Zero DS: An electric commuter, on two wheels
Plug-in electric cars have been headline news for the better part of a year, with the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt finally entering the market as production cars. It's an unfortunate reality that mass-produced plug-in electric motorcycles, which have been available to the public for almost three years, haven't been received with nearly as much mainstream-media fanfare.
Take the Zero Motorcycles DS, the third battery-electric model from the Santa Cruz, Calif., manufacturer. Priced at $9,995 (before applying a 10% federal tax credit) and costing less than one penny per mile to operate, Zero's DS is a more affordable commuter vehicle than a pure-electric car. If you're a motorcyclist, it's also a lot more fun to ride.
Yet the DS is burdened with multiple barriers to entry, most significantly a price tag that is too high for what it is. Zero says the DS is capable of traveling a maximum of 50 miles per charge; however, riders who accelerate aggressively or who ride for sustained periods at the bike's 67 mph limit will find that range significantly compromised. Real-world riding yields 25 to 30 miles per charge.
Zero was kind enough to let me borrow a DS for a weeklong loan so I could see how it lives in the real world. The DS is Zero's dual sport model, capable of motoring on and off road. But despite its copious amounts of suspension travel (9 inches rear, 10 inches front), I was only able to test the DS on pavement because I live in the urban sprawl of L.A.. The bike's restrictive range prevented me from being able to get to any dirt without draining its 4-kilowatt-hour lithium ion battery pack. Popping a curb would have required me to first find an outlet, then wait four hours for the DS to recharge.
Considering its limited range, Zero would be better off reducing its off-road capability and dropping the saddle, which is 35.5 inches tall. The bike is lightweight (270 lbs.) and the saddle narrow enough that I was able to balance the bike, when stopped, on the balls of my feet. Still, in a time when most mainstream motorcycle manufacturers are dropping their saddles to lure the vertically challenged and literally lower the bar to help wannabe riders enter the sport -- trying to boost sales that have been in continuous decline for two solid years -- Zero's decision to outfit its DS with an NBA-style seat merely creates an additional barrier to entry for a bike that's already saddled with challenges.
The Zero DS' greatest virtue is the fact that it is electric and produces zero emissions when ridden. But that is also its greatest flaw, making the bike too expensive for the present value-oriented marketplace and preventing it from being able to travel as far as consumers would like. A maximum 50-mile range mostly relegates the DS to commuter status, and the commuter motorcycle market is virtually nonexistent in the U.S., where motorcycles are predominantly a discretionary and leisure pursuit.
I got my start in motorcycles as a commuting rider 20 years ago, so the Zero DS returned me to those roots. My daily commute these days is about 14 miles round-trip. My first trip was from work to my house, during which I was pleased with the bike's excellent power delivery. Electric motorcycles reach maximum torque the moment the grip is twisted, so the power was instantaneous without being so torque-y that the ensuing wind blast threatened to throw me off. It reached speed quickly, smoothly and without the need to change gears, because the DS, like all Zero bikes, is direct drive and lacks a transmission and clutch. I reached a top speed of 65 mph and kept it there for a solid three miles.
Unfortunately, the gauge that indicates how much battery power is left does not provide real-time information. Its power of prognostication is about as reliable as a call to a psychic hotline, at least it is when the throttle is twisted. With the throttle wide open, the number of bars left on the fuel gauge rapidly evaporates. Traveling three miles on a full charge at top speed, my fuel gauge dropped to less than half. It was only after I pulled off the freeway and pulled up to a stop sign after six miles of travel that the gauge showed me what kind of juice I really had left. I had about 3/4 of a charge.
This "voltage sag" phenomenon doesn't have to exist. The Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt are far more accurate in determining available power, so the technology is available. It just isn't being employed in the current incarnation of the DS.
Nor are regenerative brakes that help recharge the batteries, or the more powerful liquid-cooled AC induction motor being used by the top competitors in electric motorcycle racing and most production electric cars. The DS employs an air-cooled and brushed permanent magnet DC motor, which is far less expensive and produces an adequate amount of power for the cost.
Riders have to really want to do the right thing to buy the Zero DS. I mean they have to really, really want to. They need to believe in the green lifestyle. They need to love motorcycles. They need to be tall.
I'm all of those things.
But buyers also have to have the sort of cash that allows them to be early adopters. In the case of the Zero DS, early adoption means buying a technology that is outdated almost from the moment the ink has dried on the check. Purchasing the DS as it currently exists is buying a piece of electrics' evolution. The DS is fun and as affordable as possible considering what's available in the electric motorcycle segment at this moment, but this is a quickly evolving category.
2010 Zero Motorcycles DS
Base price: $9,995*
Powertrain: air-cooled, 96-volt brushed DC motor, 4-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack, clutchless one-speed
Maximum speed: 67 mph
Maximum range: 50 miles
Maximum horsepower: 31
Maximum torque: 62.5 lb.-ft.
Curb weight: 270 lbs.
Seat height: 35.5 inches
* after applying 10% federal tax credit
-- Susan Carpenter
Photo: Zero DS. Credit: Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times