Product Review: The Zero DS motorcycle

When it comes to electric motorcycles, this is the engineering equivalent to going from horse drawn to internal combustion

When it comes to electric motorcycles, this is the engineering equivalent to going from horse drawn to internal combustion

As a product reviewer for law enforcement products, there are good days and there are bad days. Sometimes I test equipment that gets me excited about the product, and other times, I am left scratching my head.

Earlier this year, I tested the Zero DS motorcycle — a stealthy electric conveyance — and I think this product will change the way we look at electric motorcycles for patrol.

Upgrades to this year's new Zero DS include a quick-charge battery pack.
Upgrades to this year's new Zero DS include a quick-charge battery pack. (Zero Motorcycles Image)

Riding this bike was right up there with my favorite days as a product tester. I had as much fun here as I would shooting a new Kimber.

The Zero DS Uses a Li-ion power pack (Z-Force Li-ion Intelligent and a double stator, axial flux brushless motor. One can select the ZF-6 model, which will give it a range of 76 miles, or the ZF-9 model, which gives it a range of 112 miles. I tested the ZF-9 version, which, at 341 lbs, has handling similar to a mid-sized bike.

The double-stator, axial-flux motor is pancake shaped. It sits behind and below the Zero Force power pack, which the rider straddles. The only noise the cycle makes is the almost-silent cooling system, which forces air into the motor.

Because it's electric, acceleration is smooth and consistent throughout the power band.

I’ve ridden Zero Motorcycles before. The last time I rode a Zero DS, it was last year's model. It was a tremendous product, and I commented to the folks at Zero that this bike could use regenerative braking (which generates a nominal amount of power back into the pack) and just a wee bit more range. They were pretty mum about this and the jump in performance (last year's model had about a 68 mile range) has rewritten the rules. And yes, they added regenerative braking.

This bike can be used as a traffic enforcement vehicle for a metropolitan agency. It can catch a speeding offender with the advantage of nearly instant torque — a characteristic of electric power — and putt along a five miles per hour during special events.

That's right. If a car blows through a 35 zone at 45, this bike can catch it from a standing stop. When it comes to electric motorcycles, this is the engineering equivalent to going from horse drawn to internal combustion.

The Zero DS will do about 80 mph, top speed. The non-dual sport version, the Zero S, tops out at 88 MPH. I prefer dual sport because I like options, but the form factor of these bikes are very similar. I rode the Zero S model for a short ride also. It is a bit smoother, especially above 60. However, I had no problem cruising on the freeway with the Zero DS.

Like any conveyance, the faster one goes, the quicker it consumes fuel. At commuting speeds, the Zero DS can lose up to half its cruising range. Since this is an unlikely application of the product on patrol, I'm pretty certain most agencies would be satisfied with the range of this bike. I found that it was good on the back roads around the central valley of California, for up to 70 miles, provided I was conservative on the throttle.

I like dual sport bikes in the 400-650cc category, which is why the Zero DS is a natural. The saddle is a little high for riders of unnecessarily noisy bikes, but the DS is sweet in steep corners. The handling is punctuated by dual piston hydraulic front brakes and singles in the rear, which did a pretty good job minimizing nose dive and staying cool in the hot weather out here. It should be noted that I liked last year's saddle and this year's is an improvement. If I were to add anything, I would like dual rotors, for looks, not performance.

This year's improvement also includes the ability to quick charge the battery pack. Just plugged into the wall, the ZF-9 version takes 9 hours to go from empty to full. The cord stows neatly in a cargo pocket and can be plugged into any 110 v grounded outlet. The quick charge unit, a fin cooled, toaster-sized box, reduces the time to 4.9 hours. If the agency is thinking of going with the Zero DS, the extra investment for this unit is a must.

Does it sound like it takes a long time to charge? That’s from a completely dead pack, a rare occurrence in this line of work. These Li-ion packs do not establish a memory. If the officer goes on break or heads somewhere to scratch out reports, plug it in. To put this in perspective, I cranked out about 40 miles of dirt roads in my area and plugged the bike in. Ok, I hosed it down a little first. It only took it an hour to get to 90% charge. I couldn't wait, so I unplugged and took off.

The cockpit of this machine lets the rider know in distinct terms the amount of riding left. The gauge dips a little on hard acceleration, presumably to convince the rider to lay off a little. There is even an "economy" switch, which engages the regenerative braking, a noticeable damper on acceleration and increase in deceleration. I tried it for a few minutes, but it was boring. Who needs an economy switch on a bike that gets the gas equivalent of 480 MPG?

This bike is as good off road as it is on road. Don't get me wrong: My off road motorcycle riding is generally limited to fire roads and cornfields. I’m not the guy with the GoPro cam. The DS has enough clearance, low end torque and center of gravity for these tasks. Translated, if the Zero DS was assigned to patrol Central Park or rails-to-trails, no problem.

There are several very reasonable applications for an electric bike like this, besides garden variety applications like patrolling special events. I found that the stealth that makes this bike approachable at street fairs is the same stealth that can take down drug labs and chop shops. This is the vehicle that can putter along around a college campus and scream across a park for an officer assist. Believe me, patrol cars can’t burst through a campus quad at 65 MPH. The Zero DS can.

I had several different officers try this one out. I am fortunate to know riders with plenty of traffic experience. One rider liked the quick handling and tall riding position. There is something to be said for being able to see over vehicles in a parking lot or get around vehicles in extended parking lots they still call freeways in Los Angeles. Another officer, who rides two wheeled noisemakers, mentioned that the bars should be swept back a little but the handling was excellent.

When I completed this test, I found that Zero has launched some purpose built Police models. Considering the price and the number of applications for this vehicle, I anticipate I will see the Zero DS appearing in agencies all over.

The Zero DS is an American-made, American-engineered machine that can rival — and often exceed — the performance of its gas counterparts, wrapped in a sleek-looking, smooth-handling package.

Didn't hear it coming, did 'ya?

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