Gas vs. Electric

A special coal-versus-solar comparison pits the new-age Zero DS dual-sport against an old favorite from Big Red, the Honda CRF250L

How many times have you read an article about an electric bike in a motorcycle magazine that claims the final breakthrough has been made? "The future is here!" or some similar Kool-Aid-sipping sentiment is enough to make you think eBikes have finally arrived. And it's true; technology in the field of electric motorcycles is advancing quickly. But any claim of a breakthrough feels pretty thin without putting a bike through a good comparison. That's the Motorcyclist way.

At first, we struggled for testing ideas when the new-for-2014 Zero DS rolled into our garage. But we soon realized the ultimate question is still that of parity: Is it as good as its internal-combustion counterparts? Of course, in the case of electric motorcycles, "as good" has some pretty specific limitations—range being one of them. To see if the DS was ready to bring the fight, we decided to compare it with one of our favorite dual-sports: Honda's stone-simple CRF250L (not coincidentally, the winner of the "Backyard Adventure" comparison in our March issue ).

With a 2-gallon tank and an average—on our last test, anyway—of 57 mpg, we figured the CRF’s potential to cover about 115 miles matched up nicely with the claimed range for the DS. Zero says combined riding like we had planned would give us about 103 miles of range with the optional Power Pack installed (more on that later).

Both instrument panels rate A+ in our book. Clean and easy to read. Note the Honda’s braced handlebar—proper dirt bike stuff.

Road Test Editor Ari Henning and I geared up, deciding there would be no battery handicap, and set off on a half-day dual-sport loop of just under 100 miles. It was to be testing in the purest sense. We hoped for the best, and if we ran out of juice we would feel the true pain of an early adopter eBike owner.

Just rolling the bikes out of the garage illustrates another of the major practical differences between batteries and gasoline: weight. Zero’s DS is relatively short for a dual-sport bike, but it is still noticeably heavier than it looks. Indeed, the Zero weighed in at 451 pounds. This is an obvious contrast to the 326-pound CRF, which benefits from decades of refinement and feels predictably lithe. (This in spite of the fact that the Honda is actually pretty porky for a dirt bike, especially a 250.) As the CRF warmed up I went through the typical eBike routine of staring quizzically at the dash, flipping switches, then nervously twisting the grip to see if it worked. Success. We were rolling.

Zero’s DS is based on the company’s S-model streetfighter and inherits many of the same updates for 2014. A beefier, 43mm fork suspends the front end, while the frame and swingarm have been redesigned to be more rigid than the previous model. The rear brake gets an update, too, with a larger rotor and caliper. All of the upgrades are transparent from the saddle and not unlike the power delivery from the air-cooled, brushless electric motor.

The sensation of riding a Zero is as eerie as ever, being whisked along with only wind noise and a gentle whine from deep within. It almost feels disingenuous to be traveling at such a rate of speed without creating any noise. Once I settled into the idea of whirring along with no clutch lever, I noticed ergonomics are reasonable all around except for the seat, which is unnaturally stiff. The substantial weight of the DS melts away nicely at speed, too, making the Zero an able urban —or suburban—companion.

The Honda feels tall and light compared to the Zero. Longer-travel suspension, bigger wheels, and 125 fewer pounds will do that. Being higher also disconnects you from the pavement a little; there's still plenty of control, but the contact patch feels farther away. Ergos on the Honda are agreeable, too, and the seat reminded us what a dual-sport saddle is supposed to feel like: long and flat so it's easy to move around on but soft enough to cradle a backside during long pavement jaunts.

First up on this ride was 12 miles of freeway and 23 miles of two-lane mountain roads leading us to the trailhead. The performance gap between these bikes is at its widest on the highway. By the time the CRF hit 75 mph the speedo’s digits were advancing painfully slowly, and Ari was wailing through the headset that he was at “maximum thrust,” whereas on the Zero (still in Sport mode; two power modes are available) I was getting fired toward the claimed 98-mph top speed with surprising force.

