Is the world ready to swap its gas-burning cars and trucks for electric vehicles? It's an interesting question, to be sure, and the answer may not be as straightforward as we'd like. As much as many of us would love to ditch petroleum all together, there are a number of things to consider before making the switch (range, price...) and there aren't actually all that many vehicles from which to choose.
There are a few areas where battery-powered vehicles are making inroads against their petrol-fueled siblings, and one of them is dirtbikes. While it will probably be at least a full year before a major established player has an electric motorcycle for sale, small companies are already stepping up to the plate and building extremely capable zero emission motorcycles. One of those manufacturers is Zero Motorcycles.
We recently got the chance to spend a few hours with a 2009 Zero X electric dirtbike, and we were keenly interested to see how the machine stacks up against its gas-burning competition. Read on to see what we thought.
Photos Copyright ©2009 Jeremy Korzeniewski / Weblogs, Inc.
The first thing we noticed after swinging a leg over the X was its small size. It definitely doesn't feel like a toy, but anyone that's grown accustomed to riding a competition-ready 250cc four-stroke is going to be surprised by the Zero's compact dimensions. That small size paid big dividends when we lifted the X off its stand. Weighing in at just about 150 pounds, the X proved ridiculously easy to maneuver in tight confines, which was good since our tester was stored inside closed doors.
The fact that we could hop on the X, turn the key to the right and twist the throttle from its sitting position indoors highlights one of the main reasons we feel the electric dirtbikes like the Zero X will prove to be increasingly important in the coming years. Zero gasoline also means zero fumes and nearly silent operation. Riding an electric two-wheeler around in an enclosed environment is something that could portend exciting times for city dwellers who still want to have fun on a dirtbike without upsetting the rest of the populace.
Before we got too far ahead of ourselves, we parked the machine and performed the cursory walkaround. It quickly became clear that the Zero X is a quality piece of hardware. The welds on the aluminum frame were every bit as professional in appearance as what we've grown accustomed to seeing on dirtbikes hailing from the Land of the Rising Sun. We took care to note the components that your body will touch, especially the handlebars, grips, seat and pegs. Everything about the Zero X seems to be of the highest quality available, which bodes well for its ability to withstand the kind of punishment an off-road machine is likely to endure.
As we said, though, the X weights just 150 pounds, which made us wonder if there were any areas where strength was sacrificed for the sake of shaving grams. We placed a call with company founder Neal Saiki, who put most of our fears to rest. Apparently, there are zero components on the 2009 X that come directly from the mountain bike realm, save for the calipers for the front and rear disc brakes. Every bit of the Zero X is designed specifically for this application as an electric motorcycle. So, while we wouldn't recommend taking the X to the local motocross track, we'd have no qualms whatsoever with bombing around the local single track trails or fire roads.
Zero has kindly seen fit to offer two separate power settings for the Zero. In its low power settings, the X feels like a well-mannered beginner bike, probably about as quick off the line as an entry-level 125cc four-stroke bike. A flip of the switch on the right handgrip into high power mode grants the bike a boost in acceleration that makes it feel about as fast as a well-tuned 250cc four-stroke bike. Before changing power settings, the main power button on the left handgrip must be cycled.
With that in mind, we headed out to the parking lot to see what the bike could do in a straight line. Good news: We were not disappointed. The X uses a permanent magnet DC electric motor that looks about the diameter of a small dinner plate. Its small size doesn't mean its short on power – far from it. With 23 horsepower and an astounding 50 lb-ft of torque, the electric motorcycle from Zero Motors proved very adept at lifting the front wheel right from a standing start, even without the benefit of a clutch to feather. Fortunately, it's also easy to keep both contact patches firmly on terra firma, especially when the bike is in its low-power mode.
Unfortunately, we weren't able to cart the bike off to any tough off-road settings, so we can't say how it responds when launched off a jump or when riding through whoops. We would expect, though, that the bike would be more than capable of handling mildly rough terrain so long as the speeds are kept in check. It was pretty easy for our 200-plus pounds to overwhelm the stock suspenders, even on relatively flat ground, but the brakes were more than up to the task of bringing things to a halt. We found that the smooth, tractable power allowed us to slide the rear around under both heavy braking and acceleration and the bike should prove ridiculously easy to ride through the kind of soft, sandy dirt that tends to send heavier bikes screeching to a halt.
The single most important (and expensive) piece of the Zero X is its lithium ion battery pack. For those technical folks that like to keep track of such things, the unit is made up of 168 individuals cells, which are wired up in a 12p 14s configuration. These individual cells come from the same supplier that builds the battery packs for Milwaukee power tools and are made in Canada. Peak power output is a whopping 300 amps. Despite this impressive power, the battery pack is completely modular and can be removed entirely from the X in just a few minutes.
Zero plans to continually update the X throughout its product cycle. The next major update will bring brand new plastic body parts (still in white) that the company says are considerably higher in quality, fit and finish. Any upgrades made to the bike will be available to current owners, so there's no real need to delay a purchase to wait for something better to come along from the factory.
We think the X would make an extremely fun city bike, but Zero has no plans to offer this model as a dual sport. That's not such a bad thing, though, as the next bike coming out of the company's fertile minds, due towards the end of April, is called the Zero S, which was designed from the ground up to be street legal. The S model will use the same individual battery cells as the X but will be wired up in a 24p 14s configuration to allow for longer run time. Being a street bike, the upcoming S will be eligible for a federal rebate that will save buyers a full 10 percent of the bike's $9,950 purchase price. California buyers will be able to claim an additional $1,500 rebate.
In the end, we were extremely impressed by the 2009 Zero X electric motorcycle. Having ridden countless examples of both two- and four-stroke dirtbikes since the late '80s, we feel that the average rider wouldn't be giving up any capability by choosing the X over a comparable gas-guzzler. That said, riders looking for true motocross performance are still going to need to look elsewhere, at least for now, and, while the Zero's $7,450 base price is a few thousand dollars over trail bikes from the likes of Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki or Suzuki, the running costs of an electric motorcycle are going to be significantly less than its fuel-burning counterpart.
Money matters aside, riders who choose the Zero X will be rewarded by what's likely the fastest electric dirtbike currently available. We walked away from the bike with the feeling that the company has succeeded in creating a truly competitive motorcycle that just so happens to feature a plug instead of a gas cap, and that's likely the greatest compliment that could be given an electric two-wheeled vehicle in today's world.
Special thanks to Zero Motorcycles and Electric Car Outlet in Scottsdale, AZ for providing our testbike.