2011 Zero Electric Motorcycles Launch - Motorcycle.com

Jeff Cobb
by Jeff Cobb

Although Zero has been an innovator from the start, in a sense, it can thank that bastion of traditional motorcycling, Harley-Davidson, for its inadvertent endowment toward Zero’s vision to change the future of motorcycling.

At last week’s press intro, Zero’s 2011 models showed the handiwork of its new VP of Engineering, Abe Askenazi. Hired a little over a year ago, Askenazi’s previous job was Senior Director of Analysis, Test and Engineering Process for Buell Motorcycle Company and he’s been very busy at Zero since coming on board.

Upon seeing Zero’s four thoroughly re-worked models, and one new one, it’s as though a significant portion of the intellectual and design heritage of the company that H-D shuttered has been infused into Zero.

Some might call it ironic, others karma, but Abe Askenazi, who once answered directly to Erik Buell and actively participated in H-D’s Senior Leadership Group, is applying his considerable experience and talents to improving Zero’s electric motorcycles.

Now in its fifth year, staffed by other industry veterans plus top tech-sector talent, Zero is exultant over its new bikes, not to mention a recent $26 million venture capital commitment, it hopes will see it to profitability by summer, 2013.

A nice farm on the outskirts of Santa Cruz with a moto track, trail, and great roads nearby was ideal for the international press to sample the revamped Zeros.

To celebrate its delayed model year launch intended to help push it there, Zero invited an international group of journalists for two days of test rides.

And why not? The bikes look better and feel more sorted, having shed aspects that made them reminiscent of kit bikes. Gone are inadequate brakes, questionable electrical connections, clanking chains, poorly controlled suspension, fluctuating power gauges, and other vestiges of the start-up’s learning curve.

For its new XU, S and DS models, Zero provided smart bar-graph power meters. These monitor amps and volts, and learn the battery they are mated to for greater precision. Even as the battery ages, the meter re-adjusts to accurately display power.

Zeros also now have quick-charging capability. In addition to standard on-board 1-kW chargers, the bikes have separate 3-pin connectors to plug in an optional external 1-kW charger. When both are plugged in, the double current tops batteries in almost half the time.

A third charging choice is an optional SAE J1772 5-pin connector, as used for the Nissan LEAF, Chevy Volt, etc. This accepts 120 volts from a charging station and routes it to the Zero’s on-board charger.

On the side of its new Scotts Valley factory, Zero installed the first public charge station in town. Swipe your credit card and charge.
This is the industry-standard plug for EVs, and Zero has an option to make it fit to its bikes.

This year is also the first that all Zeros come in a street-legal version. Even the X and MX can be dual sports, either from the factory or via an optional conversion kit. This was done primarily for Europe, but they’re available in the U.S. as well.

Further, all bikes now have traditionally placed ignition switches with integrated steering locks, instead of the oddly placed switches and locks from last year.

Askenazi and his right-hand-man, Director of Mechanical Engineering, Derek Yuen – who’d worked with him at Buell – say they’ve fixed all known issues and gone beyond. Fully 83-percent of the models’ content has been replaced or revised; their purpose is more focused, their improved build quality is evident.

A row of bikes gets ready to head out. U-hauls make sparse but effective changing rooms.

At the same time, Zero’s design team sharpened aesthetics and improved power to a few models, including a 12.5-percent larger battery offering a maximum of 4.4 kWh (3.9 nominal) for the S and DS – not a lot more power, but they’re better.

These two sister street models have superior power-to-weight to the Brammo Enertia with its roughly 3.2-kWh battery, but they fall behind the promised (but not yet available) 6.3 kWh or so Brammo Enertia Plus.

Askenazi said his goal was to “simplify, clarify, intensify,” as he re-thought previously redundant engineering decisions, like “bracket brackets,” as he called them.

