Oddly enough, that’s the word that kept coming to mind the most as I was riding the new Zero SR/F electric motorcycle for this review. I’ve been riding motorcycles for the better part of four decades, and numerous electric bikes in the last six years. So far, they’ve certainly been fun, interesting, and enlightening, but they’ve always been rolling caveats. “It’s cool, but…” But not enough power. Too heavy. Too slow. Odd feel. Lackluster brakes. Strange looking. Way too expensive.
Now there’s the SR/F. It’s sleek, stylish, solid, and as fast as a certain naughty four-letter word. Not cheap, but definitely in the hunt. Still, Parity kept ringing in my ears. Finally, I felt, they’ve done it.
It’s as good as gas.
The $18,995 SR/F is Zero’s new top-of-line machine, and their perseverance in making electric motorcycles – all the way back to 2006 – shows in the design, execution and refinement. The powertrain couldn’t be more simple. A powerful air-cooled electric motor, designed in-house, makes 110 horsepower and a massive 140 pound-feet of torque, and its connected via belt drive directly to the rear wheel. There is no transmission, no reduction gearing, no complexity; the silent belt drive turns right off the main shaft of the motor. It’s as simple, efficient and as elegant as it sounds.
The silver and red $20,995 SR/F Premium delivered to Forbes.com for an extended evaluation period included upgraded charging ability, heated handgrips (3 levels), a wee flyscreen and a few other shiny bits. Performance among the SR/F variants is identical, but for another $2,300, buyers can bump the stock 14.4kWh battery capacity up to a stout 20.4kWh. The bike weighs 485 pounds in standard trim; the optional cells push that number right close to 500 even.
The SR/F rolls on sportbike rubber and modern wheels, with fully adjustable Showa suspension front and rear that includes preload, compression and rebound controls. J.Juan monobloc-type triple disc brakes are more than up to the task of hauling the bike down and offer excellent feel and feedback. ABS is standard, defeatable, and the brake lever is adjustable (there’s no clutch lever).
Riders’ eyes get a treat with a configurable new and impressive full color LCD panel that shows speed, charge level, engine and battery heat levels, time, ambient temperature, tripmeter and more. Options in the Zero app can make the readout as complicated or as bone simple as riders want, however I wanted a bit better representation of the torque output and regen statuses, at present they are almost unreadable. At night, the panel automatically switches to a more attractive “dark mode” and brightness is also adjustable through the app.
For night riders, quad LED headlights (2 low beam, 2 high beam) live under a snazzy clear pod fitted with an LED halo, and a neon-style LED tail light brings up the rear. Oddly, the front turn signals do not function as marker lights, something I suggest Zero rectify if possible. The more that can be done to tell distracted drivers “motorcycle ahead” at night (or at any time) the better.
The SR/F also marks an large uptick in safety and digital features from Zero, including traction control, which this bike very much needs (in a good way). A new user control system and interface, Cypher III, minds the ones and zeros. There’s also a new Bosch-based stability system on board, along with ABS brakes across three drilled rotors. Traction controls and ABS can be switched off using the app, LCD panel and menu selector on the left bar pod.
Ride modes have been expanded as well, with Eco, Rain, Street and Sport selections, along with ten Custom setups riders can configure and store in the well thought-out app. Five custom ride modes can be loaded to the bike at one time and they can be changed while riding. And yes, the SR/F has cruise control! Thank the maker!
On The Road
I first rolled the bike out of the local Zero dealership, Turn Two, in the middle of a sunny weekday in downtown Portland, Oregon. It seems Portland’s entire urban road grid is currently under construction and the freeways were parking lots, which meant I had to thread the SR/F home on surface streets. Having ridden Zero’s dual-sportish DSR a year previous, I pretty much knew what to expect, but even still, the SR/F was just multiple levels above the DSR on every front: It has way more power, better braking, great comfort and dare I say it, was just more grin-inducing fun as it carved up traffic on my ride home. I slotted the bike into Street mode for the ride home and even in this moderate power output regime, the acceleration is breathtaking in both rapidity and smoothness. Thanks goodness for those stout brakes, which have excellent feel and power for hauling the SR/F back to down to legal speeds in a hurry – I needed them. Often.
Home safe and sound, I plugged the included charger into my standard 110-volt garage outlet and topped up the battery for the next day’s excursion to the hinterlands. The next day, a Saturday, dawned cloudy and cool with the scent of rain in the air, despite it being mid-August. It is Oregon, after all. My destination was Larch Mountain, a lookout point up at an elevation of 4,000 feet and about 35 miles distant. That meant the round trip was going to be at least 70 miles, half of it uphill from my home at 300 feet of elevation. And while the city range of the SR/F is well over 100 miles (closer to 150, really), the highway range is closer to the century mark. Immediately, my range anxiety kicked in. But as I tweaked the power settings on the bike, I noticed the app also had a handy feature for finding charging stations, and sure enough, there was one at a hotel on my route near where the city ended and the country roads began. Aces. I promptly put the SR/F into my new Custom setup (“Bonkers” mode!) and since I was getting a very early start, the streets were clear of traffic.
