2010 Zero DS Review

We ride the first and only American-made electric dual sport


With its knobby tires and long-travel suspension, the Zero DS is the sport-utility vehicle among electric motorcycles. And like the company that makes it, it is in a category by itself.

We recently had opportunity to ride one on street and trail for a few weeks, after Zero gave us one of only two it had just uncrated – rather late-in-the-season – as part of a press fleet it is starting to assemble. Although our bike is a “2010,” these bikes are only now being introduced as all-new in Australia and Brazil, and will be considered current until Spring, 2011.

Since we already wrote a review of the DS, and its electric supermoto sibling, the S, we’ll focus here on its design, day-to-day usability, and other ancillary details.

2011 Zero DS Review

The most salient point we can think to say up front is this is a neat little bike, although limited on range. This notwithstanding, as a first time effort, Zero gets credit for doing a lot of things right.

2011 Zero DS Review

While the motorcycle borrows from petrol-powered designs in its form and styling, aside from its obviously radical drive train, it also differs from traditional machines in its wonderfully strange and eclectic mix of proprietary, ultra-high-quality, hand-machined components, alongside some rather generic off-the-shelf parts.

For example, the 18-lb alloy perimeter frame penned by company founder Neal Saiki is virtually an avant garde expression of moto-artistry. Add to this the unique square-tube alloy kickstand, elegantly simple front wheel speed sensor pickup, rear brake lever with clever hidden spring, attractive front floating brake rotor with “cooling fingers,” shaped into the gold-anodized alloy carrier, to name a few highlights.
Lovely stuff.

Then consider some less than over-awing aspects. Despite having high-quality braided steel lines, the front brakes are only adequate. And unfortunately, our model came spec’d with a right-sided rear caliper mounted on the left side. While it works well, the bleeder valve’s positioning prohibits proper servicing while mounted on the bike, and the caliper must be removed and tilted before it can be bled – an oversight Zero says it has since remedied.

2011 Zero DS Review

Similarly, the instrument panel Zero sourced was originally intended for a petrol machine, and uses the fuel gauge complete with an icon of a gasoline pump to display electric power. Also, it shows speed in both analog and digital readouts.

Since the bike has no tachometer, the sweep needle had to be used for something, and so speed is redundantly shown. The tiny cluster’s shift light illuminates green when the bike is powered up, as sort of an “on” indicator, for lack of a better purpose.

But these are mostly minor nitpicks. How does the bike function?

Quite well overall. The 4.0 kWh lithium-ion battery is 20% stronger than anything Brammo has yet been able to deliver  – and the only recyclable and landfill-approved EV battery we know of.

The brushed permanent magnet Agni motor zips the 277-lb bike ahead quicker than average car traffic, and will top out at an indicated 68 mph. Performance can fluctuate depending on temperature, rider weight, wind patterns, and we’ve heard this bike can hit 71 mph in optimal conditions.

2010 Zero DS Review

A 324-lb Brammo Enertia – which nevertheless edged out a Zero S in our recent street-oriented Electric Motorcycle Shootout – can hit around 63 mph.

Steering lock is limited, but handling is otherwise nimble and reasonably light, if not a little more loose feeling compared to the street-tire-shod Zero S. The knobby tires on the DS hold the asphalt well enough, and we got used to them pretty quickly, although we weren’t inclined to test whether we could scrape the relatively high-mounted metal footpegs.

2011 Zero DS Review

What Does the Future Hold?

While the other established electric motorcycle company, Brammo, has been basking in glory and headlines with new high-output models recently announced, Zero has operated with an entirely different ethic, leaving even insiders wondering whether it will have an answer for some very competitive models Brammo – thus far on paper and prototype only – says it will offer in 2011.

According to Scot Harden, Zero’s new VP of global marketing, legendary offroad racer, and AMA Hall of Famer, Zero is on its own time schedule.

Somewhat apologetically, he concedes that while other traditional and electric motorcycle manufacturers are announcing their 2011 models, Zero will be tight lipped for a few more weeks with regards to next year’s offerings.

2011 Zero DS

“We’ll be making a big announcement right after the first of the year, so we don’t want to let the cat out of the bag,” Harden says, “All I can say is we have some very interesting things that have been done here and we’re very proud of what’s been accomplished in the last six months. I think people are going to be really surprised when they see what we have coming out down the road; we’ve upgraded every area of our bike.”

But what about Brammo, we asked. It has announced the promising Empulse sportbike and Enertia Plus. Next Spring, why would people buy a Zero S/DS with a 4.0 kWh battery for $10,000 when they can get an Enertia Plus for the same money with a 6.0 kWh battery?

“Can you?” Harden asked provocatively, “You should buy that bike. You should buy that bike then.”

Obviously, Harden is not pitching for the competition, so the clear implication is the Scotts Valley, Calif. company that already sells four models to Brammo’s one, and is building a new assembly plant, intends to remain a player.

Upgrades presumably include all the nitpicks Zero’s first-gen bikes have been called on the carpet for, and Harden says expect changes to styling, performance, functionality, weight, and range.

“We will be extremely competitive with Brammo,” Harden said, repeating himself for emphasis, “We will be extremely competitive with Brammo!”

Harden says the company isn’t announcing anything specific until it knows it can deliver. And when the announcement is made for new Zero models, the delivery date will be certain.

