Common Tread

The Zero DSR is way better than I could have hoped

Nov 22, 2017

Sometimes Common Tread staffers do some role playing.

For me, I suspected testing the Zero DSR would be an exercise in trying to think like someone else. After riding the bike and experiencing its strong points, I found that it’s actually a motorcycle that suited me and my needs well, in spite of how far I am from the intended audience. My findings are probably not what you expect.

Ridin' around.
It isn't built like a "regular" bike, so why would I review it like one? Photo by Brett Walling.

The Zero DSR

The Zero's big claim to fame is that it's electric! That changes everything, from who should buy it to how it will be used. I feel that reviewing this bike the same way we review others would do this motorcycle a great disservice. It’s a phenomenal bike — especially when viewed through the lens of its intended purpose.

Because it's electric, the DSR has major shortcomings relative to conventional motorcycles powered by an internal combustion engine (ICE): short range (a claimed 70 miles on the highway and 147 in the city, but more range can be had for additional cost), and an interminably long energy reacquisition time (9.8 hours). It’s also kind of expensive. The version I tested with the 13.0 kWh battery rings in at $15,995. (That was the top dog for 2017. 2018 models will ship with a 14.4 kWh option.) Those drawbacks are offset by some qualities that are vastly different from ICE motorcycles, such as fuel costs and greatly reduced maintenance.

I didn’t have a ton of time with this bike, so I focused on two things in this review: how this bike handles a commute, and who should buy it. I wanted to find out if this bike could be “worth it” and who might actually enjoy riding this.

Lemmy's test track

A commute is really the best use of most electric motorcycles. Most people who are employed need to take a ride at the beginning and end of the day, separated by a long-ish down time that can be used for charging. That’s basically custom-tailored for an EV.

My commute is the torture test of commutes. If I flew to work every day in the ZLA corporate chopper (hint: we don't have one), I would travel a little over 45 miles in either direction. I have to travel the asphalt like most of you, though, so my commute is somewhere between 60 and 80 miles each way, depending on the route I take. (I used 68 as an average.) If I am used my truck (average of 20 mpg) exclusively, I would purchase 1,820 gallons of gas for commuting each year, which works out to a little under $5,000 annually, assuming a fuel cost of $2.65 per gallon.

Gas

For those of you who want it compared to a similar motorcycle, we can do that math, too. Assuming I was on a Suzuki SV650 that gets 47 mpg at the same fuel price, that’s a touch over $2,000 in fuel annually. (But I probably wouldn’t ride that every day.)

My distance to travel is very close to the Zero’s highway range. In short, I’m almost an all-or-nothing tester: If this works for me, I stand to save a gajillion dollars. If it does not, though, the Zero is nothing more than a very expensive paperweight.

Riding the Zero

Getting on a Zero and “firing it up”  is interesting. I mean, there is no fire, for starts. You turn on the key, hit the on/off switch… and then nothing happens. Nothing runs. There is no noise. But if you open the throttle, the bike silently rolls away. Crazy.

I scooted out of the RevZilla campus, clawing and pawing for a shifter and clutch lever that don’t exist. (The DSR has one gear!) The bike has three separate modes it can be ridden in: Sport, Eco, and Custom. If I head home from RevZilla, I pull out, travel about three blocks, and then hammer onto a suuuuper-long onramp. Gear Geek Brandon W. was following me out of the lot on his Triumph Thruxton. Sometimes I do the wrong thing when I know better, just because it feels good. The beginning to my Zero commute was one of those times. I left the bike in Sport mode, hammered down, and thought about how nice his headlight looked in the mirror.

No gas
/r/wellthatsucks material. In fairness, I staged this shot. I got home OK after racing around with Brandon, but the margin was maybe a a little thinner than I would have liked. Photo by Lemmy.

We played cat and mouse for a little bit, but after I saw him exit, I realized I probably needed to switch to “Eco” mode. Making the switch on the Zero is possible on the fly, even in motion, but the switch is not instantaneous. This is likely for safety; the Zero’s power and throttle response change greatly between the two. I settled into the right lane on Philadelphia’s I-76 behind a car’s bumper to do a sedate 55-in-a-50. When I got to the North-South Turnpike, I paid my toll and cranked up the speed, as it changes to a 70 mph zone.

Eco mode, I discovered, governs you to 70 mph.

Now, there are ways around this. “Custom,” the third mode, can be programmed via cell phone to raise the limiter to whatever your heart desires. The problem here is air resistance goes up greatly with increased velocity, which kills range. So I kept the bike in Eco mode and trundled along because I needed the range. If I had a shorter commute, though, I wouldn’t have done that. I do not like traveling slower on a motorcycle than surrounding traffic. After that first night, I began spending as little time as possible on the freeway.

