Among the rhetoric we’ve been hearing is that one day, perhaps sooner than some think, the electric powertrain will supplant the internal-combustion engine. E-bike advocates – and even some who are merely ambivalent – seem already programmed to offer what’s fast becoming a clichéd, verbal knee-jerk response: “it’s the future.”
Oh really? If so, what about the present? Since these bikes are here now, has that future begun? To find out, we took as representative samples the still-current 2010 Zero DS Electric Dual Sport and the 2011 Yamaha WR250R.
As an electric dual-sport, the Zero is the only U.S.-made game in town. Zero says its S/DS series offers performance roughly on par with a “150-250cc” motorcycle. So we picked a rather high-priced and powerful example off the top end of that spectrum, and threw them both in the ring.
Not a Fair Fight
Zero’s people have toned down the talk about the days of petrol machines being numbered (while still hinting at it behind the scenes). But when told we were doing this comparo, they quickly pointed out that theirs is yet a niche vehicle, and ours is not an apples-to-apples comparison.
"Zero’s people have toned down the talk about the days of petrol machines being numbered..."
And they are correct. But for the sake of serving knowledge-craving motorcyclists – and would-be motorcyclists – we thought we’d see where things are anyway.
Although it’s a 2010 model, the Zero will continue until spring 2011 when its reportedly much-improved replacement arrives. The Yamaha is a 2011, but it’s the same spec as when launched in 2008, so not much unfairness there.
Further, we believe we’re being fair because the audacity of hope that brought battery-powered motorcycles to the world stage is itself a statement. Call this a look into its merits, be they expressed or implied.
On the Street
Ergonomics and Interface
The stock Zero sits lower with a 35-inch seat height, or 33 inches with an optional saddle. The Yamaha stands tall at 36.6 inches. Both compress under rider weight, of course, making either possible for those with somewhat shorter inseams. Both have a similar relaxed and functional layout. The Zero’s riding position is a little more committed with increased forward lean.
Assuming riders have sufficient stature to get onto these still-tallish bikes, once seated, they’ll find no issues with stepped saddles that shorten fore-aft space, or unduly uncomfortable reach to pegs or bars.
Both bikes are acceptably comfortable and manageable, with the Zero perhaps being a little more so for shorter riders because it’s smaller.
Sparse instruments come on both. Aside from the standard indicators, the Zero tells power, trip, and speed in both analog and digital formats. The Yamaha’s digital gauge shows speed and trip but lacks a fuel gauge and tach.
At this point, electric motorcyclists wishing to combat an “Inconvenient Truth,” have to do it with another inconvenient truth.
Before I knew to take extraordinary care, I ran a similar Zero S to zero power in under 23 miles – nearly stranding myself, and having to ask a shopkeeper to use his electrical wall outlet to recharge for 45 minutes. This provided just enough juice to get another five miles home. None too impressive.
After we learned to think like astronauts who have only so much air to breathe before getting back to the ship, our otherworldly electric motorcycling experience became workable, if not still inconvenient.
In contrast, the 71-mpg Yamaha sips fuel from its 2.0 gallon tank (1.9 gallon for California models), and if you run low on fuel, you can take it to the gas station and fill ‘er up.
Electric vehicle recharging stations are starting to appear here and there, and businesses have been known to let electric bike riders plug in, but this lack of infrastructure is a major hurdle the entire EV industry needs to overcome.
And until fast chargers or quick-charging batteries or both become readily available, it will require a whole new mindset. Even if it’s a possibility, parking an electric motorcycle for recharging is best done when you have time to kill. Really, electric motorcycles are better suited as commuters to work, where you can plug in once there. Otherwise, if out and about, and you have provision to recharge, think about taking a long meal or going shopping or something while the juice trickles in.
Last time we talked to some of the EV revolution’s most ardent proponents about the recharging dilemma, they said lots of people are working on it, and predicted the electric future will arrive on schedule.
Zero says its air-cooled, brushed permanent-magnet motor is good for 31 hp and 62.5 ft-lb of torque, but the identically-motored S model in our Electric Motorcycle Shootout churned just 12.3 hp to its wheel. We’ve learned to expect a 10-12% power loss from a factory’s crankshaft rating to what we see at the rear tire, but the Zero’s lackluster dyno performance suggests its electronic motor controller doesn’t allow full output from the motor itself, whether to conserve juice or to limit drivetrain forces.
