Zero electric motorcycles are mean and relentlessly green

  • Zero Motorcycle's FX Stealthfighter (left), DS (Dual Sport), and S Streetfighter can be fully charged via their on-board chargers and a 16 A wall socket in under eight hours. However, daisy-chain a few high-speed chargers together and their charge times can be reduced to as little as 1 hour. Image credit: Sean Woods
  • Zero S Streetfighter ZF 11.4 Image credit: Sean Woods
  • Zero FX Stealthfighter ZF 5.7 Image credit: Sean Woods
  • Zero DS (Dual Sport) ZF 11.4 Image credit: Sean Woods
Date:28 June 2014 Author: Sean Woods Tags:, ,

Entrepreneur Craig Marshall knows a good thing when he sees it. In this case, the good thing is a powerful, attractive, technologically advanced and refreshingly “green” motorcycle. It’s called the Zero, and if all goes according to plan, South Africa’s biking fraternity is about to sit up and take notice.

For the past three years, the Zero Streetfighter – built by California-based Zero Motorcycles – has captured the title of Europe’s best electric two-wheeler, a feat of more than passing significance in a part of the world that’s trying to balance the trade-off between reduced emissions and lacklustre performance, not to mention laughably short commuting range. With Zero electric motorcycles, the trade-off is negligible: you get zero emissions, extremely vigorous performance and a very useful range.

In the interests of scholarly research (PM staff would never, ever, yield to the dictates of fashion or the edicts of the environmental thought-police), we took their 2013 line-up for a spin to see what local bikers can expect when the company’s 2014 offerings hit our shores in the near future.

The plan was to meet up with Electric Motorcycles Africa founder Craig Marshall and his team in Somerset West at dawn, then head out to the scenic winding roads of the Elgin Valley, where we would put the bikes through their paces on tar and dirt. We had three models to play with: the Zero S Streetfighter road bike, the DS (Dual Sport) derivative and the nimble off-road beastie, the FX Stealthfighter.

While loading the bikes aboard a trailer, Marshall explains how his involvement with Zero came about: “Back in 2010, I got my hands on an early Zero X series off-road bike and spent nearly a month testing it. After writing an article for an adventure motorcycling Web site, I was inundated with enquiries. That made me aware that there was genuine local interest in electric bikes, so in 2013, I took on a financial partner, Dalene Stiff, and we become Zero’s official South African agent. Our first consignment arrived in November last year – and the rest is history in the making!”

Until now, Marshall and Stiff have focused on spreading the word via demo rides to anyone who’s interested – and by all accounts, the response has been phenomenal. Says Marshall: “We recently packed up our high-speed chargers and headed out to Franschhoek for a demo day. We found a line of guys, clutching their helmets waiting for a turn. We must have done 40 demos that morning alone.”

Hitting the road
I had vague intentions of slinging my leg over the saddle, pulling into the road and roaring off in the general direction of the hinterland, but it didn’t quite happen that way. Instead, the sound accompanying my first ride of the day, aboard the relentlessly cool S Streetfighter, was more whoosh than roar – and that was the wind, not the bike. A deserted library at midnight came to mind.

Okay, time for some real action. Twisting the throttle, I was rewarded by the sound of more rushing air, punctuated by surprisingly loud thuds as bugs came to a sticky end on my visor. Then I noticed something weird; I was extending the fingers of my left hand for a clutch lever that wasn’t there. At the same time, I became aware that my left foot was just along for the ride. (Who needs gears anyway?)

Don’t think for a moment that the Zero S is a glorified electric scooter. This is a proper motorcycle, with the provenance and performance to match. Okay, time for a few basic specs: top speed is a useful 158 km/h, it sprints from zero to 100 km/h in 5,2 seconds, and its 40 kW air-cooled, radial flux permanent magnet brushless motor delivers 92 N.m of torque – instantly. Combine all this with a low-slung 11,4 kWh lithium ion battery pack (upgradable before or after purchase to 14,2 kWh), and you end up with a sweet and formidably responsive ride.

