Zero entrusted us with a 2017 DS 13.0 for a month. Robert and I took it through the paces both around Los Angeles and off road. We argued over which was the ultimate urban warrior — the Zero DS or the Zero FXS. I’ve been riding my FX(S)* every day since 2013, and consider it the best streetfighter ever made. Well, the newer FX’s are even better, but I own mine, so that’s an advantage worth keeping when money is tight. Both models are great for daily commuting in a city with some of the worst pavement in America, or if your commute includes dirt roads.
Robert, on the other hand, thinks the DS is the ultimate city bike, as he likes a more planted feel. His other bike is a Triumph Thruxton, a 494 lb beast best suited for bringing a cute bird home from the pub. He’s also ridden the Thruxton on a grand tour of northern Mexico, including in a few miles of sand. He said that riding that bike in the sand was like trying to steer a heavy sled. The DS has far more appropriate tires for sand riding, and is considerably lighter at 413 lbs.
In my opinion, the DS should be a scrambler. It’s got those funny-looking scrambler tires, but otherwise looks the same as every other Zero. OK, this is a cost-saving measure, but it’s a shame for Zero to miss out on the scrambler trend. It’s been exciting to watch Zero improve quality while reducing price, as the cost of batteries has been dropping. They’ve been able to start spending money on better suspension and brakes and such. Hopefully design will be next. Hollywood Electrics has done some gorgeous customs, like this FX café racer. A DS scrambler would be so cool I’d even ride it (patiently) to Babes Ride Out.
Range on the DS is indeed as advertised at close to 150 miles around town, 70 miles at top speed on the freeway. OK, at ~70 mph is how they measure it, and I didn’t test range at top speed the whole time, because I’m a cop magnet. I even get pulled over riding at the speed limit. However, it was awesome being able to ride as fast as I dared, even breaking the ton and finding top speed on a ride to Braid Theory’s Ignite22 in San Pedro. I also didn’t have to plug in, or hold back on the 30 mile return ride. That’s 60 miles R/T at high speed with ~10% left to spare.
Meanwhile, I rode my old FX the long way to a client in the Hollywood Hills. It’s 15 miles of mostly highway, and practically empty by LA standards. The 2013 FX, with it’s 85 mph (indicated) top speed had a bit of trouble keeping up with traffic, especially when the engine started getting hot. Zeroes WILL slow down when they’re about to overheat, so it’s best to just slow it down to 70 mph when that light starts flashing. Which it did, about 7 miles in, while riding the 2013 FX. Within a couple miles at 70 mph, the warning light usually shuts off. This overheating problem has been fixed in the newer models, so of course I never saw that light on the DS, nor did Robert. I knew I could run the FX down below 50% battery on this ride, since the return route would be a shorter and slower 8.6 mile ride on city streets.
Robert rode the DS up Angeles Crest Highway to Newcomb’s Ranch, 36 miles from home, up a 5,000 ft hill. It’s a popular destination for motorcyclists, and they welcome any EV to plug into the 110v outlet in their parking lot at any time. He didn’t need to do that, as he’d held back a bit the whole way up, accustomed as I am to what those bars mean on the FX. 50% on the FX is a MUCH shorter distance than on the DS. Which is logical, but range anxiety doesn’t always listen to logic. The 2017 DS has about twice as much highway range as the 2017 FXS 6.5. Obviously, it’s got twice as much battery. Charles Fleming at LA Times had the Zero DS 6.5 while I had the 13, and he was able to make it to work all week and just charge on the weekends. Read his take on it here.
Where’s My Torque?!