Even so, some traditional motorcyclists will still take issue with the electric bikes’ price, range and performance – while others ought to be receptive to the new designs. Company CEO Gene Banman told us 65-percent of S and DS buyers are expected to include riders returning to motorcycling, plus many new riders.

Life at the moto farm: Zero gave access to a nice smooth track to play on.

Similarly, the XU is intended for young and new riders, or anyone wanting an alternative to a scooter.

Respectively, these prospects may either have little-to-no experience with the latest gas-powered competitors – or little-to-no frame of reference at all.

On the other hand, Banman said, about 85-90-percent of X and MX dirtbike buyers will continue to be existing riders who want silent moto and trail riding.

XU Urban Cross

We’ll feature the $7995 XU first because it’s the newest. It’s basically a shorter-suspension X model, shod with DOT-legal tires and re-purposed for the city. It weighs just 218 pounds, is styled to appeal to youthful riders, and intended as super-frugal transportation.

Its 2.0-kWh (1.7 nominal) lithium-ion (li-ion) battery is secured against theft, yet it’s user-removable to take inside to recharge. It is the same battery that the X and MX get, and it’s interchangeable with these bikes.

Standard recharge time for a depleted battery is stated as two hours. Optional quick recharge for the same can be in 1.2 hours.

We get our kicks any way we can at Motorcycle.com. If anyone doubts this bike might not handle a downpour, then doubt no more.

As for its overall lifetime, Zero says the battery should last for 32,000 miles of use, before it’s ready for replacement (but still usable) with 80-percent storage capacity remaining.

Disc brakes front and rear are up to the task of safely stopping spoked wheels shod with a 90/90-19 front and 110/90-16 rear tires. Suspension travel is 5.3 inches front, 5.5 inches rear, and soaks up bumps and irregularities well enough.

Riders had better keep the XU below its 51-plus mph top speed for the most part, however, if they want to achieve the EPA UDDS (Urban Dynamometer Driving Schedule) range rating of 25-30 miles.

The EPA came up with the dyno-simulated standard for electrical vehicles near the end of last year, and the Motorcycle Industry Council endorses it. The test simulates varying speeds and loads, and lasts 22 minutes, 49 seconds, and covers 7.45 miles at an average of 19.59 mph.

If you run the XU faster and harder, its range drops to 15-20 miles, more or less.

Why would anyone buy a bike with range as short as 15 miles?

We’re waiting to see that too, but it will likely revolve around back-end savings. If your moderate-speed commute is within limits – or if you can plug in at your destination – keeping the XU going promises to be the next best thing to free.

Zero estimates paltry maintenance requirements and recharging costs at 21 cents per full charge. This latter figure depends upon your electrical rate, but even at the highest tier, it might only cost pennies more.

Saddle Time

It’s a small bike for my 6-foot frame, but do-able. Note forged kickstand. Zero carried over its expensive hand-crafted kickstands on the S/DS, but went to a less expensive but effective alloy one here.

Unfortunately, rain stopped the test rides short, and I only got on the XU briefly. Even this would not have occurred if not for Scot Harden, Zero’s VP of global marketing, who gave the thumbs up to my request after the fun was officially over.

The XU has upright, utilitarian ergos – higher, wider handlebars, medium-to-low seat height (31.8 inches standard/29.8 inches optional) – and ought to be comfortable for a wide variety of riders.

Steering is quick, and handling seems reasonably neutral.

Acceleration is peppy from the one-speeder, though slower than the S/DS. It will keep up with average city/suburban flow. Zero advertises it as good for 51 mph, but I saw an indicated 59 with a fresh battery and tail wind. Headed back against the wind, it pushed an indicated 52.

Basic instruments almost look neater than those on the higher-priced S/DS. We look forward to a full test of this commuter as soon Zero lets us have one.

Zero S

The $8995 S is no longer a tall supermoto.

According to VP of Global Sales John Lloyd, Abe Askenazi looked at last year’s model and said it was too similar to the DS, and made the S into a streetfighter instead.

