Up-Close with the 2012 Zero S ZF9

03/27/2012 @ 11:48 pm, by Jensen Beeler24 COMMENTS

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

  • emotos

    Where to begin…

    Which companies haven’t you heard of? Hayes? They make brakes for Harley. Triom? They make most of the headlights you see on most motorcycles and scooters. Fastace? Sure, they’re a mediocre product for this bike, but they’re huge in the mini-moto/pit bike/mtb world. Koso? They make all kinds of computers and gauges for the enduro/dual sport market. Sevcon? They make the best commercially-available controllers out there. Bridgestone? One of the biggest tire manufacturers in the world. Gates? They make most of the world’s belts and belt sprockets. The switches are the same ones on a Ducati. It’s pretty concerning that a moto journalist doesn’t know this stuff.

    Where’d you see “on/off” switches marked in Sharpie? Post photos if you can.

    Like you said, the $14k price tag is steep, but the S model starts at $11.5k. Additionally, as you mentioned, the rule of thumb is about $1k/kWh, so that’s $9k and $6k in batteries alone, respectively. Chalk the rest up to being hand-built in limited quantities in the USA. How much is that Motus again?

    The kickstand? Sure it’s not the prettiest, but it serves its purpose, just like the mud guard. These are heavily regulated areas with little room for creativity. The mud guard is the first thing to go when my new bikes come home, and I’m sure if your bike falls over due to the kickstand Zero will take care of you. That said, my Ninja 650 was bumped a few weeks ago and fell of its stand; should I call Japan to complain? Furthermore, lay the Zero down and see if the kickstand touches before the peg. Oh, the peg touched first? Ok. It’s also funny that you call the kickstand an afterthought and go on to mention it’s survived every generation of the model. Maybe they’re sticking with what works.

    The tubes in the frame and swingarm shouldn’t be that perplexing…they’ve been there since 2009 (and even older dirt bikes), and if I’m not mistaken, they ship the bikes with the cords in there for storage.

    Bottom line – find me a better electric bike that you can buy today. All of the Brammo and BRD vaporware and marketing is fine and good, but until they produce a bike, the Zero is the best. I understand two-sided reporting, but get your facts first. Your readers are getting sick of incorrect information that you could get right with a few seconds of Googling.

    By the way, does Ikea know you used their store for a photo shoot? Hipsters!!!

  • Terrible review. Looks like a writer had a bone to pick or let his emotions get cloudy with the gas fumes he has been sucking on.

    The first reply was spot on.

    2 paragraphs wasted about complaining about complaints that are not true.

    Instead of riding the bike and taking it for what it is you instead compare it to a Ducati (typical hipster choice of course), When everyone knows this is not a Ducati nor is A Ducati its Competitor.

    With editors and writers such as this, its a surprise we ever made it off of horseback and into gasoline automobiles.

    I think we would all like to see your “Sharpie d on labels”.

    But as we all know you guys more concerned about bashing something new so your hardcore hipster cafe street cred isn’t compromised. We all know if you liked anything new you wouldn’t be allowed down at the local coffee shop hang out in your over priced vintage leather.

    Good call on IKEA.

  • emotofreak

    So how’s it ride?

  • Kurt

    I agree… I just wanna know how it handles and performs. When can we anticipate a ride review?

  • Kenny

    Like the electrics or not who cares! Was this article written just to fill space? We as readers expect A@R to act with journalists conviction, integrity and objectivity. If simple facts are not researched then what are we reading? If this article was written as a blog then I need to appologize. My expectations are too high and now i need to remind myself that A@R articles are nothing more than biased opinions. My bad!

  • I’m sorry, you lost me when you said that Fastace was mediocre (you lost points too when you thought I’m a petrol-only kind of guy…no mainstream (or niche for that matter) moto-journo breaks more news about this space of the industry than me, nor covers it as deeply). No reasonable human being can get on this bike, and say it is comparable in quality to the other bikes in its price range. Even if you compare it to a bike like the Kawasaki Ninja 250R, something that is closer to the Zero S in use and performance, you would find the Zero wanting in comparison. You are welcome to your opinion of course, you’ll just have understand that it is wrong.

    The best thing about the 2012 line is that it finally brings the company within the tolerances of what we expect from OEMs as far as fit and finish — that’s not saying Zero is hitting things out of the park now, it is just we are not flabbergasted at what is being passed off as consumer-ready. Talk to any journalist who has ridden a 2009 model year Zero, I am not the first to note the use of a Sharpie marker…the bicycle components…the frames that snapped in half…should I continue? Each year since then Zero has made incremental changes to its design, but 2012 is the first year where they’ve really made any noticeable improvements.

