Electric bike captures the pure essence of motorcycling
"I don't reckon you'll make it to Newport and back on that thing," my neighbor told me upon seeing the 2018 Zero SR sitting in my back garden.
DANGER!: 2016 Zero DSR Brings the 'Whee!'
I live in Cardiff, Wales, which shares a border with Newport. From my little corner of the city to Newport's city center it's just 18 miles, well within the claimed range of Zero's torque-monster naked, but such are people's opinions of electric motorcycles that no one believes it.
Electric motorcycles are a big thing these days, and with Harley-Davidson overtly promising to deliver one by next summer, it seems they're only going to get bigger. There are any number of small start-ups getting into the e-bike game, but big names like Honda, Yamaha, BMW, and Polaris are all investing in the technology to some degree. At present, however, the two most legit players in the game are Italy's Energica, and the stalwart of the industry, California-based Zero Motorcycles.
DANGER!: Harley-Davidson Confirms LiveWire on Schedule for 2019
Founded in 2006, Zero has seen a number of competitors come and go, all the while managing to improve range and quality to the point that, today, it's fair to say that in some applications its electric motorcycle has "arrived."
The SR is the most powerful of Zero's models. Delivering 69 hp (52 kW), but its real claim to fame is the arm-ripping 107.7 lb-ft (146 Nm) of torque that is instantly and always available. That's full big-twin cruiser grunt from a dead stop: "quick enough to out-accelerate a Porsche 911," according to Zero, and all kinds of awesome.
Built For The City
Zero's European PR team may be eager to sell people on the idea of electric touring, but truthfully a Zero's greatest strengths are to be found in urban riding. Here, the primary disadvantage of an electric bike—range—is largely irrelevant. Whereas the advantages are glaring.
There's that torque of course, which will put you ahead of pretty much everything when running from stoplight to stoplight. There's also the lack of a traditional transmission, which means you'll be able to concentrate more on the road. Not having to shift gears frees up a surprising amount of mental space—far more than I ever would have guessed.
Being driven by an electric motor means the Zero SR is simply twist and go. Combined with the lack of engine noise, the absence of gears will initially confuse some long-time riders, but I was able to get the hang of things within about 200 feet. I'll admit that even after two weeks with the SR, though, there were still certain situations in which my hand was searching for a clutch lever that wasn't there.
Size wise, the SR is similar to the sort of mid-capacity bike that rivals it in horsepower, bikes like the Honda CB650F or Suzuki SV650. Weighing in at 208 kg (458 lbs) it also carries the same amount of poundage as a CB650F. I wouldn't say the weight is necessarily low, but it's equally not too high, and obviously it doesn't slosh around. It's just solid and predictable, which means that filtering (aka, lane splitting) is pretty easy – especially thanks to the SR's relatively narrow 'bars.
HIGH VOLTAGE!: 2018 Energica Esse Esse 9 – First Ride
Probably my biggest complaint about the SR, however, is that there is not nearly enough steering range. The SR's steering lock is similar to that of a sportbike, which means you can't zig-zag through a mess of nonmoving cars. If your filtering alley gets too narrow because a bus is spilling out of its lane there's nothing you can do but sit and wait with everyone else.
Conducive to commuting is the presence of a tank storage space that can hold a few useful items, but it is not large enough to hold a full-face helmet. Additionally, the storage space is secured by a very flimsy lock, which means nothing valuable should be inside when you walk away from the bike. I'd like to see Zero adding a rugged lid, a la the Honda NC750X, but perhaps the company sets things up this way to serve as incentive to pony up the extra $2,295 for an accessory Charge Tank.
It's a useful addition. As stock, the Zero SR charges via a standard household wall socket and charging to full takes roughly 10 hours. That's fine for overnight, and the SR's range is such that even in the most sprawling of cities you'll be able to make it to work and back without needing to top up. If you want to go further afield, however, the Charge Tank will allow you to go from zero to hero in 2.5 hours using the power stations that are becoming more and more prevalent at shopping centers and the like.
Newport and Back
Zero claims the SR is capable of 193 km of mixed-use riding (city and highway) on a single charge. That's 119 miles, so when my neighbor laid down his Newport challenge I decided to take things even further, setting a course for the Severn Bridge which stretches across the vast River Severn to connect South Wales with England. An engineering marvel when it was first opened in 1966, the bridge struck me as a good place to take this bike of the future, and the trip to it a decent test of battery claims.
From Casa de Cope to the Old Ferry Inn, a pub that sits in the shadow of the Severn Bridge, it's roughly 37 miles. However, my chosen path was more meandering, hugging the coast and often diverting down country lanes to see where they led. Incorporating city traffic, country highways, quiet back lanes, and 80mph motorway to speed home, my route clocked up exactly 100 miles. The bike's battery monitor was showing 10 percent remaining charge when I finally arrived home.
That's not too bad, and not too far off Zero's claims. Some of you may see the SR's 100-mile capacity as a little anemic, but consider the fact the average American rider clocks up just 2,500 miles a year. I'm pretty confident this bike would, in fact, fit the riding habits of a pretty large number of riders.
It should be noted, of course, that I managed that trip with the bike set to Eco mode. As with all Zero motorcycles, the SR has two riding modes—Eco or Sport—with settings that can be tweaked even further via an app. In its power-saving guise, the SR is a markedly blunted tool with acceleration that can politely be described as lethargic. Only someone who has never been on a moving vehicle would thrill at the sensation of an SR getting up to speed in Eco mode.
