2012 Zero DS ZF9 | Motorcycle Review

Zero DS ZF9 Commuter Motorcycle Test

I understand the appeal of big V-twin motors – those that rumble so aggressively that the shake is visible at idle – but I prefer the smooth purr of a three- or four-cylinder engine.

Interestingly, when all vibration from a combustion engine is removed, the sensation is quite odd. The 2012 Zero DS dual sport bike is the latest offering from electric motorcycle builder Zero Motorcycles. Vibration-free and silent, it is an incredibly fun, easy-to-ride big tease.

Depending on the power pack you select – ZF6 or ZF9 – the travel range is a claimed 75 or 112 miles. And, depending on how you ride the bike, that stingy range can be chopped almost in half. Freeway speeds will suck enough juice out of the bike to limit your ride on the ZF6 to 42 miles (and the ZF9 drops to 62).

Elevation changes will similarly drain the power at an alarming rate, so keep an eye on the battery gauge read-out if you are riding in the hills or you might find yourself stranded with spent fuel cells and no way to quickly recharge them.

Note the spec sheets for recharging time, the final frontier for electric bikes. Even with the accessory 4x Charger, it takes over an hour to charge the ZF6 to 95% and two hours for the ZF9. If you’re stuck without the high-end charger, to get to 95%, you’ll be waiting over five hours for the ZF6 and eight hours for the ZF9 (which is fine if you can charge it at work–the Zero DS only requires a standard outlet to charge).

Keeping range limitations in mind, though, prepare to have a blast riding the Zero DS. It is unlike anything I have ridden before, and elicits all kinds of thoughts about what the experience of motorcycling is all about.

There is nothing sexy or elegant about the bike’s design. Some pieces, like the rear view mirror holders and kickstand, are downright clunky and seem left over from the 20th century. However, the Zero DS is not about stylin’, it’s about establishing a credible electric-powered motorcycle that can traverse both the hard pack and hardscape. The good news is that it does a decent job.

As a commuter bike, the Zero DS gets two thumbs up. While the seat height is a bit tall at 35.3 inches (a two-inch lower accessory seat is available), the vantage is appreciated when riding alongside cars. Paying extra close attention to four-wheeled vehicles is more important than ever, as the DS does not announce its presence. In fact, you will turn quite a lot of heads while waiting for a light to change, though it’s usually a delayed reaction. Pedestrians and drivers alike will see the bike and do a double take as they realize something is missing.

Through town, the Zero DS is an uncomplicated, enjoyable ride. The ZF9 configuration tips the scales at 341 pounds (about 35 pounds more than the Suzuki DR-Z400S dual sport bike), while the smaller battery ZF6 version weighs 44 pounds less, about the same as a Kawasaki KLX250SF dual-sport bike.

With a low center of gravity the Zero feels decently light and handles well. Slow speed riding, even down to a crawl, is amazingly easy due to the smooth as silk power delivery, but tight turns are compromised by the fairing/bodywork that stops the handlebars from turning tightly.

With a 17-inch front wheel and 16-inch rear, the Zero DS’s suspension certainly can’t compete with true dual sport bikes shod with full-sized wheels. Still, on rough and worn urban roadways, the Zero’s 9.4 and 7.7 inches of front and rear travel work well enough for the casual riding the bike inspires. I’ve never seen Deli tires before on a bike-they come from Indonesia-though they work fine around town and on the open highway.

When inspiration for more spirited riding arises, flick the handlebar-mounted switch from the Eco setting to Sport and you’ll certainly notice the improved acceleration when you twist the throttle. This will impact your mileage, the same as it would on a gasoline-powered bike, but it’s worth it.

Top speed on the Zero DS is 80 mph, though I managed an impressive 85 briefly on the way to work one day. The lack of fairing and fully upright seating position don’t encourage this, though, and my natural reaction to grip the bike securely with my knees was met with the unforgiving aluminum frame that runs along the side of the “tank.” Of course, the high speed is hard on the battery as well. In fact, cruising above 70 mph for any length of time will overheat the battery, at which point a red warning light will come on and the bike will override your attempts to continue at this speed.

