Zero has been occasionally described as the “Tesla of motorcycles,” and last year’s model DS ZF6.5 as the “Model 3 of motorcycles.” When you’re one of the only electric motorcycle manufacturers in the game, it’s frankly hard to avoid these comparisons. But after climbing aboard a DS ZF6.5 late last year, I got the sense that it wasn’t all just hot air.
It was a short ride, so the scope of these impressions is limited. Additionally, the proverbial ink of the “M” on my license was still so fresh that the excitement of showing it to people hadn’t worn off. Truly, all I wanted to get out of my first test ride of the DS ZF6.5 was a sense of what it feels like to slip through the city on a sleek, futuristic bike.
Of course, the day I rode was marred with drizzle and falling autumn leaves — two things that increase the danger of riding a motorcycle more than essentially any other variable that isn’t traffic-related. The rain came and went as I zoomed through South Brooklyn, down to the Verrazano Bridge and back to Union Garage in Red Hook. So we took things slow.
Even in tricky conditions, the DS ZF6.5 offered a smooth and scintillating ride. The suspension was capable enough to handle the Brooklyn’s neglected 3rd Avenue, which these days is more like a long stretch of asphalt-colored Swiss cheese than it is a road.
Slight tugs at the throttle kicked the motor into a whirr, and the bike moved forward from a stop with little disturbance. Once moving, the electric motor breezily pulled the bike along. There was enough torque to skip around any hazards that pocked the city’s streets, and at about 320 pounds the bike is nimble enough to those movements felt sharp and confident.
Modest acceleration on the DS ZF6.5 was fun, but the real thrill came from the moments when I dipped my wrist further toward the ground. That is to say, going from 0 to 30 mph is a delight, but 30 to anything higher is likely where the real joy is at.
New York City’s speed limit is 25 miles per hour, so I can’t tell you much more about those higher parts of the Zero’s power band. But if I were ever to own a Zero DS ZF6.5 in the city, or any bike for that matter, it’s likely that most of my time would be spent at or around that speed limit anyway. An afternoon of cruising left me impressed and optimistic about what it would be like to use a bike like this every day here.
The DS ZF6.5 is light enough that it reminded me of the small, 250cc Suzuki I learned to ride on, but is powerful and sharply designed in a way that makes the Model 3 comparisons feel appropriate. It’s also one of the most affordable bikes that Zero makes, with the tradeoff being power and range. The DS ZF6.5 has a small battery pack capable of about 60 miles with a full charge, and that’s if you go easy with the 34 horsepower the bike puts at your fingertips.
Like the Model 3, “affordable” is a relative term. Zero’s decade of experience in making these bikes means they feel well-made and not at all like some kind of electric prototype. And at $11,000, it’s one of the cheapest electric motorcycles around. But the options for buying a traditionally-powered motorcycle under that price tag are bountiful. You really have to want a Zero bike if you’re going to buy one.
Also like the Model 3, there’s just one screen on the DS ZF6.5. (I know, it is a motorcycle.) But unlike the Model 3, it’s a very stark, utilitarian LCD screen. All the necessary, relevant info is there, like battery level, estimated range, battery temperature, and speed. But it’s not a particularly gorgeous display to feast your eyes on.
That’s fine. You don’t really want a display distracting you from the road ahead of you when you’re on a motorcycle, a form of transportation that really requires more concentration on (and awareness of) your surroundings. Zero could spice it up a little, though; something like Gogoro’s colorful scooter display would be nice.
One other way the Zero bike is actually like a Tesla is that it has the power to pull smiling conversations out of New Yorkers who would otherwise have never registered your presence. Half a dozen times on the short trip around Brooklyn, someone in the driver’s seat of a nearby car asked or remarked about the electric bike. They all sounded delighted by the idea, but surprisingly familiar with it, a testament to the rise in awareness of electric technology.
No one was puzzled as to why these bikes were quietly idling next to their cars instead of rumbling through their skulls. Most were happy to know what the name of the company was, or to steal some other small bit of information before the lights turned green. But one of them offered a word of warning: “Y’all be careful, it’s gonna be hard for folks to hear you coming.”
He’s right. The strangest thing about the DS ZF6.5 was how quiet it is. The videos I had watched before my ride of the bike being operated at higher speeds gave me the impression that it emitted a characteristic whine. But at or under 40 miles per hour, this motorcycle was essentially silent, save for some scuffy noises that come from the motor as it spins up to speed, and a low, rising tone that resembled the wind howling outside a house.
The silence is actually a wonderful thing if you want to be aware of the world around you. I was able to hear almost as much as I could if I was on a bicycle — car tires pawing at the greasy wet ground, conversations of people at a crosswalk, the sound of brakes being applied ahead of me. I could hear all these and more, even through my helmet.
Where it felt dangerous is that, without the thunder of a combustion engine, the world can’t hear you. More than once, a pedestrian stepped out into the street thinking they were clear to cross before, mercifully, they spotted me charging at them. Other times, I was cut in front of by drivers who probably would have heard me if I were on a combustion motorcycle. As pleasant as my ride was, the silence made me more uneasy than the sketchy weather conditions.
This could all change. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wrote a set of rules in 2016 that will soon force manufacturers to add an artificial noise to EVs when they’re operating at low speeds. In response, some carmakers have been thinking up some wild ideas about what those sounds should be.
But the NHTSA rule is just for four-wheeled electric cars and trucks. There’s not a mandate for motorcycles just yet, though I hope one comes. I’m not sure I know what I think an electric bike should sound like, but I’d be willing to give anything a shot. Giving other people on the road as much information as possible that a motorcycle is coming can only be a good thing.
In the meantime, the DS ZF6.5 still felt like it would be a total joy for short-range rides. It’s quick, lively, and most importantly, rides like it was built by a motorcycle manufacturer that’s been around for longer than a decade. Better yet, it (and its sibling, the standard ZF6.5) have already been replaced with 2018 models that go a tick farther, too. A short-range electric motorcycle might be a niche within a niche within a niche. But it’s one I most certainly want to explore again.