2014 Brammo Empulse R vs Zero S and SR

For some of us, motorcyclists who live and breathe compression ratios, valve-stem diameters and exhaust-header lengths, it feels like the End Times. Electric motorcycles, though still not quite performance or price-competitive products, are turning into a real thing. Before you sigh and say, “Thanks, Obama,” know this: electric motorcycles are really fun to ride and some of us may want to know what life with an electric motorcycle is actually like.


I’m one of those people. Personal politics and desire to save walruses from drowning aside, I like electric vehicles because they’re fun. It’s nice to go riding with no noise, vibration, gear shifting – or gasoline. How great would it be to stop feeling the need to check prices on gas-station signs because you know you can fill your tank at your house for the equivalent price of less than a buck a gallon? Tonight we’re gonna party like it’s 19 eighty nine.

Just a few years into the modern electric-vehicle era, we have a choice of practical e-motos, thanks to a pair of left-coast factories, one in Santa Cruz, California and one not far from MotoUSA in Talent, Oregon. Though the two brands’ products are the result of different emphases and approaches, they’re really more similar than they are different. Zero’s S (and very similar DS model) was completely revamped for the 2013 model year, changing overnight from a quirky but interesting product to something very useable, polished and fun. For 2014, Zero upgraded the S and DS in some subtle and important ways and added the SR, with a higher-spec motor and controller. And yes, Zero just announced big changes for 2015 as well – but we’ve only tested the 2014 models.

The Brammo Empulse sports the sleekest styling in the electric motorcycle ranks and the sportiest spec sheet.

The Contenders: Zero S and SR, Brammo Empulse R

The swanky yellow bike is Brammo’s Empulse R. New for 2013, the Empulse’s development was a thinly disguised secret that was still pretty stunning when it finally rolled into the sunlight. An all-new design, the Empulse combined sportbike tech – aluminum twin-spar frame, Brembo brakes, adjustable suspension – with a high-performance, liquid-cooled permanent magnet AC electric motor that made 54 horsepower and 46.5 lb-ft of torque (66 for the higher-spec Empules R). The 10.2 kilowatt-hour (kWh) lithium-ion battery can charge in as little as 3.5 hours and provides up to 128 miles of range at city speeds. At a steady 70 mph, range is under 60 miles.

For 2014, the Empulse received some improvements that were more icing on the cake than the big-news upgrades to the Zero. There’s a redesigned dash, Italian-made Accossato tapered handlebar and a switch to Continental Sport Attack 2 tires (maybe because MotoUSA’s Editor, Bart Madson, complained about the Avons on the 2013 Brammo Empulse R?) as well as some cosmetic changes. In addition to the beefier torque output, the R version gets more suspension adjustment and some carbon-fiber trim – both models weigh in around 460 pounds, claimed (10 pounds less than the 2013).

Zero Motorcycles contributed two models for MotoUSA’s electric motorcycle test, with the Zero S (yellow) and Zero SR (red).

I’ve tested electric motorcycles before, but I’ve never had this much time with them. Zero’s press officer, TJ Aguirre, dropped off not one but two bikes, a red SR as well as the yellow S, both with Power Tanks and 11.4 kWh batteries.
I liked the 2013 Zero, so the improvements for 2014 were just icing on the cake. The big news is the new SR model, with a bigger motor controller delivering a 24% boost in power and a 56% bump in torque, as well as heat-resistant motor magnets to combat high-speed overheating (which is still a problem at prolonged high speeds). That means a Big Twin-like 106 lb-ft of torque and a top speed of over 100 mph (which I did see, at least indicated).

The Zero S, SR and DS dual-sport model all get an assortment of other upgrades to the chassis, suspension and styling. Read the full laundry list in our first-look story, but know that they make the Zero even more like a mainstream motorcycle – a departure from the Zero’s mountain bike-like roots. Big news in the accessory department is the Power Tank, a dealer-installed battery that sits where a gas tank should go. It’ll run you $2495 and gives you 2.8 kWh worth of go, extending the range on the 11.4 kWh or 8.5 kWh batteries by about 20%. Maybe the best upgrade is a downgrade – in price. MSRP for the Zero S and DS is $1000 less than 2013: $12,995 for the basic bike, $14,995 for the S with the big battery and $16,995 for the SR.

TJ told me he’d be back in a month or so to pick them up. Why can’t everything in life be like that? After a couple of weeks, I asked Brammo if they had something in the Bay Area for me to compare. “How about a yellow Empulse R,” replied Brian Wismann, Brammo’s Director of Product Development? Sure, but I knew I would need more testers.
I could have gone the safe route and dug up some electric-moto fan-bois, passionate greenie-weenie folks who love anything with a battery. Or I could find some crusty old dudes who think electric vehicles are the first stage of a plot to take away our freedoms and lock us up in U.N. detention centers. I went with Plan B and found a few guys who swore up and down the only way they’d ride an electric moto is if they were forced to at gunpoint. Turns out when offered a chance to ride a $16,000 motorcycle for as long as they want for free, pretty much everybody will say “sure!” So much for principles.


Getting Started

Electric motorcycles bring the concept of “ease of use” to absurd heights. Start the bike, twist the throttle, and you go. There is no shifting or clutching required, and it doesn’t matter if you’re on a hill. Both of these bikes offered superlative throttle response – buttery smooth, with gently-sloping powerbands at paddling-around-town speeds. There’s a lack of noise or drama that no gas-powered machine could ever hope to match, no matter how refined and expensive it is.
Of the two, I’d give the nod to the Zero bikes for ease of use. The start-up procedure is simpler and there’s no clutch or gearbox. It’s a simple twist-n-go affair, made even simpler by good software. The R has more punch, of course, but both bikes offer three modes – Eco, Sport and Custom – with different throttle response from each. They are tunable with Zero’s smartphone app, so if you want a higher top speed for the Eco mode (the default 70 mph is not fast enough for safe travel on Bay Area freeways, if you ask me), for instance, or more regenerative braking in the Custom mode, you can easily dial it in.

The Brammo is a little more basic, yet more complex at the same time. It offers both Eco and Sport modes, but they aren’t tunable. Both offer a substantial engine braking effect from the regenerative braking, but the Sport mode gets the bike off the line quickly – especially if you row through the clunky gearbox.

Gearbox? Huh? Yes, the Brammo has a six-speed gearbox and a cable-operated clutch. Why? Well, the Empulse is turning into the electric equivalent of a GSX-R600 in terms of popularity with club and professional roadracers, and the gearbox does allow more flexibility – and acceleration. Even an electric motor has a powerband, and it’s nice to be able to match the gear ratio for the sort of riding you’re doing – city, freeway or sport – although I think three or four gears would be better – and lighter. I’m also not sure what the point of the clutch is, as you can start smoothly in any gear without it, and the bike freewheels with the clutch engaged in any gear. Neutral is between second and third. As Woody Allen said, it all makes sense when you realize George Eliot was a woman.