The Zero’s battery showed 98 percent when we merged onto mighty Interstate 5, but a few miles later we became aware that sustaining highway speed was demanding on the DS’s battery pack. Eco mode, activate! Softer throttle response from this setting calms power delivery and limits top speed to 70 mph. With the eco-governor engaged the Honda had no trouble keeping up, and a few minutes later we exited and climbed into the hills.

The CRF250L’s engine is the floppy-tongued puppy that just wants to play all the time. Zero’s Z-Force motor hides behind lots of angular plastic. Note the thin, stepped seat.

Swapping bikes I was reminded that every time I ride the CRF250L on twisty mountain roads I come away amazed. For a bike with 20 hp and knobby tires, this Honda is a barge-load of fun. Granted, it’s a little more fun downhill than uphill, but the point is that the Zero had to be more than just competent to keep up. Mid-speed acceleration on the Zero is much stronger, and a smaller, 19/17 wheel set makes the DS more stable carving canyons. For pure, laugh-in-your-helmet entertainment, though, the CRF still comes out ahead.

The first 35 miles were not kind to the Zero’s battery, and as we peeled off onto the dirt the energy readout read 43 percent. Less than half a charge and we still had nearly two-thirds of the ride to go. But we trundled on, splashing through mud puddles and clattering over rock gardens, comparing notes via Bluetooth en route to the summit of the trail.

The CRF remains just as adept at this kind of travel as we remembered. Plush suspension, plenty of grip, and an agile chassis mean you can wheelie, jump, and slide all day without wearing yourself out. Front-end feel can be a little vague in the dirt, but it’s such an unintimidating bike that control is always within reach. While competent, it never feels like a premium off-road machine—but then neither does the Zero.

The eBike’s shorter suspension connects you more to the trail but not in the way you would want. If weight melted away at speed on pavement, it congeals back onto the bike in the dirt, feeling pretty unwieldy at times. The DS is agile enough, but the suspension feels overworked. The fork is decidedly stiff, surely to deal with the 450-pound curb weight, but the shock is curiously soft, and neither end has enough travel to avoid bottoming out when trying to keep up with the CRF.

Ascending in the dirt is where the Zero feels the most different from an ICE machine. Thrust from the electric motor is delivered so smoothly, and in such a linear way, that it’s counterintuitive to what we have learned about riding. When the rear wheel spins under power, for example, there are no rising engine revs to feel in the handlebar or to hear from the exhaust. Even when spooling up the rear tire on purpose (usually to roost Ari), I was surprised how quickly the tire would dig a trench.

Taking a water break at the 5,600-foot peak, we realized the Zero was only showing its heritage. This DS model is based heavily off Zero’s S-model streetfighter, which explains the stiff, cupped seat and the low handlebar that doesn’t work well when you’re standing on the pegs. It’s an eBike, but, not only that, it’s a streetbike underneath. With that in mind, all things considered, it bounded up the side of the mountain pretty gracefully. But the bigger question remained: Could we get home?

With 24 percent battery showing on the Zero’s dash, we set off down the mountain. Not surprisingly, the descent was good for the battery. Aided by the DS’s nifty regenerative braking feature, it was draining much more slowly and our hopes were buoyed for making it back home. Zooming downhill revealed one final issue in the battery bike’s off-road ability: slowing down. Street-biased dual-sport tires and the hefty curb weight occasionally make the Zero difficult to rein in when descending on gravel. Ari’s signal that he was uncomfortable with his rate of deceleration was to yell, “Runaway train!” over the headset. So I stayed behind. It seemed safer that way.

Everything about the Honda’s front end makes it seem like a much better off-road machine. And it is. More fork travel and bigger wheels, combined with better tires, make this an unfair fight.

These complaints might make the Zero sound like a shabby motorcycle, but it’s not. Ridden alongside the Honda it can occasionally seem difficult to use, but mostly it’s just different. The truth is, the DS galloped along the same trails as the CRF all afternoon and, other than a few bottom-outs, checked all the same boxes. We didn’t bend any rims or break any levers. We roosted along single track and wheelied over water bars, hooting in our helmets, not worried about anything other than having fun.