While our dyno run could not verify rear-wheel torque, if we arbitrarily halve Zero’s torque claim, we may be working with around 31 ft-lb at the wheel. As a one-speeder, the DS’s 3400-rpm motor must push a tall gear that goes from zero to an indicated 68 mph. No doubt this proves it has substantial torque, regardless of any rating discrepancy.
In contrast, a rider on Yamaha’s WR – which we previously dynoed at 27.7 hp and 16.95 ft-lbs torque during our Quarter-liter Supermoto Shootout – must row the shifter though three gear changes to get it to the Zero’s maximum velocity. As a matter of coincidental fact, the WR250R indicates exactly 68 mph in third gear at the point where it hits its rev limiter at 11,500 rpm.
But thanks to that old-tech but still relevant marvel – a transmission – the six-speed WR is quicker out of the hole, and able to run away from the Zero, topping around an indicated 95 mph. Theoretically, the Zero has power to go that fast too, but it is electrically limited to save juice, and can’t do more than it does pushing its sole compromised gear ratio.
Handling and Operability
Around town, the Zero is quiet and nimble. Weighing 277 lbs, the Zero is 20 lbs lighter than the whirring and barking WR. The Zero’s wide handlebars and geometry make steering responsive and predictable, and its much-shorter 16-inch rear, 17-inch front dual-purpose knobbies track well enough. The similarly designed Yamaha, rolling on narrower 18-inch rear and 21-inch front is about on par.
Both are easy to navigate, but the twist-and-go Zero is simpler to operate. Not a big deal if you are good at shifting, but a possible bonus for non-riders who are interested in motorcycles, but otherwise intimidated by the gasoline-powered variety – a core buyer segment the electric motorcycle industry says it is wooing into the powered-two-wheeler fold.
Both come with front and rear discs. The Zero’s are prettier, but the Yammi’s work better – at least up front where it counts the most. Zero spent extra hours and money developing a proprietary, larger-diameter rotor, gave the system cool-looking braided steel lines, but dropped the ball when it only used a so-so master cylinder and caliper.
"Both come with front and rear discs. The Zero’s are prettier, but the Yammi’s work better – at least up front where it counts the most."
The WR250R’s tried-and-true binders put a better squeeze on the front rotor. However, we wish the Japanese would learn a lesson that even new kid-on-the-block Zero picked up on, and use better functioning, longer-lasting braided lines that won’t have to be replaced after a few years. This complaint has been registered for years with the Japanese manufacturers and ignored, but we can still hope.
We took both bikes to an off-highway-vehicle area in SoCal to let them play in the dirt. The Yamaha was ridden there under its own power. We had to trailer the “highway legal” Zero to the site to make sure its 4.0-kWh battery had a full charge.
The Zero’s somewhat-adjustable Fastace suspenders offer 9 inches front, 8 inches rear travel. Not bad, and nothing electric we know of comes close, except Quantya’s EVO1 Strada from Switzerland.
The WR250R’s fully adjustable Kayaba fork serves up 10.6 inches travel, as does its fully adjustable Soqi shock out back.
In relatively smooth dirt, with occasional rocks and mud, the Zero’s smaller diameter but beefy dual-purpose skins with wider-spaced knobs up front work rather well, and its suspension is adequate for fairly rough conditions. The Yamaha feels even plusher. Its taller, narrower tires, despite more closely spaced knobs, present few worries, and overall, the bike cries out for more.
In its favor, the no-clutch, no-shift Zero makes it very easy to troll up steep hills, as long as one maintains momentum.
Weighing about 195 lbs including gear, the Zero gave me pause when I wondered if it would pause also. Its torque is superior to the Yamaha’s, but it comes close to bogging if slowly climbing at a walking pace and working against a severe grade. Nearly stopping and starting, and reliant only on brute torque, its normal whine dropped to a struggling sound when attempting to overcome gravity at a crawl.
"In its favor, the no-clutch, no-shift Zero makes it very easy to troll up steep hills..."
At least this was my impression. Fonzie came away suitably impressed with the Zero’s ability to climb, saying also how easy it was with no shifting.
And to be sure, here is where novices will again benefit. The Zero is like a two-wheeled golf cart in the dirt – just a little electric motor noise and some clanking from the guided chain slapping its steel against the work-of-art alloy swingarm.
After 12 miles of speeds usually well below 30 mph in the dirt, the Zero had a respectable 60% capacity remaining, allowing us to go back for more.
Here’s a bike that’s perfect for someone living near foothills or trails who can deal with the limited range, or for strapping to the back of an RV for camping trips.
