2011 Zero XU Review [Video]
A lean, green, urban machine
There’s something about light motorcycles with narrow profiles, flat handlebars, spoke wheels and fairly long-travel suspension that brings out the inner hooligan in us. For me it harkens back to my days riding BMX bicycles as a kid. Suddenly that curb no longer becomes a barrier, but a doable obstacle. That sidewalk now makes perfect sense as an alternate lane. That flight of stairs? Sure, let’s try it!
These blatantly irresponsible stunts aren’t something you’d dare try in the light of day with a conventional motorcycle and internal combustion engine. But when the anonymity and stealth of an electric motor is your new propulsion source, suddenly these stunts don’t seem so outlandish anymore.
What machine do I have to blame for this tomfoolery? None other than the Zero XU. New for 2011, the XU is the fifth model to be added to Zero’s ever-expanding product line. In fact, the 2011 model year sees revamps and improvements across the entire Zero line. Chief among these updates is an improved charging system that cuts charge time roughly in half. Brakes and suspension also get revamped, while some models, like the flagship street model, the Zero S, switch from chain to belt drive for ease of maintenance. For full details on the plethora of changes for 2011, read our first-ride report here.
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So what is the XU, exactly? Simply put, it’s Zero’s answer to the small-displacement scooter. Meant for short trips, it’s powered by the patented, Z-Force Li-Ion Intelligent Power Pack, which, like all electric motors, provides all of the available torque the moment it’s turned on.
Speaking of motors, the entire Zero lineup for 2011 now utilizes Agni motors (as opposed to Agni, Mars and Perm motors previously) with the exception of the smaller, lighter XU which still uses the Perm motor, as its smaller dimensions best suit the tighter packaging and light-weight aspirations Zero was going for.
Power output is rated at 2kWh, which, if you’ve read our review of the larger Zero S, is roughly half the output of its bigger sibling. As such, the battery itself is half the size of the S and requires half the time to completely recharge (about two hours). Zero claims an average of about 25 miles before a complete recharge is necessary, or 30 if you’re savvy and always ride in ECO mode instead of Sport and thereby save some juice. It also helps to have a perpetual tailwind.
One benefit of the XU that the S model doesn’t have is the ability to swap batteries, which potentially extends the ride time indefinitely. The frame of the XU is borrowed from the company’s motocross models that feature an open battery design instead of the street models, whose frames feature a structural beam that encloses part of the battery. Swapping a battery unit on the XU is as simple as removing a single screw, disconnecting two leads and pulling out the unit.
Clearly the versatility of battery replacement makes the XU ideal for fleets which need to be constantly mobile, but for the average consumer having an extra battery around – which weighs approximately 40 lbs and costs $2995.99 – isn’t very practical or cost efficient. As with any contemporary electric motorcycle, being mindful of electrical outlets near your stopping points is the most cost-effective method to maintain sufficient charge. Like cell phones, Zeros can be plugged in anytime and don’t need to be completely drained first. It’s also safe to keep them plugged in even after charging is complete.
If money is no object, then a quick-charge option is available for an extra $595. The quick-charge is a stand-alone version of the charger already integrated into the bike, plugging both chargers to the battery will cut charge time in half. In the case of the XU, that means one hour. Or if you happen to have a spare battery, using the stand-alone charger from the quick-charge kit can power up that unit while you’re out riding. And yes, a normal 110-volt wall outlet is all that’s needed.
Move away from the heart of the machine and you’ll find the XU features an inverted fork with aluminum stanchions to reduce weight. Front suspenders are adjustable for both compression and rebound, while the single shock has preload and rebound adjustment – pretty impressive for a city dweller. Front suspension travel is 5.3 inches, with 5.5 inches of travel in the rear. Standard seat height is a modest 31.8 inches, but it drops to 29.8 inches if you opt for the low seat option ($299.99).
Bringing this 218-pound flyweight to a stop is a single 220mm disc on both ends. The front is gripped by a two-piston caliper, with a single-piston unit in the rear. Steel-braided brake lines adorn both ends, a pleasant surprise. Contact to the road is via a 90/90-19 front tire and 110/90-16 rear. Yes, rubber choices are rather limited, but it’s not like they have to deal with brutish horsepower and should last for quite a while.
Forget everything you know about riding motorcycles because the XU is more like a glorified Schwinn – it’s small, compact and light. Swing a leg over the motocross-style seat, but be careful not to swing too hard otherwise you’ll fall off the other side. For my 30-inch inseam I found the standard seat height on our test unit not the least bit intimidating. Bear in mind the natural squish of the (rather soft) springs once mounted and the reach to the ground becomes a non-issue once in the saddle.
