Wednesday, February 29, 2012
Quick Ride: Zero Motorcycles Zero XU and Zero S ZF6
By Scott Araujo
In addition to being a fan of small cars and small motorcycles I also take a keen interest in electric vehicles. They have a minimum of moving parts and a refuel is as close as the nearest wall outlet. Needless to say I was thrilled to get a chance to test ride both of Zero Motorcycles' current street models: the Zero XU and Zero S.
There are only a handful of street legal production electric motorcycles that will carry a full size adult to freeway speeds for any significant distance. Of the few there are, I think Zero Motorcycles make the prettiest ones you can actually buy right now. Both bikes look like real motorcycles, not some electric appliance or overgrown mountain bike with a battery. It's not a scooter, it's not a toy, it's a real motorcycle and it looks the part.
The XU has white bodywork on a black frame with spoked wheels. It has the definite look of a super moto (think dirt bike with street wheels and tires) showing its dirt bike roots. The S is all black with cast alloy wheels in a deep metallic crimson. It also has a modern shaped headlight instead of a basic round one and just a little more swoop to the minimal bodywork giving it more of a naked street fighter look. Both bikes have inverted forks, something usually reserved for higher end machines in the gasoline world. Great for looks, great for handling.
The XU is the smaller bike. It weighs only 221 lbs., has a top speed of 65mph (55mph sustained speed), a max range of 42 miles in the city and 28 miles on the freeway. The larger S comes in two models: the ZF6 and ZF9, the difference being a larger battery for the ZF9 which increases range. They weigh in at 297/341 lbs. respectively, top speed of 88mph for both (75mph sustained), and max ranges of 76/114 miles city or 43/63 miles highway. Take the range numbers with a grain of salt. Like EPA MPG ratings you'd need to be a skinny rider with a delicate touch on the throttle to achieve them. Still, those ranges make these bikes real possibilities for shorter commutes and the ZF9 is the first production electric to boast a range over a 100 miles. Both bikes also have a switch for either Sport or Eco mode. Eco mode gives you less acceleration and more regenerative braking for greater range.
Battery technology is key to making electric vehicles feasible. Electric is green but the batteries can be anything but. Lithium ion and a host of other new battery technologies have helped everything from cell phones to electric cars get more power from less weight, nearly full power until complete discharge, more recharge cycles, fewer charging "memory" problems, whiter whites, and brighter colors. You get the idea. Downside? They're usually highly toxic and very difficult if not impossible to recycle. And sometimes they catch fire. Or explode. The Zero's proprietary salt-based battery is different. It doesn't tend to get hot in use, so no fires or explosions. Toxic? Hardly. You can legally throw it in a landfill. Not that you would, you can and should recycle it, but it's nice to know that the toxic footprint is so small for something that powers a green vehicle.
These bikes are very cleanly made and well built. The suspension, brake, and all other components are obviously top notch stuff. They're mostly machined parts, not cheap cast stuff. The frame is a work of art and Zero takes great pride in both its looks and light weight. If there's one thing that sticks out as sub-par it's the body panels over the tank and rear fender. They're made of thin, light plastic, they're quite rugged and resilient but they just don't have that super polished look of everything else. A bit more sculpting on the panels would bring them up to the level of everything else.
I rode the smaller XU first. Its light weight is immediately apparent just by throwing a leg over it. Another thing that is immediately obvious is an amazingly well balanced suspension between the front and rear. The XU feels a bit soft to me but bounce up and down on the seat and the front and back ends go up and down in perfect unison. Most low to mid range gasoline bikes on the market, especially from Japan, have soft forks. I'm a heavy guy at 220lbs. but even lighter riders often note the tendency of front ends to dive excessively during even moderate braking. Why? I wish I knew.
Getting rolling is very simple: turn the key, thumb the ignition switch to "on." The computer will go through a setup cycle that takes a few second and then a large green light on the dash illuminates. Twist the throttle and away you go. Controls for everything are standard motorcycle controls with two notable absences: there's no clutch or gear shift. Both bikes are single gear twist-n-go affairs. I found myself looking for the clutch and gears a few times in the first few minutes of riding.
Initial take off is both impressive and disappointing. It's really difficult to make a high torque electric motor accelerate smoothly from a dead stop and also difficult to modulate speed smoothly at low speeds. Having never ridden an electric before I was gritting my teeth and waiting for the dreaded take off lurch... that never came. There's a slight delay and then a silky smooth pull away. The disappointing bit? It's feels kinda gutless up to about 10mph. It's not terrible, I was able to scoot out in front of some delivery trucks at a light and cross three lanes but it's obvious they've reigned things in here. This is all due to the way the motor's speed controller is programmed. You can get amazing torque from electric motors at low speeds. I'm sure the motor and battery combo could have spun the tire until it melted but that would do bad things, like make lots or parts get hot and eat the battery's charge really quickly.
Once past 10mph you can feel a notable increase in the available torque. I rode it around through in-town traffic and then on some more deserted streets. When you open the throttle there is an initial delay from a dead stop and composed progress up to 10 mph but then, well, it just feels like a small motorcycle. Throttle and brakes both work and modulate very well. The suspension is well balanced, amazingly well balanced. All three of us who rode the bikes noted afterward that the composed suspension was the most notable feature of the XU. What I thought felt soft in the parking lot was perfect, even for my fat butt. No nose dives braking, no wiggles turning corners. When the same bike feels perfect for a 165lb. rider and a 200lb. rider you know the engineers did their homework. This chassis is seriously dialed in.