Cross-drilled Hayes stoppers work better than the binders on older Zeros. The speedo pick-up formerly residing on the fork has been relocated to the motor shaft to make it more like other motorcycles, Askenazi says, plus clean up the look.

The bike sits low and mean, with improved bodywork and graphics. Revised steering geometry to the ultralight alloy perimeter frame creates a slick-looking 297-lb bike straddling a 54.8-inch wheelbase.

The Agni motor, powered by the 4.4-kWh (3.9 nominal) battery, has a revised forced-air cooling system. Estimated battery life (to 80-percent capacity) is 70,000 miles. At this point the battery could be replaced, or the bike still ridden, just not as far per charge.

EPA UDDS max range is 43 miles. Nurse it like an XU, and you might get into the 50-mile-plus range. Ride it flat out, and expect much less.

Other much-needed improvements include a re-worked master cylinder bore diameter and a larger 310mm rotor up front. Out back the 220mm rotor is now equally as thick as the front at 4mm.

The S/DS gauges are Koso units made for Zero.

The S now rolls on high-quality industry-standard 17-inch wheels from Pro-Wheel Racing of Oregon, with tires sized 110/70 front and 130/70 rear.

The Fastace fork and shock have been re-worked with help from a tech from a local tuner, Aftershocks Suspension. Once they’d fine-tuned spring rates and valving, Askenazi and company sent them to Fastace to duplicate. There is 5.5 inches of travel from the fork, and 5.9 inches at the shock, a couple inches shorter than last year.

As mentioned, the list of upgrades on the S, and its DS sister is very long. Check out Zero’s webpage for the whole low-down, but the bottom line is nothing was left untouched. Random improvements include on-board computer programming and recall capabilities that are now external to the battery for simpler diagnostics.

Needing a tougher belt, Zero gave up on Gates and called Goodyear. This provoked Gates to come up with a belt that could handle debris kicked up in dual-sport riding. These Gates belts can also be replaced by an optional chain.

Replacing a chain, a new drive belt was designed for the bike after a trial and error process with Gates. The new belt uses “soft carbon” to allow greater failure resistance in the event that debris or a rock gets thrown in.

Revised triple clamps, more torsional rigidity to the swingarm, more durable bodywork, industry standard fasteners, cleaned-up wiring and connectors, plus wider and taller mirrors are part of many upgrades.

In the Saddle

This is a fun, tight bike. Its belt drive is super quiet. You hear wind noise more than anything. It’s unlike anything with an engine. Its seating position is purposeful and close to a Standard’s, with a slight forward lean to the tubular, high-leverage bars.

Acceleration may be close to a CBR250R up to about 10 mph shy of the CBR’s top speed.

On my brief test ride – ended by rain – the one-speeder hit 71 mph indicated and felt a tad more twitchy at that rate than last year’s bike. Askenazi later confirmed my impressions were accurate, the bike does feel quicker in transitions, but this “may be related to the new tires, lower cg, shorter wheelbase, and more dialed suspension.”

More specifically, when measured with 1/3 sag front and rear, the 2010 supermoto-styled S model had a rake of 22.1 degrees, trail of 2.47 inches, and wheelbase of 55.5 inches. In contrast, the 2011 streetfighter-styled S has rake of 22.7 degrees, trail of 2.81 inches, and as mentioned, a wheelbase of 54.8 inches, or 0.7 inches shorter.

My test ride saw some dry curvy roads, but the rain began to pour soon thereafter. Zero plans to introduce an optional undertail kit for aesthetics. The Zero S is reborn as a sporting Standard, and its appearance is an improvement over the previous model. Note the cut-down, hand-made kickstand.

The S’s handling is neutral and controllable. The adjustable suspension accommodated my 185 lbs well. In fact, Askenazi said, the nominal settings are for a 185 lb rider, with adjustability for approximately plus-or-minus 50 lbs.

The Bridgestone tires stick as well as would be expected, and they provided more confidence than last year’s less-well-known Duros.

