The 2012 Zero MX is an electric motorcycle that can turn any field, yard or patch of woods into an off-road recreation park. It’s the latest generation of a product that is coming into its own; it’s not a motorcycle nor a bicycle. It’s well designed, cleverly engineered and completely fun. The problem is that we tend to overthink the matter. Dirt bike riders are not an especially pragmatic group when it comes to riding conventional motorcycles on the weekend. We don’t usually try to justify our habit on a spread sheet. But, when the issue is electric motorcycles, all of a sudden the talk turns to practicality, efficiency and repercussions. All of a sudden, the spreadsheet comes out and someone declares the genre illegitimate.
Stow it. The Zero is a blast. Can we start from there?
QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS
It’s been a long road for Zero. We’ve ridden several versions over the last three years, and some were very rough. The 2012 version reflects a lot of hard work and evolution, and now we can honestly say it’s ready to sell. It no longer has mountain bike suspension and brakes, and it no longer is a fragile novelty.
Most of the Zero’s technology is in the battery and the controller. The MX version here has a 3-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion cell that sits in the center of the chassis. The motor itself is a fairly conventional brushed design that drives a 428 chain through a 13-tooth countershaft and a 71-tooth rear sprocket. By gasoline standards, that sounds like crazy low gearing, but it drives the Zero up to 55 mph—in first gear. It only has first gear. There’s no gearbox and no clutch. When you open the throttle, it seamlessly accelerates all the way up to its top speed. How powerful is it? That’s a tough question, because horsepower figures are designed around gasoline motors with a peak torque occurring at some specific rpm level. Electric motors have a torque level that never changes and are traditionally measured in watts, not horsepower. If you use Zero’s math, the MX’s 18 kW motor converts to 24 horsepower at 3300 rpm. Here’s where it gets weird: 3300 rpm always happens at 43 mph because the lack of a gearbox. But by the seat of the pants, there’s no surge of power at 43, so you can see how silly it is to use gasoline-motor yardsticks.
These are much more relevant questions: how long will the machine run and how long does it take to charge? Here are the short answers: 30 minutes and three hours. That first figure is highly variable. The Zero has two power settings. The lower setting can almost double the ride time, especially if you aren’t wide open. During our test, 30 minutes was actually the shortest range we experienced, and that was on a prepped motocross track. We took the Zero trail riding on the high-power setting and it ran for over an hour. Frankly, we didn’t use the low-power setting very much. We couldn’t resist the lure of the extra performance that was available at the flick of a switch.
Recharging the Zero is easy. It comes with a large charger that sits in the garage and plugs into any 110-watt wall socket. It flashes green lights when it’s ready. There’s also an indicator on the bike that tells you when it’s getting low. At that point, the Zero automatically goes into a reduced output mode that allows you to get back to your house or truck.
The biggest problem with the older Zeros was the chassis, which was more mountain bike than motorcycle. That’s all changed. The fork and brakes are legitimate motorcycle parts. The shock is still downsized, and the wheels are 16 and 19 inches. The overall size of the bike is about 85 percent of a normal dirt bike, landing somewhere between a big-wheel mini and a 125. The frame and swingarm are steel, and the total weight of the bike is right at 200 pounds.
Riding the Zero is nothing like riding an internal-combustion motorcycle. It turns out that the gasoline motor is such a defining part of the things we call dirt bikes that an electric bike can’t be the same. Electric motors are essentially either on or off, and as much as the engineers in Santa Cruz have tried to make the Zero act like a gas burner, it’s still something different. When you open the throttle, it snaps to attention like you wouldn’t believe. At that first moment, you would swear that the Zero is the most powerful dirt bike you’ve ever ridden. Once you’re under way, however, that impression changes and the machine feels strong, but not overwhelming. Your first ride involves a steep leaning curve. There’s no noise, there’s no engine braking. The motorcycle seems so light and insubstantial that you have to learn a new riding technique. You’re drawn to the tightest corners and the smallest jumps. Riding the Zero doesn’t require much space; in fact, you usually end up making your own impromptu track with everything scaled down. You won’t believe how much fun you can have in the space of a large backyard.
Riding without noise is strange. For one thing, you have to get used to the fact that you can talk to other riders while you’re riding. If you’re racing into a turn with another Zero, be careful what you say under your breath; he can hear you. There are also technique considerations. Without any sound, you don’t know how “open” the throttle is at any given time, and you have to remind yourself to shut it off when you want to brake for a turn. Same goes for when you roll it on; you don’t know how much throttle you are already giving it. This is complicated by the way the engine controller works. The throttle is sort of a sophisticated rheostat that feeds the motor power. Half throttle is basically half speed, but when the Zero is already moving at half speed, the first half of the throttle rotation doesn’t do anything; it just feels like cable play. It’s weird, but you get used to it.
WHAT IT IS
Riding the Zero is such a catalog of new sensations and experiences that it’s hard to list them all. Everything from the way it turns to the way it jumps and lands is dictated by the nature of the motor. In truth, if you take the Zero to a motocross track and ride it the same way you ride your Honda CRF250R, you won’t like it. When you accept it as something different, the game changes. Take it to the field near your house and you will laugh hysterically while you make your own little singletrack course. Get another Zero on the same track and it’s game on. You’ll run it dry, then come back for more—three hours later.
Trail riding is even better. We’re not saying you should challenge the local laws, but when you take the Zero on trails that are traditionally the sole domain of horses, hikers and mountain bikes, you find whole new levels of fun. At this point, we still haven’t run across any trail users who have been offended by the machine. All our encounters have been positive, but we’re sure that’s not always going to be the case.
All that brings us back to the original point: the Zero is not a replacement for your motorcycle. It’s something else. As long as no one is trying to sell it as the dirt bike of the future, we think it’s great and we need one—or two. And that’s where the spreadsheet guys with their annoying logic try to spoil the party. The Zero MX sells for $9495, which makes it a tough add-on. But, come on; a top-of-the-line mountain bike is in that price range. That makes the Zero look like the very definition of practicality. For more info, go to www.zeromotor
True motorcycle components, like the brakes, tires and fork, make the Zero work surprisingly well. The shock is a weak point.
Don’t think of the Zero as a dirt bike in the traditional sense. It likes different trails, tracks and riding areas.
The battery is removable. If you have a spare, you don’t have to wait out the three-hour charge time. Unfortunately, almost half the cost of the bike is in the battery. Each bike comes with a charger that plugs in to any 110-volt wall charger.
Almost all the noise comes from the chain. Zero has other motorcycles in the line, including a street-legal version with a belt that’s absolutely quiet.