“For instance, they aren’t fast. They aren’t long-distance capable. They aren’t cheap.”
That’s what I wrote just seven months ago about Zero motorcycle’s 2011 product line. That’s because the battery-electric motorcycles had promise and were much improved over prior iterations, but still lacked the range, performance and value of even the smallest gas-powered motorcycle. Your comments after the story showed that MD readers found the bikes laughably slow, clumsily styled and overpriced.
So the press release we got from the Milan motorcycle show was pretty stunning. I’m hard-pressed to come up with another company that has responded to criticism and improved an entire lineup so quickly. For 2012, Zero’s motorcycles offer vastly improved range, speed, styling and battery life. Of course, these improvements have probably been in the pipeline for a year or more, but still; seven months? Say what you will about e-bikes, but for gasoline-powered motorcycles to make these kinds of advances in a little more than half a year would be considered nothing short of miraculous, and speaks to the potential of e-vehicles.
The most significant improvement is range. The “Z-Force” power pack still uses a lithium-ion battery, but the chemical composition has been reengineered to be 95 percent more energy-dense. There are two flavors; the 6 kilowatt-hour version has a 76-mile (using the EPA UDDS cycle) or 43-mile (at 70 mph) range, while the 9 kWh pack will go 114 miles around town or 63 miles on the highway. And either pack will take 3000 charge/discharge cycles before it is depleted to 80 percent of its charge capacity–for the 9 kWh pack that means 308,000 miles. Charging time is 6 hours (or 9 for the bigger battery) with the included onboard charger, but an accessory quick charger can drop that time to less than two hours.
I wasn’t too impressed with the Zero S supermoto and DS dual sport’s top speed, but that may change the next time I ride one. Zero’s claimed top speed for the 2012 S is now a blazing and illegal 88 mph–the DS will do 80. That’s thanks to upgraded maintenance-free, air-cooled brushless motors that also add regenerative braking to help charge the battery pack.
The chassis and styling was improved for 2011, thanks to the hiring of former Buell engineer Abe Ashkenazi and other moto-industry help, but it was still lacking, with the bikes looking more wonky and electric-bicycle than serious motorcycles. For 2012, the bodywork was re-done, with smoother, more flowing lines and closer attention paid to finish and colors. The welded aluminum frame was also tweaked to have passenger-carrying ability (with the purchase of optional accessories) and better handling. Stylish 17-inch cast wheels are also now standard on the S, and a new headlight and turnsignals complete the look. Weight is still pretty manageable, even with the big 9 kWh battery–ready-to-ride, the 6 is 297 pounds, 341 for the 9 in both the S and DS configurations.
Other Zero models benefit from upgrades, too. The short-range, 221-pound XU I rode in March gets its performance bumped up–it can now hit 65 mph and go 42 miles on the UDDS cycle or 28 miles at a steady 55 mph. The dirt lineup includes the 213-pound X trailbike (which is equipped for highway use) and the high-jumping, 200-pound MX motocrosser. All three models (XU, X and MX) get a 3 kWh battery which is good for an hour or two of trail riding, or in the case of the street-legal X, 38 miles of pavement use on the UDDS cycle.
What hasn’t been addressed is value. The S and DS go up in price to $11,495 (add $2500 for the 9 kWh battery pack), and the X and MX are now priced at $9495 ($2000 more for the X, same price for the MX). The XU gets a $300 price drop, despite the huge increases in range and performance, as well as the addition of a clean, quiet belt final drive and other improvements. That’s a lot of money for performance that, even with manifold improvements, would still be bested by a poorly-tuned Kawasaki Ninja 250. Still, federal and state tax credits and rebates can slice a sizeable portion (up to $5000 or more) off the hangtag, and if you think of the savings– at $4 a gallon, a 40-mpg motorcycle would require about $30,000 of gasoline to go 300,000 miles–$12,000 might start to seem cheap.
It might not be enough to impress most MD readers, but as I wrote in my prior Zero report, the mission isn’t to woo experienced enthusiasts off their gas-powered steeds. It’s to attract non-riding folks who want to explore a cleaner, greener, easier way to get around. With as much as 114 miles of range and an 88 mph top speed, Zero may have a product to appeal to a few thousand adventurous consumers a year. And that’s all it will take to keep this small company growing and innovating. Imagine what another 10 years of advances in battery technology might bring.