Up-Close with the 2012 Zero S ZF9

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While still maintaining the product line’s general aesthetic from its previous generations, Zero Motorcycles has refined and polished its electric motorcycles for 2012. This is primarily due to the Zero’s limited amount of time to further develop its 2011 models for the 2012 model year (roughly nine months says the Californian company), but still Zero has been able to revise most of the Zero S’s components to warrant this year’s models to be visually and functionally set apart from its predecessors.

This bodes well for Zero Motorcycles, because bluntly, the startup has had extremely unrefined and unpolished motorcycles from its inception to the 2011 model year (if you heard otherwise from somewhere else, they were trying to sell you something). Walking up to the 2012 Zero S, it is immediately clear that the electric motorcycle has been touched by people who understand motorcycles. Gone are the on/off switches marked in Sharpie (I wish I was making this up), though you’d be hard-pressed to find top-shelf components on the Zero line. This makes for a mixed response regarding the bike, from a visual perspective.

At $13,995 MSRP for the base model Zero S ZF9 ($14,095 as shown), the level of quality of the components found on the 9kWh version of the 2012 Zero S is a bit disappointing, in fact bonus points to any reader that has even heard of some of these part manufacturers before today. Since parity is such an issue with electrics right now, it is important to note that at this price point a Zero owner could have gone out and bought a Ducati or Triumph instead of the electric alternative. Though with the general rule of thumb being roughly $1000/kWh retail in batteries, you can tell where that price tag on the Zero S is going towards, which is just the nature of the beast with electrics.

While I would not accuse any of the current or past Zero’s of being particularly ugly machines, they certainly are not blowing away anyone’s visual senses. That being said, the 2012 Zero S certainly has made steps towards improvement with some of its more subtle changes, most notably the concealed brick of a battery pack. Perhaps the best element on the bike were the ruby red wheels — they pop, daddy like, ’nuff said.

However, other elements like the rear mudguard/taillight assembly (second picture down) and kickstand seemed like total after-thoughts. Nit-picky? Sure, but it only takes a few cheaply made parts for the entire machine to then convey the same overall experience. Since the Zero kickstand has survived every model of the bike to this date, I would implore the Scotts Valley company to drop its home-made design, and use and off-the-shelf unit.

Squeaking with every operation (cheap spring), and far too short for an easy kick deployment, the kickstand on the Zero S is somehow too tall as well, which can make parking on uneven surfaces precarious at best. It also dangles off the bike in an absurd manner, and easily reduces your lean angle when you get into the fun twisty sections of your favorite road. An entire two paragraphs about a kickstand? Yeah, that just happened. You will understand what I mean when you ride one.

A huge rear sprocket, a headlight off a Yamaha, wave rotors fore and aft — we’d recommend it without the windscreen for that true street-naked look. The cylinder tubes in the frame and swingarm are perplexing at first (this social sciences major would hazard a guess at some function property they provide). This is of course until you realize you can stash an extra power cord coiled up  and wedged into the frame, which proved on more than one occasion to be a lifesaver (fourth picture down).

Overall I am one-part excited that Zero has refined its build quality to truly reflect a company that has had ten’s of millions of dollars invested in it (this saves me future articles on the subject), but the other part of me is generally underwhelmed by the bike visually, and the quality still isn’t on par with ICE bikes that go for nearly a quarter of the price (stay tuned for the ride report).

From an industrial design point-of-view, all of the negatives about the 2012 Zero S can easily be addressed in the 2013 model, which is expected to start with a much cleaner slate (not to mention more lead-time in its development) — this doesn’t help the 2012 product much though. Stuck with a premium price point on a product that competes with entry-level motorcycles (think Kawasaki Ninja 250R), Zero is certainly in a quandary when it comes to the Zero S’s design elements and part suppliers. That’s the excuse of course, and it is a valid one, but unfortunately it doesn’t do much for the consumer. Let it be said though that Zero has made progress with its products — maybe just not enough. I am still on the fence with this one from a visual critique.

Photos: © 2012 Jensen Beeler / Asphalt & Rubber – Creative Commons – Attribution 3.0