    The fact that this sounds like new information to you two, sort of shows either how blind you are to the reality of what has occurred in the marketplace previously, or how far your own personal zeal for electrics has affected your bias. Can you really make a mountain out of a mole hole with my discussion on the kickstand, when even I lament at the absurdity of it? It’s an illustration of one part that represents a whole, and for the record, the kickstand scrapes before the pegs do…I should know, I scraped both.

    There is a valid point to the statement that there isn’t a better electric bike on the market today, with the caveat that I’d actually rate the Brammo as having a better quality bike, while the Zero performs better with power and range. With five bikes announced at only one delivered, Brammo has earned a good vaporware reputation — something I’ve pointed out in a number of articles. I’m not sure BRD has earned that distinction yet though, especially considering the RedShift was announced in August of last year, and appears to be on-track to start delivering models later this year.

    Just remember, if you’re the best at something because you’re better than your competition, that then doesn’t also mean what you’re doing is any good. Or more simply, relative measures don’t translate to objective ones.

    If you came here looking for moto-journalism’s rose-colored glasses and always positive reviews, you came to the wrong place. I’m in the “telling it how it is” business, and I love my Ikea furniture.

    Ride review should be out in 24hrs.

  • protomech

    2012 S ZF9 owner here. I’ll second the kickstand gripe, I often park roadside at a friend’s house on a heavily crowned road, the bike is stable but doesn’t give me a lot of confidence that it would survive a strong bump or maybe even a very strong gust. On level ground it’s fine.

    Zero did ship my bike with the coiled power cable stashed in the frame. I’m using another cable to charge daily, so the stock cable can stay there for opportunity charging.

    I would be Upset if I paid $14k for a Ducati that used the same switchgear. The switchgear and display looks and feels cheap. The energy remaining display is 11 bars and is marked by a standard gas pump icon. I guess it could be a charging station icon – though the 1kw charger will barely use it.

    Most of the bike components – frame, wheels, belt drive, motor – have a quality look and feel to them – though I wasn’t cross-shopping other $14k gas bikes. It’s just a handful of things that stick out, and they’re largely carryovers from the first 2009 S.

    Nits aside, it’s a blast once you drop the kickstand and start riding. It’s been a fantastic commuter bike so far, I plan to put 10k+ miles on it this year.

  • Faster1

    It must be an optical illusion. Those front calipers are the same (fine) brand that are on my mountain pushbike. Unfortunately they look like THE SAME SIZE !!! I know jack about electrics but tell me there’s tons-o-engine braking occurring.. Otherwise I see those bicycle pots melting right off at the first freeway exit..

  • protomech

    @Faster1 There’s significant engine braking in Eco mode when the throttle rests in the neutral position. Very little in Sport mode. I’ve had no issues braking coming off a freeway exit (to this point!).

  • MajorTom

    Lots of emotion above. I have a kid who wields. Those wields pictured are VERY nice. I just hope they are hand done and not some robot.

  • Dan

    Firstly, the review did seem fairly damning toward Zero. Unfortunately I must say it checks with my own assessment of their displays at Laguna Seca over the past years. I remember seeing their first “dirt bikes.” Can’t remember if it was the ’07, or ’09 GP but my assessment as a student of the mechanical variety of engineering was that they looked like electric mountain bikes, complete with bicycle components. The fact that they havn’t moved too far beyond that is concerning so the “reality”
    perspective is appreciated.

    On the other hand, again as an engineer, I am huge fan of the electrics. I would love nothing more than to find a reasonable (price & performance) all electric commuter. But as someone who commutes 35mi/day at speeds up to 80mph, I simply would not feel comfortable on a zero. The Empulse however, fitted with some sport touring hard bags, would fit the bill nicely; se la vie.

    And thus we have it. Two companies who are fiercely pursuing a viable electric bike for the masses. One pushes forward with what they are able, and produces a workable, if wanting solution, while the other withholds a superb solution until it is workable.