But a few miles in, it started to rain, the first precip in several weeks, which tends to make roadways slick as snot as the raindrops first hit the pavement.
I switched the SR/F over to Rain mode to see what that was like and to my surprise, the bike was hardly neutered. Power was dialed back to be sure, but twisting the grip to the stop still resulted in urgent forward motion. Of course, other things were happening at the same time, including a higher level of traction control and increased ABS sensitivity. I stopped into a donut shop for a quick snack to wait out the shower and by the time I came out, the rain had moved on and dry patches were appearing on the pavement. I slipped the SR/F into Street mode and continued towards the nearby hills.
Because the SR/F does not use a traditional gearset, the riding experience is, shall we say, simplified. Yes, it’s twist-and-go, but this is not a scooter-like experience. With this much power, weight, and all the other regular motorcycle cues in place, riders do need to re-tune their thought processes and muscle memory in some ways. I certainly reached for the clutch lever a few times, but after a while, the impulse faded, and I better understood (and utilized) riding with the bike “in gear” all the time. At stoplights, it’s dead silent of course, which is a bit weird. Regenerative braking takes less of a mental adjustment, especially since it’s adjustable on the SR/F. I simply tweaked it in the app until it felt like the engine braking on my personal bike, and following that, no changes were needed in how I operated the brakes – everything was “normal” in that regard (also, the SR/F has excellent brakes). So overall, the adjustment to riding an essentially gearless motorcycle was small, and ultimately, I found having fewer levers to operate granted a bit more freedom to focus on the ride itself. Did I miss the control a clutch gives over the drivetrain? I didn’t. Zero has the throttle system of the SR/F so dialed it gives complete control from parking lot creep to WFO. Like a gas bike with a cable-pulled throttle, there are literally no steps in throttle response.
By the time I crossed the iconic Start Street Bridge over the Sandy River and rolled onto the Historic Columbia River Gorge Highway, the pavement had dried and shafts of sunlight were beginning to pierce the cloud layer. I returned the SR/F to Bonkers mode, which I set to maximum speed (120mph), max power, max torque, and motor regeneration that felt most similar to the engine braking of my usual ride, a Honda Super Blackbird. I set traction control to its minimum setting (it can also be turned off) for a modicum of self-preservation.
I stopped at the start of a long straightaway on the deserted rural highway, and gunned it.
The SR/F launched forward so hard it nearly pulled the bars out of my hands, and since there are no gears to wrangle, the pull (and velocity) just kept on coming as the speedo unrelentingly raced towards triple digits. The traction control did its job and kept the front wheel on the ground, barely. From the twitch in the bars, it was just barely skittering over the pavement as the SR/F flew through 60 miles an hour in a few seconds, the motor whining a bit as the fat rear Pirelli clawed for grip. The speedo was about to go critical as the first turn in the road approached, and then it was hard on the brakes to scrub off the speed. Settled, the SR/F then smoothly arced through a broad left-hander and I was back on the power as the next straight appeared. Only about 100 more turns to go! I’ve only felt this kind of horizontal force in my life in one other vehicle: A friend’s Tesla Model S P100D set to Insane mode. Bonkers indeed.
The SR/F includes fully adjustable Showa suspension front and rear, and before the ride I dialed a bit of damping out of the forks as I knew the road ahead had some chop, and I added some preload at the back because I like donuts. You can spend a lot of time messing with suspension; my tweaks were minimal and I found the SR/F to be planted, secure and confidence-inspiring in corners. Light? Perhaps not at 485 pounds, but it’s also very consistent in that the weight of the bike doesn’t change like a gas-powered bike, so you always know how it’s going to respond.
At the top of Larch Mountain, the battery capacity was reading 52%, but my charging destination was well within reach, so I didn’t spare the whip on the return leg. Since the return stretch was downhill, brake and motor regen kept energy expenditures to a minimum (despite aggressive riding), so I took a short detour to the Vista House on Crown Point in the Columbia River Gorge for a photo op, which included a random Ferrari out for a morning jaunt.
Back on the urban grid, I cringed a bit and set the ride mode to Eco, which on the DSR I had ridden previously was more like Moped Mode. Not so on the SR/F. Instead, Eco mode is actually a perfect city mode, with still-robust acceleration and heavy brake regen. I found it surprisingly enjoyable. It’s a far cry from Sport mode or my semi-suicidal Bonkers mode, but for a beginner or just bopping around town, it’s right on the money. Plus, it stretches the bike’s range to the max, and with the battery under 20%, I started searching for my charging station. I found it at a hotel, which had four spots reserved for electric vehicles.
Three of them had been iced by gas-powered cars (and a truck), but that was probably more out of ignorance than intention, since the Level II chargers were just small boxes mounted high up on posts and could have been easily missed or mistaken for small vacuums or something else. I enquired at the front desk as to how to pay for my charge and the clerk (apparently new to the job) was mystified as to what I was even talking about. We have chargers? Where? Unsure of what
to do, she contacted the manager who had a clue – and a happy solution. The chargers were free to use for guests. I sheepishly replied I was not a guest and just needed some juice for my motorcycle, which surprised the manager. There are electric motorcycles? Indeed there are, and she was happy to come take a look and to let me use the charger gratis for as long as needed. These are early EV days, friends. Enjoy them. I went to a restaurant next to the hotel for a quick lunch and when I returned, the charge was well over 60%, so I headed home the long way, happy to spend as much seat time on the SR/F as possible.
