It’s summer in the midwest and that means it’s time for motorcycles. Harley’s rumbling, Triumphs trumpeting, Suzuki’s screaming, and now the all-electric Zero SR gliding through traffic with a whisper quiet whir. Zero began making electric motorcycles for 10 years ago, when former NASA engineer, Neal Saiki, began a modest operation in Santa Cruz, California. Today, the company makes six models on three platforms in its Scotts Valley facility, the top of the range being the Zero SR naked street bike, which I had the opportunity to live with for the past month.
Like electric cars, electric motorcycles have several advantages: torque that delivers excellent acceleration at any speed, quiet operation, and operational efficiency. The negatives are the same as well: limited range, long charge times, and a higher purchase price. Let’s start with the good.
The Zero SR is a fun bike to ride, so much fun in fact that I was warned not to ride the bike in sport mode until I had a few miles under my belt and not to use full throttle under 40 miles per hour until I was really comfortable. While the 70-horsepower output is modest (about the same as a Suzuki SV650 a bike of very similar size and weight), it makes 116 lb.-ft. of torque which is more than a 1200cc Ducati Diavel.
I picked up the SR and rode it the 94 miles to my home testing the limits of its range. I spent most of the time on two-lane highways riding at 55 to 65 mph and when I was just 13 miles from home, had 23% charge remaining. That’s when I got cocky and decided to put the bike in sport mode and ride at 70+ miles per hour on the freeway and watched the charge drop precipitously. I pulled into my driveway with the digital display reading exactly 0 miles of juice left in its 14.4 kWh battery. Let me tell you, range anxiety is a thing.
What I found during that ride is the Zero SR is a great handling bike. At just a tick over 400 pounds with a reasonably low center of gravity, it turns in easily and track true through the corners. Riding position of this naked street bike is more upright that a sport bike, with your feet right underneath your hips and knees tucked neatly into the bodywork where the tank on a traditional motorcycle would go. I was worried that with a 31.8 inch seat height it might be a little small for my 6’3” frame, but found I was very comfortable for the two-hour ride on the firm, but appropriately padded saddle.
The Showa adjustable rear shock was set a little to the soft side for my 210 pounds, but after tightening it up a bit, was very happy with the rebound over bumps and imperfections in the pavement. There was a little too much dive for my taste under hard braking but I never felt uncomfortable.
The real star of this bike is the motor. The air-cooled permanent magnet unit spins powerfully directly driving the rear wheel via a carbon fiber belt. This means no clutch to pull and no gears to shift which took some getting used to as I pulled away from stoplights. Twist the throttle and the bike accelerates smoothly and quickly. Brian Wismann, VP of Development for Zero, told me they programmed the start with a linear ramp up to ensure it was safe. Once the bike is rolling at full throttle, you can feel the torque really kick in, threatening to pull your arms out of your sockets. It’s a sensation that never ceased to make me smile whether I was bolting from a dead stop or accelerating from 30 to 70 on a freeway onramp.
Using the bike around town as a commuter and taking it on short 50 mile “throttle therapy” rides through the country is what the SR is best at. You never have to worry about range and it slices through traffic or on the twisty esses with the utmost confidence. The front and rear brakes work just as a traditional motorcycle with levers at your right hand and foot with single discs front and rear providing plenty of stopping power. There is some regenerative braking through the rear wheel, which puts juice back in the battery. Unlike the Chevy Bolt or Nissan Leaf, however, regen is limited by the traction at the rear wheel and thus minimal. Were it tuned for aggressive regen like front-wheel drive cars, you’d end up locking the rear wheel on loose pavement and that wouldn’t be a good thing.
Around town, 179 miles of range is perfectly acceptable. I rode the bike to and from work a number of days using 20% to 30% of the battery on my round trip which meant I could easily charge it overnight via the 110 volt cord on a standard outlet. My SR was equipped with the optional 6 kW “Charge Tank” which allows for level two charging. That means you can fully recharge a spent battery in 2.5 hours. Very reasonable, not quickly enough for cross country road trips, but it does allow you to add 30 to 40 miles of additional range in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee.
The Zero SR isn’t cheap. At $16,500 before EV tax incentives, it’s about 50% more than other premium naked bikes like the Ducati Monster 821 and BMW F 800 R. But it also rides like nothing else on the road. Thanks to the electric powertrain, maintenance is minimal – no oil changes, tune-ups, valve adjustments, exhaust repairs, etc. – you just have to worry about shocks, brakes, tires and the drive belt. The battery is guaranteed for five years and typically at the end of that time, Zero estimates only a 10% drop-off in capacity.
While some bemoan the lack of an exhaust note that the future of electric transportation will bring I found it nice to be able to ride and hear what was going on around me. It takes some getting used to, but once you do, you’ll find it hard to go back to thunder and earplugs.