough, anyone with experience on KTM 950/990 bikes will relate to the turning radius of the DSR. With a wheelbase of just over 56 inches, the DSR has a surprisingly wide turning radius that felt very similar to the older KTMs that sport nearly six inches more distance between the contact patches. Fortunately, this becomes irrelevant to a degree as the Zero’s excessive torque allows the bike to be steered with the rear in many cases.

The DSR is dead quiet while at a stop. Roll the bike a bit, and the wheel movement wakes the machine, resulting in a gentle whirring. We were informed this is simply the sound of current moving through the system. While less aggressive by far than the crackling and buzzing of municipal power lines, that same grid is fueling the bike. The lack of typical sensory feedback underscored just how different these bikes are from any other class of motorcycle. George Jetson’s flying car may have been a predictor of what the future of commuting might sound like—rumbling replaced by various forms of buzzing. 

In an increasingly digital world, more and more life is directed by ones and zeros. Poetic irony that brief escapes from the digital landscape can be had when one straddles a Zero.