Fully electric Zero tops out at 158km/h and has a range of 104 to 224km.

Johannesburg - Most people associate American motorcycles with gas-guzzling, heavy-metal cruisers, but the land of Harleys is also at the forefront of “green” bikes that consume zero fuel.

Appropriately they’re called Zero Motorcycles, and their range of electrically-powered bikes recently became available in South Africa, imported by Cayenne World. Established in 2007, the California-based company has a South African connection in that its Marketing and Sales Director is Pieter de Waal, the former boss of BMW motorcycles in South Africa who went on to head up BMW’s USA motorcycle division.

Where a petrol engine would normally slot in, the Zero has a rechargable Lithium Ion battery feeding an electric motor, and the fake “petrol tank” houses a recharging cord which plugs into a standard 220v power socket. It takes around seven hours to fully charge.

IT’S THE TORQUE THAT COUNTS

Outputs of 40kW and 92Nm make this electric bike anything but a lazy scooter-type commuter forever consigned to the left lane. It’s that torque figure – which approaches that of a 1000cc petrol-powered bike – that really counts. The first time I cranked open that throttle and felt the silent but violent forward surge, I discovered that going green needn’t be at the expense of performance or excitement. It’s a decidedly sporty power delivery, similar to a 600cc bike, I’d say, but with much more instant response.

An electric motor develops its full torque instantly without needing to be revved, and it’s what gives this fume-free bike its very lively and instantly accessible performance. With a claimed 0-100km/h time in just over five seconds this electric bike will out-accelerate anything short of a sportscar, but it’s the punchy overtaking acceleration that was the real eye-opener for me.

All of this athletic ability takes place in almost eerie silence, with just a background whine from the electric motor. This stealth can be a problem as inattentive pedestrians sometimes don’t hear you coming.

There are three Zero derivatives and the version on test here is the DS (dual-sport), which comes with a raised ground clearance and wire-spoked wheels fitted with dual-purpose tyres to give it some dirt-riding ability.

NIPPY, NIMBLE

Apart from that punchy performance it has a very nippy and nimble nature. It’s a fairly light and easily manageable bike, and low enough for shorter riders to straddle comfortably. It’s also very easy to ride, especially for biking newbies who might be intimidated by the prospect of changing gears. It’s fully automatic, so you simply yank the throttle and go – no messing with a clutch or gearlever.

As with all electrically-powered vehicles the problem is range, as battery technology still isn’t advanced enough to give the same charge-to-charge mileage as you’d get on a tank of petrol.

Depending on how and where you ride it, the fully-charged Zero bike should give a range of between 104km and 224km. Higher-speed cruising of the breakfast-run type drains the battery quickly, and the Zero’s really designed for urban commuting and stop-start riding, where a regenerative system charges the battery and extends the range each time you close the throttle or apply the brakes.

There are two riding programmes: Power mode which serves up all of the available grunt up to a 158km/h top speed, and Eco which extends battery range by limiting the electric motor’s outputs and capping top speed at 115km/h.

There’s also a custom mode which lets you vary the speed limiter and level of braking-regeneration using your smartphone, which pairs with the bike via Bluetooth.

HOW FAR ON A CHARGE?

After an overnight charge (hopefully not interrupted by load-shedding) its range should be more than enough to cover most people’s daily commute, and you can always charge the Zero at work if necessary.

The list price seems relatively expensive at R139 900 (including a 5 year 160 000km warranty and a service plan), but the Zero’s selling point is that running costs are a fraction of a petrol bike. Financing the bike costs R1950 per month over 72 months, with no additional running costs except the electricity bills, which will be a fraction of filling up with fuel. There are also no costs for oil, chain lube or anti-freeze, etc. The only scheduled service item is tensioning the drive belt from time to time, which is covered by the service plan.

Cayenne World offers a guaranteed buy-back of 70% of the bike’s value after three years.

VERDICT

It’ll be decades before the world’s oil wells run dry and battery-powered vehicles become the norm on our roads, but for a technology still in its relative infancy, the Zero bike I road-tested isn’t a bad effort.

As an urban commuter it makes a lot of sense. It’s cheap to run, effortless to operate, and has useable commuting range. It’s also surprisingly fun to ride.

Star Motoring