It's been about three years since we last tested one of Zero Motorcycles' electric bikes, and in that time, the company has been very busy. Compared to the 2011 Zero S, the 2014 Zero SR has between 200-400 percent more everything – riding this bike was an absolutely shocking progress report on the state of the art. The SR represents a liminal moment in motorcycling. We may look back in years to come and see this as the first time an electric motorcycle stood shoulder to shoulder with petrol powered bikes, and made them feel like yesterday's heroes.
When we last rode the Zero S about three years ago, we came away thinking "what a nice little commuter, shame about the battery range."
Things have changed, and in a big way. The graphs below tell the story. Zero motorcycles have been on a steady diet of protein shakes, creatine and anabolic steroids in the last few years, and boy has the gym work paid off.
Just to ram the point home, here's how the 2014 Zero SR compares to the 2011 S: it has a 3.2 times bigger battery, almost 4 times the range, just under 2.7 times the power, 2.4 times the torque and a 50 percent higher top speed. Oh, and the battery's service life is nearly four and a half times what it used to be – the SR will go nearly half a million kilometers (310,000 mi) before the battery drops to 80 percent of its normal range.
On paper, that's a gigantic leap forward. In the saddle, it's absolutely spectacular. I went around the block ONCE in sports mode, then came running in shouting "holy shit!" to anyone who would listen. Then I rang as many biker friends as I could get at short notice, and stuck all of them on the SR to make sure I wasn't dreaming.
I wasn't – this is the sort of bike that flips switches in people's brains. Every single dyed-in-the-wool, petrolhead biker that took this thing around the block said a different version of the same thing: wow, that's awesome, I want one.
The NumbersThe Zero puts out just under 70 peak horsepower (50 kW) and a monstrous 106 ft-lbs (144 Nm) of torque. That's about 10 percent more than the 1200cc EBR 1190RX, the current torque king of the superbike world. Its kerb weight is 452 lbs (205 kg). But the bike feels much, much smaller and lighter than that, and the power figures don't really tell the whole story either. A decent comparison in the petrol world might be something the size and handling feel of a nimble 250cc nakedbike, but with the power of a 600.
Riding this thing is a transcendent experience. The performance and acceleration feel absolutely excessive in the way all the best bikes do. There's no clutch or gears, it's pure simplicity to ride, provided you can keep the slim rear tire from spinning up in the wet.
Full throttle from a standstill causes the SR to leap forward in a much more urgent fashion than its predecessors, and it gathers speed and power furiously as it heads for its governed 100 mph (160 km/h) top speed. It dispatches traffic in the blink of an eye and hits 60 mph (~100 km/h) in a brutal 3.3 seconds – all with an addictive, turbine-like electric whine from the motor.
I reckon I spent more time at full throttle on this bike than just about anything else I've ridden. In the absence of a screaming combustion engine, I really felt like I could abuse every scrap of this bike's power without feeling a tinge of mechanical sympathy for its engine internals.
Engine sound becomes completely irrelevant anyway when you don't have to manage gears. The power is everywhere, it's abundant and predictable and the more you twist the throttle, the harder it accelerates, no matter how quick you're going. There's no powerband or sweet spot, there's just instant, whooshing acceleration on tap at all times, and what a wonderful thing that is!
There's almost no engine braking in sports mode, but you can dial that up a bit through a Bluetooth-connected mobile app that lets you set peak power, top speed, regenerative braking and "engine braking" parameters through your phone. A nifty display on the dash shows how much power and torque you're putting out when you're on the throttle, and how much you're pulling back in on the brakes.
The single disc, 2-piston Nissin front brake is quite adequate – it'll stand on its nose at will with a bit of prompting. Handling is fantastic. This is a bike that can be thrown gleefully into corners, and there's lots of room to move your bodyweight around when you're attacking twisty roads.
Realistically though, that's not what most people will use it for. The range is now a touch over 135 miles (220 km) if you ride it gently, and still well over 60 miles if you're giving it an absolute gumboot full, so there's undoubtedly folk out there who'll be able to use this as a corner-carving sports machine. But where it's really going to shine is as a power commuter.
That sort of range means most suburban folks can use it to commute back and forth for at least two or three days without worrying about finding a power plug. As a commuter, range simply isn't an issue with the SR any more.
A big battery does take its toll on the bike's charging time – the built-in 11.4kWh Li-ion Z-Force unit now takes a whopping 7.9 hours on the plug to replenish itself from empty. But a full charge still only sets you back around US$1.60 worth of power (depending on your energy deal) and frankly, I didn't see the battery get under 50 percent in the whole time I had the bike, so it was more like four hours, and 80 cents.
