When riding areas close down due to angry people who don’t like dust or noise and gas prices shoot sky high, it seems like something is telling us to rethink the way we look at dirt biking. Zero Motorcycles is diving head first into a world of green energy with a team of guys who have years of experience in motorcycle engineering and battery powered vehicles. Dirt Rider got the chance to attend the Zero Motorcycles intro in Santa Cruz, California to get a sample of what the innovative company is bringing to the table for 2011. The bikes this year have over 80% new components and most of which are made in the USA. According to Zero, quality control is a very important aspect of producing motorcycles and the company dedicates plenty of extra time inspecting each unit before it is released and reaches the customer. With a lot of support from Santa Cruz, the state and federal government, you can buy a Zero motorcycle and get a pretty decent rebate if you swallow the price tag and buy an extra battery and charger. In some states the rebates will pay for the second battery and charger and also knock a decent chunk off of the bike itself.
The only thing with an electric motor that I had ever operated before was an RC car and my little electric jeep when I was about two years old, so throwing a leg over a motorcycle with a huge battery where the engine belongs was one unique experience. Upon arriving to the track, there were a million thoughts going through my head. How fast are these things? Will I even be able to throw a whip on something this light? Can I hit the same big jumps? No air filter, what?
The handling was easy to get used to as it was like riding another dirt bike. Becoming accustomed with the motor was a whole different story. There was a delay in the throttle response that could get you in trouble if you weren’t careful. In other words it is smart to become fully comfortable on an electric motorcycle before you go hammer out some laps and try to win practice because there are some big differences in how an electric bike works and what you are used to. Let me explain. The throttle comes on a bit delayed and you have to judge when you will need the power instead of be able to get on the gas and go right when you want. It isn’t a major delay but big enough to require a bit of extra thinking. The battery can last for a while depending on how you ride it, but if you aren’t careful and like to go fast you might only get about 20 minutes out of it. If you spend a little extra dough and buy the second battery and charger you can swap out batteries in about a minute and charge the other one while you are riding. With that added luxury, it would be pretty easy to ride all day taking brakes here and there if you make sure to keep up on battery charging.
The Zero MX isn’t comparable to the modern day 250Fs and 450s in performance or size. It is closer to a TTR125 and would be a fair battle with that bike as well, and unfortunately is priced closer to the big bikes at $9,495. It has more aggressive suspension than a trail bike or pit bike and in a way has its very own category. While its not motocross sized or pit bike oriented, the Zero MX is a scaled down motocross bike with enough suspension for a bigger guy but is also a little on the soft side and can easily suit a youngster. Like I said before, it is an unfair comparison to a full size motocross bike, but if you and your buddies have a backyard pit bike track then that is where this bike belongs. Riding them on your own can feel a bit repetitive, but when four or five guys are diving inside of one another then everybody is having a great time. The MX, just like the X, has a completely new braking system that is more powerful than last years, a fully revised and track tuned suspension package as well as all new graphics. To top it off, both the MX and X are available in a street legal package that includes lights, mirrors, blinkers, taller gearing for top speed, a kickstand and DOT tires that welcome you onto the street.
The Zero X is very similar to the MX model in terms of handling, suspension and overall feel, but has a more mellow motor that caters to a different type of rider. You can think of it as a Honda “R” model and an “X” model. The “R” is the racer and the “X” is the trail version. The Zero X is aimed more toward the beginning rider who doesn’t need tons of power that could end up getting him or her in trouble. A huge advantage on all Zero motorcycles is that for learning riders, there is no clutch or shift lever and that means there is far less things to go wrong. You can just hop on, give it a little gas, catch your balance and have some fun riding one of the most user-friendly bikes on the market. The X (just like the MX) is available in street legal trim and if you buy a second power pack, you can get a Federal tax credit that differs depending on your state. The street legal package is the same as what comes on the MX street version. The Zero X comes with the same new brakes and all new suspension, which is tuned for the trails in this case along with its catchy new graphics. Like the Zero MX, the X also has a street legal brother that comes with all the goodies to get you on the road legally and has all the same improvements for 2011 as does the Zero MX along with a similar, but not so steep price tag at $7,995.
Now to round off the bunch, the Zero DS is a street legal motorcycle that offers a super comfortable ride on the street and can easily venture out into some mild trails. In stock form, this silent commuter feels more like a street bike than an off-roader, and if you want a street legal dirt bike then you probably don’t want the DS because you can get the X and MX models with street legal trim and will be able to tackle more difficult terrain. With that said this bike is perfect for commuting daily from distances as short as a couple of miles up to about 40 or 50 miles. Anything longer than that would be pushing your luck and you may wind up pushing your bike to the nearest electric outlet. If you have some sweet shortcuts that could cut your travel in half or shorten your ride by any distance, this bike can get you there but you may want to put a more aggressive knobby pattern on to make the trails more fun and to gain any extra traction. For 2011, the Zero DS received a new quick charge option that reduces battery charge time by about 50%. Also, new beefier brakes, dual sport tuned suspension, a quiet belt drive system that defines silence and a 12.5% increased battery capacity to get you around the bend. At $10,495 you may be drawn away to something a little less expensive, but think about how you can cancel gas stations from your regular routine and charge up to a full battery for about $0.48! Now that makes gas prices look silly.Zero’s line of off-road dirt bikes is still young and hasn’t had much time to mature yet but judging by the improvements that were made from last years models, I’d say this company is putting in many hours at the drawing board and at the track to find the right formula to a successful line of race bikes. Being a fairly new company, Zero has a great team of Leaders, engineers and people with lots of experience in the industry that have the ability to take electric powered motorcycling to the next level. These futuristic electric bikes may seem overpriced, but with gas prices where they are and as rapidly as new technology seems to be surfacing, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more and more people going green and converting to a 100% electric set up to satisfy their motorcycle sweet tooth.