Stealth bike that will turn heads
Zero Motorcycles started in 2006 with one motorcycle. It was designed by a former aeronautical engineer who had also designed mountain bike frames for some of the biggest brands in the cycling industry. The Zero X weighed a mere 140 pounds, had 3-inch motorcycle tires (we’d now call that a “plus-sized bike”) and could rip its way up to nearly 60 mph in about 3 seconds. It was properly scary yet really fun to ride.
Since then, Zero has gotten away from pure dirt bikes and now makes three models—the SR (sportbike), the FX (trail and on-road) and the DS (dual-sport).
“The lack of engine noise doesn’t cause anyone to notice the bikes in a negative way, because the only effect of twisting the throttle is forward momentum.”
The Zero DS has a modern look with classic lines. The black aluminum frame encloses the massive battery where you’d expect the internal combustion engine to be in a regular motorcycle. This is a true motorcycle, with the motor behind the battery near the base of the swingarm. The only plastic cladding is on the front of the bike, near what would normally be a gas tank, in a nice bright orange to contrast the mostly matte black of the rest of the bike.
The Zero DS comes in a few configurations. The base model, the $11,995 ZF6.5, has a single 6.5-amp-hour battery. We tested the ZF13.0 with a 13-amp-hour battery, offering twice the range and more performance. It adds 100 pounds to the weight of the bike and $3000 to the price. Optional extras include a power tank (slightly more capacity) or a vehicle charge port to cut the charge time from 10 hours to only two. Our bike came with neither, which left room for a very handy-locking tank trunk.
The Z-Force motor is designed by Zero to be powerful and very efficient. It delivers up to 70 horsepower and 116 foot-pounds of torque. The motor and battery technology is something that Zero has engineered from their experience in a decade of making electric motorcycles. The new 550-amp controller is virtually overheat-proof, even at high loads for long periods of time. Improvements for 2017 include 19 percent more torque and 11 percent more power, and a wider, stronger drive belt to handle all of that.
The battery is warranted with a five-year unlimited mileage replacement guarantee. Zero claims the battery is good for 300,000 miles before it’s down to 80 percent of its rated capacity. By then, you’d likely want to upgrade to a new model.
Zero worked closely with Japanese suspension brand Showa to design the fork and rear shock suspension systems for fully adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping for a personalized ride.
WHO IT’S MADE FOR?
We almost hesitate to say it’s for beginners with so much torque and power, but you can ease into that in Eco mode. With no clutch or shifting to worry about, riding the Zero is much simpler. It’s one less thing to think about while riding, which experienced riders might miss but beginners will welcome.
It’s also great if you live in an area full of houses or apartment complexes, especially if you leave for work early in the morning. Unlike those neighbors with loud cruisers, nobody will be awakened by you leaving.
It’s strange to turn the key on a bike, then slide the rocker up on the start switch and hear nothing. There’s no engine to turn over. It is dead silent. No vibration under you—nothing. That can be a little off-putting and even misleading. If you like to blip the throttle, you can’t here. Since there’s no transmission, there’s no clutch. When you twist the throttle, the bike moves. Simple, but if you’re used to a conventional motorcycle, it’s a foreign concept.
There are three power modes: Beginners will enjoy the Eco mode. It allows you to ease into riding with the most confidence. It offers a slower power curve, conserves the battery by not accelerating like a banshee and, when you let off the throttle, the direct-drive motor offers some regeneration. At the other end of the spectrum is Sport, which offers some of the highest performance and quick acceleration.
On our first day we started in Eco, then switched to Sport at a stoplight, facing a long, empty stretch of uphill pavement. At the green light, we accelerated to 80 mph in about 4 seconds. Unofficial but certainly thrilling!
The third mode is called Custom and is set wirelessly via a mobile app that allows riders to customize the power output, regen and more. We loved this mode, setting the torque, top speed and power at the highest settings, but also maxing the regeneration. This allows for all the performance you can get, but enough motor drag to feel like you’re downshifting when you let off the throttle. In town we were able to use little to no braking at all coming up to lights this way, and in corners it felt natural with a little drag going in, then transferring to power on the way out.
