After years in development, Zero Motorcycles of Santa Cruz is ready to go public with an American-made electric dirt bike. The specs only tell part of the story: it’s a 150-pound machine that produces torque and throttle response similar to that of a medium-size four-stroke. It has a running time of about two hours and a recharge time of slightly less than that. It uses a state-of-the art lithium ion battery and technology that even Toyota and Honda don’t have in their hybrid automobiles.
It turns out that an electric dirt bike is much more difficult to design than you could imagine. In order to have performance approaching that of a gasoline dirt bike, the output of the battery and motor have to be much higher per pound than anything in the fledgling electric automotive industry. The engineers had to deal with dramatic heat and safety issues on the way to development of the Zero X Electric. Weight also turned out to be a critical issue. If you took a traditional motorcycle, took out the motor and replaced it with a battery and electric motor, the final product would be much heavier than a conventional dirt bike. So Zero engineers had to come up with a lighter aluminum frame, lighter suspension and lighter brakes than anything we’re used to. The initial instinct would be to use downhill mountain bike parts, but it turned out that they were too flimsy to deal with the additional weight and performance. So they designed components that were halfway between motorcycle and bicycle parts, even producing their own rims. Most of the companies that collaborated on the project came out of the bicycle industry.
What’s it like to ride an electric dirt bike? Quiet. We spent a day riding the Zero X at Glen Helen Raceway and were blown away by how everything seems different when there’s no noise. That dramatically changes your perception of speed and even causes you to overshoot turns. The power that an electric motor produces is very different from that of a gasoline motor. Where a traditional motor builds power as rpm increases, an electric motor produces its maximum torque from the moment it’s turned on. So when you open the throttle all the way from a dead stop, the machine leaps forward in a way that no gasoline motorcycle can. After that, the machine builds speed, but not necessarily power, which is an odd sensation. The Zero is most impressive on tight, slow tracks where acceleration is more important than speed itself. Even better is its effectiveness on tight trails. It works like a trails bike, with its ultra light weight, crazy torque and instantaneous throttle response.
The price of the X is set at $7750, but it isn’t available through any conventional motorcycles dealers. To find out more, go to www.zeromotorcycles.com.