Electrically powered bicycles and scooters are old news in South Africa. Proper electrical motorbikes are a novelty though. The first bunch to arrive here come all the way from sexy California. They’re called Zero Motorcycles and like Apple, Tesla Motors, Google and Disney, also from the Golden State, they could become a household name. We rode the DS.
What is it?
You can say it’s the future. With fuel and parts prices constantly on the up, you have to be silly not to entertain the idea of an electric bike. It’s a thrilling ride too, because every bit of torque – 92 Nm in the Zero DS’ case – is there from zero rpm.
What does it do?
It saves you money in the long run. Not just on fuel, but also on maintenance. The Zero is as easy to service as an industrial vacuum cleaner. With only a handful of moving parts, an owner with minimal mechanical experience can do it at home. No more fuel injectors and air filters and spark plugs and chain lube and rusted exhausts and… You get the idea right? At most you’ll need to check and occasionally replace brake pads and tyres and ensure the drive belt still has enough tension. It makes life so much easier.
What does it cost to buy and run?
To charge the 11.4kWh battery from completely empty to full will cost you about R12. If you get 150km from that, in a commuter’s mix of freeway and city riding, “fuel” is costing you 8 cents per km. If your conventional petrol powered commuter bike gives you (excellent) consumption of 4.5 litres/100km (or 22.2 km/litre) you’re still looking at about 59 cents per km.
Does it look good?
Absolutely. The styling leans towards a dual sport look (hence “DS”), yet maintains a classy appearance. The design is linear and compact and futuristic. Even the side mirrors have a sci-fi look to them and were more than adequate for their purpose. Their “wing span” is quite wide though, which made cutting through traffic more of a challenge than usual. Being a tall guy I also found the seat just a touch too short, but with some steering rack adjustments it was slightly better. In size the Zero DS compares to a BMW 650 Sertão or Dakar or Yamaha XT600.
How does it perform?
Sublimely. I tested the Zero in Eco mode first as I wasn’t sure what Sport mode would entail, but the moment I toggled that sport button, I was transported to a kind of smoothness I have never experienced on any motorcycle ever. Acceleration is exponential and feels like it is never going to stop. It was an eerie experience as there’s no engine noise, naturally, just the sound of air rushing past me, growing louder as the bike picked up speed. Compared to a fuel-powered motorbike there is no lag when twisting the throttle. If you twist it, it goes as if you floored it yesterday.
Ride and handling
With such a low centre of gravity, the Zero handles like a rapier. It drops into a corner much easier than its hefty body would suggest. Because of that extra bit of weight, it corners solidly. Initially it takes a little more concentration to choose the right cornering speed, and a little more throttle control, as there’s no clutch to feather. “Engine braking” is strong and you learn to modulate the throttle accordingly. After a while I could enter turns really fast – faster than on a petrol bike. I would enter a corner and then tap off the throttle.
The rear suspension was a tad too hard for my liking, but it can be adjusted. If there was only one thing I could change, it would be the brakes. They offer more than enough stopping power, but I found them not quite up to the performance of the Zero. A bit like scooter brakes on a GS Adventure. Luckily, 2015 models will have improved brakes.
What did I like about it?
Saving on fuel, most of all. For two weeks I came nowhere near a petrol station, while the electricity I used amounted to about R200, with approximately 1000km travelled. If you live 30km from work and use it every day, your electricity bill would be about R500 more than usual. Not bad if you consider that using a car for that your fuel bill would be about R2500 per month.
The Zero has an app that can be used with your smartphone. Here the settings in Eco mode can be fine tuned to suit your riding style or level of experience, to the extent that even your gran could ride it. You can set the maximum torque and top speed in a configuration that you like. Or just flip the Sport switch and glide like Luke Skywalker on a Star Wars hover bike.
Then there is the ease of use. Charging it is like charging your phone: you just plug it in. When it is charged, you pull the plug out, turn the key and go. And it’s a looker. Plug-and-play gets a whole new meaning.
The Zero is not made for long distances. Not yet. Therefore 300 or 500km in one go is out of the question. Highway riding slurps up its range, especially above 110km/h, because there’s no regeneratative braking to feed power back to the battery. And then there are the issues of an unreliable electricity supply and the absence of charge stations, where you can stop off for coffee and a waffle while your Zero charges. Yet, with the unstoppable progress in battery efficiency, it won’t be long before we see a Zero with a range of 600km. After all, Tesla builds a successful, large sports sedan with a range of over 400km.
While some would call the Zero a gimmick, the truth is that it does what it sets out to do and does it very well: It is clean, green and mean. When given the chance it delivers a big surprise.
Specifications of Zero DS ZF 11.4
Price R177 300
Motor Custom-built “Z-Force®” motor, fully air-cooled
Transmission Clutchless direct drive, belt
Seat height 790 mm
Top speed 158km/h
Acceleration 0-100km/h in 5.7sec
Range 203km (city) and 122km (highway)
Equivalent fuel economy (city) 0.55 ℓ/100km
Warranty and servicing Motorcycle: 2 years. Power pack: 5 years / 160 000 km
Rode by Stephan Lourens, August 2014
Photos by Zero Motorcycles