Slowing the Zero down are single disc rotors front and rear (310mm/220mm). The front brake lever has good feel; the rear pedal is a bit subtle. Simple roll-off of the throttle slows the bike significantly, so unless you are riding quite aggressively, you won’t use the brakes nearly as often as you are used to.

One of the most interesting things about the Zero DS is gliding along at freeway speeds without the propulsion of an internal combustion engine. It is just downright odd! I felt like I would not get hurt if I fell off-a ridiculous thought-yet such is the anomalous feeling of moving at that velocity without the explosion of gasoline and air underneath you.

The vibration of the motorcycle engine, no matter how smooth the engine is tuned, is simply inherent in the experience of riding. Taking that sensation away turns the experience upside down, yet it is not a negative. While sitting next to a Prius one day at a red light, I noticed the silence and wondered if this is where the future was headed. Some day, maybe in my lifetime, the everyday noise level we are used to in our busy, car-dominated society, will be reduced to a whisper.

2012 Zero DS ZF6/ZF9 Specs:

  • Motor Type…High efficiency, double-stator axial flux permanent magnet, brushless motor with integrated forced air cooling
  • Power System Type…Z-Force patented Li-Ion intelligent power pack
  • Controller…High efficiency, 420 amp, 3-phase brushless controller with re-generative deceleration
  • City range (EPA UDDS)…75 miles / 112 miles
  • Highway range (commuting, 70mph)…42 miles / 62 miles
  • Typical cost to charge…$0.63 / $0.95
  • Equivalent fuel economy (city)…480 MPGe
  • Equivalent fuel economy (highway)267 MPGe
  • Maximum capacity…6.0 kWh / 9.0 kWh
  • Nominal capacity…5.3 kWh / 7.9 kWh
  • Estimated pack life to 80% (city) 203,000 miles / 302,000 miles
  • Charger type…1kW, integrated
  • Charge time (standard) 6.0 hours (100% charged), 5.3 hours (95% charged) / 9.0 hours (100% charged), 8.0 hours (95% charged)
  • Quick 2x charger time (accessory)…3.0 hours (100% charged), 2.7 hours (95% charged) / 4.9 hours (100% charged), 4.0 hours (95% charged)
  • Quick 3x charger time (accessory)…2.2 hours (100% charged), 1.8 hours (95% charged) / 3.1 hours (100% charged), 2.7 hours (95% charged)
  • Quick 4x charger time (accessory)…1.8 hours (100% charged), 1.3 hours (95% charged) / 2.4 hours (100% charged), 2.0 hours (95% charged)
  • Input…Standard 110V or 220V
  • Top speed…(max)80 mph (129 km/h) Top speed (sustained), 70 mph (113 km/h)
  • Transmission…Clutchless one speed
  • Final drive…25:132 Poly Chain GT Carbon belt
  • Final drive (accessory)…13:17 420 chain
  • Front suspension…38mm inverted forks with adjustable compression and rebound damping
  • Rear suspension…Direct-link shock with adjustable spring preload, compression and rebound damping
  • Front suspension travel…9.44 inches
  • Rear suspension travel…7.69 inches
  • Front brakes…4-piston hydraulic, 310×4 mm floating disc
  • Rear brakes…2-piston hydraulic, 220×4 mm disc
  • Front tire…Deli 100/80-17
  • Rear tire…Deli 110/90-16
  • Front wheel…2.50×17
  • Rear wheel…3.00×16
  • Wheelbase…57.3 inches
  • Seat height (standard)…35.3 inches / 34.8 inches
  • Low seat height (accessory)…33.3 inches / 32.8 inches
  • Rake…25.3 degrees
  • Trail…3.5 inches
  • Frame weight…22 pounds
  • Curb weight…297 pounds / 341 pounds
  • GVWR…681 pounds
  • Carrying capacity…384 pounds / 340 pounds
  • MSRP…$11,495 / $13,995 (Does not include local shipping, applicable taxes, PDI, or road registration fees.)
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One of the few moto journalists based on the East Coast, Ron Lieback joined the motorcycle industry as a freelancer in 2007 and is currently Editor at Large at Ultimate Motorcycling. He is also the author of 365 to Vision: Modern Writer's Guide (How to Produce More Quality Writing in Less Time).