Power trip

There is no doubt that the world will accept electric dirt bikes…someday. Since the first machines that we tested nearly nine years ago, their evolution has been aggressive. The initial Zero bikes were fun but actually fell far short of real dirt bike power. They couldn’t do a 20-minute moto on a flowy, hardpacked track without running out of juice.

Several years back we wrote, “Brace yourself for some hard facts: The Zero FX is faster than a 250 gasoline-powered dirt bike, either four-stroke or two-stroke, and is encroaching on 450 territory.” For the last handful of years the company’s resources have targeted the street world where they can capture a much larger consumer base than in our domain. Therefore, the street-focused machines evolved and the dirt machines languished. In 2014 we tested the FX, the dirt-oriented machine, and it proved to be a shocker. It was a beast in girth, lack of suspension sophistication and in pure power. For 2017 Zero’s FX model is very similar, but has enhanced power, improved battery life and suspension that does a much better job of controlling its 295-pound tonnage.

Originally, the FX was billed as an urban assault machine. It made your eyes water with its power and would allow for exploration in areas where no dirt bike had left a footprint since Ronald Reagan was in office. The FX dual-sport bike is the company’s most dirt-oriented model. This model has a stated range of 82 miles on Eco mode and takes about seven hours to charge. Every Zero comes standard with a simple cable that plugs into any household outlet for a recharge. It’s fit with an efficient air-cooled motor that features a brushless design and a Z-Force IPM (Interior Permanent Magnet) that cools rapidly during hard or sustained speed. Naturally, it is shiftless, clutch-less and virtually noise-free, except for the slight chain slap (they come standard as a belt drive, though there is a chain-drive option). It features a regenerative system that recharges the power pack when decelerating, and this is increased during brake application versus neutral deceleration.

The big news this year is the switch to Showa suspension components. Our test model from three years ago featured stone-age dampers that a mountain bike guy would laugh at. Now, the 41mm fork has both adjustable compression and rebound damping, plus spring preload adjustability. It strokes out at a little over 8 1/2 inches of travel. The shock, too, is Showa. Both damping circuits are adjustable, and it is link-less with almost 9 inches of travel. The frame is a complex affair; it’s structurally rigid, built out of aluminum, shot-peened and finished off in black. Braking has been updated too. Bosch anti-lock disc systems are standard and can be switched off with a simple procedure.

 When you think about the fact that the machine makes 46 horsepower, you may say, “Big whack.” But, the power does not have to endure the long chain of energy robbers and delay tactics that a normal dirt bike has—things such as throttles, carburetors, fuel injection and transmissions. A dirt bike transmission delays and modifies the power that’s generated, and having a clutch allows you to modulate the engine’s momentum when the power lags or builds. The Zero basically has direct response, and the power/torque is immediate! There are no gears to slow down the acceleration and no clutch to modulate the intensity. It pulls hard all the way to top speed (just about 90 mph).

There are two power modes—Eco and Sport. Our ride on the dirt roads and simple trails proved that the machine is way too immediately powerful to control properly. We went straight to Eco mode and searched for a softer power mode even then. It’s an interesting ride. It’s almost like you’re mounted on an air mobile. The lack of ambient noise is offset by the stunning acceleration of the Zero. In a second, you can get up to top speed on tarmac or spin the rear wheel with a mere flick of the throttle. One suggestion for sure: in the dirt, it needs a real knobby, since it will light up the Pirellis like a Don Garlits dragster.

They’ve made good strides with the suspension, though frankly the last bike we rode was pretty weak on any terrain with bumps larger than an iPhone. The Showa dampers will take in some hack. They do a decent job of smoothing out rain ruts but don’t really want to chew on anything dramatically deep or severe. The bike has a low seat height but feels very top-heavy, and it is meaty with its 295-pound girth. It is not flickable. It likes straight and true, not dancing and darting through tight trees. The brakes are ABS, which means you can’t lock up the rear wheel and brake slide into a corner. Turning this feature off requires you to burnout. It is vibration-free. The rear sprocket looks like something we ran in the ’70s on a twin-pipe Yamaha 100. It’s huge. It’s fit with a sidestand. The lights are acceptable, and the ergos are fairly comfortable for a normal-sized pilot. Tall guys will feel cramped, but a thicker saddle would help here.

The bike makes incredible instant torque, especially in Sport mode.  Power isn’t an issue, but weight and suspension travel keep it from being competitive with piston-engine motorcycles in the dirt. Zero could easily address those issues, but it is still waiting to see if there’s a market there. Alta is trying to get off the ground with a full-blooded electric dirt bike that carries a price over $14,000. The price for the Zero we have is $10,495, and there’s one with a smaller battery for $8495. Once this machine gets some dirt-worthy weight bias and traction control and the battery weight gets halved and pushed lower in the chassis, the dirt world may accept getting plugged in.