    While I can understand if Brammo believes their product is not ready/reliable they may want to withhold production for improved technology, I find it harder to believe that it would be difficult for Zero to use upgraded (more robust) moto components that are already on the market (brakes, frame tech, wheels, belts, switch gear, etc). I guess we to need to keep in mind exactly what the Zero is; a city commuter that’s offers something closer to motorcycle performance for highway purposes than a vespa. Fortunately for us electric aficionados, battery technology research (the crux of this whole matter) is currently one of fastest paced and most heavily funded areas of R&D despite the economy, so these are indeed exciting times.

    Who’s to say which company’s business model is proper? Time will tell. In the mean time I hold great admiration for both. Kudos to Zero & Brammo. Credit should be given where credit is due to both, but not at the expense of facts.

  • Westward

    @ emotos

    Yeah, I understand where you are coming from, but in regards to those parts and manufacturers, the level of bike you would normally find them on cost half of what electrics are charging (pun intended). Motus! really, for the kind of coin electrics what from those parts and components, who wouldn’t rather have an R1, or CBR, MvAgusta F3 or hand built Ducati complete with Brembo brakes, steel braided cables, immobilizer, Showa or Marzocchi upside-down forks, Magneti Marelli electronics, etc. etc.

    @ those how have a gripe

    I have read many a website on motorcycles, and Asphalt & Rubber dedicates more time on the subject than any other so called publication available. My opinion obviously…

    @ JB

    Seemed like a straight forward article to me, with objective criticism. Aside from the novelty of being electric, for 14k, make mine Ducati. I was under the impression they let you either have or borrow one of their bikes, and I was afraid you were going sellout… Glad to see you did not. I do however think your ride review will be a positive one…


    I have happened upon an owner of this bike while walking out of an electrics store, and the owner had nothing but high praise for his Zero. Though sitting on it, it felt more like a Ninja 250 than a Ducati 848… Performance-wise, I would get better value in the long run getting a 250r and come nowhere near the additional $10k in gas or maintenance, going with the Zero…

    It may not be electric, but it certainly ain’t no Hummer either…

  • Westward


    What I absolutely love about Zero, is the belt over chain aspect that I feel Brammo has over looked. Add to that their superior charging technology, they are the better choice, however, the Empulse still looks better…

  • Dr. Gellar

    I don’t understand what all the griping and negativity regarding this article is about. I think this article is pretty fair, and in certain aspects…spot on. And calling BRD vaporware…that is a joke. Please give them some time to actually meet the production timescale they have set for themselves before calling any of their products vaporware.

  • An E Version of the Buell Blast

  • I remember hearing once that Steve Jobs said something like, “genius ships.”
    Zero ships units.

    They’ve had enough investment capital to do better than this. (That the capital went to payroll instead of engineering and design would be my guess.)

    BUT, they are in the game, and as long as they are in they will (presumably) be making better products in the future. So, while this may be quite unimpressive, their fire is lit.

  • mxs

    You look at the alias of the negative posters and you know right away what is the only mode of propulsion they’d be ever ok with …. so if you step on their toes they scream.

    I think the bike is OK and a respectable attempt, as a version one made by someone who has never made a rolling chassis before and had to sell it to a demanding crowd (so it has to not only function but look good as well). This is a problem most of the smaller companies in electric business have. Only very few get it right. Like BRD …. will they sell enough and stay alive, remains to be seen.

    Otherwise I’d just wait for the big boys to come up with version one of their electric stuff and then we will see. I just cannot imagine I’d give the smaller companies not so small money of mine without seeing first a product from Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki etc. ….. unless the price was beyond interesting, which they have not (understandably so)

  • Westward

    There are things I like about all of the electric bike companies, but in my opinion they just slightly miss the mark in different aspects. I’m not even taking about aesthetics, looks are subjective (I know guys that will only date blondes)

    With Brammo the only bike they have that is worth mentioning, is the Empulse 10. However, I find their swing arm to be very amateur, like its a high school shop class project. I also wish they would adopt belts like Zero did, instead of chains. But thats just me. I also wish they had a better charging system, closer to the speed of Zero’s as well.

    My only hesitation with Zero, is that the bike seem more like a scooter, and less like a motorcycle. Even though I think they have more of the elements I am looking for in an e-moto right now, the Empulse just looks way better.

    The hesitation over all of them is price. There are just way better ICE bikes I’d rather have for the same kind of coin.

