What is the future of urban transportation? Electric cars are quickly gaining popularity as drivers catch on to the advantages of ditching gas, but what about electric motorcycles? For a decade now, e-motorbike maker Zero has been turning out increasingly capable two-wheelers to take on the urban sprawl — and even dirt roads. Its latest machine, the Zero DSR dual-sport claims to tackle both. But is keep up with it’s gas-powered cousins?
Is there any better way to slice through traffic in a crowded urban wasteland metropolis than on a motorcycle? Scooters are easier to ride, and bicycles are greener, but a thin-waisted, powerful and agile motorcycle is always the most fun.
But what if one machine really covered all the bases? After several weeks onboard the Zero DSR dual-sport electric motorcycle, we think we’ve found the true sweet spot for urban traffic warriors who like to get around on two wheels.
ADJUSTING TO AN ELECTRIC MOTORCYCLE
Have no illusions: The Zero DSR is a real-deal, full-size motorcycle, but because it’s also fully electric, there are a few new things for riders of gas-powered bikes to get used to.
First off, it has no gears to change. A quiet and largely maintenance-free belt — not a chain — drives the rear wheel right off the central crank of the air-cooled 74-horsepower electric motor, so there’s no clutch or shift lever. Yep, just twist and go, like a scooter. But the DSR is definitely not a scooter, with its standard-sized 17-inch wheels shod in modern rubber, big ABS disc brakes, and its … well, heft. Did we mention it’s big?
It’s set up better for the road than dirt, but it has a bit more suspension travel than a pure roadie, and comes shod in aggressively treaded Pirelli MT-series trail-capable tires. They aren’t hard-core DOT knobbies, but they do work well in light off-road challenges. They were also perfect for Portland’s crumbling and construction-dotted urban infrastructure, where potholes, wet pavement, gravel patches and unexpected obstacles reign.
You sit upright on the DSR like on any proper dual-sport, so the riding experience is very much like a “normal” dual-sport motorcycle, less the shifting and the typical accompanying sonic symphony. The hot and heavy metal lump of a motor between the frame rails has been replaced by a somewhat smaller and decidedly cooler (but still heavy) lithium-ion battery pack, which can range from 13-kilowatt hours to over 16KwH if you decide to option it up. Unlike a gas motor, it stays pretty quiet.
Riders can cycle through three ride modes using a button beside the right grip: Eco, Sport and Custom. Eco is the way to go for new riders or just tiptoeing through stuck traffic, which the DSR excels at. Cranking the throttle results in a smooth, unintimidating takeoff that will just outpace most Honda Civics, and the acceleration remains muted as the speed increases. It’s friendly, manageable, predictable, and also saves your juice.
A faux “gas tank” on the DSR conceals a very convenient storage space that’s too small for a helmet, but will hold the charger, folded-up rain gear, a second set of gloves, a tall energy drink can (or two), a sandwich (or two), several candy energy bars, a phone, and some other assorted bits. You lose this very handy storage spot if you opt for the biggest battery, so we say save your money and keep the bin.
Charging time varies by method and battery size, but count on eight hours or more for a full charge from a wall outlet. An optional quick charger system can juice things back up in less than three hours. In everyday use, it’s unusual to drain the pack so far down that it will require a “full” recharge – how often do you pull your car into the driveway running on fumes?
Overall, the DSR operates pretty much like a normal motorcycle (or a really big scooter) but with much more convenience. Warm up time? Choke? What are those things? Just get on, turn the key, wait a few seconds for the bike to silently boot up, and twist the grip. Off you go.
What it’s like to ride the DSR
Some EV evangelists like to claim that electric vehicles are “silent,” but that’s not true. Gone is the familiar rev-and-shift cadence of a gas-powered bike, replaced by the somewhat artless sound of the electric motor, which unobtrusively whirs up and down the rev range while riding.
Crank the DSR’s throttle, and the simple drivetrain emits a rather unromantic rasp that is soon drowned out by wind noise as velocity quickly builds. For bystanders, the sound is a mix of tire noise and a futuristic whirr as the DSR speeds by. If you ride motorcycles for the mechanical symphony, or to draw attention to yourself via exhaust clamor, this probably isn’t the bike for you.
There is little to no vibration while riding, which helps the DSR transmit road feel quite well through the fully adjustable suspension. The DSR’s handling was very neutral, confidence-inspiring and “normal” in pretty much every regard. Ride quality on pavement was composed and predictable. Out in the dirt it was a bit over-damped, but again, it’s adjustable.
What isn’t normal, however, is the acceleration. While the electric motor “only” makes over 70 horsepower, it flattens your eyeballs on launch with 116 foot-pounds of torque on tap from a standstill. Will it wheelie? Yes, yes it will. Used more judiciously, it will also put you at 60 miles an hour in about 4 seconds, according to my video-based calculations. And while top speed is regulated to just over 100mph, it gets there in a pretty big hurry as well. Is it fast enough for you? Put it this way: The vast majority of gas-powered cars can’t touch it and we dusted a few sport bike pilots in some impromptu spotlight races. But yes, most Teslas will still dust the DSR in a drag race.
Out on dirt and gravel roads, the DSR was plenty capable, and while it likely won’t be headed for any Long Way ‘Round type of adventures anytime soon, riders can feel confident traversing most dirt roads and most any crumbling urban environment. We certainly did.
And what happens when you run the battery down to zero in the LCD display? To my surprise, the DSR didn’t just suddenly shut off and go dark when the battery level display hit zip. Basically…. it just kept on going, like having that bit of “reserve” in the gas tank on an old-school gas motorcycle. Acceleration softened up first as the battery hit single digits, and then finally, miles later when the ticker hit zeros, it started to struggle to top 50mph. But still, in city riding, it just kept going for many more miles past the zero mark, so if you’re worried it’s going to just switch off when the meter runs out, don’t sweat it, it won’t.
We wanted to know what might happen when it essentially said it was out of e-gas, so mystery solved. But, we didn’t even run it totally out, to the point where it stopped moving. As the tripmeter closed in on 112 miles worth of mixed riding, it was still going so we just gave up, switched the DSR off and plugged it in for the night. The next morning it had a 100 percent charge and performed as normal. Repeatedly running a big li-ion battery down this way can diminish its capacity, so we wouldn’t recommend testing your own luck.