The Hayes brake lever is not adjustable but feels more beefy than last year’s bicycle-like lever, and its reach is not excessive.

Rear brakes work fine. The more critical front brakes are better than last year’s and will lift the rear wheel at lower speeds if squeezed hard enough. Braided lines provide a firm feel. The new stoppers are not mind blowing, but they are good enough. Sport riders might look into availability for grippier compound pads.

Zero DS Dual Sport

I got my longest street ride on the $10,495 DS. We reviewed a 2010 DS a few months ago, and I can confirm the 2011 is better (and $500 more).

All the mentioned improvements that the S got apply also to this, except for the lowered suspension. Motor specs, battery, control software and hardware, brakes, and frame design are shared with the Zero S.

This may be the best all-rounder. If you missed out on the supermoto style from last year, sport tires could be fitted if you preferred.

The long-travel platform remains for the DS, and it is the best bike for tall riders with its 35.8-inch (33.8 inch optional) height. Its curb weight is stated as equal to the S, at 297 lbs.

On the Road

Straight-line performance for the DS is the same as for the S. Heading the taller bike into sweeping corners on dual-sport tires provokes more initial caution, but confidence builds quickly. The DS also rides on Pro-Wheels, but these are sized differently, wearing a 100/80-17 front and 110/90-16 on/off-road-capable tires.

The DS has improved suspension compliance. Note anodized brushed alloy battery box this year.

While it’s trail-worthy, I did not test it in the chewed-up, loamy soil of Zero’s private half-mile or so trail loop after a Canadian colleague told me he crashed a DS three times in quick succession as its tires packed with dirt.

Off-road capabilities ought to be on par with last year’s DS, but caking, muddy soil can overwhelm it.

As for tarmac duty it’s fine, and may be the most well-rounded of them all.

Hitting bumps, it feels solid and controlled. Thump-thump! You feel the controlled damping but hear no unwanted noises. Suspension action is not mushy despite having 9.4 inches of front travel and 7.7 inches out back. Good job.

In a nutshell: the DS is best suited for street duties, but it can also do light-to-medium-duty trail riding.

Zero X Trail

In addition to a host of upgrades to the alloy frame, battery-management system and more, this year the $7995 X comes in a street-legal version with lights, turn-signals, and DOT-legal tires. Both versions have a dual-power switch (level I, level II).

Street and trail versions are available for the X (and MX).

This 185-lb, 55.5-inch-wheelbase machine’s forte is trail riding. Off-road knobbies (70/100-19 front, 90/100-16 rear) plus 8.2 inches front travel and 8.7 inches rear suit it for cross-country and technical trail riding.

The 2.0-kWh (1.7 kWh nominal) battery in the X is the same as in the XU and MX.

Top speed for the 201-lb street version is 53 mph with standard 13/61 tooth (front/rear) gearing. The dirt version comes with 13/71 gearing to apply more torque. An optional 12-tooth front sprocket is available for even more.

On the Trail

I did not get to ride the street version of the X, but it may prove more versatile than the XU. The featherweight off-road version is an ultimate newbie machine. Its knobbies bite loose soil, and its clutch-free, twist-and-go operation is simple.

The appeal of the nearly silent powertrain is this bike can hit mountain bike trails and not upset the neighbors. E-bike riders have been known to get away with hitting trails off limits to gas-powered trail bikes. Yes it is a motor-driven cycle, but with no emissions, very quiet operation and light weight, its impact and obnoxious factor are at most a 3 on a scale of 1-10.

Zero MX Motocross

The $9,495 MX is the motocrosser in the family. Like the X, it now also comes in a street-homologated version.

It shares the battery with the X/XU, but instead of the X’s Mars motor, it gets the Agni motor from the heavier, more powerful S/DS bikes.

The MX makes an easy to use trail bike. Zero’s Scot Harden, a former Dakar Rally competitor, says it won’t replace his gas bikes, but the quietness and ease of use give the bike a place in his riding schedule.

