A Buyer's Guide to Electric Motorcycles

Motorcycles with plugs are maturing fast, such as this Zero DS, which can get close to 100 mph. (Photo courtesy Zero).

Thanks to super-light and efficient lithium-ion batteries, electric motorcycles are coming of age. Once just a low-range novelty item, today’s e-cycle is fast, quiet and able to quickly recharge (often from just 110-volt wall current). They’re not cheap, but the federal government and some states offer tax credits. California has an impressive $1,500 direct rebate for some electric motorcycles. They're very cheap to operate — most are around a penny a mile — though you'll pay more if electricity costs per-kilowatt-hour are high in your area.

Reports Bankrate.com,"Recent tax incentives, coupled with the introduction of new faster and sexier-looking models, have given the electric bike market a jumpstart. Imagine driving from New York to Pittsburgh on $2.63 worth of fuel. It's possible on some of the new electric motorcycles coming onto the market."

In part because they offer a cheaper commuting option in straitened times, cycle sales are up. The American Motorcycle Industry Council registered a 2.6 percent jump in 2012. Through June this year, 362,500 of all types — big bikes, scooters and ATVs — were sold in the U.S. The electric bike offers both the per-mile savings and the chance to make a green statement (below).

The two big players now are Zero and Brammo, but there are also new contenders like the London-built Saietta, which takes advantage of the instant-on torque of li-ion batteries — it can reach 60 mph in a breathtaking 3.9 seconds.

Rich Watson, owner of Valley Motorsports, fixes all kinds of bikes, and he says electrics still haven’t penetrated the market. “Electric motorcycles are still in the experimental stage," he said. "It’s in total infancy. But there are getting to be some out there for off-roading, and they’re excellent for short commutes and inner-city use. Li-ion batteries are great for recycling, and offer plenty of cold-cranking amps—and they’re only a quarter the weight of lead-acid. But they don’t give you much warning before they completely die.” All the models discussed here are li-ion, with the nickel-metal-hydride exception noted.

As with TVs and, well, cars, models change quickly, and off-roaders as well as touring bikes are available. But here’s a look at a few of the many choices in two-wheel EVs.

Zero: Popular Mechanics recently put a $15,995 2013 DS ZF11.4 through its paces, and encountered “near triple-digit speeds.” Thirty-three miles of travel consumed half a charge, which is less than the 76 miles claimed per plug-in. To max range, you have to drive conservatively. A more aggressive $11,990 FX model is available, but that one has only 43 miles of range. If you really want to go the distance on a Zero, consider the S model, which can travel 137 miles in the city — very good for one of these. The 54-horsepower S ($13,995) offers an 11.4-kilowatt-hour battery, which explains the range. The DS is available with six or nine kilowatt-hour batteries, with the latter adding cost and range. I like that you can check your state of charge from your smartphone via Bluetooth — just like an electric car!

Brammo: The very cool-looking Empulse (above) costs $16,995, and is relatively heavy at 470 pounds. The extra weight is partly explained by a liquid cooling system for the motor — a very sophisticated feature. Despite it being an EV, it uses an Integrated Electric Transmission (IET) that emulates a gas shifter with six speeds. The big news with the Empulse is a claimed 100-mile range, and 100-mph top speed. According to Motorcycle-USA.com, The result is road-worthy performance that obliterates Brammo’s previous offerings...We returned the Empulse R impressed with its performance gains. It represents a true coming-of-age for the electric motorcycle concept.”

The 9.3-kilowatt-hour battery is big for applications like this. The horsepower rating is 54, the same as the Zero S.

Saietta: The Saietta R (above) is hugely fast off the line, but the top speed of 80 mph is less than the Brammo. Some 96.5 horsepower is on tap from the 72-kilowatt motor. On 220 volts, it charges in 3.5 to eight hours, depending on the charge rate. You’re probably going to want the three-kilowatt “fast-charge pack.” Composite construction keeps the weight down, but at 485 pounds it’s marginally heavier than the Brammo.

Some other contenders are dirt bikes made by Quantya (in the $10,000 range). These boast two-hour recharge times. The Vectrix VX-1 is a useful urban commuting scooter, with 55-mile range, a 62-mph top speed and nickel-metal hydride batteries. It’s cheaper than the above at $7,495. Ultra Motors makes A2Bs that are kind of like combined electric bikes and scooters, with approximately 20-mile range—and you don’t need registration or insurance (also true of small gas scooters under 50-cc, Watson points out). Electric Motorsport offers a light bike, the Native GPR-S, priced at over $8,500, that can cruise over 60 mph.

Motorcycle.com reviews a 2012 Zero DS here: