2013 Zero S Streetfighter | Staff Impressions

Zeroing the Meter: The Staff Passes Around the New Zero S

There's no question that the electric motorcycle will be part of our future. But it's still a rare enough bird that many of us have little to no saddle time. The e-Bike, in other words, is still enough of a novelty around here that it gets the staff to step out of the cube farm and spill out into the spring sunshine for nothing more than a parking-lot look.

It's more than mere petting. Zero Motorcycles just dropped off a shiny new Zero S Streetfighter, batteries fully charged and chrome-yellow paint gleaming. Our plan for the next week is to pass it around our staff and extended family to see how it stacks up as a daily commuter and, when the boss isn't looking, a little (silent) fun.

We'll ride it like you would, charge it when it's convenient, and just see how the machine holds up in ordinary everyday use.

Stay with us for daily updates on the Zero.

-Marc Cook

[Day 1 - Associate Editor, Zack Courts
Commute: El Segundo to Venice Beach
Miles: 12 one-way

Being that I'm still pretty new to motojournalism, this is my first electric motorcycle experience. I've been reading about them for years, and I've heard all kinds of opinions from different people about how great they are, how terrible they are, how they're the wave of the future, and how they're going to ruin the life we love. So, now that my 24 hours has come to a close, I'd like to address some of the myths and/or preconceived notions about electric motorbiking.

Perfectly Smooth: True
If your dad's friend won't shut up about how naked bikes are crude and nothing can match the silky smoothness of his old CBX Honda or the starship enterprise that is BMW's K1600, you can tell him that the battle is over. Nothing gas-powered is as smooth as the Zero, which makes it unparalleled for feeling the road underneath you or taking in the scenery.

[It's Too Quiet, and People Will Hit Me: Plausible
There is the undeniable truth that when a motorcycle is loud, people (read: car drivers) are more likely to be aware of the motorcycle. In the case of our Zero, there is only the bright paint to announce its presence. Granted, the yellow is loud, but there's no replacement for decibels when you're in a car's blind spot. Loud pipes save lives, man.

You Can Ride It On Bike Paths: False
To experiment with people's tolerance for the "wave of the future," I took to (pedal) bike paths for part of my commute on the Zero. A conventional ICE bike would surely be shunned off the trail immediately, but all I got was funny looks. Fine, glares, mostly. It seems the people (of West LA, anyway) are already hip to the fact that just because a motorcycle doesn't make any noise doesn't mean that it's allowed to be ridden anywhere. Or maybe I'm not the first joker to ride an e-Bike on a bicycle path. Either way, you'll get a ticket eventually and you're unlikely to make any friends in the process. I can't recommend it.

It's Cool!: Plausible
Right. So. The elephant in the room. Is it cool? I reckon it depends on your friends. If they like loud things, camouflage clothing, and chewing tobacco, probably not. But if they're engineers, engineering students, or even just Popular Science readers, then they'll like it just fine. Jokes (and stereotypes) aside, there is plenty of overlap. Me, for example, I love the sound of a Harley flat tracker or a small-block V8, but I also think the Zero is pretty terrific. Get around the city efficiently and quietly, and chat comfortably with your sweetheart as you cruise to dinner on the town? Sign me up, provided I'm still allowed to love (and own) internal combustion bikes, too.

Bottom Line: When we're finished with this staff impression experiment at the end of the week, I'm going to see if I can steal the Zero for the weekend. I dig it.

[Day 2 - Associate Online Editor, Annette Carrion
Commute: El Segundo to Torrance
Miles: 5 one-way

I’m happy to report that my experience with the Zero S was a good one. I was skeptical at first—at 31.1 in., I thought the bike’s seat height would make it too tall for me, but even on my flat Alpinestars S-MX 5 boots, I managed just fine at five-foot-two. I’m used to shifting and engine braking, so the twist-and-go action on the Zero was strange at first—but once I got going, I didn’t want the fun to end! The power delivery is just that smooth.

[There were a couple of minor inconveniences I had to deal with: The mirrors were difficult to see with and, to make matters worse, the right mirror base became loose, causing it to spin around while I was riding. There’s a mount with a grip on it for your phone, but you can’t do much with the phone unless you have special touch screen-compatible gloves, or you modify the ones you already have.

