Bring on the hate mail: I love electric motorcycles.
I love their power, their torque and their stealthy silence. I love their ease of operation and their low cost of maintenance.
Although I am not alone in this, I don’t have a lot of company. Resistance to electric motorcycles is fierce.
Detractors — many of whom have not actually ridden the battery-powered machines — describe themselves as dyed-in-the-wool enthusiasts who live for the roar and rumble of a big internal combustion engine. They love the smell of the gas, the sound of the pipes and the sensation of pulsing vibration between their legs.
But they also have practical objections to electrification. Battery bikes cost too much, recharge too slowly and have insufficient range, they say. Some riders even believe electric motorcycles are more dangerous than their ICE counterparts, because they don’t make enough noise to be heard by nearby motorists.
For two months this year I used a Zero DSR electric motorcycle as my main commuter vehicle. The experience deepened my appreciation for battery-powered transportation, and my admiration for the Zero line. But it also taught me that electric bikes aren’t for every rider, or for every ride. Even a state-of-the-art bike like the DSR could not satisfy all of a dedicated biker’s biking needs.
The DSR is Zero’s top model, and the company is right to be proud of it. Wickedly quick off the line, delivering spookily seamless power, the bike feels like a magic carpet ride that violates the laws of thermodynamics.
The electric battery delivers 70 horsepower and 116 pound-feet of torque on a bike that weighs about 450 pounds. That seems high, but the absence of any rotating mass — no pistons, no flywheel, no clutch — makes the bike feel almost weightless when it’s on the move. Zero says the bike will hit a top speed of 102 miles per hour.
Zero has improved its braking and suspension systems, bringing them into line with modern sport bikes. The DSR is fitted with a Bosch ABS that uses J. Juan calipers, and Showa suspension at both ends. The 17-inch rear and 19-inch front wheels wear Pirelli MT-60 tires. The combination makes the DSR feel playful but firmly planted.
Since there is no clutch and no gear shift lever, operation is a breeze. Just twist the throttle and go. And because the DSR burns no fuel, requires no lubrication and is driven by a carbon belt instead of a metal chain, there is virtually no maintenance.
Riding without noise, heat or vibration is strangely liberating. Without those things occupying the senses, I feel like I can hear more, see more and even smell more than when I ride a traditional bike.
One night on the DSR I became concerned about a squeaky sound accompanying my ride up a Hollywood canyon road that I’d ridden dozens of times before. I finally pulled over, worried that I had a bad bearing or a defective belt. Only when I stopped did I realize I was hearing frogs and crickets from a nearby creek.
Commuting, I felt confident in traffic and comfortable lane-splitting on the freeway. Somehow the DSR felt lighter, more nimble and even thinner than my other motorcycles — though in reality it is not. I found that, when I needed to run an errand and had the option of the DSR or another bike, I almost invariably chose the DSR. It just seemed simpler, somehow.
The exception? Longer rides. Zero boasts that the DSR, fitted with the optional Power Tank accessory, can go 220 city miles or 110 freeway miles on a single battery charge.
That was not my experience, and will probably not be the experience of anyone who does not ride this kind of bike very conservatively. Though I didn’t drain the battery down to its last bit of juice, my range would have been something more like half what Zero advertises.
Granted, I was really enjoying the terrific torque and acceleration, which meant I was riding at the rate of about 120 miles to the tank, with mixed city and highway riding.
Zero boasts, too, that the DSR, when fitted with the necessary fast-charging hardware, can be refueled in as little as two hours, at the rate of 103 riding miles per charging hour.
Because I was commuting, I didn’t test that. But arriving home in the evening, plugging the DSR into a standard household outlet, I observed recharge rates of about 6 to 8 riding miles per hour. Plugging in overnight, I always got up the next morning to a full tank, with plenty of juice to get me where I needed to go.
But that meant a day ride to Big Bear, or even a spirited run up the Angeles Crest Highway to Newcomb’s Ranch or Wrightwood, was problematic. I could get there alright, but would I find a place to plug in, and how long would it take to recharge sufficiently to get home? I took a gas-powered bike on those jaunts.
Zero puts the cost of charging its electric bikes at $1.50 to $2 per tank, and says that some of its machines get the fuel efficiency equivalent of 403 miles per gallon. Studies have shown that the cost of owning and operating an electric motorcycle may make it cheaper than comparable gas-powered bikes.
But the cost of entry is steep. Zero’s least expensive machines start as low as $8,495. The basic DSR starts at $10,995. The model I rode, outfitted with a variety of options, would retail well above that, at just above $19,000, before tax, license and delivery.
Some government incentives would offset that, and could include a federal tax credit of up to $1,500 and a California state rebate of $900.
There will still be those who, until they ride one, will view electric bikes as a passing fad. If so, they’re passing in good company.
BMW, Yamaha and others have put substantial resources behind their electric scooter programs. Alta Motors’ motocross bikes are beating internal combustion machines wherever they’re allowed to compete. And Harley-Davidson, which recently made a substantial investment in Alta, is coming to market with its electric LiveWire superbike and half a dozen other new electric machines.