We survived the last few miles of dirt, bikes and smiles intact, and as our tires hit the blacktop again the battery meter read 17 percent. A couple dozen miles of canyon roads and suburbia were all that stood between us and the safe haven of the shop’s extension cord, but sustained pavement travel again slurped away at the Zero’s battery. Eleven percent. We started talking about how we would tow the Zero home. Rope, maybe? As the office building came into view, the DS was down to 1 percent. Ari offered moral support: “If you get stuck at this light you might not make it!” The bike limped away from the light and glided lazily into the parking lot, the tripmeter reading 90 miles. The CRF was out of juice, too, with the last bar flashing on the fuel gauge. But we made it.

At this point it would be easy to sit back and declare that parity has been achieved, but there’s much more to it. Realistically, the Zero isn’t as versatile or easy to ride as the CRF. However, it is faster and provides a riding sensation that simply cannot be produced by a bike burning good ol’ dinosaur juice. There is also something to be said for exploring dual-sport habitats in near total silence.

Price remains an issue. Our Zero DS came equipped with the 11.4 kWh battery pack (the larger of two) and the additional Power Pack for a combined total of 14.2 kWh. As the top-of-the-line DS, there is a top-of-the-line cost: $17,490, to be precise. Honda’s diminutive CRF250L is just $4,999. The Zero DS is a cool motorcycle, but is it cooler than three CRFs and enough money left over for a trip to the mountains? That’s for you to decide. But this fact remains: The Zero matched the Honda on this trip, which is not something you could say about eBikes just a year or two ago. Progress.

OFF THE RECORD

  • ARI HENNING
  • ROAD TEST EDITOR
  • AGE: 29
  • HEIGHT: 5'10"
  • WEIGHT: 171 lb.
  • INSEAM: 33 in.

I'll say this for Zero: The company certainly made a lot of progress in the past few years. I rode the company's early offerings, and they lacked refinement, range, and durability. Those bikes would never have survived this ride; they were toys, while this latest DS is a legitimate motorcycle.

And while the DS is a big step forward in terms of performance and capability, it’s still insanely heavy and underdeveloped for its intended purpose. The bike’s suspension is imbalanced, the rear brake is numb, and the ergos are all wrong for off-road work. That being said, if you want to sneak up on wildlife and don’t want to bother with a spark arrestor, this latest Zero DS is your best bet.

But if you don’t mind a little carbon dioxide with your adventure, the CRF250L is a much better machine. And you can buy three of them for the price of one Zero DS!

  • MARC COOK
  • EDITOR IN CHIEF
  • AGE: 51
  • HEIGHT: 5'9"
  • WEIGHT: 185 lb.
  • INSEAM: 32 in.

It's great that Zero is trying to expand its market opportunities by building a "dual-sport" version from its street-based platform. But the DS is too heavy to be anything but a campground machine for me. I will say, however, I'm pleased to see Zero improving the build quality and adding features so quickly. The new instrument panel is a huge update, and the machine reflects all the lessons Zero has learned and problems it has solved. Once battery technology catches up with the engineering team's enthusiasm, watch out.

Riding the CRF reminds me how simply liberating a (relatively) lightweight, low-powered dual-sport can be. No poking around in some menu system for suspension settings or XM channel. Look ahead, twist the throttle, and ride. Everyone should own a bike like the CRF250L. We often talk roots, but this is really living them.

The CRF250L’s engine is the floppy-tongued puppy that just wants to play all the time. Zero’s Z-Force motor hides behind lots of angular plastic. Note the thin, stepped seat.
Both instrument panels rate A+ in our book. Clean and easy to read. Note the Honda’s braced handlebar—proper dirt bike stuff.
Everything about the Honda’s front end makes it seem like a much better off-road machine. And it is. More fork travel and bigger wheels, combined with better tires, make this an unfair fight.