What is the future of urban transportation? Electric cars are quickly gaining popularity as drivers catch on to the advantages of ditching gas, but what about electric motorcycles? For a decade now, e-motorbike maker Zero has been turning out increasingly capable two-wheelers to take on the urban sprawl — even dirt roads. Its latest machine, the Zero DSR, claims to tackle both. But can it keep up with its gas-powered cousins?
There really is no better way to slice through traffic in a crowded urban wasteland metropolis than on a motorcycle. Scooters are easier to ride, and bicycles are greener, but a thin-waisted, powerful, agile motorcycle is always the most fun – and the most effective way to get around.
But what if one machine really covered all the bases – and didn’t use any gas? After several weeks onboard the Zero DSR dual-sport electric motorcycle, we think we’ve found the true sweet spot for urban traffic warriors who like to get around on two wheels.
Adjusting to an Electric Motorcycle
If you crave the retro look, sound and cadence of yesterday’s machines, the aesthetic of the sci-fi Zero DSR probably won’t light your fire – until you ride it. Our test bike came in a sort of Basic Sparkle Gray without a splash of chrome or really any other style accents to be found.
While the look isn’t exactly industrial, it is clearly very purposeful. This is a bike made for getting places, not for attracting hordes of eyeballs. But it’s not ugly, either. While testing, several people complimented the spare but angular design, at least after they got over the shock of it having no “engine.” And if this color option isn’t your jam, Zero has some other choices that might be.
Have no illusions — The Zero DSR is a real-deal, full-size motorcycle, but because it’s also fully electric, there are a few new things for riders of gas-powered bikes to get used to.
First off, it has no gears to change. A quiet and largely maintenance-free belt — not a chain — drives the rear wheel right off the central crank of the air-cooled 74-horsepower electric motor, so there’s no clutch or shift lever. Yep, just twist and go, like a scooter. But the DSR is definitely not a scooter, with its standard-sized 17-inch wheels shod in modern rubber, big ABS disc brakes, and its … well, heft. Did we mention it’s big?
It’s set up better for the road than dirt, but it has a bit more suspension travel than a pure roadie and comes shod in aggressively treaded Pirelli MT-series trail-capable tires. They aren’t hard-core DOT knobbies, but they do work well in light off-road challenges. They were also perfect for Portland, Oregon’s crumbling and construction-dotted urban infrastructure, where potholes, wet pavement, gravel patches, and unexpected obstacles reign.
You sit upright on the DSR like on any proper dual-sport, so the riding experience is very much like a “normal” dual-sport motorcycle. The hot and heavy metal lump of a motor between the frame rails has been replaced by a somewhat smaller and decidedly cooler (but still heavy) lithium-ion battery pack, which can range from 13-kilowatt hours to over 16KwH if you decide to option it up. Unlike a gas motor, it stays pretty quiet.
Riders can cycle through three ride modes using a button beside the right grip: Eco, Sport, and Custom. Eco is the way to go for new riders or just tiptoeing through stuck traffic, which the DSR excels at. Cranking the throttle results in a smooth, unintimidating takeoff that will just outpace most Honda Civics, and the acceleration remains muted as the speed increases. It’s friendly, manageable, predictable, and saves juice.
Sport mode is just the opposite. Snap the throttle open and all the ponies and torques come out to play pretty much immediately. You’d better be holding the hell on. The front end can get light immediately and traffic quickly becomes something far, far behind you. Speed seems to pile on exponentially, and without exhaust howl or gear shifts to remind you of your impending jump to hyperspace, you can get yourself intro trouble right quick. So … be careful.
Between Eco and Sport, Custom lets you set your own rules on the Zero smartphone app. Yes, of course there’s an app. Zero’s digital companion is a worthwhile partner, and it’s here you can set the performance parameters for Custom mode, including horsepower output, torque output, top speed, and more. The app is also a diagnostic tool if something were to go amiss with the bike, and you can check charging status wirelessly via Bluetooth. It’s simple to use and fun to tinker with, though you don’t need it to ride. We dialed in power and torque somewhere between Eco and Sport, which yielded a perfect city mode. We just wish it let us store presets for other situations. Dirt mode? City mode? Tour mode? Yes, please.
A faux “gas tank” on the DSR conceals a very convenient storage space that’s too small for a helmet, but will hold the charger, folded-up rain gear, a second set of gloves, a tall energy drink can (or two), a sandwich (or two), several candy energy bars, a phone, and some other assorted bits. You lose this very handy storage spot if you opt for the biggest battery, so we say save your money and keep the bin.
Charging time varies by method and battery size, but count on eight hours or more for a full charge from a wall outlet. An optional quick charger system can juice things back up in less than three hours. In everyday use, it’s unusual to drain the pack so far down that it will require a “full” recharge — how often do you pull your car into the driveway running on fumes?
Overall, the DSR operates pretty much like a normal motorcycle (or a really big scooter) but with much more convenience. Warm up time? Choke? What are those things? Just get on, turn the key, wait a few seconds for the bike to silently boot up, and twist the grip. Off you go.
What It’s Like to Ride the DSR
Some EV evangelists like to claim that electric vehicles are “silent,” but that’s not true. Gone is the familiar rev-and-shift cadence of a gas-powered bike, replaced by the somewhat artless sound of the electric motor, which unobtrusively whirs up and down the rev range while riding.
Crank the DSR’s throttle, and the simple drivetrain emits a rather unromantic rasp that is soon drowned out by wind noise as velocity quickly builds. For bystanders, the sound is a mix of tire noise and a futuristic whirr as the DSR speeds by. If you ride motorcycles for the mechanical symphony, or to draw attention to yourself via exhaust clamor, this probably isn’t the bike for you.
