It’s time for the next stage. Electric off-road bikes have graduated from the novelty category and are ready to go mainstream. The Zero FX is proof. Until now, electric motorcycles have been the brunt of jokes, rolled eyes and even suspicion. They didn’t have the power or the range to be taken seriously, so suspension, handling and all the yardsticks we usually use to evaluate dirt bikes were irrelevant. But now it’s a new game. Brace yourself for some hard facts: The Zero FX is faster than a 250 gasoline-powered dirt bike, either four-stroke or two-stroke, and is encroaching on 450 territory. As far a range goes, it’s not that different from a bike with a small MX tank.
Zero is a Silicon Valley company that started making dirt bikes about six years ago. At first, the bikes were slow, expensive and fragile. But you have to start somewhere. Very quickly, the company started devoting most of its development resources to a street model—that’s where the market was, that’s where the money was. So as Zero grew, the dirt models were slow to benefit from advancements in performance and range. Now, the FX dual-sport bike is finally harvesting the fruit of that development.
To get our terms and designations straight, you should understand that the company’s DS model is actually a pure street bike. The FX is meant to be an off-road bike that just happens to be street legal. After all, with electric power, there are to emission hurtles to clear for EPA approval. A dual-sport bike just has to have DOT lights, mirrors and equipment, and that makes the task much easier. Zero does have a pure dirt model, too, but its sells for the same price. The FX is billed as an urban assault vehicle, for pealing out of the driveway and riding in the neighborhood dirt sections that would normally attract the ire of the noise-hating ladies bridge club. The Zero makes no sound at all, aside from the crunching of leaves.
We rode the ZF5.7, which is the model with the biggest power supply. Zero designed the batteries to be modular, so they can be plugged in like horses on the Pony Express. The bad news is the batteries are very, very expensive, so it’s impractical to do that. In our experience, the charge lasts about 30 minutes of hard riding, or over an hour of donking around. It’s all about how hard you twist it. There are two modes, “sport” and “economy,” in case you can’t trust yourself to stay at half throttle. Once you suck the battery dry, it takes about three hours to charge, via a standard 110 outlet. You don’t need an external charger, but one is available that cuts the charge time in half.
Stealth black and super quiet. The Zero is the ultimate neighborhood assault weapon.
WHAT ABOUT POWER?
We mean it when we say the FX is faster than a 250. It flies. There are no gears to slow down the acceleration process, either. We drag-raced it against everything we could find. It doesn’t launch as well as something with a manual clutch, but it pulls really hard all the way up to a top speed of almost 90 mph. A 450cc motocrosser will get the jump, but then the FX stays within two bike lengths. On top, the Zero might regain it all, depending on the 450’s gearing.
After the initial surprise of the Zero’s performance, we switched to Economy mode and never went back to Sport. We didn’t want any more. Zero has cleared the biggest hurtle that electric motorcycles face. It has all the performance that it needs, and even the range is acceptable for its neighborhood trail mission. Now, what remains are the traditional problems: chassis, suspension handling and all that stuff that we normally test. Earlier Zero test bikes didn’t get that far into the evaluation process. And not surprisingly, those areas still need work. The FX is basically a bundle of batteries and electrical components with two wheels hastily attached. The suspension and drive train are crude. In order to get its noise level to nothing, it uses a belt instead of a drive chain. That’s fine for the street, but it can’t deal with jumps or mud. It skips when it gets dirty and will fall off when it takes a sudden hit. For this reason, the MX version has a chain. The FX’s suspension is much better than it was on the earlier models with mountain bike components, but it’s still pretty bad. The rear shock, in particular, is little more than a spring with 9 inches of wheel travel. Zero offers an optional Fox shock, but don’t expect miracles. It’s also a very heavy motorcycle, weighing 275 pounds with a full tank of electricity.
You would think that with the power output where it is, solving these problems would be cake—there are lots of people who know how to make bikes that handle. But it might not be so easy. Just as two-stroke and four-stroke engines make for very different feels, electric motors have their own characteristics. Traction is very elusive for the FX. Even though Zero has figured out how to make the throttle work somewhat like it should, the rear wheel still breaks loose like an overpowered RC car. Perhaps that will be the next challenge. Traction control isn’t that far off, even for gasoline powered motorcycles. It might even be easier for a machine like the Zero.
For now, the FX is a wonderful addition to a garage full of gasoline-powered motorcycles, provided you’re wealthy enough to spend $11,990 on something that you previously didn’t know you needed. It’s not a replacement for the smoking, noisy machines that we love. Not yet. That day still hasn’t arrived. The Zero simply shows us that it won’t be so bad if or when it comes.
We made Pete Murray splash the Zero through water until we were satisfied that sparks wouldn’t fly out of his ears.
We tested the ZF5.7, which has a double-dose of battery power. The ZF2.8 has less power, less range and sells for $2500 less.