Either way, the SR's use of energy is extremely efficient. Its mile per gallon equivalent is 462 MPGe around town – that's to say that given the same amount of energy as contained in a gallon of petrol, it goes some 462 miles. So no matter how hard you thrash it, you're still saving energy in the long run.
Forget about the numbersAll the numbers just pale in comparison to the experience, though. This is the first electric I've ridden that has had a serious "wow" factor in the saddle. I loved every minute of riding it – right up until it caught three nails in its rear tire. Some complete mongrels living on a local piece of twisty road have been scattering tacks up and down the road, presumably trying to stop noisy motorcycle riders from zooming past their driveways. One of these days, it'll kill somebody.
Anyway, up until that moment I really felt like I had the ultimate commuting weapon at my disposal. It costs next to nothing to run, never needs oil or a new clutch or a valve clearance checked, it's hysterical fun to ride and if the mirrors were a tad narrower it'd be about the best thing going around for lane splitting through traffic.
Yes, they still cost an arm and a legThere is of course a downside – batteries are over half the cost of electric bikes, and this bike's got one of the biggest and most expensive units on the market. The SR retails for US$17,000 or US$19,500 with an extra 2.8 kWh "power tank" battery stuck in the storage area you'd normally expect to put your petrol in.
That means that in America the standard SR is about US$10,000 more than, say, a Kawasaki Ninja 650, which is a good commuter style petrol bike, although I'd say it's nowhere near as much fun.
At today's California petrol prices, 10 grand buys you about 2500 gallons of premium unleaded. At 50 mpg, the Ninja 650 will take you 125,000 miles before it costs you the purchase price of the Zero. Mind you, the Zero has its own fuel costs, however low they are, and the Kawasaki will cost you a lot of money in servicing over that time. So the catch-up figure is probably closer to 100,000 miles, and America's super-cheap petrol makes it one of the worst places in the world to do these sorts of sums. In Australia, for example, you're probably looking at closer to 60,000 miles due to vastly more expensive petrol, and the argument would look even better in Europe.
Still, you'd have to put in a fair bit of riding on the Zero before it became an economical way to get around.
And what I want to press home is that it doesn't matter. This is such an outstandingly fun bike to ride that it feels like it's worth its premium price tag. It's every bit as much fun as anything I've ever thrown a leg over – at least up to 100 miles an hour where the speed limiter kicks in.
An important moment in motorcycle historyMore importantly, I've known in an intellectual sense that electric bikes would one day get to the point where they're better than gas guzzlers, but riding the Zero SR put that in an emotional, experiential context for me.
In just the fourth year of the Zero TT, electric race bikes are already making upwards of 180 horsepower and 300 foot-lbs of torque. These performance figures are absolutely ridiculous, but electric motor performance is limited solely by the amount of energy you can store to run them.
Meanwhile, petrol bikes are strangled further and further every year by increasingly tight emissions laws. Peak power figures keep inching higher each year, but it's at the expense of a meaty midrange where most people actually need the power, and throttles become snatchier every year as manufacturers lean off the idle mix to hit whatever Euro or California regulation they've got to hit these days.
Electric motorcycles will suffer none of these indignities. Power can be literally everywhere in the rev range, or programmed to feel like whatever sort of peaky power curve you want. Gears and clutches are strictly optional – you can have them if you want them, but you don't need them. Traction control, cruise control, throttle mapping, engine braking – they're all simple software matters. No emissions target will effect electric motorcycles as there are no tailpipe emissions, and no miles per gallon targets will even be relevant.
What's more, under current Australian road laws for example, every electric bike is learner-legal, including this monster of a thing. That will doubtless change in due time but it's a good example of what a paradigm-buster these things are.
Bring on the electric ageI came away from this road test with my head spinning. The Zero SR is that good, and what it represents is that significant. I'm confident that just about anyone who takes one around the block will have a similar experience. Getting back on my FZ1 afterwards was like stepping back into the past, I noticed every vibration, every wasted rev at the lights, every notch in my worn clutch basket – and you better believe I noticed every liter of fuel I put into it at my next petrol stop.
The bike felt crude, mechanical and a little quaint, a collection of moving parts spinning around and rubbing against one another. It felt ... old fashioned. Now don't get me wrong, I still love combustion-engined bikes and their smell and their noise and their exploding dinosaur bones as much as any petrolhead. I love anything with two wheels and a motor. But I sure won't be waiting another three years to ride another Zero – the future is electric, and it's awesome.
Update: check out our Zero SR video review.
Product page: Zero Motorcycles