Zero S ZF11.4 Electric Motorcycle Test
There is a great divide in the motorcycling public. On one side, you have the diehard who will chase down the last drop of petrol, like Road Warriors, as internal combustion is the only propulsion they find satisfactory.
On the other side, you have the greens and the futurists, who willingly embrace new technology long before it is practical. We have a foot on both precipices.
The Zero S ZF11.4 is the latest flagship streetfighter from the Santa Cruz, Calif., company (which received $1.8 million from the California Energy Commission last year to expand production and develop prototypes). It features a host of upgrades for 2013, the most significant being the new Zero-designed Z-Force motor and 11.4 kilowatt/hour, 102-volt power pack. These upgrades address two important concerns of potential owners—power and range.
As a city slicker, the S ZF11.4 is quite entertaining. Weighing in at 382 pounds, with a wheelbase of 55.6 inches, a steep 23.3-degree rake and narrow 17-inch tires (110 front, 130 rear) you are looking at an undeniably agile machine. Diving through traffic is effortless and you feel invisible— for better or for worse—as you glide through virtually silently.
The 68 ft/lbs of torque are massive; a Triumph Street Triple 675 makes do with just 50 ft/lbs, and has similar chassis numbers. Grab a handful when the light goes green and hang on. Initial acceleration is smooth, and then things start to happen quickly; you’ll be at 60 before you blink, so watch yourself. If you hit a bump, the Zero S’s front end will dance off the pavement. There is no shifting—just twist and go.
When it comes time to slow down, regenerative braking is involved, so that helps juice up the battery and aids braking. There is only a single 310mm disc and the narrow tire, yet the grasp of the radially mounted four-piston Nissin caliper (new this year) is adequate for urban combat. It is easy to forget the 220mm rear disc, as the brake lever is fairly inboard and difficult to reach.
With a bike described as a street fighter, we don’t run it in the Eco mode; it’s Sport mode and with it a take-no-prisoners attitude. On one late night run through an uncrowded Hollywood and the west side of Los Angeles—about two-thirds street/ one-third freeway—we ran through 65-percent of the charge in 90 minutes, putting just under 45 miles on the odometer.
Zero claims a combined highway/ city range of 93 miles for the ZF11.4. Our experience has been closer to 70 miles or so of aggressive street riding. As Zero says, “Range varies based on riding style.” Indeed.
This brings up the chink in the Zero armor. Most people would say it is range, but that’s not our issue. The big problem is recharging time. After running down the battery, if you are plugging into a standard 110-volt out- let, it is going to take about eight hours to get it fully recharged.
Zero offers an optional CHAdeMO charger that will fill it with electrons in an hour, but that requires access to a special charging station. That’s nice if you have one handy, though it is a very long shot.
This is even a bigger issue for canyon blitzing on the Zero S. It took just an hour and 38 miles for us to get the fuel gauge to start blinking, signifying we were in the last 20-percent of battery power. That means you can’t ride much more than 20 miles from home before you have to think about heading back—that is inadequate.
A further problem is that hard riding, especially when hills are involved, means the high-temperature protection system kicks in. Your 95 mph bike quickly becomes a 70 mph machine until it cools down. This happened repeatedly to us on a day in the mid-60s; we don’t even want to think about how often that light will come on in the summer.
It is all very frustrating, as the chassis has the sporting numbers and a very taut suspension. When we tested the off-roadable DS last year, it had awful suspension for the dirt. The S does a better job on the street, but you aren’t getting full-size motorcycle units (weight savings, no doubt) and they just aren’t what you should be getting on a $15,000 motorcycle.
Significantly oversprung, it is jarring in the city (you can feel every gum wrapper you ride over), but more than acceptable on smooth twisting roads. The sensation of speed is different with an electric bike, though every time we glanced down at the speedo, we were satisfied with the number.
Even at high speeds, the S has strong roll-on acceleration from 70 to 90 mph, despite its modest 54-horsepower peak. The Zero is a bike that holds its own quite well on the free- way, though the narrow Bridgestone Street Winner tires will wander on rain grooves.
One very cool feature of the Zero S, no matter where you ride it, is the iPhone and Android app that allows you to monitor and modify the powerplant with your phone. Connected by Bluetooth, you get a much more detailed display (with a torque-production readout) and the ability to limit power in the Eco mode, which also lengthens the range. The mount- ing device seems a little sketchy, but at 95 mph on a bumpy freeway, our test rider’s iPhone stayed in the mount’s clutches.
Until the issues with recharging get sped up to gasoline refueling rapidity, the Zero S ZF11.4 is a tease. Who wants to ride for an hour and park the bike for eight hours? We don’t like feeling tethered to our home base so tightly.
What we do like is the muscular torque of the Z-Force motor and the full-size geometry of the chassis (even if the tires and suspension are undersized). Electricity may or may not be the future for motorcycles. However, if it is, Zero is on the right track with the S ZF11.4 They know exactly what they need to do to keep us fully satisfied.
- Helmet: Arai Defiant Character
- Sunglasses: Serengeti Sport Assisi
- Jacket: Joe Rocket Rasp 2.0
- Gloves: Tour Master Midweight
- Jeans: Icon Strongarm 2
- Boots: Tour Master Vintage 2.0 Road
Photography by Don Williams
This story is featured in the July/August 2013 issue of Ultimate MotorCycling magazine — available on newsstands and good bookstores everywhere. The issue is also available free to readers on Apple Newsstand (for iOS devices) and Google Play (Android). To subscribe to the print edition, please visit our Subscriber Services page.