2013 Zero S

Road Test Review

Hey, now we’re talking! The last time we tested Zero Motorcycle’s pure-street electric motorcycle, the Zero S (Rider, September 2011), we could only squeeze about 30 miles out of a battery charge riding the bike on a mix of road types with a conservative throttle hand. Well, for 2013, the Scotts Valley, California, company has completely revamped its five-bike street and dirt electric-bike lineup with more powerful motors, larger lithium-ion power packs and revised chassis and styling. While our 2011 Zero S felt more like a mountain bike than a motorcycle, the 2013 machine has bulked up to small motorcycle proportions—now it’s about the same size and weight as the Suzuki GW250 tested elsewhere in this issue. But the Zero would eat the GW250 alive in any speed contest—claimed horsepower output has more than doubled to 54, and torque is up 62 percent to 68 lb-ft, putting its average output in 650-twin territory. Just as importantly, the 2013 Zero S model’s range with the larger 11.4 kWh power pack (8.5 kWh is standard) has grown to a claimed 137 miles in the city, 85 miles highway (at 55 mph) or 100 miles combined. Switched to ECO mode, our test bike did manage 100 miles with a 200-pounder aboard riding conservatively on surface streets and highways. More impressively it went a full 75 miles in Sport mode, which stands all of its little electrons at attention to give the bike maximum throttle response and top speed. That 75 miles included several top-speed runs to its governed 95 mph, and about 30 miles of twisty canyon road, as well as pulling no punches accelerating away from stops and on the highway.

Turn the Zero’s key and after a brief system self-check the bike goes dead quiet, but now it’s ready to take off with a turn of the throttle. Power delivery from the air-cooled, brushless motor is instant and smooth, with genuine motorcycle-like acceleration that is eerily quiet except for a whine at low speeds. Both riders and onlookers, fooled into thinking it’s some kind of save-the-planet scooter by its docile manners at a walking pace, will be shocked by its quickness and seamless, shiftless acceleration that will give many middleweight motorcycles a solid run. When you get home, plug it in and 8 hours and about $1.20 later it’s fully charged again. There’s no stopping for gas, and with its belt final drive, no regularly scheduled maintenance. The standard 110V power cord stashes in a cylindrical hole in the frame amidships, or you can pony up for the optional Quick 2X plug-in charger (4.6 hours to fully charged; $599.99) or CHAdeMO accessory charger (1.5 hours). The latter requires a CHAdeMo station to use, though, and so far there are very few in the U.S.

For 2013, Zero has thoughtfully added a soft-sided, zippered storage compartment in the “tank,” which is handy for carrying your lunch and perhaps a copy of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. A regular tankbag will strap-on to the plastic shelter too. Despite the addition of a passenger seat and pegs this year, the tail section is rather slim and luggage averse, though I did manage to secure a seatbag with a little fiddling. Zero has also given its bikes Bluetooth connections and a smartphone holder on the handlebar, so you can use its iOS or Android app to monitor things like time to charged, battery condition, torque output, watts per mile and speed. The app also lets you tweak the parameters of ECO mode. Setting torque output and top speed to maximum and power regeneration on coast down and under braking to minimum, for example, makes ECO essentially the same as Sport mode. Reversing those settings maximizes battery life and still gives you decent acceleration with a hefty but tolerable amount of engine, er, motor braking. Instead of driving the rear wheel, on coast down the electric motor is driven, and becomes a generator putting out a maximum of about 15 percent of its capacity. While it’s capable of much more, the braking force could pitch the rider over the handlebar.

Low weight is essential for electric vehicles, so the Zero gets an all-new aluminum perimeter frame and cast aluminum swingarm with sportbike-like minimalism. The large, boxy power pack is suspended in the frame ahead of the comparably small motor down by the swingarm. New bodywork echoes the sport theme, though the revised ergonomics and seat are standard-bike moderate, with a wide, flat handlebar and comfortable footpeg placement. If you don’t mind leaning into the wind a little, the hard seat is the only weakness in the comfort package. In the corners, the Zero S is a little devil since it’s so light and flickable, and its stock IRC radials on special lightweight cast wheels stick surprisingly well. Riders hoping that this would be the year Zero gets serious about suspension will need to wait a little longer, however, since the stock FastAce male-slider fork suffers from quite a bit of stiction, and its damping adjusters make only minute changes. The FastAce rear shock works better but is still on the light-duty side for us larger-than-average riders. For quick stops, the Nissin 2-piston caliper and floating rotor up front pack enormous stopping power, though its single-piston counterpart in back felt wooden and unresponsive. Overall, the bike is great for moderate commutes, getting around town and squeezing through traffic. It’s fun and easy to ride and comfortable for the duration of its range, too, except for the seat. I found a gel pad made a nice improvement.

That leaves the price tag as the only obstacle to quick, quiet, clean and low-cost enjoyment of the efficient little Zero S, which is just shy of $16,000 with the 11.4 kWh power pack. A buyer in 2013 would be entitled to the E-Motorcycle Federal Tax Credit of 10%, or about $1,600 straight off your tax owed, but the balance is still a hefty commitment for a motorcycle with limited range and touring capability. And whether or not the credit will be extended for 2014 is not yet clear. With an estimated life of 309,000 miles for the power pack—essentially the life of the motorcycle—there’s no concern about battery replacement, and consider the fuel and maintenance costs you won’t have as well. At 40 mpg and $4 per gallon, 300,000 miles would equate to $30,000 in fuel vs. about $3,600 in electricity, assuming you charge up at home. Hmmm…coincidentally, the eight hours it takes to charge the Zero S is right about the length of the average workday….