READ MORE: New Battery Tech Could Triple Electric Bike Range
The bike's joy is to be found instead in Sport mode. That's where it performs with more instant wallop than pretty much every other bike I've ridden save the Yamaha MT-10. In Sport mode, passing cars on the highway will become your favorite game. Set yourself up to pass, twist the throttle, and BANG, you're up front.
This is particularly amusing if you're riding on a warm day and passing someone with their window rolled down. The SR makes an electronic whir, of course, but it is not so loud that it can really be heard over the roar of windblast, so the driver will look over in astonishment: "Why is that motorcycle not making any noise? What kind of devilry is this?!"
Unfortunately, all this fun sends your range capacity to hell. Which means that getting out to fun roads can be a challenge. I'm lucky enough to live in a part of the world where there are a few decent roads at my doorstep, but the real amazeballs riding of Brecon Beacons National Park (about 35 miles away) was effectively out of reach. The route to Brecon Beacons is almost all motorway, so while I probably could have gotten there and back in Eco mode (Zero claims 145 km, or 90 miles, of highway use is possible on a single charge), I would have had nothing left for the actual good roads.
So, outside of an urban setting, the same old range lament rears its ugly head. For $2,895 Zero will sell you a "Power Tank," which reportedly increases city range by 71 km (44 miles), but its presence will inherently exclude the aforementioned speedy Charge Tank. In other words, you can go not terribly far and charge up relatively quickly, or you can go relatively far and charge up not terribly quickly.
On the good roads I that was able to access, the SR was a lot of fun. The suspension is firmer than it needs to be for regular road use—which connects to my complaint about steering lock: for a bike that is speed-limited to 88 mph, the SR is trying way too hard to make you think it's a sportbike—but overall it's a decent set-up. Combined with the awesomeness that is regenerative braking, the SR's single front disc and single rear offer plenty of whoa.
I'm not sure if it was the bike's weight or its tires or its suspension, or simply the fact I couldn't knock it down into a lower gear for additional engine braking, but I never felt fully comfortable leaning this thing over. I'd be charging toward a corner I knew well, that I had ridden through at... ah... enthusiastic speed on any manner of other bikes, then suddenly get uncomfortable and lose my nerve. Something just didn't feel right.
READ MORE: Electric Motorcycles Have Arrived; Have We?
Maybe it was simply the fact I am used to the sound of an engine making a certain noise as I go into a corner, and without it I found it difficult to really gauge my forward progress. I don't know. I only had the bike for two weeks, so perhaps more time in the saddle would have produced more confidence and fluidity.
What Everyone Else Says
"It’s upright, comfortable and roomy in the saddle with a ride height that won’t have you scraping the pegs and a favourable riding position. Because the battery is mounted so low in the aluminium twin spar frame, the centre of gravity is equally as low and it keeps the SR stable and nicely balanced at walking speed. Unfortunately, the turning circle isn’t complimentary of this low speed agility." – Michael Mann, BikeSocial
"The interesting nugget is its claimed torque figure, which is 146 Nm—more than any road-legal superbike. In real time, the SR feels as sprightly as an MT-07 when momentum is gained but it’s the initial gush of power from low down that’s its strong point." – 44Teeth
"It's the perfect bike to commute anywhere between 20 and 60 miles on every day. At that distance, there's plenty of life in the battery for a thrilling ride with zero danger of being left stranded. You won't need to ride with ear plugs because there's simply not any engine or exhaust noise to block out in the first place. And as there's no heat either, you're far less hot, and so dangerous filtering is far less of a temptation. In fact, we'll go so far as to say the SR is the only bike that has managed to make city riding genuinely enjoyable." – Rich Taylor, GQ
The Little Things
The SR is not a pretty thing. There's no real getting around that fact. For a bike with a starting price of $16,495 it definitely lacks the aesthetic wow of a price-equivalent bike, like a Harley-Davidson Fat Bob. Instead, it has the visual thrill, as well as the fit and finish, of a Suzuki SV650. Nothing wrong with an SV650, of course—it's a sturdy and well made motorcycle. But an SV650 costs less than half as much.
Such is the price of progress, I suppose. With an SR you are sitting on the future of motorcycling—a future all of us will probably have to embrace eventually, as many cities around the world have announced plans to ban petrol- and diesel-powered cars and trucks. No doubt those bans will at some point extend to motorcycles. Also, with the lower operating costs that are part and parcel of electric motorcycle ownership, you will, theoretically, one day, make your money back.
So, I'll limit the bulk of my criticism to the SR's trying-too-hard-to-be-sporty nature. It's all well and good to have a bike that can hustle in the twisties, but the best application of this vehicle is in urban commuting. As such, it needs more steering lock, a softer suspension, and, perhaps, a slightly less aggressive riding stance. Also, I'd make the Charge Tank standard.
The Best Things
Riding the SR is a whole hell of a lot of fun. That torque is addictive, but also there's the simple joy of being on a bike that's so much less hectic than its internal-combustion-powered brethren. This was something I learned when riding a Zero DSR a few years back: an electric motorcycle captures the pure spirit of motorcycling.
The rumble and heat and roar of a motorcycle may be amusing but they are not actually the things that make motorcycling so much fun at its core. Instead, it's that feeling of almost flying along the road, of zipping through the air, moving your body with the bike, feeling connected with everything. Being on a bike like this that eliminates all the hullabaloo of other riding experiences is deeply satisfying—almost spiritual.