LOS ANGELES — We're chatting with Neal Saiki, inventor and founder of , as we ride his new Zero X dirt bike down the beachside bike path here. Halfway to Santa Monica, two things occur to us: We've never interviewed anyone while riding a motorcycle (yes, it's that quiet), and, um, we're probably breaking the law. This electric motorcycle is smaller than a conventional 250 cc dirt bike, but it's most certainly not a bicycle. And we're on a bike path—oops.
Seconds later, officer Blake Budai of the Los Angeles Pacific Patrol Division wheels his Toyota Tacoma police truck off the paved parking lot and onto the beach to chase us down—double oops.
Fortunately for us, this is one cool officer. And like just about everyone we meet while riding the Zero X, he's impressed. Budai not only lets us off easy (thank you, sir!)—he takes a ride himself, grabs Saiki's business card and asks about potential patrol units. The remainder of our test ride goes down in a very large—but very legal—parking lot ... where we answered quite a few more questions from locals. The Zero X, after all, creates a buzz wherever it goes.
At 140 pounds, the American-made, $7450 Zero X weighs in about 100 pounds lighter than a typical 250 cc dirt bike. The weight savings come from the green wheelie machine's diminutive size and 6061-T6 aluminum frame, which tips the scales at a feathery 18 pounds.
Between those rails sits the easily removable, 40-pound, lithium-manganese spinal battery pack. "That's our secret sauce," Zero's Saiki says of the power source, which he says can recharge in 2 hours for 2 hours of driving or a 40-mile range, depending on conditions. The unit is fully recyclable and can be swapped for another one in a mere 30 seconds. The 58-volt, 2.2 kwh pack is a proprietary design with 168 cylindrical cells, each with its own heat sync for cooling. The pack itself costs around $3000 and is built to last about six years, or 600 full-depth charging cycles.
The battery supplies power to a 17,400 watt, 23-hp electric motor, which is actually very similar to the units in many neighborhood electric vehicles (NEVs) like the GEM. The motor spins a fine-pitch, lightweight chain hooked to a big, 72-tooth sprocket at the rear wheel. The larger the sprocket, the quicker the acceleration—but more on that later. Speaking of wheels, the rims have a special 20-in. hollow design to save weight, wrapped with 75/90-20 tires. Size-wise, the wheel and tire combination is essentially halfway between a mountain bike and a motocross bike. And Saiki says just about any bicycle shop can service the wheels, tires and brakes.
The Zero X is so small and light that it feels more like a big, electric mountain bike than anything—quite the easy ride. The key, tethered to your wrist as a kill switch in case your butt leaves the seat pad, clicks forward one notch, and you're ready to ride. Saiki says it's easy to over-goose the throttle thanks to the instant torque of the electric motor, so he suggests we flick the "0 to 30 mph" switch and the "easy" power delivery selector. We listen.
The bike pulls away smoothly in those modes and accelerates briskly. Its lightweight and adjustable suspension, with a generous 8-in. front and 9-in. rear travel, makes you feel invincible. We yearn for a dirt motocross track instead of this oceanfront pavement.
Then we stop and switch to "0 to 60 mph" mode and flick the other lever to "Sport." Twist that right grip, and the Zero X will pull the tire a few inches off the ground as it accelerates—even with your weight pitched slightly forward. Saiki says it can hit 30 mph in just two seconds, and cautions that "the battery dumps a lot of amps—really quick." Indeed. It pulls serious wheelies—if that's what you dig. Hold the grip pinned, and the bike starts some serious speeds. It's a blast.
But the speed of the Zero X may not be as important to some as its silence. We can imagine a casual trail ride on a pair of these bikes where both riders can not only hear the sounds of the wilderness around them, but also carry on a conversation as they ride. Try that on a two-stroke.
So how do you get one? The Zero is in production now—ready to be shipped exclusively from Zero's Web site, delivered to your door in three crates (wheels, battery and frame components) or fully assembled on a pallet.
The Bottom Line
On our half-hour ride, we didn't get a chance to sample the dirt prowess of the Zero X. Nor did we get a chance to measure the miles covered on a full charge. But if the claims are true—and we have no reason to doubt them—bikes like the Zero could be the future of off-road riding.
It might be the future of on-road riding, too. Zero gave us an exclusive first look at their new 2009 street-legal Supermoto bike. The Supermoto will have a larger 3 kwh battery for a range of 60 miles and a top speed of 65 mph. Zero is also planning a commuter bike for the future. We can't wait to try either one of those clean machines.