It’s the dawning of a new era in motorcycles. Electric off-road bikes have finally graduated from the novelty category, and the Zero FX is proof that they are ready to go mainstream. For years electric motorcycles were mocked and jeered at. They didn’t have the power or range to be taken seriously, so it was pointless to evaluate their ergonomics, suspension and handling. But times have changed. The Zero FX is faster than a 250cc, gasoline-powered dirt bike—either four-stroke or two-stroke—and is encroaching on 450 territory. The range is about the same as that of a motorcycle with a small MX tank.
Zero is a Silicon Valley company that started making dirt bikes about six years ago. At first its bikes were slow, expensive and fragile, and early on, most of the company’s research and development dollars were devoted to their street model. That’s where the demand was, so that’s where the money was. As Zero grew, however, the dirt models slowly began to benefit from the street bikes’ advancements in performance and range. Now, the FX dual sport is finally worthy of a serious evaluation.
You need to understand that the DS model is actually a pure street bike, while the FX is an off-road bike that just happens to be street-legal. After all, with electric power, there are no emission requirements to meet for EPA approval. A dual-sport bike just has to have DOT lights, mirrors and safety equipment, which makes compliance much easier. Zero does offer a pure dirt model as well, but it sells for the same price. The FX is an urban assault vehicle designed for peeling out of the driveway and riding in your neighborhood’s dirt
sections, which would normally raise the ire of the noise-hating ladies’ bridge club, but the Zero makes no noise at all—aside from the crunching of leaves.
We tested the ZF5.7, which is the most powerful model, with two modular batteries. The Zero is also available in a ZF2.8 configuration with one battery for $2495 less. In our tests of the ZF5.7, the charge lasted about 30 minutes of hard riding or over an hour if we were just putting around. It’s all about how hard you twist it. There are two modes—Sport and Economy—in case you can’t trust yourself to stay at half throttle in Sport mode. Once you suck the battery dry, it takes about eight hours to charge via a standard 110-volt outlet. You don’t need an external charger, but one is available for $799.99 that cuts the charge time in half.
WHAT ABOUT POWER?
We mean it when we say the FX is faster than a 250. It flies. There are no gears to slow down the acceleration process, either. We drag-raced it against everything we could find. It doesn’t launch as well as something with a manual clutch, but it pulls really hard all the way up to a top speed of almost 90 mph. A 450cc motocrosser will get the jump on it, but the FX will stay within two bike lengths. On top, the Zero might regain it all, depending on the 450’s gearing.
After we realized how much power the Zero had, we switched to Economy mode and never went back to Sport. We didn’t want any more power. Zero has cleared the biggest hurdle that electric motorcycles face. The FX has all the power it needs, and even the range is acceptable for neighborhood trail missions. Now, Zero just needs to refine the chassis, suspension and handling—all the things we never got around to testing on previous Zero bikes because we didn’t get that far into the evaluation process.
The FX is basically a bundle of batteries and electrical components with two wheels hastily attached. The suspension and drivetrain are crude. To avoid making noise, it uses a belt instead of a drive chain. That’s fine for the street, but not for jumps or mud. It skips when it gets dirty and falls off if it takes a sudden hit, which is why the MX version has a chain. The FX’s suspension is much better than it was on earlier models, but it’s still pretty bad. The rear shock, in particular, is little more than a spring with 9 inches of wheel travel. Zero offers an optional Fox shock, but don’t expect miracles. The FX is also a very heavy motorcycle, weighing 275 pounds with a full tank of electricity.
You would think that with the power deficit overcome, resolving any remaining issues would be a piece of cake. After all, there are plenty of people who know how to make a bike handle well. But, it might not be so easy. Just as two-stroke and four-stroke engines have very different feelings, electric motors have their own feel characteristics. Even though Zero has figured out how to make the throttle work somewhat like it should, the rear wheel still breaks loose as if the bike were an overpowered RC car. There is hope, though. Traction control isn’t that far off, even for gasoline-powered motorcycles, and it might be even easier to adapt to a machine like the Zero.
For now, the FX is a fun addition to a garage full of gasoline-powered motorcycles, provided you’re wealthy enough to spend $11,990 on something that you previously didn’t know you needed. It’s not a replacement for the smoking, noisy machines that we love. Not yet. That day still hasn’t come. The Zero simply shows us that it won’t be so bad if—or when—it does come.