So it feels like a regular motorcycle, just amazingly quiet. Then you stop. And it's creepy how little is going on. Nothing vibrates, nothing makes any noise at all. There's no reason to blip the throttle, no clutch to pull in, no gears to shift. I've never had quiet feel so disquieting. Even when you're moving the bike is amazingly silent, a slight whir from the engine and drivetrain and that's it. I noticed the same thing Prius drivers report, nobody notices you. It's glaringly obvious that no one notices you, even people crossing the street just a few feet in front of you don't turn their heads. I was tempted to yell at someone just to freak them out. Eerily quiet.
The quiet also has another effect. With no engine growl or vibration, no gears to shift, and the sedate initial takeoff you don't notice how fast you get to 50mph. There's a definite uptick in the acceleration once you're over 10mph and from 30-50 it's really pretty good. You just hear a huge rush of wind and suddenly you're flying. While you might be tempted to go WOT like you would with an underpowered gasoline bike you actually do need to back it down or you will plant yourself in someone's rear bumper. Don't get me wrong, it's not neck snapping but if it wasn't for the lack of noise you'd think you were riding a regular bike.
I did flip the Eco/Sport switch back and forth a few times. In Eco mode I could feel a slight decrease in the upper range acceleration but it was still fine for getting around. It didn't feel like anyone had cut the power in half or anything, just a little slower. There's also more regenerative braking but I couldn't say for sure I felt any difference.
The S ZF6 was next. With this one I headed straight for the freeway and I wasn't disappointed. Again, a slight delay and easy acceleration up to 10mph and then things kicked in. Also again, no neck snapping acceleration but before I knew it I was doing 75mph in dead silence except for the wind noise. It's amazing how fast it got there, I'd have to say it felt faster than my everyday 500cc ride. It's also weird because while a small gas engine tends to peter out as the speed goes up the Zero just seems to keep on pulling! I had no problem merging and keeping up with midday freeway traffic.
I popped off the freeway and wandered back through the city. The S is heavier and the suspension feels a bit stiffer. I think it may be just a bit too stiff. The ZF9 is the same bike with 40lbs. more battery on board, maybe that would be just the right amount of weight to balance the stiffer feel. It was again perfectly balanced front to rear with no surprises. Handling was great, brakes and acceleration were both more than up to anything needed. One rider who got it up to near terminal velocity noted that it started to get a bit twitchy at the front end. It is a fairly small and light bike with a short wheelbase so maybe that's not surprising.
There are a host of nice little touches all over the bike. The open ended tubular cross members of the frame double as storage for the charging cable so you can take it with you. The dash has a nice big green light to let you know when the beast is awake. There are multiple interlocks on the side stand and brake to keep you from unintentionally zipping away from a stop. The dash is simple and easy to read with speed and a 'gas gauge' right there. The XU was also fitted with an accessory seat from Corbin. It was notably more comfortable than the stock seat on the S and if I were buying either bike I'd cough up the extra dough for it.
So what's not to like? Well, there's always something. Charging times to 100% for the XU, S ZF6, and S ZF9 respectively with just the on board charger are 3.1, 6, and 9 hours. You can get to 95% in a bit less time. You can also add one extra off bike charger to the XU to take charge time down to 2 hours, or add up to three off bike chargers to the the 6 and 9 bringing charge times down to 1.8 and 2.4 hours. You can also add just one or two accessory chargers to either S model for proportionally different charging times, see the website for details. Of course each of these chargers needs its own 110V 15A circuit to run so if you want four total chargers running you'll need four circuits and three of the chargers sitting on the shelf in your garage.
The prices are also something to consider. The bikes start at $7,695, $11,495, and $13,995, respectively. You may also pay a bit more for freight and prep than on a standard bike. Due to the large battery these bikes qualify as hazardous materials for shipping purposes. Are these bikes worth the price? I'd say absolutely for all the cool green eco-tech you get, but at those prices you could also be looking at many other alternatives. If you're looking to save money a brand new 250cc bike costs less than the XU and probably gets around 60mpg, and a used one can be had in good condition for just a few thousand dollars. At the upper end, you can buy a lot of sexy tech on two wheels for $14k and still be getting 40-50MPG. Of course even the cleanest gas bikes still have more tailpipe emissions than most cars, the emissions controls just aren't as sophisticated yet.
If you regularly ride long distances these are not the bikes for you. While the performance is more than adequate for getting around and having fun you're not going to leave any sport bikes in your dust. If you ride a bike to help keep your transportation costs down it will take a while until the money you save on gas makes up for the purchase price.
All that said, I was really impressed with both bikes and I had a blast riding them. For 99% of my riding, which is commuting twelve miles each way to work with a mix of back roads and freeway, any of them would fit the bill and still be plenty fun for a short ride on the weekend. The cost is an issue, I could fill my garage with a few rat bike projects or a solid second bike for the money I'd spend on these. Still, I've had my eye on electrics for the past few years now and these are seriously cool. Zero is definitely on my short list of next bikes to put in the garage.
Zero Electric Motorcycles