Zero's electric motorcycles replace range anxiety with fun

When quiet and speed collide.

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    It's quiet. In fact, it's completely silent. The motorcycle is on and ready to whisk me away. But before I twist the throttle, I sit and listen to the birds, traffic and a neighbor yelling at a barking dog. Everything but the Zero DSR electric bike is filling my ears. I finally roll on the accelerator, and I'm off. The weird but distinct whine of an electric engine coupled with a surprising explosion of power is equal parts perplexing and invigorating. This is the future of bikes, and it's spectacular.

    Gallery: Zero Motorcycles | 22 Photos

    The 2016 Zero Motorcycles DSR and FXS are the new bikes from the small Northern California-based company. While its competitors (Mission Motors and Brammo which had its bikes absorbed by Polaris) have disappeared, it has flourished. It's done so by focusing on consumer bikes (instead of super bikes like Mission Motors) and churning out two-wheeled -- and quiet -- transportation that gets better every year.

    Both bikes carry on the company's desire to keep its designs simple. Instead of adding a transmission, the motorcycles are driven directly by a more efficient Z-Force 75. There's no clutch; just twist and go. It took a few rides to stop reaching for the lever with my left hand as I left a stoplight. But once I realized that I had the power to zip out of any situation with a twist of the handlebar without having to downshift, that muscle memory became a thing of the past.

    Powering the motor are the company's lithium-ion "Z-Force Power Pack" batteries. Zero says it's able to compress more energy into a smaller space than other battery makers. Also some of the packs are expected to last an incredible 200,000 miles. Even the 100,000 range on the FXS is more road than most bikes ever see.

    Zero has always had the technology, but some of its earlier bikes didn't have the quality parts they have now. For example, a few years ago I rode the 2012 Zero DS, and it felt like the company had strapped some dope EV tech onto a crappy two-wheeled vehicle. It was disappointing. It felt like the company was making electric motorcycles with the emphasis on "electric" instead of on "motorcycle." Fortunately, since its launch in 2006, the company has evolved.

    Over the past few years it has started making proper bikes. It's now making motorcycles that just happen to be electric. That's what you want when you're looking at a battery-powered vehicle. It needs to feel like a proper mode of transportation instead of a weird compromise wrapped in good feelings about the environment. With these two bikes, you can feel good about being greener while still enjoying getting from point A to point B.

    Both bikes were fun to ride, but there's definitely a Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic here.

    On one hand, you have the DSR, a solid dual-sport bike with a range of up to 147 miles that can handle both on-road and off-road adventures. It ships with knobby tires that help it navigate fire roads and wider trails. But at 463 pounds, it won't be whipping it around corners or jumping off rocks. It's also at home on city streets, and its extended range means you'll be comfortable riding to and from work and running errands without fear of draining the battery mid-trip.

    If you're a commuter who also wants to venture out of the city on weekend jaunts, it's a worthy competitor to the Kawasaki KLR and BMW 650 GS.

    On the other hand, the FXS is OH MY GAWD all the fun! The motocross-inspired bike weighs less than 300 pounds but has 44 horsepower and 70 pounds of torque. It's a wheelie machine whether you want it to be or not. Its light weight, nimbleness and almost unlimited supply of power made my commute to work far more exciting than it normally is. The FXS has a range of 90 miles in the city, but hit the highway and you'll only get 37 miles. Because I abhor showboating on public streets, I feel like I only tapped about 40 percent of the bike's capability for ripping around corners full speed and blasting off from a dead stop. I'm currently on the lookout for an abandoned parking lot or skate park.

    But it's not all weekend trips to the mountains and wheelies on the streets of San Francisco. While Zero has done an excellent job creating motorcycles that riders want, it still has to deal with the economics of EV batteries. The DSR with a 13kWh cell will set you back $14,395. The FXS with a 6.5kWh battery will cost you $9,890. Both of these prices include the federal tax credit for electric vehicles (additional credits are available in California, Massachusetts, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Utah).

    There's also the issue of charging. Both take just under nine hours to generate a full charge via the outlet in your garage. If you purchase the optional $600 quick charger, that time is cut approximately in half. For a quicker way to fill those lithium-ion cells, the DSR has an optional $2,000 charge tank that adds a level 2 port (the port found on the Tesla, Nissan Leaf and other EVs), which brings the full charge time down to less than three and a half hours. It also increases on-the-go charging capabilities, since it's the protocol most stations use. While both charging additions are eligible for an additional federal tax credit, the entire package can be a huge investment.

    But none of this should be a surprise. EVs are going to come at a premium price because batteries will still be expensive for at least a few more years. Zero notes that in addition to saving on gas, the bikes don't need the usual maintenance of gas-powered motorcycles. No more spark plugs, oil changes, cooling-system upkeep, exhaust issues or transmission woes. All of that goes away.

    If you're the kind of rider who eats up hundreds of miles on a normal basis or you're looking for your first bike, the DSR and FXS probably aren't for you. But if you're a daily commuter who likes to get out of town on the weekend or is looking for something new and fun, a Zero might well be your next bike. Either way, if you have a chance to test-drive one of these, do it. You might not buy now, but you'll get a taste of what the future holds for two-wheeled transportation.

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