I’ve ridden motorcycles all my adult life. The reason I like them is probably evenly split between the fact that I enjoy mechanical things, and that they’re so much fun to ride. Motorcycles also have a practical side, and that’s the side I used to convince my parents to let me buy my first one back when I was in college. I touted it as a way to save gas and deal with crowded campus parking.
The fuel saving aspect of small motorcycles has always been a selling point, especially in places where gasoline is expensive (like Europe). The larger displacement bikes don’t make that case as easily, as a Toyota Prius can get better mileage than a Harley-Davidson, though in the fun factor there’s really no comparison.
We’re now seeing motorcycles powered not by small gasoline engines, but by electricity. Right now there are two companies making street-legal electric bikes, both of which I’ve taken rides on and both of which are real motorcycles, not scooters or bicycles with motors slapped on. For two-wheel aficionados looking to move about without emitting any pollutants, these high-tech motorcycles are quite up to the task.
There have been electric-powered motorbikes in the past, but they’ve usually had issues with range, packaging and weight due to their relatively low-tech batteries. Today, lithium-ion batteries are rather affordable, lightweight, and compact in size given their storage capacity.
On a sunny spring day recently, I swung a leg over two new street models from a company called Zero. Their S model is a full street bike, while the DS is capable of being taken off road but it also street legal. Zero first stuck its toe into the electric motorcycle market a couple of years ago with a dirt-only model, and that helped the company develop the slightly more complex street models.
Riding the Zero is pretty much like riding any modern motorcycle, but actually easier as there’s no clutch to work or gears to shift. Throttle response is crisp, since the torque from the electric motor gets the bike moving in short order. Once underway, the strangest sensation is that you hear sounds coming from the tire treads against the pavement, and the brake pads against the rotors. On a conventional gasoline motorcycle, the engine drowns both those things out.
Though I only rode on city streets, Zero claims that the top speed for the S is over 60 miles per hour. Technically, the bike could be taken on a freeway, but unless traffic is heavy you’d probably get run over. Best to stick to streets, unless you only plan on riding in heavy traffic on the 101 or 405.
I also took a ride on the Zero S’s primary competitor, the Brammo Enertia. Compared to the Zero, it’s a little more substantial and more closely resembles a conventional street bike. Its acceleration and range specs are similar, but with fatter tires and bigger brakes, it would probably be much more fun on a curvy road.
One interesting aspect of the Brammo is that it’s sold through select Best Buy stores. After you browse flat screen televisions, you can wander over to the Enertia on display and arrange for a test ride. Since an electric motorcycle has relatively few moving parts, there’s not much need for a conventional service department.
After the difference in how they’re sold, the Zero and the Brammo are pretty similar in functionality. Both offer a claimed range of around 40-60 miles, with the Zero at the higher end of that estimate. And the makers of both bikes say they’ll recharge in about four hours, which means that commuters can top them up while at work.
Charging should be easy, as there’s no need for complicated charging plugs with these electric motorcycles. A standard three-prong household outlet is all that’s required, and the power cord is built into both bikes. I imagine that any large company would be fine with making sure an outlet is available to an employee who wishes to commute with electric power, as local governments tend to encourage alternative transportation through tax incentives.
Tax incentives will also help you purchase an electric motorcycle. The base price for a Zero S is $9995, but with a federal tax credit of 10% and a California clean air rebate, the final price is more like $7500. The Brammo Enertia gets the same incentives, and with them is even more of a bargain at under $6500.
For me, the Brammo is more appealing. My tall frame didn’t seem to dwarf its compact frame quite as much, and it felt heftier and more substantial while I was on it. Its range isn’t quite as great as the Zero’s, and I think I’d prefer having a conventional dealership to visit for service and repairs. But overall, it’s my favorite of the two.
Motorcycles have downsides for sure. There’s a certain risk riding them in traffic, and they don’t have the weather protection of cars either. But they’re a lot of fun, and practical too. Running on electricity, they make an even bigger case for their practicality.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz @ pacbell.net