2017 Zero FX 6.5 Review
As I pop over another water bar, weave through some rocks, and slide through one more lazy fire-road corner, I realize I’m having fun. Like, a lot of fun. I have forgotten that I don’t hear a motor or that I don’t have a clutch lever or shifter down by my left foot. I’m just riding a dual-sport machine on some jeep roads and having a good time.
That’s about one of the best things I can say about the Zero FX: When you get used to the power and handling and feel of the bike, you will eventually feel comfortable and start to have a good time. But getting to that point takes an ability to learn and adapt on the rider’s part. And I’m afraid I already plan on overusing the phrase “not bad, just different,” but that is what the Zero FX is—not bad, just different.
Other than the wheels, chain, handlebar, controls, and suspension, everything is different from a typical motorcycle. The frame is made of aluminum and extremely burly. The design and bulk of the frame is dominated by the bike’s 6.5 battery, which makes the whole thing very rigid. We talk about frame flex and chassis comfort in shootouts when it is easy to tell the difference between the bikes riding them back to back to back. But normally, those subtleties are harder to notice during a straight-up, single bike test. Not this time. At first the sensation is that the suspension is harsh and unwilling to move. But, coming to a stop, I didn’t the childlike rock-back-and-forth thing on the bike and the fork and shock moved easily, signaling it has an appropriately soft setup for dual-sporting. I really noticed the rigid chassis feel when I hopped on the tried-and-true Suzuki DR-Z400. One of our sister magazines had a 2018 DR-Z from another project and I thought it was a good idea to bring it along—not as a direct comparison but to add some perspective.
Back to the Zero’s chassis feel. It is just rigid—there is no two ways about it. I didn’t notice it nearly as much on the street and didn’t have any issues turning. But in the dirt with less than perfect traction, it didn’t feel like a typical dirt bike when getting the FX 6.5 to lean and carve a corner. Suspension really only works when the bike is vertical, and the more it is leaned, the more chassis flex is used to help with the handling. And while I found it very easy to flick from side to side and pick my line on the trail, actually getting it to smoothly turn 180 degrees took some finesse. It really would rather just light up the rear wheel and slide around the corner than to lean and stay planted.
That leads me into the motor which is a whole different deal than any other motor I’ve ridden. There is no clutch or gears (no transmission even). The power comes from a brushless electric motor that makes its max torque (claimed 78 pound-feet) at every rpm. That is a simple statement, but just let it sink in. There is no torque curve; from 1 rpm you have 100 percent torque. To make sure the bike actually gets traction and doesn’t just light up constantly, Zero has a programmed a power curve to tame all that muscle. This is where I had to spend some time getting accustomed to the Zero’s power delivery.
From a dead stop at a red light, when I whacked the throttle open all the way I could not help but wheelie, even if I was leaning forward. But if you give it the usual aggressive roll-on, it will launch forward faster than a DR-Z400, heck even a KTM 500 EXC. This bike’s acceleration is insane, but modulating that power is the tricky part, especially in the dirt. The rate of acceleration is a little hard to guess. I’m sure there are algorithms of throttle opening, bike speed, and motor rpm all working to allow a certain amount of power to go to the back wheel, but as a guy used to a normal combustion engine with a clutch, I felt there was a vagueness, a slight disconnect between the throttle and power.
For example, when shooting the standard wheelie shot on pavement, I went to pop over a small rise in the road and my first run was very underwhelming. So I gave it just a hair more throttle the next time and almost looped out. Perhaps it was because I was going faster the second run to begin with and therefore the bike gave me more power, but I’m not sure. Similarly, when trying to get the back end to break loose in a right-hander, my first run was lame but my second I only gave it a little more “gas” and I almost slid all the way around. It’s almost as if, when the rear loses traction or is unloaded, at a certain throttle application the motor will spool up immediately. There is no mechanical lag time like with a combustion engine. With a normal bike, it can only increase rpm at a certain rate depending on the motor, but it still has to build; it can’t just jump to much higher rpm. On the Zero, it doesn’t have to build, and as soon as the rear loses traction, the motor has so much power and torque it just spins away.