Overall, I enjoyed my time with the Zero S, even if it was short. I found it interesting that even though the bike was disturbingly quiet, it still grabbed the attention of many onlookers—the loud yellow paint definitely helped. People stared as I pulled into the Starbucks parking lot, and when I parked the bike some of those people approached me with a long list of questions. I don’t blame them for being curious; the Zero S is a sharp looking bike with a lot to offer. I’m a fan.

[Day 3 - Publisher, Dave Sonsky
Commute: El Segundo to Long Beach
Meetings: Long Beach to Yamaha HQ
Meetings: Yamaha HQ to El Segundo
Miles: 54 total

The 189 horsepower ZX-14R I’ve been calling my own for the past few months was parked for the night so I could spend the next 24 hours with this electric-motorcycle-toy-thing. My immediate motorcycling future was looking grim.

Cook had made sure that I downloaded the Zero app so I could monitor the bike’s vitals in real time, but I wasn’t prepared to go full geek right off the bat. Instead, I figured I’d pop it into gear and buzz the parking lot a bit before e-biking off into the real world. OK, so there's no gear to pop into as it’s a twist and go setup. No problem, twist it wide open then and wait for something to happen, right?

And that’s when it all happened—and quickly.

[ “Refueling” your Zero S is as simple as plugging in the 110v cord that is jammed in the frame. Save trips to the pump for your gas-guzzling Prius.

Within about 20 feet I was experiencing acceleration that I didn’t think was possible from such a machine—after all, it runs on batteries. Twenty feet; that’s all it took to completely change my preconceived beliefs about electric motorcycles. Perhaps some rolling burnouts and peg scratching would be on the agenda after all.

In less than a mile I was deep into rush hour hell, but finding no difficulty whatsoever accelerating past cars or braking heavily for standard L.A. cut-off scenarios. The road soon opened up and so did a new respect for the Zero S. In fact, with my eyes closed (figuratively, of course) I tried to imagine the equivalent of a garden variety Japanese 600cc sportbike beneath me, but I couldn’t. This bike seemed faster. Or "thrustier." I’m not sure how to explain the forward momentum because there are no gears to bother with which means instant torque and acceleration anywhere in the “rev” range. And without standard engine revs to indicate shift points you simply listen to the RPM equivalent—the whir. And it whirs up in a hurry. The tach needle indicates the climbing whirs as the speedo quickly ticks up to an indicated 95 mph (89 mph on my GPS app, though still plenty fast).

While I was impressed with the acceleration, it was a non-event that really got me contemplating the merits of the Zero S. Every bike I have ever ridden—and especially the ones I own—vibrate to some degree. The Zero S simply does not. It’s really a profound and calming sensation. I’d almost be willing to give up a few of those tasty exhaust backfires on my “normal” bike for this new sensation.

Ironically, the energy bars are indicated with a gas pump icon. Less amusing was the last two bars flashing after just 39 miles. Ahh, so there’s the catch—not a lot of range in the tank. Well, the batteries under the tank—technically, the tank is a handy storage compartment.

[Editor's Note: Zero called to remind us that two bars flashing is still 20% of the total battery capacity, and that the machine will continue to run after the last bar disappears. At that point, the S will begin rationing thrust to preserve battery life. How long that is depends on several variables, including the mode selected (Sport or Eco) and riding style. And, well, we've all seen Dave ride...]

Thankfully, I made it back to the office without any pushing, and have a completely different perspective than when I left 24 hours prior. I’ve already put in my request to borrow it for the weekend.

[Day 4 - Digital Editor, Thomas Kinzer
Commute: El Segundo to Los Angeles
Ride Night Eastside
Miles: 74.4 total

For my day with the Zero S Streetfighter, I decided that I’d take it out for a bike night with some local L.A. motorcycle clubs. But, first, I thought I’d see how it does with a full flogging through almost 25 miles of heavy L.A. traffic.

So I immediately and mericilessly ripped off into traffic, pinning the throttle and braking hard at every stop, then ran it at wide open "throttle" for 15 minutes up the L.A. 110 express lanes. Finally, I found the heat management threshhold Dave Sonsky experienced. [Must have been some Sonsky residue, what with all this tear-assing around. —Ed.]

