The new Zero S reaffirms brand’s electric motorcycle lead

As Harley-Davidson spends RM3.4b on its own electric bikes, the bar is set


Electric motorcycles are an odd business proposition.

For one thing, they answer no urgent need. Motorcycles use so little fuel compared to cars that the proportionate fuel savings of an electric bike are negligible for riders. And the pool of buyers has been in decline since the early 2000s; last year sales of new motorcycles in the US dropped 8% from a year earlier, though the number of households with a motorcycle increased slightly, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council.

For a traditional manufacturer such as Harley-Davidson Inc to spend roughly US$825 million (RM3.44 billion) developing an electric bike, one not even in demand by most consumers, takes quite a leap of magical thinking. The Milwaukee-based company did it only under the duress of an otherwise declining business, its Project LiveWire electric motorcycle set for August and five more planned electrics seemingly like a Hail Mary pass that, if completed, could save the day for the near-petrified brand.

With up to 359km in the city and 180km on the highway, the Zero S offers the highest range in the brand’s line-up (Source: Zero Motorcycles)

For another thing, electric motorcycles are controversial. In addition to the colloquial idea that they’re not “real” motorcycles, since they don’t have gears or a clutch, there’s a strong contingent of older riders who believe they’re not as safe. Their near-silent motors do little to alert cars to your presence as a rider, and when cars don’t see you, they’re more prone to hit you. Loud pipes save lives, the thinking goes.

Combined, these challenges make it difficult for even the slickest of Silicon Valley designs to progress — let alone stay solvent.

Alta Motorcycles, which had been in talks with Harley-Davidson to provide the electric power plant for Project LiveWire, announced its disintegration late last year. Mission Electric, which had been teasing an all-electric superbike since 2010, declared bankruptcy in 2015. Brammo had all but disappeared by 2017. Even BMW Motorrad, which has made exceptional two-wheeled driving machines since 1921 and experimented with two-wheeled electric technology for years, has been unable to justify bringing forth an electric motorcycle. Its primary electric bike is a scooter that’s just now sold in California. That hardly qualifies.

One bright spot in the segment: Zero Motorcycles Inc. Started in 2006 by Neal Saiki, the Santa Cruz-based company has become exceptional in its ability to produce — and keep producing — sporty, reliable and comely electric motorcycles.

I’ve been reviewing Zero’s wares, such as the FX and DS, almost since the company’s inception. Its latest, the 2019 new model-year US$10,995 Zero S, complements the line as a “naked street bike” member of the family. Rather than the knobby tyres and bigger central body of a Dual Sport bike, the 313lbs (142kg) machine has shed anything that might weigh it down, to maximise performance and efficiency. The result is a range of up to 223 miles (359km) in the city and 112 miles at highway speeds, the highest of anything made by Zero, and the most range of any electric motorcycle currently in production. That alone makes the Zero S a winner in my book — for a street bike that’s easy to manoeuvre, quick enough to escape traffic, and good-looking enough to pull up to the local café, straight mileage like this is the only thing I’d want more of.

The gauge in the centre of the handlebars shows battery life and ride statistics (Source: Zero Motorcycles)

In fact, this year, the entry-price Zero S ZF7.2 received a 35% power increase from last year’s model; the longer-range Zero S ZF14.4 now comes with 10% more range than the 2018 version. (The ZF model numbers refer to kWh capacity of the battery.)

Riding it though Manhattan and Brooklyn was a treat. I got all the benefits of skirting through traffic without the hassle of regular motorbike maintenance (admittedly hypothetical, given my short-term test case) or even changing gears — and it was fast. On the FDR Drive, I hit 60mph (96.6kph) in about 3.5 seconds; by comparison, a standard Ducati Monster 1200 does it in just under three seconds. The Bosch brakes were receptive and firm, and the aerodynamic lean of the handlebars turned neatly into corners and manoeuvred well through backups. They’d require no after-market modifications to make the bike look cool. And its lighter weight (most other bikes weigh around 90-plus lbs more) came with a nimbleness that would make it easier to handle for both smaller and casual riders.

Driving is pure stealth: No grit, no oil, no noise or vibration or dropping the clutch. If you like staying undercover — or you just like your neighbours, period — these are the bikes for you. In general, I’m a fan. The responsibility of motorcycle riding lies on the rider; you should be riding as if you were invisible, anyway.

Like the others in the Zero range, the 2019 Zero S uses lithium-ion power to slingshot you forward, but the range and charging scenario have improved. It takes 5.2 hours to reach a full charge for the lightest (7.2kWh) outfit, with the battery life displayed on an easy-to-read digital monitor between the handlebars; an optional “Charge Tank” cuts that time to just 1½ hours. I charged mine overnight in the parking garage across from my apartment, plugging into a standard outlet — no sweat. On battery life, Zero said the bikes can travel about 200,000 total miles and still retain 80% of their original charging capacity.

Yet, what truly set the 2019 Zero S apart for me was the integrated tech. Data from each and every ride are sent to the Zero Motorcycles app, where you can track information on how many miles the bike has left, how much time until it’s charged, your average watts spent per mile, and total charged miles. You can see how much using Eco versus Sport mode affects the performance of the ride and configure speed, power, torque and battery regeneration to a third Custom mode. And, of course, you can charge your cellphone, in the storage space just under the seat. It’s a whole other dimension than the mechanical versions on Ducati’s and BMW’s lighter models, the most seamlessly integrated of the Zero line into the wireless lifestyle. I think of the 2019 Zero S as the Apple Watch of motorcycles.

No one needs an Apple Watch, in the same way no one needs an electric motorbike. But once you get one, you quickly become enamoured, even dependent. It becomes a crucial part of your everyday life. And during my testing period of the Zero S, that certainly happened to me. When the weather’s decent, why bother with a car?

As for competitors like Harley-Davidson, inactivity for original equipment manufacturers doesn’t mean inability, and we can expect that old brand to hit hard — when it can finally throw a punch. — Bloomberg