First UK test: Zero DSR
Until now, the few electric bikes that have actually reached production have all had one glaring fault or another. They’ve been too slow, too expensive, too heavy or too impractical – or, sometimes, all of the above.
But one US firm have persevered with battery power. Zero Motorcycles, based in California, have been making all-electric bikes since 2006. The DSR is their latest machine, and after living with this one for 400 miles it’s clear that their efforts are justified. This is, without doubt, the most practical, most all-round capable and most real-world electric road bike yet.
The DSR is not slow. Its motor makes 106ftlb of torque – that’s more than a Kawasaki H2 or Ducati Panigale R. The DSR is not heavy. It weighs just 190kg, the same as a Honda CB500F. And the DSR is not completely impractical. On a single charge it has the potential to cover nearly 150 miles, a range that rivals plenty of petrol-powered machines.
For a bike so advanced it’s pretty conventional in its styling. Nothing screams “ELECTRIC!” – there’s no jagged lightning bolt motif or hideous Hollywood film-prop plastic. It looks like any mid-sized dual-purpose bike, only with a big black box where you might expect to find an engine.
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Size-wise it’s fairly standard too. Seat height is similar to a Kawasaki Versys or Suzuki V-Strom 650, but from the saddle the DSR feels far slimmer and noticeably lighter. Despite the dual-purpose styling the handlebars don’t rise up a huge distance from the top yoke, meaning a natural riding position that’s more roadster than adventurer. Switchgear all appears pretty normal, and controls are where you expect them to be.
Well, up to a point. There are no gears and no clutch, as the DSR is a direct-drive twist-and-go. Setting off in near-silence is disconcerting, but even the most hardened petrolhead adapts quickly. A beautifully-mapped ‘throttle’ means dialling up the correct amount of power is instinctive. The response may be digital but it’s not sharp or sudden, like flicking on a light switch, but seamless, more like turning the volume knob on an expensive stereo. Only with no sound.
There are three power modes: Sport, Eco and Custom. Sport gives full performance, whooshing from 0-60mph in under four seconds and carrying on to an indicated 100mph. It’s a seriously impressive pace, with buckets of drive for instant A-road overtakes. On the move the Zero is totally smooth, helped by not having any reciprocating engine parts. The feeling is of distilled speed, untainted by noise or vibration, at times it feels like flying, gliding, or even being invisible. Electro-sceptics might sneer, but this deserves to be experienced before being dismissed.
Eco mode reduces torque and caps top speed to 70mph. It’s a lot more sedate, but limiting your demand for power naturally improves the bike’s range. Eco also increases the motor’s regenerative braking effect, which means that when you release the twistgrip more of the bike’s momentum is used to recharge the battery, extending range.
Custom selects your own preferred combination of power, regen and top speed, all of which is set through a smartphone app via Bluetooth. It might sound like a complicated gimmick, but it’s really a simple and handy function that lets you tailor the bike to your taste, or even to suit each ride.
The motor isn’t the only part that can be personalised. Suspension is made by Showa, and is fully adjustable for preload, rebound and compression at both ends. The standard set-up is a little soft and fairly long-travel, as you might expect for a dual-purpose bike, but adding a few clicks of rebound makes a noticeable difference.
The DSR steers easily and accurately. There’s a sense that a lot of the bike’s weight is concentrated quite low, thanks to that sizeable battery pack. Cast wheels wear semi-knobbly Pirelli MT60 tyres (the same as Ducati’s Scrambler), with a 19in front and a surprisingly skinny 130-section rear (the Ducati has a 180). There’s no actual issue with grip, but you do ride around conscious that most 67bhp bikes put their power down through a much larger contact patch. Likewise the single front brake, by Spanish firm J.Juan, appears under-spec’d but proves strong enough and is supported by Bosch ABS.
The ABS can be deactivated if you want to go off-road, as the styling, tyres and suspension suggest. However, while the DSR is easy to ride slowly, with no clutch to slip and no chance of stalling, it doesn’t really feel ready for much more than easy green lanes. The low handlebars give a hunched-forward riding position when standing up, the steering lock is poor, and the battery feels exposed, sat right in the firing line for rocks or stones flung up from the front wheel.
Besides, any adventuring requires that you regularly return to civilisation in search of a power socket. How regularly? Well, that depends. Stick to city speeds and the 13kWh battery can last more than 140 miles. Sit at 70mph on a motorway and that range is cut in half. Take in a mix of urban and rural roads, ridden (mostly) at the speed limit, and a 100-mile average is realistic. The dash displays an estimated remaining range, but it’s easy to monitor progress: if you’re covering one mile for every 1% the battery has dropped, you should last 100 miles.
Recharging is done via a port on the left side of the frame. The charging lead is just a long kettle flex, with a regular three-pin household plug, which can be stored in the handy zip-up bag where a fuel tank would normally sit. A total flat-to-full recharge takes nine hours, which in practice means overnight. Obviously you can top it up anywhere you find a socket – an hour’s charging adds around 10 miles – but realities and practicalities mean that the DSR performs best as a daily commuter. Ride to work, ride home again, charge it up overnight ready for the morning.
Cost depends on your electricity tariff, but reckon on £1 to £1.50 for a full charge. Manage 100 miles and you could be looking at a running cost of just 1p per mile – a petrol bike would need to manage 500mpg to match that. Servicing is very cheap, with no oil, coolant, filters or spark plugs to replace, and no valve clearances to check. Road tax is free, and the belt drive means you don’t even have to buy chain lube.
There is really only one cost: the DSR itself, which is £14,395. And while that’s hardly cheap, it is easily the best-value electric streetbike yet. BMW’s C Evolution scooter (£13,500) lacks the Zero’s speed and range; KTM’s Freeride E-SM (£10,599) is utterly impractical; and the Italian-made Energica Ego superbike costs a whopping £25,000.
In 2012 Zero’s bikes made less than 30bhp and lasted around 50 miles. Just four years later they’re twice as powerful and can go twice as far, with far better brakes, suspension and equipment. Whether progress can carry on at that pace remains to be seen, but even as things stand this is easily the best real-world case yet for electric bikes, and it’s already more convincing than most riders probably expect. Think battery power might be the future? Too late – it’s already the present.