So who makes the best electric motorcycle? We didn’t do a super-scientific MotoUSA comparison, but I’m giving the edge to the Zero. Motorcycles should be as affordable, light and simple as possible, and by those measures the Zero is the clear winner.
But you could probably talk me onto a Brammo, too. It’s the expert’s choice and the better choice for racers and trackday enthusiasts. It also has the most interesting tech and is a very pretty motorcycle, and not just by electric-bike standards. And it’s cheap – that’s right, cheap. Brammo announced big price cuts to leftover 2013 and 2014 Empulse models, bringing the standard Empulse to as low as $9995. There are rumors flying that this is to clear space for a new 2015 model, developed with help from Polaris, which became a minority stakeholder in 2011 and pumped in another $13 million the following year.
Perhaps anticipating a new Brammo (or just responding to critics of the brakes, suspension and tires), Zero did a revamp of the S and SR for 2015, addressing many of the shortcomings we noted in the 2014 models. Suspension is now fully-adjustable Showa, brakes are Bosch ABS, and the wheels are wider, shod with radial rubber. And just in case that wasn’t enough to make Brammo’s product planners reach for the Xanax, the battery packs are now rated for an additional 10% of range (113 miles of city riding for the 9.4 kWh pack, 151 for the 12.5 and 185 if you add the Power Tank extended battery). You get all those improvements for a mere $350 bump in price (not upgraded is the onboard charger – it’s still a 1.3 kWh unit and charge time is unchanged).
Still, $13,345 isn’t exactly bargain pricing for a motorcycle with limited range, takes 6-10 hours to charge and offers about the same performance as a $7500 middleweight standard. But it’s not ridiculous, either, if you tell yourself an electric motorcycle is an affordable exotic, a conversation starter that is fun and reliable to ride. That’s something critics of electrics miss, and something they’d get if they took a test ride. In fact, I had one curmudgeonly old rider, who swore up and down they had no interest in riding one, ever – ride the Zero and you know what? He raved.
“I was impressed all to hell,” wrote Oakland motorcyclist Larry Orlick. “That bike not only hauls ass in a big way, but was actually an efficient and fun way to get around.”
Seriously, guys, forget about the polar bears and Al Gore and all that stuff and just try one out. They’re not just fun, they’re also about as cheap to maintain and operate as it gets. If you ride a fixed distance that’s less than a 60-mile round trip and do it several times a week, and you own a second (or third) motorcycle, it’s close enough to making sense to justify buying one to your significant other. Remember: you can’t ride your IRA.
But which one? Zero or Brammo? Well, allow me to be perfectly vague: doing this comparison taught me two things. You can’t really go wrong with either, and sooner or later, an electric motorcycle will be in my garage. Maybe yours too.
FOR MY MONEY:
Weight: 145 pounds
For my money, I wouldn’t buy one of the bikes we tested. Before you tell me what a cop-out that is, let me say it would be a Zero S – but the one with the smaller battery, the ZF 8.5 (9.4 for 2015). After a California tax credit, the 2014 is just a Benny past $12,000, but it’s also 77 pounds lighter than the jumbo-battery SR we tested, and 93 pounds lighter than the Brammo. Sure, it’s nice to go 100 miles on the freeway on an electric, and you bet, the Brammo is a sportier ride, but I already have a light, powerful, sweet-handling motorcycle in my garage that will go over 150 miles on a tank, thanks.
Electric motos excel at commuting, and the 8.5 will handle a 50-mile round trip with juice to spare. And if you need more range in the future, you can opt for the 2.5 KwH Power Tank any time. If you calculate the savings in fuel, maintenance and ICE-related renewables like chains, oil filters and frigging Desmo drive belts, the Zero will pay off the difference in price between it and a gas-powered commuter in 3-5 years. If I wanted to do electric trackdays or sportrides, the Brammo would be the one, but Zero may have built the first motorcycle that actually pays for itself. Now if only they’d build one that sat at a desk and pretended to look busy.
Charles “Max Klein” McKay
Height: 6′ 1″
Weight: 205 pounds
If I was to pick one up on my dime, it would have to be the Brammo. Don’t get me wrong, Zero made a couple of fine and capable machines, but they lacked something I literally could not put my finger on: a clutch lever. The clutch lever – and the transmission that goes with it – gave the Brammo a familiar feeling. The Brammo also had a better-developed front end with beefier forks and stronger brakes. Also, doesn’t Eric Bostrom race one of these? Talk about street cred!
Charles McKay is a San Francisco Bay Area motorcyclist, photographer and marketing specialist.
Height: 5′ 10″
Weight: 220 pounds
I got to spend a considerable amount of time on three electric bikes over the course of a few weeks: one Brammo Empulse R and two Zeros – an S and SR. My favorite thing about all three of these bikes was how gas stations became a thing of the past. I’m always rushing, and always delay filling up ‘til the last minute. So rolling a freshly “fueled” bike out every morning was pretty damn sweet. The only downside to this was that I had to make an extra effort to get my lottery tickets elsewhere – that’s my retirement, man!
I also loved the linear feel of the electric drivetrains. Zero has Brammo beat here – the Zero belt drive is much more refined and smooth than the Brammo, although if you can’t let go of shifting, the Brammo has a “proper” transmission accompanied by shift and clutch levers. Once I got over the lack of shifting, though, I preferred the slickness of the Zeros.
The Brammo is a better motorcycle – proper suspension, high-quality components all around, “real” tire sizes. And I prefer the gritty, mechanical look of the Empulse R, so much that when I got an email telling me that Brammo was cutting deals on leftover Empulses, I started cooking up schemes to get my wife on board with yet another bike. There’s a pretty good story to tell about “saving money” but that won’t fly for me, because I’d never ride it every day – there are too many cool bikes rolling in and out of my garage.
But if I’m being sensible, if I was gonna buy an electric bike as a commuter/all-round-towner, the Zero makes more sense, in spite of the wimpy componentry and more pedestrian styling. It’s got better range, the riding position makes more sense ‘round town, and that smooooooth powertrain! Too bad about the price – almost $20,000 with a “Power Tank” upgrade – but the Zero SR neatly pulls off a splendid balance of cool and smart.
Surj Gish is Editor-in-Chief of San Francisco’s CityBike magazine and runs LanesSplittingIsLegal.com.
2014 Brammo Empulse R vs Zero S and SR
2014 Brammo Empulse R Comparison
2014 Zero S & Zero SR Comparison