[I started to see some overheating warning lights and eventually a slight cropping of power. Nothing that felt dangerous, it was just disappointing to have my torque candy taken away right when I was having so much fun. Full power was quickly restored after a few minutes of more conservative riding. To be fair, it was a relatively hot day at 92 degrees and I was intentionally flogging the poor thing to see at what point this kicks in. Hey, it’s a tough job but someone’s got to do it, right?

During the rest of my 74 miles of normal (and mostly legal) urban riding, the Zero performed fine with no further warning lights.

In fact, I think the Zero’s flawless and accurate power delivery makes it an outstanding lane-splitting commuter. I could easily, consistently, and without lag, zip to the safest and most advantageous position in heavy city traffic.

While Zack may make jokes about loud pipes saving lives, the silence is actually pretty, well, disquieting. (Sorry.) Let’s just call it different, but it requires a little getting used to. I found myself flashing my highbeams a little bit more often during lane splitting to increase my visibility, but I also started noticing other sounds like the tires interacting with different road surfaces. You could even hear how far you were pushing the traction. That doesn’t happen on your fire breather.

Flogging mission completed, I plugged the Zero in at home with almost half capacity remaining in the batteries. After a few hours of charging, it was time to go on the night’s ride and it had about three-fourths. The Streetfighter was a big hit on ride night, setting off an onslaught of detailed questions coming primarily from the more techie sportbike types who usually like to B.S. about damping rates and ignition maps. The Zero easily kept up during the frantic swarm of mostly café racers and sportbikes that make up the motley crew I ride with. In fact, the only snarky comment of the evening came in the form of a coughing voice of an obscured rider, “Knock that off! You’re gonna blow a fuse or something!” when I performed a stealth burnout in front of the clubhouse.

I say stealth because it caught everyone completely off guard—having no audio warning cues whatsoever—and almost instantly became a huge cloud of burning smoke. It seems that without gears, once it breaks loose, it’s go time and the wheel speed took off as if I had immediately shifted to third or fourth gear on any other bike. Understanding that my boss was up next on this tire, I quickly relented, but not before there was a choking cloud of smoke surrounding half of the dismounting riders.

[ Why not?

The next day on the way into the office, just to be a jackass—hey, I was already doing burnouts—I decided I would try putting a playing card in the spokes just like on my old Huffy when I was a kid. Remember that kid in the neighborhood who never got tired of the novelty of the card in the spokes? I’m pretty sure that kid rides a Harley now...but I digress. The point is having no sound at all coming from your propulsion takes some getting used to and I thought I’d have a little bit of fun with it. By the way, the card worked great but didn’t quite last the 23 miles into the office.

I’ve had the opportunity to ride a couple of electric bikes over the past few years and each time I’ve come away impressed by the huge leap of performance in extremely short periods of time. The 2013 Zero S Streetfighter is no exception, and I’ll even go so far as to say we’re dealing with a machine that has very “real motorcycle” quality to it.

[Day 5 - Editor-in-Chief, Marc Cook
Commute: El Segundo to Long Beach
Miles: 19.2
Total Miles: 19.2, unfortunately.

I had big plans for the Zero over the weekend, including a ride to Santa Paula for the first-ever reunion of former Cycle Guide staff members. (That magazine, which closed in 1987, was my first taste of the big leagues.) Santa Paula airport, where former Motorcyclist editor Art Friedman was staging the event, is 93 miles from my house--right at the theoretical range figure for "combined" riding with the highway miles at 70 mph, according to Zero. With conservative riding, I should have been able to make it there. Of course, the question then becomes: Can I hang around long enough to recharge the bike sufficiently to get me home? (Art said no problem. He has a guest room...)

Already, I was on shaky ground.

But the Zero itself took care of the quandary. On Friday night, after a happy and successful commute home, it refused to charge. Despite trying three different cords on two different circuits in my home shop, the Zero could not be convinced to charge; it clicked and chirped from somewhere down below but would not light the charge indicator. A few e-mails later, Zero's Scot Harden decided that rather than take the time to troubleshoot that machine, he would have the fleet manager swap for another one.

