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Harley-Davidson LiveWire versus Zero SR/S: Premium electric motorcycles face off

Dec 04, 2020

Testing electric motorcycles remains a relatively new affair. Having the two top U.S.-built models to compare at the same time is even more novel.

I recently had the opportunity to match up Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire and Zero’s SR/S. Some overlap on extended demos gave me time to jump back and forth between the two. The focus was to determine which of the American-made electric motorcycles I’d choose if only one could take up residence in my garage.

About those electric motorcycles

Zero Motorcycles has taken the lead in the electric motorcycle market in the United States, offering the broadest lineup and largest dealer network in the country. The traditional motorcycle manufacturers have been slow to jump into the segment, but Harley-Davidson jolted the market in 2019, becoming the first major name to release a production, street-legal electric motorcycle in the U.S. market, the $29,000 LiveWire.

Harley-Davidson LiveWire and Zero SR/S
The Harley-Davidson LiveWire and the Zero SR/S are the two most premium U.S.-made electric motorcycles currently available. Photo by Jake Bright.

Speculation continues on which big motorcycle maker will next enter the EV arena while other all-electric manufacturers have entered the market, such as Energica, or are promising to, like Damon. It's certain that over the next decade some increasing percentage of U.S. motorcycle sales will go to electric two-wheelers. But how much? A lot of that depends on how fast electric motorcycle producers close spec gaps with internal-combustion motorcycles. I’ve shared my views that for electric motorcycles to go mass-market, they need to give more buyers no reason to choose gas.

Harley-Davidson LiveWire
The Harley-Davidson LiveWire costs $29,799 in Vivid Black. Other colors are an additional $350. Harley-Davidson photo.

After studying the major electric offerings and testing seven of them (four of them long-term), I still give internal combustion bikes an edge over EVs, when factoring the entire buyer checklist. The gas advantage is largely based on range (still outdone by ICE bikes), charge times (still somewhat lengthy), and pricing (still relatively expensive).

When it comes to performance and rider experience, I believe electric motorcycles do have some real advantages over gas, for both veterans and novices. On the newcomer side, there is support for the argument that smartphone connected, single-drive EVs can draw in first time and younger riders. The Discover The Ride program has used quiet, emissions-free Zero FXS supermotos with restricted speeds to reach hundreds of new riders using indoor demo tracks. For both new and experienced riders, the power delivery on these electric machines is unlike any gas bike I’ve ridden. There are fewer mechanical moving parts, and no clutch or shifting, so acceleration feels stronger and more constant than with internal-combustion machines. You simply twist and go — tapping big torque that feels more like a straight line than a curve into top speeds.

Zero SR/S
2021 Zero SR/S Premium in blue. Zero Motorcycles photo.

So how do the two flagship U.S.-built electric motorcycles compare?

Harley-Davidson LiveWire versus Zero SR/S

For most of us, price is motorcycle spec number one before we get to any of the others. On that, both of these bikes require some serious coin to roll off a showroom floor.

The all-new LiveWire costs $29,799. The SR/S is based on the exact platform as its cousin, the SR/F naked bike, but adds a full fairing and a more relaxed (upright) riding position through lower foot pegs and a higher handlebar. It costs $19,995 for the base SR/S or $21,995 for the Premium SR/S with the 6kWh charger, which is the one I tested. With those numbers, you have to be pretty committed to electric to go with one of these performance motorcycles over other gas options. Even if you were set on electric, and it came to choosing between a LiveWire or an SR/S, you’d have to be convinced the Harley was worth spending nearly $10,000 more than the Zero.

The LiveWire weighs 553 pounds and the SR/S weighs 505. At six feet, two inches tall, I found the riding position comfortable on both, whether riding around town or on the highway. The changes to the SR/S from the SR/F made it more comfortable than the LiveWire. The wider midsection and textured plastic panels made it easier to grip the bike with your knees and the fairing does an excellent job of splitting the wind. This, paired with its near no-decibel operation, allows the SR/S to cruise effortlessly on the highway in the 80 mph range, with little noise or vibration.

Power and handling

The LiveWire is powered by a 15.5 kWh battery and Harley-Davidson claims 105 horsepower. The SR/S has a 14.4 kWh battery and Zero claims 110 horsepower. Both bikes regulate power through internal processors and offer preset riding modes with different combos of power and torque that can be adjusted from the handlebar controls. Zero doesn’t offer 0-to-60 or quarter-mile stats on their motorcycles. Harley-Davidson claims three seconds to 60 mph on the LiveWire, which was recently clocked at 11.6 seconds in the quarter mile by pro dragster Angelle Sampey.

Angelle Sampey heats up the LiveWire's rear tire for a quarter-mile run at the drag strip
Professional drag racer Angelle Sampey rode the LiveWire to a 11.156-second quarter-mile time. It might have been faster but she bumped up against the 115 mph top speed the LiveWire is limited to. Harley-Davidson photo.