For the next few weeks I repeated the same drill, riding the SR/F on joyrides, errands, giving amazed friends rides on the back, as well as tooling around the neighborhood with my son on the back on quiet Sunday mornings. It was hard to give this bike back.
On The Curb
I recently interviewed former Confederate Motors CEO and Curtiss Motorcycles founder Matt Chambers, who specializes in creating amazing but highly unconventional motorcycles (including electric bikes as seen here), and he told me that he had initially partnered with Zero back when Curtiss was forming, but it didn’t last because his vision for his bikes was much more radical than the familiar, traditional designs of Zero, or Harley-Davidson’s new Livewire bike.
Chambers’ designs are radical to say the least, but on some levels I disagree with him on the design ethos for mass-market electric bikes. Yes, the electric platform gives designers a lot of liberties since they aren’t dealing nearly as much with the traditional issues of engine cooling, liquid fuel or even motor placement. You could, as they say, go crazy, which I think Chambers is brilliant at doing in a smart, technical and artistic way. But for a mass-market bike to succeed, I feel there needs be some level of form factor familiarity for the buyer, and the Zero SR/F hits this target in a great way.
It looks like a “normal” motorcycle in most ways, especially the tank/battery/frame arrangement, so much so that more than one person asked me what “size it is,” as in what the gas engine displacement was, something you’d typically ask another rider on an unfamiliar bike. That’s when the double-takes would start, and the realization it was an electric bike would dawn on the observer, and the new questions would begin (note to prospective owners: You can spend a lot of time answering questions).
The steel trellis frame has a Ducati ring to it of course, and the “tank,” headlight and subframe/seat styling mimics many of the themes we see from Japanese bike makers. It looks great. Perhaps Zero’s most cunning design trick on the SR/F is the battery itself. While the battery on the DSR (and most other electric bikes) is basically a big plain box, the SR/F’s battery is encased in an attractive carrier with light finning and other stylistic touches.
In an interview with Zero’s CEO, I asked about this choice and was told the finning was actually functional in moving heat off the battery pack. But the overall effect clearly makes the battery appear somewhat like an air-cooled engine. It’s not blatant by any stretch (and Harley’s Livewire bikes also have finning on their battery packs), but it’s just enough to fool non-riders unfamiliar with electric bikes. Indeed, while at a scenic rest stop, a group of hardcore bicyclists pulled up and parked nearby, and when I mounted up the Zero to leave, one rider clearly sneered at me for what he certainly thought was about to be a cacophony of petrol engine noise at his sacred spot. When I rolled away in utter silence, his jaw just about hit pavement. Zero: Mission accomplished on the styling of the SR/F.
It’s finally here: An electric bike that’s just as fast, fun and teched-out as the best gas-powered bikes out there. No, this isn’t ready to win a GP race yet, but in everyday use and out on a twisting road, it’s every bit a motorcycle as any other motorcycle on the road. In the city, it’s a commuting weapon without peer. It’s that parity thing I was talking about earlier. What riders need to understand is that the experience of riding an electric bike of this caliber includes things both new, and familiar. It operates and rides like a legacy machine, but without a clutch lever and gearshift. That doesn’t make it a scooter. It is what it is: a new kind of motorcycle experience that’s both different and at the same time similar, and perhaps better in many ways, than the traditional experience. If you’re committed to the noise, clutching and shifting of a gas bike, I get it, but if that precludes you from considering a Zero SR/F, you’re missing out, especially if you ride in an urban environment, where this bike absolutely rules the road.
I also understand the hesitancy surrounding battery charge times. We’re still in the early days of electric motorcycles (and cars), but as I experienced, charging options are more plentiful than ever, faster than ever and at this point, downright cheap (or even free). Yes, it takes a while to charge back up. Go get a sandwich or scroll through Insta. That’s going to be the way it is until new battery tech and charging systems remove the wait, which will likely be soon, and possibly a battery-swap upgrade away. The trade-off is that you never have to buy gas for this machine, ever. Or tune it up, or change the oil. I’m a gearhead and I like fettling around with my bikes to be sure, but the Zero SR/F represents a new kind of riding freedom: The power to just go, no warming up needed, no mechanical BS to worry about, no restrictions on the fun quotient. Riding the Zero SR/F is a new kind of motorcycling bliss, an endlessly repeating dip into a zen pool of fun, power and enjoyment that so far, no gas-powered motorcycle on the market can really match. It brings real joy to motorcycling in a new and sublime way that will only get better over time.
• Power and more power!
• Excellent build quality
• Great looking
• Traction control with an off switch
• Everything is adjustable via the app or simple tools
• Big bike feel, features and fun
• Still not ideal for distance riding
• On the heavy side; could be lighter
• No wireless keyfob feature
• High up-front cost