[Update: According to Zero, our testbike's Charger Control Unit failed. It's supposedly a 20-minute swap and would have been covered under warranty. Zero says this is a "very uncommon" occurrence. —Ed.]

So, on Saturday afternoon, another shiny yellow Zero came into my shop, only to be immediately descended upon by my wife...

[Day 6 - Commander-in-Chief of the Editor-in-Chief, Martha Cook
Shopping Journey: Long Beach to Deep Orange County and back.
Total Miles: 57.7

I suppose the purpose of this test is to see if we can ride an electric bike as we would any other bike. So I take the Zero S out on a Saturday afternoon date, heading south on Pacific Coast Highway. We quickly grab the attention of a German and his girlfriend aboard an R1200RT. “How far can you go?” he asks. “They tell me about 65 miles. We’ll see,” I say, and zip off, far, far ahead of the German and the rest of the traffic. At the next stoplight, there they are again, though. Slow and steady...

[ Me and Zero, on a date shake date at Crystal Cove.

(Only later would I learn that my loving husband greatly underestimated the range capability of the Zero. Trying to keep me close to home?)

We land at the Shake Shack, just north of Laguna, and I maneuver Zero into place for a photo op. Now, at “almost” 5-foot-2, I often have difficulty moving a bike around in tight spots, but Zero was no problem. There’s no neutral, which works to my advantage, since it keeps Zero from rolling backward on me as I move it into place.

From the Shake Shack, we head north for a stop at Roger’s Gardens, the holy grail of gardening stores. When I return to Zero, there’s a guy sniffing around, full of questions: How far can it go, where did you get it, how much is it... then when his wife finally pulls him away, he turns one final time to ask, “Is it zippy?”

Yes. In fact, it’s difficult to describe the ride without using that word. Like the Tesla, it zips you down the road effortlessly, accelerating with what feels like no perceivable limit. Twist the throttle and you become pure energy, one quick pulse down the line of highway. It’s liberating and exhilarating, with a magical feeling of lightness.

One final stop: the heart of Orange County conspicuous consumption, Fashion Island.

[ Such a good date! After the garden store we hopped over to Fashion Island... but got expelled by the mall police. Apparently, no vehicles are allowed inside.

I’m on the prowl for a great shot. Zero is nearly silent on the move, so I ride stealthily (or so I think) into the mall and snap a couple frames. I’m quickly set upon by security, in the form of an impeccably dressed lady guard and her two Segway-mounted minions (no kidding).

Facebook Dialogue Excerpt:
_>Amy: Did you ride into Kate Spade??

Valerie: Did you get me a bag? Martha: It was like doing something naughty at Disneyland. The gendarmes spontaneously appear and ask you pleasantly but firmly to follow them, please. Armani uniforms, too. Tami: I do love the Kate Spade background... Classy. Valerie: Is it an automatic? Martha: Yes, automatic. And electric! Valerie: No way! Now I want one._

They escort me off campus, and in my haste, I fail to re-insert my earplugs before zipping off. Which turns out to be a good thing: I get to listen to Zero as we return home. Kinda whiney, but overall really, really quiet. And have you ever heard the tick-tick of a turn signal on a bike? I honestly thought bike turn signals didn’t make any noise.

My conclusion on Zero S: a really good date, one I’d definitely consider making a permanent fixture in the fold.

[Day 7 Wrapup - Editor-in-Chief, Mark Cook
Commuting: 3 legs, Long Beach to El Segundo.
Total Miles: 60.8

I purposely left the Zero unplugged in my garage while I was off on a press launch this week. I wanted to see if the Zero would suffer stoically the usual benign neglect I give borrowed vehicles. It passed the test, arriving at the office after 60.8 miles since the last recharge and the Zero app predicting another 21 miles before depletion. (Or, at least sufficient depletion to make the controller begin rationing torque to save the batteries.) What’s interesting is that the app showed a range of 50 miles when I left home this morning, a distance of just less than 20 miles door to door. Obviously, the range algorithm assumes more urban riding than I have on my commute, which explains how a 20-mile ride consumed 29 miles of range. If the mileage figures on Google Maps are correct, my commute is 75 percent highway.