The bike itself was a very willing mount. In Sport mode, it has plenty of giddyup. I think this bike feels similar to a modern-day 650 twin, give or take, in terms of how speedy it is. Braking is very good, and the feel was excellent. Suspension was high quality, but soft for ol’ Lem-lem — but my dietary choices really are not Zero's fault.

Seat
Surprising comfort. RevZilla photo.

When I got home, I put Mrs. Lem on the rear for a little jaunt. She really got a kick out of how quiet the DSR was. I did not test the range extensively while loaded two-up, but Zero spells out pretty plainly what should be common sense: the more weight you pack onto the bike, the worse your range will be. At this point I was pretty pleased, because even without crazy planning or being too miserly with the throttle, I was able to get home and take my wife for a brief pleasure jaunt. I liked the bike. The riding position was nice and upright and the seat was comfy. It was very effortless riding.

And so my life went for a little while. Charging is kind of interesting: the bike charges using your standard three-pin power supply cord, like you’d use with a desktop PC. Genius. (Even if you forget your cord on the way to your cubicle, odds are good you can rustle one up!) I began carrying along an extension cord to charge the bike, because Zero thoughtfully included a top box with our DSR. If your commute is less than about half of the DSR’s range, you can simply charge at home. 

Charging
If it's for free, it's for me! RevZilla photo.

If you’re like me (you live far away from work and you’re a perennially cheap bastard), you’ll have to see if you can mooch juice off your employer. I can. Happily, that meant I could shift half of my fuel costs automatically to RevZilla.

One of the things that cramped my style is needing to charge all the time. On choppers with short range, I just keep a fuel bottle on the bike, and fill up if the tank goes dry. That’s not really possible on the Zero due to the charge time. Even if you have “three-fourths of a tank,” you’ll likely need to top up because the range is small and the fill time is very long.

Cubby
Two Honest Teas, two pork roll, egg, and cheese sandwiches, registration and insurance, a spare pair of gloves, and a couple shop rags fit in here with room for even more crap. RevZilla photo.

The “tank” is actually meaningful, useful storage on this bike. It’s perfect for a city bike: it holds more than your pockets do, but does not add width or height to the motorcycle. I was able to haul several breakfast sandwiches and a drink or two. Your stock is rising, Zero.

kWh
I snapped this photo at about 4:30 a.m. in my garage (and it's been flipped) so please forgive the quality. But it shows the real-world results of a 0-100 percent charge: just under the 13 kWh Zero claims. Photo by Lemmy.

Another thing I appreciated about this bike was the honesty about what it can and cannot do. I checked the charge rate with a meter, and it was in line with Zero’s claims (13 kWh to full charge). Range claims were spot-on. When I reviewed Victory’s Empulse, I remember thinking how out-to-lunch their mileage claims were — so much so I called them to make sure I didn’t misunderstand something.

Zero is also open about the factors that affect range. Even-keeled riding, nice weather, low resistance and weight all affect mileage heavily, and Zero is upfront with that information. I remember thinking that the Empulse would have left me feeling duped if I didn’t get to play with it before I bought it. I did not feel that way about the Zero.

Belt
The belt is mostly maintenance free, though at some point ours made a bit of noise which was quickly cured with a little shot of silicone. That said, I doubt this would handle offoad debris like rocks or sand very happily. RevZilla photo.

The one thing I think might be stretching it is the allusion to “dual-sport” riding. At 419 pounds, this bike is heavy by dual-sport standards. It has a belt drive. (A chain kit is optional.) The wheels are of delicate cast construction, no doubt to keep weight down. If you are truly going to explore offroad, you better have a truck or a generator (or both.) I think this bike is a little more “scrambler” than “dual sport.” A 247-pound FX model exists, and though it has a smaller powerplant, it’s probably much easier to use on a trail. Personally, I would accept a few sins because moving quietly through the woods is really, really appealing to me — legally and when trespassing.

I also wished for some gears. Not six, like the Empulse had. But one is not enough. The “automagic” concept is an intriguing one, and I don’t fault them for leaving out the complexity and weight of a transmission.

And one final note: burnouts on this bike are very simple to do. 100 percent torque from idle makes it a breeze to overcome the front brake. No clutch to slip also makes it easy to channel your inner showman. And it’s sooooo quiet… all you hear is a little electric whirring, and boop! You just clouded out an intersection. I mean, I didn't wouldn't shouldn't do that. But you need to live your life according to your own code, not mine.