    Aside from being electric, I don’t know that they offer a better experience than a CBR 250r and Ninja 250r. I do know that it does not compare to an FZ8 or a FZ6R, nor a NC700X or Ninja 650…

    However, if the Empulse 10 were to less than $7000 OTD, That might be worth my curiosity, and I would bet I’m not alone…

  • protomech


    The Empulse will have a 3 kW onboard charger and J1772 inlet. If you buy 3 accessory chargers ($1800) for the Zero then its charger will supposedly be faster, but that’s a bulky offboard solution. I wish Zero had the Empulse charging system.

    Zero is definitely a motorcycle, but it’s definitely not a sportbike. The only thing the Zero shares with a scooter is the lack of a conventional sequential gearbox; it’s as much a scooter as an Aprilia Mana 850 is.

    The easiest and most obvious price comparison point is up-front costs. Electric will currently lose every time in this comparison, except for maybe small racing dirt bikes. The promise of electrics is near-zero powertrain maintenance (saves time and money) and a bike-lifetime supply of cheap, cleaner fuel (roughly equivalent to $0.65/gallon gasoline for my 50 mph commute).

    The electrics have almost all of their cost built into the purchase price. With conventional gas bikes you pay some up front and then keep paying over the life of the bike for maintenance, powertrain parts, and fuel. If you only plan to ride occasionally (few thousand miles a year) then electrics aren’t price-competitive currently.

    Here’s my calculations:
    100k miles on my Zero S ZF9 will cost about $17k. $14k is the up-front cost of the bike, $1k is fuel.
    100k miles on a Ninja 250 will cost about $18k. $4k is the up-front cost, $8k is the fuel cost.

    If fuel (either electricity or gas) doubles in price over the next 10 years, then the electrics come out far ahead. If fuel halves in price (we go back down to $1.50-$2/gallon gas), then the gas bikes will be a little cheaper to run.

  • emotos

    Hey Beeler – still waiting on that ride review…

  • Westward

    @ protomech

    You can’t be serious…

    How many motorcyclist do you know that have 100,000 miles on any one bike, let alone two or three? According to your calculations, it would take 100,000 miles before the savings of an electric bike kicks in enough to be practical.

    Reality is, by 10,000 miles or well before that, newer better technology has replaced that $14,000 bike. The Ninja 250 saves a person at least $9,000 up front, then they could buy the discarded and replaced electric bike for $5000 as the original owner forks over another $15,000 for the latest version…

  • protomech


    Most bikes don’t make it to 100k miles because they’re either not being ridden frequently, they’re totaled, or the powertrains fail.

    I’m riding my Zero as a commuter bike – I’ll put about 10k miles/year on it for 10 years, my guess at the lifetime for the batteries. Zero says 3000 cycles to 80% capacity, I’m getting approximately 70 miles per cycle. I think calendar aging will retire the batteries well before the purported 3000 cycles / 210k mile point, but 10 years is just a guess.

    I don’t plan to total the bike (who does), and I’m not worried about the powertrain excluding the batteries failing.

    I know a couple motorcyclists that have that many miles spread over a few bikes. Granted, they’re largely not upgrading bikes every few years.. “keepers” you might call them.

    You’re right that e-moto technology is rapidly improving. I’ll definitely take a look at upgrade options in 3-5 years.. but the Zero does what I need it to do today. That’s good enough for me.

  • Westward

    You just prove my point. I don’t know how long you’ve had your bike, but at 10K/yr for 5-7 years still only gets you 50-70K miles.

    What is really curious, will be the resale value. Knowing the degeneration of the batteries capacity, wonder what the worth of the bike is, and the price of changing out the battery for a new one…

  • protomech

    I’ve had it for < 3 weeks, so still breaking it in so to speak. 650 miles at this point, and I spent all weekend on the GS500 (put 400 miles on it visiting friends).

    Resale value is a good question. I hope the bike is useful for 10 years; if I sell in 5-7 years then it should have some residual value left. Depreciation and resale value is a good question – it could be the bike is so battered / worn out that it's near worthless, the batteries are shot, or it could be in good operating condition still. Obviously I'm hoping for the latter!

    Another question is what electric bikes will look like in 5-7 years. I guess a small 8 kwh electric bike similar to the Zero will retail for around $8k at that point, and the more expensive bikes will pack 12-15 kwh and a lot more power. So rapid advancement in technology will drive resale prices down, vs gas bikes which have in many cases evolved very little in the last 20 years.

    The Ninja 250 engine reportedly has a typical lifetime around 50-60k miles. I'm assuming a bike around that age would be useful for parting out and not much more. Other people are suggesting 30-50k miles for the bike's useful life.