The DS felt so sluggish compared to my 275 lb FX that I often wondered where all that torque went. The DS could use a lot more than 81 ft-lbs to make it truly feel like an electric motorcycle. But then, that’s why there’s the DSR with 116 ft-lbs. Power to weight ratio matters, kids. The 2013 FX has 70 ft-lbs. We heard a rumor that Zero modifies the torque curve to make the power delivery more like a gas motorcycle. I contacted Zero to confirm this and got the straight dope from Electro Magnetic Engineer Ryan Biffard:
“All our bikes have the same throttle mapping. It is linear from 0 torque at off throttle to 100% torque at full throttle. There is a bit of a dead-band for the first few degrees of rotation to allow for manufacturing tolerances and safety.
“As far as the old ‘Zero tunes the throttle response so that it is softer off the line, but then allows for full torque at higher speed’ rumor… that was true for 2011 and older Brushed DC bikes where there was no torque control available on the throttle. Now, in sport mode you go wide open at any speed, you get everything we can possibly give from the powertrain. Here is an interesting perspective on this myth… note the comments are particularly enlightening.”
“So I’m just spoiled because the FX is so much lighter, making it feel peppier?”
“Exactly. It is amazing how repeatable accelerations are on these bikes, and how a little weight can make a noticeable difference. When we were developing the 2013 bikes, there was one early FX prototype that everybody loved, and noted it was ‘peppier’ than the later prototypes. I spent quite some time on the dyno trying to figure it out, but in the end I determined that its superior performance was due to the early prototype being about 20lbs lighter than the later prototypes (on-board charger, beefier frame, that sort of stuff adding to the weight of the later prototypes).
“Eland and I did a couple drag races in the parking lot showing that when the bike + rider weight was the same, the two bikes were equal every time, but when one rider put on a 20lb backpack, the heaver bike + rider would be a full bike-length behind after around 200feet, and the rider could feel the bike just didn’t have the same “get-up-and-go” as it did with less weight.”
I took my friend Ruth for a ride through Hollywood (her Ducati broke down), and not only was it perfectly comfortable, we were able to chit-chat the whole time. No engine noise to get in the way of our conversation! We’ve also recently ridden two-up on my Yamaha R1, which was a terrifying experience after the chill DS ride. The DS’s rear seat is close enough to the height of the front seat to make it a very easy ride with a passenger.
Sportbike rear seats are just silly, and dangerous for a 6’ passenger. No motorcycle is meant to have a center of gravity THAT high. My R1 holds the platform for my Givi top case, because there’s almost never a good reason to carry a passenger on a sportbike. That’s also a feature my FX has that I missed desperately on the DS. The Givi top box and the AC power port are two accessories I can’t live without. I use the power port to plug in my electric vest in the chilly Los Angeles winters.
Robert and I also rode two-up on the Zero DS. His Triumph needed scheduled maintenance (a common problem with ICE vehicles), so we both rode across town to the shop, and rode back two-up. It was his first time ever riding as a passenger, and he passed that relationship test with flying colors. The DS’s seat is very well suited for cruising along with a passenger, and the strange tires didn’t feel quite as strange with the added weight. We completed the 40 mile journey easily and comfortably.
Basically, with some cute bodywork and clubman bars, this bike would be the perfect scrambler. Like all Zero motorcycles, it’s best as your daily commuter, but if you really need to do those 100 mile Sundays in the canyons, or just have a long distance commute, there’s always the power tank, which gives it an additional 25 miles at Highway/City combined. That 25 miles of range comes at a price of $2,695 and 44 lbs of added weight. Having ridden an SR with a power tank, I’ll take my short-range wheelie machine, thanks. But that’s just me.
Robert got back on his Thruxton, and now he hates the hydrocarbon smells and all the noise. Then I made him watch Who Killed The Electric Car and now he’s ready to sell the Thruxton and buy a Zero DS. I got back on my FX and, well, I’m just glad I don’t have to have this conversation…
* 2013 was the FX’s first year, and it was sold as a dirt bike, just as it is now. But some Hollywood Electrics customers saw its potential as a killer supermoto racer, and converted it for supermoto racing. In 2016, Zero decided to take advantage of the popularity of this upgrade and offer the FXS.