The bike for salty old vets

So here’s the most interesting part of this machine for me: It’s suitable for a bundle of people. Let’s start with all you conservative old fart riders. There’s enough squirt with a Zero to have fun, and the lack of shifting makes the morning grind seriously easy.

Maintenance is a snap: No engine oil. No trans fluid. No coolant. No valves to adjust. There is a belt, which needs little or no adjustment, and I’ve personally seen people riding along on 20-year-old drive belts with no problem whatsoever. Bulbs, tires, and brake pads are about the only things I can imagine a Zero user replacing with normal use. Just get on it and ride.

Badge
It'll be neat to see this badge all scarred and battered years down the road. It's highly likely that these will be easy to rebuild, repair, and keep running, which is kind of nuts. RevZilla photo.

Yes, this machine is expensive, but if your commute is normal in length, you can flog the snot out of this and eventually you will save money. It might take 20 years at current gas prices, but this bike will eventually pay for itself if you ride it enough and fuel prices don’t change radically. A really fuel-efficient bike like a 250 cc something-or-other can feel sluggish with respect to power, and for most, the fuel savings aren’t great enough to justify the cost. The Zero is different on both counts.

You can check out this spreadsheet I put together over my short stint on the Zero. Again, I am an “extreme use” case, but the cost of fuel is roughly 25 percent the cost of gasoline. And if you can fob half the charge off on your boss (or the whole thing!), you can cut that number down even further. You don’t have to be a tree-hugging granola-sniffer to want one of these. If you’re a red-blooded American cheapskate, this bike should be right up your alley. And for those of you who say it costs too much? A Zero FXS can be had for $8,495. That’s pretty reasonable.

For those who aren't sold because of range anxiety, know this: If you're willing to drop more money, there are a few ways to improve range and charge times, like bigger batteries (most models have a few size choices), Charge Tanks (an accessory that enables charging with J1772-spec chargers found on other EVs), and Power Tanks (more energy storage). (Those cannot be run concurrently, they are an either/or pair of products.) Standalone Scalable Quick Chargers also work with the onboard charging system to help charge faster on a normal 120V electrical system. There's no free lunch, though. More energy storage means longer charge times, and those accessories do cost a bit of coin.

I could buy one of these and it literally would pay for itself between eight and fourteen years, depending what we’re measuring against. Not shabby. I think that’s the first time I’ve ever been able to say with a straight face that a motorcycle would be a boon to my financial health. In fact, I’m trying to figure out how to not buy a Zero. I prefer to ride a conventional motorcycle, I think, but it’s hard to ignore the economic and environmental upsides of an EV. That said, this would not be the model I ran to. The purely street-oriented SR is much more my speed.

The Zero is also a bike for rookies

Now you’re all going to tell me I’m off my rocker, but I also think the DSR would make a fine learner motorcycle. Yes, it’s a little expensive, but it’s not out to lunch compared to other fairly pricey bikes I have seen people start on, like Harley Sportsters, Triumph Bonnevilles, or Ducati Monsters. They wouldn’t be my first choice, but there are definitely worse ones.

Hear me out: In Eco mode, the bike is so tame. There is no clutch to feather, no gears to shift, and no noise, which I have seen intimidate all sorts of people. (Motorcycles with OEM exhausts are bad enough. Used bikes with loud pipes make it miserable for many rookies to mentally overcome the din.) Don’t forget about ease of maintenance. When I started riding, a rider had to understand petcocks, chokes, carburetor rebuilds, the peccadilloes of air-cooling. This bike, though? Get on and go.

Test 1 2

In all seriousness, if you can balance a bicycle, you can probably ride this with little or no training. New riders would be able to concentrate on managing traffic and learning how to ride a motorcycle, not learning when to upshift and how to change oil because the shop’s rate seemed exorbitant. Assuming a rider has no financial barrier, I would argue that this is actually a really, really good learner bike. My mother has never been on a motorcycle. Barring the availability of a small scooter, this is the one I would start her out on, in spite of the bike’s weight. The quiet and approachable nature of the bike would, in her case, likely outweigh the additional cost.

The only real obstacle I could see for a beginner other than the price is the 33.2-inch seat height, but the street-going SR drops that by over an inch, coming in at 31.8 inches.

Conclusion

The DSR is not a toy. It’s a real motorcycle with a very practical application. I found it less fun to ride than the now-defunct Victory Empulse, but I also would never have been able to consider that bike for purchase, due to its price and its anemic range. This Zero is a remarkably useful tool that might allow you to keep some pennies in your pocket and reduce some of the stress on the planet — all from the comfort of a saddle.