Like the X’s frame, the MX’s alloy structure was subjected to finite element analysis (FEA) to beef it up this year. Rolling on its 70/100-19 front, 90/100-16 rear, knobbies, Zero is fond of seeing how high its ace test riders can get in the air, as they land on the MX’s 9.4-inch fork and 8.7-inch shock. The 196-lb off-road machine is light, and Zero says it has the highest power-to-weight ratio in its class.

Incidentally, last year Zero sold a mixed shipment of 34 bikes to Switzerland, where Quantya is better known. We’d like to see one of these go head to head with that company’s capable dirt/trail bikes.

On Track and Trail

Forgot my goggles but didn’t really need them. Knobby tires cut through the loose stuff fine.

The MX street-legal version looks interesting, but with limited battery range, it would probably make sense only if a trailhead is close by.

As for the off-road-only MX, it’s not quite ready to defeat 250-class four-stroke gas bikes, but in capable hands it does make some pretty quick tracks. This is a bike you can beat on all you want – even in a suburban back yard. No neighbor-upsetting exhaust to cause any hard feelings.

Using the bike to its max capacity, the battery runs down faster than you’d hope – Zero estimates 30 to 60 minutes. Standard charging takes about two hours. Quick charging would put you back in the action after a 1.2 hour-long pit stop.

It would be nice to have a couple extra hot-swappable batteries to keep on a charger like contractors do for cordless powertools, but at about $2500 per battery, that could get pricey for average budgets.

Even so, this is a very fun bike for new riders and experienced alike. It also makes a great trail bike. The MX handles stutter bumps, whoops, and high-standing roots in the trail with decent control.

Power is good, and in level II, you can loft the front wheel. The shorter 12-tooth front sprocket would make those kinds of antics even more possible.

AMA Hall of Famer and Zero’s VP of Worldwide Marketing, Scot Harden, got out and played on the MX.

Within limits, this thing is a blast, and the silent operation is an advantage no other kind of dirt bike can beat.


Appropriately enough, Zero launched its green-as-a-Shamrock electric motorcycles on Saint Patrick’s Day.

You won’t see images like this at a Honda launch. At least not yet.

Not only can these machines reduce our dependency on oil, they are made in the U.S.A. with over 50-percent domestic content in an age when many manufacturers are off-shoring.

We know you can buy a gas-powered bike for less money that will equal or exceed the performance – and so does Zero – but that’s not the point. The question is, could one of these bikes still make sense even though their price-for-performance is higher?

First off, a 10-percent federal tax credit plus varying incentives in some states reduces some of the sting. Enticing also is a U.S. EPA MPGe (Mile Per Gallon Equivalent) of several hundred miles per “gallon.” Or, sized up another way, they run something like 20-50 cents per recharge, and cost much less than gas-powered bikes to maintain.

Zero has a bunch of accessories to add to the sale. Prices aren’t to be available until April 1. Zero DS shown.

CEO Banman says he expects Zero to sell about 1000 units this year. These will include fleet sales, as campus cops, couriers, and others on a fixed route could make good use of them.

As for regular consumers, there is a lot of pent-up demand for motorcycles in general, he said, following the recession that saw the market cut in half. This plus rising gas prices, and a push for environmental alternatives add up to converging trends Zero is banking on.

Zero’s products – while still not head-to-head with gas bikes – offer their own unique selling proposition and are better positioned than ever to succeed.

Related Reading
Electric Motorcycles Primer
Interview with Zero's Scot Harden
2010 Electric Motorcycle Shootout
2010 Zero DS Review
Dual-Sport Shootout: Electric vs. Gasoline!
2008 Zero X Electric Motorcycle Review
Zero S Officially Announced
2010 Brammo Enertia Review
2011 Brammo Empulse Preview
2011 Brammo Enertia Plus Preview

Jeff Cobb
Jeff Cobb

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