As a long-time gasoline-powered motorcycle enthusiast, Harden says he is thrilled to be part of what Zero is doing. He admits his politics and ideology are markedly different from some of his more environmentally-conscious co-workers, but he still counts them as friends, and as a conservative, also sees reasons to get behind the EV movement.

Number one reason? Reducing dependency on foreign oil, which arguably, he says, adds up to national security.

“From this thorough right-winger over here, that’s a huge, huge thing that this country needs to address in the near future,” Harden says, “I see the products that we are making as beings solutions on such a huge level that it could actually change the world.”

No matter what side of the aisle you sit on, Harden says, electric motorcycles offer something for everyone, and Zero, he says, intends to lead the way.

What is this bike best suited for?

Local urban and suburban commutes. While Zero says the bike is highway legal, it readily concedes it was never intended for the interstate. In fact, range is enhanced if speeds are kept below 40. The lower the better, and the more gently you roll on and off the throttle, and the less stop-and-go type riding, the more distance you’ll coax out of the battery.

2011 Zero DS Review

And you’ll need to learn its quirks too. The 11-bar gauge is a bit floaty, and after a hard stretch of road, it can dive down, only to float back up 2-3 bars as the charge read by the meter comes back up. 

Max range? Zero says it put a 161-lb rider on a comparable Zero S and let him do loops at a constant 25 mph in an office park. The bike went 49.1 miles in this best-case scenario. This lines up with our experiences with S and DS models, and was one of several use cases Zero arranged to offer reasonable expectations to potential owners.

If contemplating using the bike to go to the store, or other sundry purposes, unless you know a place you can plug it in while out and about, taking the Zero for a ride is sort of like under-sea diving. You have only so much time to get where you want to go, and exceeding your limit is not really a suitable option.

Assuming moderate speeds, it can be used for commutes to work up to around 15 miles each way. Adding a few stretches over 50-60 mph, and plan on less than 15 miles each way. If you are able to plug it in to recharge while you’re on the job, naturally, you can double your range.

The 277 lb, single-speed machine has no passenger pegs. While its 575-lb GVWR means it’s rated for up to a 297-lb rider, frankly, that would be a lot for this little bike and you’d probably need to get up-rated springs, at least.

2011 Zero DS Review

For us, the fun part about the DS, compared to the S and other street electric motorcycles is that its 9-inch travel fork, 8-inch travel shock plus burly 16-inch rear and 17-inch front wheels shod with off-road capable tires mean it is truly a dual sport. 

Zero says the bike is intended for 80% on-road, 20% offroad, but Fonz and I found it quite capable handling real dirt trails, and easy to ride when we trucked it to an OHV area and let it rip on rolling dirt trails.

“It’s more like a streetbike with knobbies than a dirtbike with lights,” Fonz remarked, “But that doesn’t stop the bike from taking to the trail or gravel road when one need to do so.”

2011 Zero DS Review

With no shifting, you just twist and go. On very steep grades, you might want to keep your momentum up, because with a 200-lb rider onboard (including gear), the motor rated at 62.5 ft-lbs comes close to bogging if you stop and start.

Otherwise, the long suspension and high ground clearance let you plow over a fair amount of rough stuff and add a dimension to the bike that a Brammo Enertia can’t touch.

It’s an initially odd sensation scooting around on trails; the only sound is a little bit of motor whine and the chain clanking somewhat, unmasked by any internal combustion engine. It will handle small jumps, sliding, and some mud. If desired, you could also put street tires on it, and it would be much like the S, although an inch higher. The DS’ seat height is 35 inches, or 33 inches with the optional low saddle.

While the bike has a shorter tether than any petrol-powered bike’s range, in return, you get a machine that has a negligible carbon footprint, and its peak efficiency is an EPA equivalent efficiency rating of 455 mpg.

In short, the bike is super-cheap to own and operate. No tune-ups, minimal costs to keep it powered up, but it does cost $9,995.

2011 Zero DS Review

All U.S. residents are eligible for a 10% federal tax credit, so actually, this bike nets out to around nine grand plus tax. The price can be further offset some if you happen to live in one of the U.S states where additional subsidies are available.

In any case, it’s a niche vehicle to be sure, but can work for many uses. Performance junkies will likely shy away from it, but Zero says its bikes aren’t exactly trying to go head to head with gasoline-powered machinery just yet.

This is a machine appealing to buyers who want to do their part to save the environment, reduce dependency of foreign oil, enjoy a unique experience, or appease one of several other rational-emotional hot buttons Zero buyers state as reasons for giving this bike the nod.

“For the tech guru in your circle, or early adopters to new technology, the Zero is on the mark, breaking new ground on and off road – at a premium of course,” Fonz says. Fonz says. “But what new toy isn't expensive in its early years of public release?”

2011 Zero DS Review

Recharge time is under 4 hours. Topping off the 95-lb, salt-based li-ion battery before it’s fully discharged is recommended, and does not contribute toward the 1800 charge cycles it’s rated for.

In all, the Zero DS is an interesting offering, combining some unique and even artful attributes, along with at least functional ones, and is certainly competent for a variety of needs.

Related Reading
2010 E-Bike Shootout
2011 Brammo Empulse Preview
2011 Brammo Enertia Plus Preview
2010 Zero S and DS Review
Interview With Zero's Scot Harden
2010 Brammo Enertia Review

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