But, like I said at the beginning, I did start to have fun and the power isn’t bad, just different. After a full day of riding the Zero in the dirt, I could start to figure out, given how fast I was going, what sort of power I would get with different throttle openings. And to be clear, most of my riding was in Sport mode which is max torque and max horsepower. There is an Eco mode that is still pretty fun and acts as sort of traction control and you get much less wheelspin. You can also build a custom mode using the Zero app and a smartphone. The good things about the power are that it is very simple to operate without gears, it can’t stall, and you can wheelie instantly at nearly any speed. The bad things are that it is really hard to control said wheelie without a clutch or being in a specific gear, and an overall vagueness that you just have to learn.
I feel like this bike is almost better for new or returning dual-sport riders because my biggest problem with the bike was it didn’t act like a normal bike, but that isn’t an issue for someone with no, or limited, motorcycle experience. They wouldn’t have anything to compare it to and would adapt to a gearless, clutchless, unstallable powerplant.
The suspension isn’t amazing but capable for moderate dual-sport riding. The chassis rigidity, more than anything, makes the suspension seem stiffer than it is. Originally I was going to go softer front and rear with the Showa fully adjustable fork and shock, but after hitting the dirt and almost bottoming on some jump landings I didn’t want to go any softer. It almost feels like there are soft springs with a lot of damping in the fork, then the opposite in the back. Overall, the bike has a unique handling character that makes it very stable and like it always wants to drive “through” obstacles, not pop up and over them. When trying to link two rocks together as a “double” which a typical bike would do, the Zero would hit the first one but not pop up like I expected and just drove forward into the second one staying very planted and level to the ground but not as reactive and lively as the DR-Z400 I rode the same day.
Lastly, we have to talk about range and charging. The huge plus side to this electric bike is a full charge will cost about $1.17, and that is using the 18 cents per kWh (kilowatt hour) rate in California which is much higher than the national average. Another pro is that you don’t need any special equipment to charge the bike. It uses a standard household plug and comes with a charging cable that plugs into the bike where the right radiator would be. But the caveat is a full charge takes about six and a half hours since the FX has a 6.5-kWh battery. It doesn’t have to be fully charged each time, so if you can think of a full tank taking 6.5 hours and you charge it for, say, two hours, you’ll get about a 30 percent charge.
How long does that charge last? It varies wildly depending on where and how you ride it. In Sport mode, blasting from stoplight to stoplight, I used about 30 percent of the battery in about 10 miles. It has to be taken into account that I was wide open a lot of the time and I’m 220 pounds with gear, so I use up more power than someone lighter and easier on the throttle. It will cruise at a claimed 88 mph on the freeway, but highway miles drain the power pretty fast—Zero claims 39 miles of range at 70 mph. But during city riding, and I would say off-road riding, it claims 91 miles of range. On our dirt-only testing day, we went about 38 miles and I had 28 percent of my battery left. By bugging a coworker who is way smarter than me, he estimated it works out to about 53 miles of dirt riding to drain the battery completely, at least specifically that day and in those conditions. It also has to be taken into account that was going up a pretty constant grade and then back down the same way I rode up, using both Sport and Eco mode equally.
All told, who is this bike for? Definitely, it would make a dangerously fun, hooligan city bike, but if you are reading Dirt Rider, I don’t think that’s you. As long as your commute falls within that 39-mile highway range, and you work at least seven hours, this can be a great commuter. Where it falls short is on the dual-sport side. Range aside, it actually makes for a fun dual-sport bike that doesn’t bug anyone with noise or emissions. Its low seat height, no shifting, no clutching, and no stalling make it good for new off-road riders. But the fact that I had to load it in my truck and drive it to the beginning of the dirt road whereas the DR-Z400 could ride there and have plenty more range is the main issue. Even dual-sports with tiny tanks can be ridden all day with some pre-planned gas stops. But the Zero’s quick use of the battery and long recharge time makes it sort of a hard sell for true dirt bike dudes.
Torque monster (wheelie time!)
Weight is low in the frame
Ease of use (no clutch, shifting, or stalling)
Limited and varied range
Very rigid chassis
Hard to control all the power