Cornering was fantastic on pavement. We spent a lot of early mornings or late afternoons after work playing around in the canyons in Malibu. At first, we were concerned about range on some rides up PCH, but even at freeway speeds the bike didn’t worry us. After a week or so, range anxiety disappears.
A GANG OF SILENCE
When riding this stock bike at highway speeds, we did think that an optional windscreen would be a great idea to help with wind resistance and to battle fatigue from being hit by the wind. Even without that, the ride is sublimely quiet other than the wind noise. Riders used to playing music while riding could keep it at a far lower level than on a regular motorcycle.
We went on a group ride with a bunch of other motorcyclists, many of whom hadn’t ever ridden an electric bike. They were all commenting on the surprising amount of torque the bikes had, comparing them to a 650cc sportbike. Rolling through Newport Beach, we were a silent biker gang. The lack of engine noise doesn’t cause anyone to notice the bikes in a negative way, because the only effect of twisting the throttle is forward momentum.
We received a lot of looks from bystanders as we rode by, surprised by the silence. In fact, only one in the group made any appreciable noise, as he had a Zero FX with a chain drive. The chain was heard above all else. TJ Aguirre, Zero’s media relations manager, says that in a group like this, if there’s one gas-powered sportbike in the bunch, it sounds to outsiders like all of the bikes are gas-powered. That’s why our group seemed so surreal.
ROCK STORE STARES
On one trip to get a cup of coffee at the famous Rock Store (a popular weekend destination for motorcyclists of all stripes in Malibu), heads turned as we pulled into the staging area for all the bikes because the Zero is so silent. A crowd gathered around, and many discussions of the pros and cons of electric bikes ensued. Many of the riders were surprised at the range we were getting.
While winding through canyon roads that morning, it was foggy and a bit misty. This is when California was getting all the much-needed rain, but the massive rains brought with them mudslides. We rounded a corner in the wet and mud, and finally slid both tires through a corner. There was a little slip, but it was the first time to find the edge of the traction on the otherwise very sure-footed and planted feel of the Pirelli MT-60 tires. Those tires are designed mainly for road use on dual-sport bikes, but they’re grippy enough for light off-road use as well.
We did take the bike off-road a little. It’s pretty capable on rutty dirt roads. Suspension was a little stiff for major off-road use, but capable of some fun anyway.
One of our staff noted—well, complained—that there’s very little padding on the seat because of the height of the batteries. More padding would make the bike too tall for a lot of people. It’s already likely too tall for anyone under about 5-foot-9. Long rides did bring on a little fatigue in the derrière, even for someone used to riding bicycles on longer rides with little to no padding on the saddle.
Zero has come a long way and has some of the best range and performance available in the relatively small electric motorcycle space. Their experience really shows in this bike, with so much power and fun, great fit and finish, and a lot of great details.
Beginners will love it, largely because it has no clutch/shifting to learn. Experienced riders may like it. It is missing the thrilling noise and audible feedback that you get from an internally combusted bike. It has decent range if you’re using it for a couple of hours a day, whether commuting or just getting out of the office for a bit to ride some twisties and clear your head.
“Case in point: a guy ripping up the coast in a flashy new McLaren rolled his window down and asked about the bike, with a little envy in his eye.”
Other than the electricity it uses, there’s virtually no expense to running this bike, which is a good thing, because the sticker price is not for the faint of heart. While Zero has refined their products greatly in the last few years, the retail price for the technology has not dropped much. In the gas-powered market, $14,000 can buy you a whole lot more motorcycle with a whole lot more power, style and run-time per tank of gas.
SPECS: ZERO DS ZR13.0
Motor: Zero Z-Force 75-7R
Charge time: 10 hours
Top speed: 98 mph
Range: 100+ miles (tested)
Drive: 90T/20T Poly Chain HDT Carbon belt
Brakes: J Juan with Bosch ABS, 320mm/240mm discs
Fork: Showa 41mm inverted cartridge with adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Weight: 413 pounds (as tested; different configurations have different weights).
Rear shock: Showa 40mm piston, piggyback reservoir shock with adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
Frame: Zero Aluminum twin spar.
Color choices: N/A