[ The Zero iPhone app allows you to tweak drive settings in the Eco mode. This app does not allow alterations of the Sport mode.

Let’s put this into perspective. The last Zero S I rode, a 2012 model with the largest battery pack, was nearly done at 55 miles. It also didn’t have the power or acceleration of the current bike (sorry), and was overall a lesser-developed product. The amount of improvement evident in just one model year is somewhat staggering.

So, does the Zero S work for the typical commuter? According to a U.S. Department of Transportation survey, 78 percent of Americans have a commute of 20 miles or less. Bingo. Assuming that my experience is typical, the Zero S should make the home-to-office-to-home cycle without the need to charge. And assuming you don’t have a late shift followed by an early shift, there should be enough time to charge to full capacity at home while you sleep. These are the operating assumptions for an electric motorcycle as a commuter, and they work well with the Zero.

Bottom line on the range issue, then: With more of it on the updated bike and an app that provides more detail than a bunch of LCD bars, range anxiety becomes far less of an issue. And I’m sure that after commuting regularly on the bike, I’d get to know its quirks and see just how far it’ll really go on a charge—I’d guess it’s longer than even the app predicts, if Zero proves to be appropriately conservative. In fact, my biggest wish for the bike is integration of the miles-to-discharged value on the main display rather than relying on an iPhone app.

A few random thoughts about the Zero S:

  • Electric propulsion is intoxicating. There's no vibration and hardly any noise once underway, but a steady, predictable stream of thrust. It's just so easy to flit into a gap in traffic...

  • An angry young man in a BMW 7-series sedan who didn't like my sliding up to the white line in rush-hour traffic tried to beat me to the next light. Because the Zero's so quiet, I could hear his Bavarian V-8 inhale great gulps of air...as it slid behind the Zero.

  • It takes about 25 lb.-ft. of torque to push me and the bike along at 80 mph. Far less than 10 to maintain pace in urban settings.

  • Love the iPhone app. After trying a few different settings applied to the Eco mode, I quickly settled on everything turned up to 11. With max basic and brake-initiated regeneration, the Zero S stops like a big thumper, plenty of engine braking. Just enough, not too much. And you can add a lot of useful range by maximizing regen. Once I figured this out, I never again used the Sport mode.

[ A mini frunk! Make it lockable and waterproof, please.

  • With some practice, I got to where I could anticipate red lights and use the regen to do almost all the stopping, applying a tiny bit of brake at the very end. For now, it's a fun game. Who knows if I'd grow tired of it after a while.

  • The small forward trunk where the fuel tank should be is a great idea. Finish the job, Zero, and make it a waterproof, lockable compartment.
    Suspension compliance remains the last frontier of refinement for Zero. What's there is taut but seems unsophisticated. My feeling is that commuter riders (read: commuters also considering cushy scooters) will want a plusher ride.

  • High fives on the new brakes. The Nissin calipers are a massive improvement over the previous bike's wooden binders.

  • The mirrors are crazy wide. In the normal position, they tape out at 40.2 inches end to end. Turned "upside down," they still stick out 36 in. The bar is only 29 in. wide, for cryin' out loud! I understand and admire the desire to have good rearward vision, but these mirrors put a serious crimp in the Zero's lane-splitting abilities. (Residents of states other than California may now ignore the preceding paragraph.)

  • Actually, there's one more frontier for Zero, and that's continuing this aggressive development track while finding ways to reduce the price. At $16K with the largest battery pack, the Zero S seems very expensive for a commuter machine. Even when you take into account various tax incentives for electric vehicles, very low life cycle costs, almost zero maintenance, and low cost-per-mile of energy, it's hard to move the conversation beyond MSRP. That will, I'm sure, begin to change over time, but the takeaway for me is how far this motorcycle has come in very little time. I don't expect electric bikes to completely replace internal-combustion machines soon, but the case for one on specific missions gets easier and easier to make.

And, finally, I should replay the comment I heard most after debriefing our staff riders. "It's a real motorcycle." Considering the performance bias of our staff members, that's quite a compliment.