There is little to no vibration while riding, which helps the DSR transmit road feel quite well through the fully adjustable suspension. The DSR’s handling was very neutral, confidence-inspiring and “normal” in pretty much every regard. Ride quality on pavement was composed and predictable. Out in the dirt it was a bit over-damped, but again, it’s adjustable.
What isn’t normal, however, is the acceleration. While the electric motor “only” makes over 70 horsepower, it flattens your eyeballs on launch with 116 foot-pounds of torque on tap from a standstill. Will it wheelie? Yes, yes it will. Used more judiciously, it will also put you at 60 miles an hour in about 4 seconds, according to our video-based calculations. And while top speed is regulated to just over 100mph, it gets there in a pretty big hurry as well. Is it fast enough for you? Put it this way: The vast majority of gas-powered cars can’t touch it and we dusted a few sport bike pilots in some impromptu stoplight races. But yes, most Teslas will still dust the DSR in a drag race.
Out on dirt and gravel roads, the DSR was plenty capable, and while it likely won’t be headed for any Long Way ‘Round-type of adventures anytime soon, riders can feel confident traversing most dirt roads and most any crumbling urban environment. We certainly did.
And what happens when you run the battery down to zero in the LCD display? To my surprise, the DSR didn’t just suddenly shut off and go dark when the battery level display hit zip. Basically, it just kept on going, like having that bit of “reserve” in the gas tank on an old-school gas motorcycle. Acceleration softened up first as the battery hit single digits, and then finally, miles later when the ticker hit zeros, it started to struggle to top 50 mph. But still, in city riding, it just kept going for many more miles past the zero mark, so if you’re worried it’s going to just switch off when the meter runs out, don’t sweat it, it won’t.
We wanted to know what might happen when it essentially said it was out of e-gas, so mystery solved. But, we didn’t even run it totally out, to the point where it stopped moving. As the tripmeter closed in on 112 miles worth of mixed riding, it was still going so we just gave up, switched the DSR off, and plugged it in for the night. The next morning it had a 100 percent charge and performed as normal. Repeatedly running a big lithium-ion battery down this way can diminish its capacity, so we wouldn’t recommend testing your own luck.
The Zero DSR is an urban scalpel with few equals, but that praise also hints at its primary shortcoming: Don’t count on mounting any long tours on it unless you’re really patient. While I squeezed over 100 miles out of a charge, the DSR will take several hours for a full charge, or a lunch break-length stop to top up to 80 percent with a fast charger. It can be done. But would you be willing to do it? For most riders, the answer today is still no.
And that, really, is my only real demerit for the Zero DSR. It’s fast, fun, comfortable, simple, and a joy to ride, especially in the city where that burst of torque and power just leaves all that traffic behind you in an instant. And while it’s expensive to buy up front, owners will save money for years down the road due to the simplicity of the drivetrain, no need to change the oil, replace a chain, tune an engine, or put gas in it. Ever. That’s a whole lot of coin when you add it up year over year.
So it really depends on how you are going to use the DSR. City riding? Can’t be beat. Off road? It’s capable as is, and can be tweaked to be even more so. Touring? Well … you’ll be a pioneer, just like those first drivers of gas-powered bikes and cars a century ago that were laughed at by riders on horseback or in rickety wagons.
And we all know who got the last laugh there.
Is there a better alternative?
Zero makes a range of bikes that cost less than the top-shelf DSR, so if you still want the electric experience but at a slightly lower cost, there are options — from Zero. Otherwise, the primary competition in the same price range, the Brammo Empulse, is now gone following the absorption (and at least temporary termination) by parent Polaris. Will there be a new Empulse? We hope so.
At present it seems only Alta Motors is a price-point rival, but the Alta bikes have half the range. If you have deeper pockets, there are certainly much more expensive options from companies like Energica and Lightning. But on the horizon, a major competitor is lurking: Harley-Davidson’s Livewire, which is supposedly going to hit the market next year after a long developmental period. H-D has also just teamed up with Alta. Stay tuned.
How long will it last?
One great benefit of an all-electric drivetrain is simplicity, and that’s a big plus for the DSR. Tune-ups, oil changes, and other ICE-engine chores are history. Eventually, the recharge cycles on the battery will degrade it and it will have to be replaced, but that could be five to 10 years down the line, depending on use. And since the battery is highly modular, dropping in a new one could likely be done at home if you have some basic skills. The way battery tech is advancing, you might even be able to go double or triple the distance on a single charge with an as-yet undetermined future power source. Otherwise, spooning on new tires, checking bearings now and again and changing an occasional headlight bulb may be about all there is to keeping the DSR in tip top shape.
Should you buy it?
If you’ve been wondering if an electric motorcycle is a viable option for urban travel, commuting and even some off-road shenanigans, the Zero DSR answers with a resounding yes.
If you have a traditional motorcycle now and want a second one for hyper-economical commuting and blasting around town or local dirt lanes, then absolutely get a DSR. You’ll thank yourself every time you pass a gas station. And besides the economic points, this is just a crazy fun smile machine.
If you are looking to start riding a motorcycle and things like clutches, gearshifts, and maintenance concerns have put you off, then it’s another huge yes. It’ll help if you have a car (or access to a car) for longer trips, however.
If you think electric motorcycles are an abomination against nature (and internal combustion history), then it’s probably not the bike for you. But don’t take a ride on one, because it will absolutely change your mind about what a motorcycle is, what it can do — and maybe even what it should be.
A version of this article originally ran on our brother site, Digital Trends.
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