“Well, what do you think?” asked Marshall at the end of our first leg. All he got in return was a startled expression and a mumbled reply. I needed some time to process one of the oddest experiences I’d ever had on two wheels. Marshall, no stranger to this kind of stunned response from newbie riders, just laughed, commenting. “This happens all the time. We’ve all been conditioned to associate the sound of an engine with power. ­The way I see it, the thrill of riding a bike comes from controlling the power… that thrill hasn’t been taken away. Actually, the power on demand from an electric bike is much superior to that of an internal combustion engine; it all comes down to torque.”

My only gripe was with the rear brakes. I found them so hard that even when I stomped on them with some vigour, nothing much seemed to happen, which meant I was more reliant on the front brakes than I would have liked. Fortunately, this flaw hasn’t been carried through to the 2014 model range. Marshall explains: “The master cylinder and brake pad configuration have been changed to deliver a spongier, more conventional feel. We won’t be selling any of the older models here; these bikes are just for demo purposes.”

Next up was the DS (Dual Sport). Essentially the same as the S, this model takes on its adventure persona only at the end of Zero’s production line. Differences include a higher ground clearance, spoked wheels (19-inch up front and 17-inch at the rear), dual-purpose knobbly tyres, beefed up suspension and high front tender. Regardless of whether we were cruising on tar or exploring quiet dirt roads, this bike was a dream to ride. In fact, if I were about to lay down some hard cash, the DS would be the bike for me.

However, Marshall sounded a cautionary note: “I must stress that we’re not marketing it as a dual sport bike. When tackling a technical trail at low speeds, it’ll do 200 km, but highway riding really hammers its range.”

Three bikes in one
­The FX Stealthfi ghter, with its ability to lift the front wheel with disconcerting alacrity, is undoubtedly the hooligan of the pack. Says Marshall: “Once you’re doing 120 km/h, it won’t wheelie so easily, but when pulling away, the first 60 to 70 km/h is where the fun’s at. You have two choices: either go very gentle with the throttle, or lean forward.” He’s also found that, when riding on gravel, it’s best to put the bike in “eco” mode and limit its torque to about 10 per cent if you want it to behave, explaining: “On dirt, there’s just too much going on.”

Featuring two removable battery modules (providing a total capacity of 5,7 kWh) that can be swapped in about 30 seconds, the FX can be configured into three different models at dealership level. The military-grade version, dubbed MMX, is waterproof up to the handlebars and comes rigged with a wiring loom to accommodate infrared lights (used in conjunction with goggles). Says Marshall: “If someone wanted an enduro bike, this is what I’d offer them.”

Unlike the S and DS, which feature belt fi nal drive, it also comes with a sprocket and chain. Marshall explains why: “It’s so light and powerful that it gets airborne really easily, which causes the belt to snap when its suspension gets compressed.” Fit 17-inch mag wheels and a low fender, and you get the FXM Motard, while the street-legal FX comes with dual-sport tyres and belt drive (which can be swapped for a chain and sprocket, if you prefer).

Computers on the move
All models feature easily programmable “sport”, “eco” and “custom” riding modes, which can be selected on the fly by tapping off the throttle and flicking a switch. Says Marshall: “You have to think of these bikes as big computers – there’s no reconditioning, stripping or building up of parts.” They’re also incredibly easy to maintain and service, requiring only tyres, brake pads and a diagnostic test every 10000 km. However, bikes used on regular off –road excursions will also need periodic greasing of the wheel and steering column bearings. Their batteries can be fully charged from flat via a 16-amp wall socket in under eight hours. Want to speed up the process? You can buy an optional high-speed charger.

Like we said, whoosh!

RANGE City riding: 220 km; highway: 137 km; combined: 169 km
MAX POWER 40 kW @ 4 300 r/min
TOP SPEED 153 km/h
0-100 KM/H 5,2 seconds
PRICE R174 900


RANGE City riding: 203 km; highway: 122 km; combined: 153 km
MAX POWER 40 kW @ 4 300 r/min
TOP SPEED 158 km/h
0-100 KM/H 5,7 seconds
PRICE R174 900


RANGE City riding: 113 km; highway: 71 km; combined: 87 km
MAX POWER 33 kW @ 4 300 r/min
TOP SPEED 137 km/h
0-100 KM/H 4 seconds
PRICE R143 500

­For more information, contact Electric Motorcycles Africa on 074 190 9977 or visit


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