I wasn’t able to do a metered speed test, but I did a number of off-the-line full-throttle acceleration runs in Sport mode on each bike. Both of these motorcycles get up to speed in a quick and addictive fashion, given neither has interruptions for shifting. The LiveWire felt a bit faster in straight-line acceleration than the SR/S, but that’s based on a seat of my riding pants assessment, versus something more scientific.

Riding the Zero SR/S
Altered ergonomics improved the comfort level of the faired Zero SR/S compared to its naked twin, the SR/F. Photo by Jake Bright.

I took both the SR/S and LiveWire out for some runs on my favorite twisty backroads that criss-cross the New York and Connecticut state border. The changes Zero made to the riding position on the SR/S improved the handling considerably over the SR/F, which I tested last year and found a little sluggish in tight-radius turns.

I would still give the LiveWire an advantage when the road gets twisty. The overall handling of the electric Harley — from power delivery to cornering to stopping — is excellently balanced and in-sync. Adjusting your line or lean angle on the LiveWire is easy and when you do the motorcycle rides like it’s magnetically connected to the road.

Showa rear shock
Both electric motorcycles feature adjustable Showa suspension. Shown here on the LiveWire. Harley-Davidson photo.

Both bikes ride on adjustable Showa SFF-BP (Separate Function Fork-Big Piston) forks and Showa rear shocks and 17-inch wheels with common sport bike tire sizes front and rear, giving you a wide choice of tires.

One of the unique performance qualities of these premium electric motorcycles is the ability to adjust regenerative braking. On both the LiveWire (via the dash) and SR/S (via dash or the app), you can dial in how much regen braking you want when you close the throttle. Rolling off the throttle adds power back to your battery and slows the bike. You can get in and out of corners using only throttle adjustments, instead of a combination of throttle, clutch, shifting, and brakes on a traditional motorcycle. It's a different style of riding I've been adapting to.

Regen braking means a lot less use of the brakes is required. When you do need the brakes, Zero’s SR/S comes with twin discs and four-piston J.Juan calipers in front and a single-piston J.Juan brake caliper at the rear. The LiveWire slows down with Brembo four-piston calipers squeezing twin rotors in front and a two-piston Brembo caliper at the tail. Both motorcycles had excellent stopping power, though overall the LiveWire felt stronger front and rear on 60-to-0 deceleration runs. The SR/S’ rear brake felt a little soft, compared to the LiveWire’s back stopper. Both offer lean-angle-sensitive ABS.

recharging the LiveWire and the SR/S
If you're charging on the road, which electric motorcycle works best for you depends on the charging options available. Zero and Harley-Davidson too different approaches. Photo by Jake Bright.

Range and recharging

How far you can go and how long it takes to recharge are two considerations that require some scrutiny with electric motorcycles, far beyond what you have to do with an ICE motorcycle. With the LiveWire and the SR/S, I found some similarities and some key differences.

Zero claims a max range of 161 miles for the SR/S (in the city) and Harley-Davidson specs the LiveWire’s max urban range at 145 miles. There’s a high degree of variability in how far you can actually ride on one of these high-performance electric motorcycles, however, depending on which riding mode you use and the type of riding you do, and that exposes an ongoing drawback of electric versus gas motorcycles. Putting either in high power mode and heading out on the highway makes for a pretty short trip. Testing these two electric motorcycles (and others), I’ve found you get the most out of them by riding in efficiency mode most of the time — which still offers a good deal of zip — switching to Sport when the occasion arises and then switching back to Range or Eco modes to conserve power.

Following that modus operandi, the LiveWire and SR/S were pretty evenly matched, and offered around 85 to 100 miles of range per charge, on my mix of roughly 25 percent city riding, 45 percent curvy two-lane and 30 percent highway cruising.

An important difference is revealed when it's time to recharge these two motorcycles. Zero and Harley took different approaches and that may determine which bike works better for how and where you ride.

Level 1 charging is plugging the bike into a regular home outlet. Level 2 charging stations basically double that power. Level 3, also called DC Fast Charging, uses DC instead of AC power. DC fast charging stations provide the quickest way to replenish any EV that's equipped to handle it.

charging the LiveWire
The LiveWire charges faster than the SR/S — assuming you find a compatible Level 3 charging station. If you're charging either motorcycle from a regular wall outlet, it's an all-day (or overnight) wait. Harley-Davidson photo.
The SR/S Premium accommodates Level 1 or Level 2 charging. The LiveWire gives the rider the options of Level 1 or Level 3 and free Level 3 charging is available for two years at Chargepoint stations at all Harley-Davidson dealerships that sell the LiveWire.

Using a Level 3 fast charger, the LiveWire can charge to 80 percent of battery capacity in 40 minutes and reach 100 percent in roughly an hour. The Zero SR/S Premium charged to 100 percent in around 90 minutes, using a Level 2 charger. Charging either bike at Level 1 on a home outlet happened at a snail's pace. I clocked it at 11 hours for a charge after I ran the big HD’s battery down to two percent state of charge. Basically, Level 1 charging is for when the bike is parked overnight or maybe at your workplace, if your employer lets you plug in while you're on the job.