In sum, the Zero is somewhat less offroad capable than the Yamaha, but respectable. Zero’s Scott Harden says it’s an “80:20” machine suited for 80% street and 20% dirt. He’s basically right, but we’d suggest it verges on being 75:25 or better, and holds its own in moderate conditions, even against the WR, which really is more of a 60:40 machine.
Beauty is in the eye of the person with the checkbook, so we’ll only point out some differences. The Zero crew created beautiful sculptures in alloy that comprise the DS. As it is, the Zero is a quasi art piece with its hand-made frame, swingarm, and various proprietary bits strewn around the chassis. The less artful, but perfectly functional alloy-framed Yamaha has more stamped out pieces, but it’s certainly a handsome bike overall.
All the Yamaha’s pieces work as intended and present a congruent picture. In contrast, we think Zero over-did it with aesthetically pleasing pieces such as the front brake rotor, hand-made kickstand, carbon bits, and other ancillary components – that at best work, but not as well, or only as well as cheaper parts. Alongside these proprietary components come some generic parts (like the unknown suspension, brake calipers and limited instruments that display speed in analog and digital) that don’t impress.
While reviewing the Yamaha and Zero, we also had opportunity to sample a few pieces of Klim and Alpinestars offroad gear.
We assume Alpinestars needs no introduction. Klim (pronounced “clime”) is also gathering momentum as a brand to be reckoned with. The company resulted when a few backcountry powersports enthusiasts got together to create products without compromise. From what we can tell so far, they’ve hit the mark.
Klim F4 Helmet
This Snell M2010 and DOT-approved helmet utilizes 41 very effective vents and deep air channels inside the EPS liner. It’s an evolved product, Klim says, the result of listening to customer feedback. For cool weather use, a Gore Windstopper liner keeps airflow off the head but allows through-flow. A moisture-wicking comfort liner, combined with excellent fit and finish, make this $399.99 lid a keeper.
Klim Powerxross Pullover
The pullover’s three-layer Gore-tex breathes while keeping wind and rain out. Water-sealed YKK pit zips and a long left-side sealed entry zipper make it easy to throw over a jersey or armored jacket. Double stitching, a front through-pocket, waist adjustment and soft fleece in the collar round out complete its attention to detail. We picked hi-vis orange so we could also use it on the street, as well as trail. Colors: black, blue, red, or orange for an MSRP of $263.49.
Klim Dakar Pants
These over-the-boot enduro pants are made of several types of high-strength textiles, with leather lining the inner thighs and calves. Hook-and-loop closures at bottom make fitting over MX boots easy. Large cargo pockets and 20-inch ventilation zippers make them practical and multi-season. Available in blue, orange, red or black at $159.99.
Klim Covert GTX liner
These are 100% waterproof (thus windblocking). While intended for MX and snowmobile use, they are really multi-purpose, and street riders wanting to fend off cold and/or rain should definitely check them out. They come in a mesh bag, and include knit liners that can be worn alone or in combo, retailing for $79.99.
Alpinestars Tech 8 Boots
These second-to-top-of-the-range boots are an icon among offroad riders. They are well armored, offer terrific adjustability and fit, and can be re-soled. Inside is a perforated leather inner bootie with padded sole. We were told they needed to break in, but frankly, they felt pretty good out of the box. They’re made of leather and high-impact plastic, with some metal strategically placed. Awesome boots! $429.95.
Alpinestars Bionic Neck Support (BNS) Special Blend (SB)
This highly-engineered neck brace might just prevent serious neck injuries. At least that is the hope. It prevents the head’s over-deflection in a crash, distributing forces into the shoulders, while not restricting normal head mobility while riding. Not just for MX track use, enduro riders ought to check these unobtrusive braces out too. Click on link for complete info, including video. It’s available in sizes S, M, or L for $289.95.
Alpinestars Bionic Jacket for BNS
Made with high-impact PU and PE chest pads, mesh and sturdy textiles, the Bionic Jacket works to support the BNS neck protector and comprises a single armored unit. A locking front zipper keeps it securely closed. GP elbow and shoulder protectors are CE level 1, back protector is CE level 2. An integrated kidney belt adds support. Sizes M-2XL for $249.95.
Not counting purchase price (we’ll get to that), the Zero is inexpensive to own. It requires no spark plugs, tune ups or clutches; has no transmission to worry about, or motor oil to change. Its brushed motor should last 10 years, and an overhaul should cost less than $250 when it finally needs it. Its electrical energy requirement – based on national average costs – means that at its best, it delivers energy cost equivalent to a vehicle that gets 455 mpg. Heck, even severely taxing it, you can still get an equivalent of something like 200 mpg.
