Road Test: Zero’s Muscular SR/F

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Zero’s new SR/F is a big, powerful-looking machine — a departure from its ancestors.

One of the things I enjoy most about going for a motorcycle ride is the sense that I am leaving my worries behind for a while. Surely this is an illusion but its power, like that of love and denial, can be strong, especially as the engine sings and scenery winds into a pleasant blur.

But what happens if you take away the singing – or rumbling, chugging, roaring or whatever sound your bike makes? The Zero SR/F, an electric model that I road-tested recently, made barely a sound, a hushed whir at most. And what about the battery? Would worries over running out of juice cloud the normally relaxed experience with anxiety?

Answers to these and similar questions will determine whether large swathes of the riding public put SR/Fs, Harley-Davidson LiveWires and other electron-driven motorcycles in their garages over the next decade or so.

For now, though, let’s look at how the SR/F compares with its internal-combustion rivals and whether it overcomes a lack of visual impact and swagger that has hampered earlier Zero models.

Electric motorcycles have come a long way in a decade and the Zero SR/F illustrates the evolution. After riding one of Zero’s prototype bikes in 2009 I listed several things that bugged me about the machine, from cheap-looking plastic parts to a clunky suspension that made bumping and squeaking sounds and a motor whose performance simply didn’t sparkle. It was still an engaging ride on a bike with obvious potential, but that early version needed work to survive in prime time.

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Earlier Zero bikes like this DS model arguably lacked flair.

Today, after a decade of development, Zero is selling a range of street and off-road motorcycles all with electric power. The company’s bikes are reliable, nimble and fun to ride. They are also practical, perhaps to a fault. Quiet and unobtrusively functional, they lack the attention grabbing engine sounds and styling that feed riders’ exhibitionist tendencies. While we may not admit it, motorcyclists love to be seen, heard and we hope, admired.

Enter the SR/F, the first Zero bike seemingly designed with owners’ vanity in mind. The new machine is large and powerful, with a flashy design and performance that put it in a league with high-end bikes like the Ducati Monster 1200, BMW R nineT and Triumph Bonneville T-120.

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It is fair to compare the SR/F to big roadsters like the BMW R nineT. But Zero skips the Beemer’s retro flourishes.

While the SR/F is a modern, digital bike whose systems adjust power and braking to keep it upright, and record your favorite riding routes to share with friends, it also feels familiar to vintage-bike fanatics including yours truly. Its 110 horsepower, 124 mph top speed and 485-pound curb weight are roughly in line with my 1982 Suzuki GS1100.

The Zero is a more evolved machine, though. Its swing-arm pivot point shares an axis with the motor shaft, helping eliminate the clanking, chattering low-speed drivetrain lash that has plagued motorcyclists for generations. The electric motor also outguns the Suzuki’s snarling four-cylinder engine, hauling the Zero to 60 mph in the low 3-second range, or a whole second faster than old Suzi. You truly have to hang on when testing the Zero’s acceleration. It is a torque monster like nothing else I have ridden.

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The SR/F flaunts its impressive-looking motor and big battery. It’s a modern expression of the eye candy that cylinders, headers and carburetors use to represent.

SR/F riders can look forward to dusting muscle-bikes, power-cruisers and plastic-shrouded super-sports off the line with ease, if they are into that sort of thing. And cars, well, in most cases there is no contest. Sometimes lacking in the maturity department, I could not resist showing a few Mustangs, Camaros, Corvettes and an unsuspecting McLaren my taillight. Getting a strong “launch” with the Zero is just so easy.

Showing-off gets old, however. What I looked forward to most was riding the electric machine on the same winding, scenic, 80-mile loop that I have used to test bikes for many years. The route, which includes a stretch of interstate highway before switching to beautiful, challenging rural roads, is typical of what motorcyclists crave—smooth pavement, long, sweeping stretches without traffic lights or stop signs, and a variety of curves that expose a bike’s handing strengths and weaknesses.

In the Zero’s case, the loop also revealed what one can realistically expect of life with an electric motorcycle.

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I can picture motorcycle traditionalists connecting with the SR/F, which is clearly a “real motorcycle,” not an experiment

Riders have to make a few adjustments to feel at ease on the SR/F, like regarding miles as variable measurements instead of constants. A mile isn’t always a mile on a battery-powered bike. When the SR/F’s dashboard says you can travel 100 miles with the battery’s remaining power it is giving a ballpark figure at best. Cruising at 70 to 80 miles per hour on the highway you will be lucky to go 50 miles before the juice runs low. Indeed, the company is out-front about the highway range being roughly half of what you’d record in the city. On the right stretch of rolling terrain, at moderate speeds, using a few mileage-enhancing techniques like coasting whenever possible, you might eke out 125.

People who drive electric cars are accustomed to the sometimes glaring differences between the estimated and real-world range they can expect from their vehicles’ batteries. But electric motorcycles seem to magnify the contrast. While electric cars from the General Motors EV-1 to the Tesla Model S perform with reasonable efficiency on the highway, motorcycles like the SR/F and others I have ridden burn through battery power at a seemingly absurd rate.

I set off from home with 161 miles worth of energy “in the tank” following a full charge. But after 22 miles, mostly spent trying to keep pace with cars and dodge speeding dump trucks on Interstate 80 in northern New Jersey, I was down to 80 miles of range. I imagine this would be startling information for the uninitiated. I was relieved to exit the highway at that point and begin the long stretch on twisting rural roads that made up the rest of the trip.

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The modern electric bike is a visual contrast to the rogues’ gallery of old machines in my garage. Yet longtime riders are likely to find it comfortingly familiar on the road.

Several miles later, the range gauge still read 80 miles to go, and coasting down a long hill boosted the reading by a few miles. As my ride progressed, mileage on the odometer generally rose more quickly than the range reading fell. Back home after 80-odd miles I had 37 miles of battery power left according to the gauge. So the situation wasn’t as dire as it had seemed on the highway a couple of hours earlier. Still, once you ride the SR/F at 70 mph for a while it is difficult to “make up” the lost miles no matter how much time you spend coasting.

So, what’s the good news? If you typically ride at a relaxed pace in cities, suburbs and on undulating country roads, the bike will easily travel beyond its stated 161-mile range even without the optional 200-mile “PowerTank.” And despite its sharply reduced highway range, the bike can easily cover typical riding distances for commuters and recreational riders out for a couple of hours on the weekend.

For long-distance touring enthusiasts — and I know there are many – gasoline remains a close, reliable friend that simply makes the most sense, at least until more-suitable batteries reach the market. And they will.

Watch our SR/F video here.

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