The Harley's faster Level 3 charging sounds great, but the advantage is not so clear cut. Only 15 percent of public charging outlets in the United States are Level 3 DC Fast Charging Stations, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Plus, you have to make sure the DC fast charging station has the SAE Combined Charging System (CCS) plug to match your LiveWire.

What does all this mean for this comparison? With the SR/S Premium, I could charge relatively quickly from a lot of charging stations. With the LiveWire I could charge faster but at far fewer locations.

For riders who plan to ride further than the range a full battery provides, the availability of charging stations is an important consideration. Electric motorcycles still require riders to accept a high degree of inconvenience over gas-powered bikes in how far you can ride and the time it takes to top up your scooter.

controlling the Harley-Davidson LiveWire with the app
The LiveWire offers four riding modes that adjust power, ABS and traction control and three additional modes that can be customized by the rider. They can be monitored on the app but must be set through the display on the dash. Harley-Davidson photo.

Brains and style

Zero SR/S app
Adjusting the Zero SR/S's performance through the app was easy to do. Photo by Jake Bright.
One advantage of electric motorcycles is the ease of adjusting their power charactericstics. Both Zero and Harley-Davidson provide smartphone apps that make it simpler to monitor charge-status and performance. With Zero’s app you can adjust power and regen braking and create custom riding modes in seconds. The LiveWire allows for tailored ride modes, dialed in from the bars. Using both the dash and my smartphone, I found Zero’s system to be much easier to navigate, when it came to customizing settings.

It’s worth highlighting that the LiveWire comes with a number of premium extras not found on the SR/S. These include key fob operation, an anti-theft control system and haptic pulse — a heartbeat-like vibration on the motorcycle that lets you know it’s engaged and the throttle is hot. Both come with advanced, lean-angle-sensitive ABS.

The SR/S and LiveWire both have sleek lines. That said, in my eyes the Harley surpasses the SR/S on the pure aesthetic cool factor. The American company from Milwaukee succeeded in finding a distinctly H-D way to style its first electric motorcycle. Regardless of my preferences, the look and novelty of both these EVs generated a lot of curiosity and inquiry when I was out and about.

LiveWire versus SR/S: The verdict

So what’s the verdict? Which of these top American electric motorcycles would I choose if I were in the market for an electric ride and had to pick only one? After putting the LiveWire and SR/S through the paces, and bonding with each bike, it was actually a very tough call.

Inconveniences and all, I’ve come to love the performance qualities and rider experience of electric motorcycles. And given everything out there, both the Zero and Harley-Davidson offer two phenomenal machines.

Harley-Davidson LiveWire and Zero SR/S
Harley-Davidson LiveWire and Zero SR/S. Photo by Jake Bright.

Ultimately, I arrived at a split decision. The more pragmatic half of my brain would go with the fully faired SR/S — given the price and the more comfortable cruising qualities. But if money were no object and I decided to go with what satisfied my purest sense of adrenaline and cool, I’d drop the nearly $30,000 on the LiveWire.

Coming back to the real world, however, spending either amount on a motorcycle isn’t in the cards for me. I imagine that’s probably the case for most of you. So electric motorcycle makers still have work to do to offer models that persuade more riders to dump the pump and hop over to voltage power.

Harley-Davidson LiveWire Zero SR/S Premium
Price (MSRP) $29,799 for Vivid Black; $30,149 for other colors $19,995 base; $21,995 for Premium
Battery 15.5 kWh 14.4 kWh
final drive
Single-speed, belt Single-speed, belt
Claimed horsepower 105 110
Claimed range, city/combined 146 miles/95 miles 161 miles/123 miles
Charging Level 1:
0 percent to 80 percent: 10 hours
0 percent to 100 percent: 12.5 hours
Level 3:
0 percent to 80 percent: 40 minutes
0 percent to 100 percent: one hour
Level 1:
0 percent to 95 percent: eight hours
0 percent to 100 percent: 8.5 hours
Level 2:
0 percent to 95 percent: 1.3 hours
0 percent to 100 percent: 1.8 hours
Front suspension Showa 43 mm SFF-BP fork, adjustable for preload, rebound and compression damping Showa 43 mm SFF-BP fork, adjustable for preload, rebound and compression damping
Rear suspension Showa shock, adjustable for preload, rebound and compression damping Showa shock, adjustable for preload, rebound and compression damping
Front brake Dual Brembo four-piston calipers, 300 mm discs, ABS Dual J.Juan four-piston calipers, 320 mm discs, ABS
Rear brake Brembo two-piston caliper, ABS J.Juan single-piston caliper, ABS
Rake, trail 24.5 degrees, 4.3 inches 24.5 degrees, 3.7 inches
Wheelbase 58.7 inches 57.1 inches
Seat height 30.0 inches 31.0 inches
Tires Michelin Scorcher 120/70ZR17 front, 180/55ZR17 rear Pirelli Diablo Rosso III 120/70ZR17 front, 180/55ZR17 rear
Claimed weight 553 pounds 505 pounds
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