The Zero’s biggest cost unknown is the battery. It’s rated for 1800 recharge cycles, and if charged more frequently, this number can be magnified many times over meaning years of use. None have yet worn out, and as they’re all still under warranty, Zero doesn’t even have any for sale. It estimates a cost of about $3000.
The Zero represents both a tangible and intangible purchase. Tangibly, it’s a not-too-fast but functional and cheap-to-own motorcycle that goes no more than 50 miles on a charge. Intangibly, it offers substantial reinforcement for buyers who want to hit one or all of the following hot buttons:
* Desire to support U.S. manufacturing in a time when America is fighting for its life economically.
* Hope to reduce dependency on foreign oil (or thumb one’s nose at “Big Oil”).
* Belief that decreasing oil consumption, if reduced by enough alternative vehicle buyers, could arguably augment national security by making that scarce resource less desirable in the future.
* Intention to reduce carbon footprint. It puts off essentially zero emissions and is almost entirely recyclable, including the battery. And if a negligent owner decided to just scrap one, its battery is the only one we know of that is landfill approved.
* Desire to have a bike unlike anyone else on the block; and in certain circles, it just may provoke environmentally concerned members of the opposite sex to think you are cool, and in general it’s a good conversation piece all over town.
As a traditional machine, the Yamaha can’t compete on any of these points. On some of them in fact, it’s a villain in opposition. What it does do is offer up good performance, and reasonable value in the still-present paradigm. It’s fuel injected, fast for its size, competent everywhere, offers good mileage, low emissions, and rides on a not-usually-offered-in-this-segment fully adjustable suspension.
Best of all, the Yamaha is the product of long evolution tracing its lineage back to the 1955 YA-1. It’s a known quantity, with dealers, parts, service and infrastructure available all over the world.
Some proponents have likened the resistance EVs get to the late 1800s when the horse and buggy was threatened by vehicles propelled by internal combustion engines.
Since the Motorcycle.com crystal ball is out getting polished, and unlike those who assume a future before they actually show they are willing to pay for it, at best we can say this might be true.
In fact, analogies to past phenomena from American history have yet to prove themselves in the present, but we ought to know in the next few years how prescient the new wave really is.
This said, don’t mistake us for antagonists. It’s merely our job to point out both sides. And as the fair-minded pundits we are, we’ll also document a contingency of those who are less than unbiased – as Harden has also observed.
We believe some people in the traditional gas-powered industry would like to see the upstart electric motorcycle industry fail, and we are aware of strong criticism for it. We’ve also observed it being ignored it by those presumably hoping it will just fade away.
Certainly also, there has been at least some resistance from the Japanese OEs, whose entire identities are wrapped up in the good old internal combustion engine.
When we kid about “the future,” we take into account those betting against it, and its possibility for coming true, while understanding all sides.
From a performance standpoint, we can see critics’ points. At this juncture, not factoring in potential U.S. state incentives, the $9,995 Zero with only standard 10% Fed deduction nets out to around $9k. It offers two-thirds the performance, one-third the range for roughly 27% more money than the $6,490 WR250R .
Who in their right mind would buy a Zero? Turns out, people are signing up every day. Factoring in the back-end savings, environmental advantages, and intangible benefits, the Zero actually smokes the Yamaha – or any other gas-powered vehicle.
It is so off-the-charts efficient that by comparison, it makes a Piaggio MP3 hybrid – let alone a Prius – look like a Hummer pulling an oversize trailer with underinflated tires.
Unknown, however, is the safety factor of a nearly silent vehicle. Certainly, electric bike riders must practice defensive riding techniques all the more, because motorists (and pedestrians) might not hear them coming.
So who wins this shootout? As you can see, there are no easy answers.
It really depends on your priorities. If it’s performance-for-the-money you want, the Yamaha wins. If you factor in Zero’s laundry list of secondary benefits, then the Zero wins.
In any event, this shootout proved to be interesting in many aspects. We’ll note this is only the Zero DS’s first year, and we’re told Zero will soon announce an improved version.
So, at this point, since this is an apples-to-oranges comparison, we’ll leave it up in the air. Consider this to be food for thought as we all ponder the past, present and the future.
2011 Yamaha WR250R Review
2010 Zero DS Review
2010 Electric Motorcycle Shootout
Electric Motorcycles Primer
2010 Zero S and DS Review
2010 Brammo Enertia Review
First U.S. TTXGP at Infineon Raceway