Santa Cruz-based Zero makes electric motorcycles that are sleek, silent, superfast street machines.
But even though one model is advertised as a dual sport, they don't do very well off-road – until they're outfitted with a chain drive and some knobby tires.
I've been after Zero for some time to set me up with one. I recently got the chance to spin around off the pavement on a specially outfitted Zero FX.
Like all Zeros, the battery-electric power train is torquey and tons of fun. The rocket-ship acceleration is sudden, silent and intense. The FX zipped through traffic like a stealth fighter.
But how would the FX do off-road? I had lower expectations. The model I had borrowed was the 6.5, equipped with a pair of electric batteries. While this gives the FX a city streets range of more than 80 miles, and an advertised 44 horsepower and 70 pound feet of torque, the bike weighs a cumbersome 287 pounds.
Once I left the pavement, though, I was surprised. Despite the extra weight, the FX handled beautifully.
It skittered along a dirt road, the front end lofting over the puddles and ditches. It plowed through some tall grass, and got over a couple of hidden potholes. It even navigated down a steep grassy hillside, negotiated a tight turn at the bottom, and then climbed back up -- in total silence, with only the whir of the chain and the sound of tires on the wet ground disturbing the afternoon quiet.
I confess that I'm an old dirt bike guy, with decades of experience riding two-strokes and four-strokes in the desert. No one loves the "braap-braap" sound of a gasoline-powered desert sled more than me.
But there's something really sublime about tracking up a trail in total silence. It's a great way to see some nature, without frightening the wildlife.
It's also a great way to avoid irritating the neighbors if you're riding off-road where you shouldn't be. Because the bike isn't roaring, rattling and smoking, it doesn't offend the natives. On one of my trails, I even passed some hikers and trail walkers, and all they said to me was, "Cool bike."
I don't know if the sneaky silence overcomes the limited range – somewhere between 40 and 70 miles, depending on how you ride it and how big a battery you get – or the price point – about $7,000 to $9,000 in California, after electric vehicle incentives and rebates.
You can have the FX customized with a chain drive and knobby tires by a shop like Los Angeles' Hollywood Electrics, for an additional $500.
And I can't imagine this kind of bike, with that kind of range, replacing any of the dirt bikes I ride in the desert or the dual sports I take into the mountains.
But for zipping around town, and a little urban off-road adventuring, it sure is some sneaky silent fun.