Turn the key to the “On” position and the revised dash does its light dance and various diagnostic checks. Whereas the old dash featured an analog and digital speedometer, the new unit ditches the analog speed gauge and is much more compact. Now the only information being relayed is total ride time (meaning, total amount of time the key is in the On position per trip), speed, two tripmeters and an odometer. One carryover from the past is the battery level display adjacent to the speedometer. Oddly enough, despite being an electric vehicle, a gas-pump icon is still used to show how much juice is left in the batteries. We think by now Zero might’ve changed that to a lightning bolt or battery icon.
Because the Zero is silent even when it’s on, the throttle isn’t functional unless the sidestand is up and the bar-mounted kill-switch is in the Run position. This, surely, is to prevent curious friends, onlookers, and even the rider, from accidentally initiating forward motion when they believe the machine is off.
Speaking of motion, riding the XU is rather simple: just twist and go. There’s no clutch or shift lever to worry about because there are no gears. A 420-series chain is mated to a 13-tooth front sprocket and large 61-tooth rear to aid in acceleration. Twist the throttle and there’s a slight lag before power is applied, no matter the speed. Since there isn’t much power to be had, however, the initial hit once the bike starts to move is but a mere lurch.
That being said, power delivery is rather linear – as you’d expect from an electric motor – all the way to the XU’s 51-mph top speed. The obvious difference between an ICE motorcycle and this one is how utterly quiet the whole experience is. Other than the occasional chain slap and road noise, the wind is the only sound you hear. Of course getting to that 51 mph takes some time compared to traditional motorcycles, but there’s plenty of scoot to out-accelerate the majority of cars from a stoplight.
Another minor difference is the lack of engine braking. Let off the throttle and the rolling resistance of the tires is the only thing slowing you. Should speed need to be scrubbed even faster, the twin-piston caliper up front delivers surprisingly strong braking power thanks to the steel-braided line. Initial bite is crisp without being overbearing, with decent feel at the lever. The only point of concern I had was that, regardless of which brake lever I used, the lever had to travel quite far in its stroke before the brake light came on. For being such a diminutive machine, potentially not being able to get the attention of other motorists unless I used the brakes hard was worrisome.
Then again, one of the advantages of such a light and nimble machine like the XU is being able to dart into tight spaces and take advantage of its agility. The flat bars provide plenty of leverage to put the bike wherever its rider desires, and the suspension provides a plush ride that is perfect for absorbing the bumps that litter Los Angeles roads.
Are E-bikes The Way Of The Future?
All told, the XU is a fun toy, but its usefulness is rather limited. Zero recognizes this and isn’t trying to lure conventional motorcycle riders with the XU. The XU is largely meant for an individual looking for a simpler way to get on two wheels. This could be a new rider interested in the sport but is intimidated by the controls of a conventional motorcycle, or the older rider who has been forced to give up bikes due to health reasons like arthritis that prevents them from operating a clutch lever. For them the XU could be the answer to sticking on two wheels, and the XU’s limited range isn’t likely to bother them.
But there’s a catch. Zero’s claim of 25 to 30 miles per charge will vary greatly depending on the rider and the conditions. These mileage figures assume perfect conditions of a constant throttle and a lack of hills. The XU is meant for the city, where conditions are notoriously counter-productive for mileage figures. City streets feature constant stop and go, and inclines, meaning throttle application is anything but constant. In order to stay ahead of the pack of cars behind you at a light, the throttle is pegged once the light turns green – hardly conducive to optimal mileage. During our testing, we were only able to manage a best of 18 miles before power dropped off and we had to limp back home for a recharge.
Then there’s the price. Starting at $7995, that’s a lot of coin to drop for what’s conceivably a grocery getter or coffee shop scoot. Add in $595 for the optional quick charger or $249 for the accessory saddlebags, and you must really be set on electronic propulsion to still be considering one.
But keep in mind the availability of federal and state tax credits for electric motorcycles that can dramatically bring down the net outlay. In an eco-friendly state like Colorado, the XU could cost as little as $3919 after all applicable rebates and credits!
However, the XU (and street-legal X and MX) doesn’t automatically qualify for the 10% Federal tax credit offered for Zero’s S and DS models, as its battery doesn’t meet the 2.5kWh threshold for the rebate. For the XU to be eligible, you’d have to purchase a second battery ($2995, which includes the auxiliary charger), bringing its cost without any state credits to nearly $11,000.
The lower-output battery in the XU can also limit tax credits in some states. In California, the XU doesn’t qualify for a $900 state rebate like the S and DS models do. Thus, the higher-grade S model ($9995) can be had in Cali for a net cost of $8095 after state and Fed credits, not a lot more than the net price of the XU.
Check Zero’s website for incentives specific to your state. Also, starting this year, Zero now offers financing for all its models for customers in the U.S. – all with a simple online application.
The day of the electric motorcycle will come eventually. It’s only a matter of time. What the XU provides is a unique experience for those who have quick errands to run and don’t want to jump in their gas-guzzling four-wheeler to do them. I happened to be on that boat. For trips where a bicycle would do the trick, the XU is a viable alternative requiring far less effort, albeit a rather pricey one.
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