Highway 142 in Washington is the kind of road you see in car commercials and Instagram feeds. Dramatic basalt cliffs plunge into the roiling rapids of the Klickitat River, where fishermen in drift boats vie for Chinook salmon beneath views of Mount Hood.
But to be honest, I’m not taking any of it in. My eyes are darting back and forth between the display on my electric motorcycle, which says I have 63 miles of range, and Google Maps, which tells me I have 80 miles to the next charger. But I’ll make it. I think. I hope. How far can this thing coast?
These are the dilemmas you sometimes find yourself in astride the Zero DSR-X, a next-gen electric adventure motorcycle with a hyper-capable design that dares you to bring it to the far reaches of the earth, and a meek battery that begs you to bring it back. It’s a contradiction, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean it can’t work. Look at sweet and sour chicken.
Can EVs really be “adventure” vehicles? I borrowed the DSR-X seeking to answer that question. But after a few weeks with it, I think a better question might be: What does adventure mean to you, anyway?
Zero isn’t the only company trying to push EVs out of Costco parking lots and into the great outdoors. Rivian will sell you an electric pickup truck with a slide-out camp kitchen, Polaris will sell you an electric side-by-side vehicle fit for the Utah desert, and Mercury will sell you an electric outboard boat motor for exploring backwaters. These aren’t commuter vehicles to get you to the office — they’re the toys you dream of playing with while you’re stuck there.
When the opportunity to try the DSR-X popped up, I felt well-equipped to give it a fair shake. I own a dual-sport motorcycle, an adventure van, and a plug-in hybrid car. I’ve dragged a microwave and fridge into the woods to test power stations, and I’ve cobbled together my own boat batteries from Alibaba parts. I’m not really averse to trading inconvenience for the experience of something new, and that seemed to be what the DSR-X was all about.
Angular and stern-browed, the DSR-X looks like it wants to chomp a bite out of trail or tarmac. And like its four-wheel EV brethren, it delivers. Going for a ride in sport mode, which uncorks 100 horsepower and 166 foot-pounds of torque, feels like boarding an amusement park ride.
Zero to 60 in 3.6 seconds is not unheard of by gas motorcycle standards, but the unrelenting torque of an electric motor is exhilarating in a way an engine just cannot be. Without gears, you don’t even get a millisecond’s relief from the gut-displacing rush. Yet, thanks to a downright magical Bosch Advanced Stability Control System, you can pin the throttle and never worry about spinning the tires.
What no number can convey is the utter smoothness of the DSR-X. Motorcycles, even the big ones, are synonymous with vibration, but between the electric motor, belt drive, and spare-no-expense Showa suspension system, the DSR-X floats across the pavement with an effortlessness that almost makes it feel as if you’re in a video game.
Standing on the pegs only amplifies this sensation. With the bike out of your peripheral vision and world gliding by silently beneath you, it’s the closest earthly equivalent to a magic carpet ride.
Of course, if you did own a magic carpet, you probably wouldn’t elect to float it down the highway between a semi and a horse trailer. Remember, the DSR-X is an adventure bike.
What does that even mean? If you imagine conquering Saharan sand dunes, Chilean salt playas and rugged alpine peaks astride two wheels, you get the fantasy that the Don Drapers of the motorcycle industry have been serving up to desk jockeys for decades. Freedom! Vistas! Wildlife! Adventure with a capital A.
But most adventure bikes, like BMW’s category-defining R1250GS, still primarily live on pavement. And you can tell from the smooth street tires on the DSR-X that it’s not trying to upend that dynamic.
Here’s the rub: Zero advertises a city range of 180 miles on the DSR-X, and as I found out, as soon as you add speed, that’s … optimistic. We’ll get to that. But the little battery should be quick to charge, right? Well, no. While a Tesla can charge at 250 kilowatts and the Ioniq 5 can hit 350kW, the Zero can do just 6.5kW. No, I didn’t misplace a decimal. That means the 17.3kWh battery takes about two-and-a-half hours to fill from empty on a level two charger.
The numbers are unquestionably stacked against the humble DSR-X, but with patience in my favor, I endeavored to test it fairly, starting with a round trip to the wilds of Klickitat County, Washington, where I needed to meet a contractor. Just two hours from my home in Portland, it seemed like a perfect test for the DSR-X on a sunny day.
With a noon appointment on the calendar, I committed to an early start, making sure I had a full battery, plenty of water, and a bunch of snacks crammed in the storage compartment where the gas tank goes on a normal bike. Cashews at arm’s reach? Convenience factor: 10/10.
After hopping on the highway, it suddenly seemed as if my nonexistent gas tank had a hole in it. The DSR-X was losing about 1% of battery for every mile, which I didn’t need a napkin and pencil to translate to 100 miles of range. That did not bode well for a 100-mile trip to a place with no chargers for miles.
The DSR-X display helped demystify what was going on. In addition to your speed in miles per hour, it displays watt-hours per mile, the electric equivalent of miles per gallon. I kept my speed under 70, but thanks to a stiff headwind in the Columbia River Gorge, I sometimes saw this number soar from around 100 to upwards of 200 watt-hours per mile. A combination of highway speeds and wind gusts were eating the battery alive.
Knowing the bike would need a boost, I’d planned to charge in Hood River, Oregon, about halfway to my destination. But I hadn’t planned on rolling into town with so little battery. My noon appointment introduced a dilemma worthy of an SAT question: I could slow down to save watts, but then I’d have less time to charge. Or I could speed up and reach the charger sooner, but I’d need to add more watts when I got there. Which would get me onward to my appointment on time?
I wrestled with the mental math while I obliviously rolled by waterfalls, vistas, and quaint small towns, all the while watching the range number fall. At one point, an agitated Toyota Camry driver floored it past my bona fide electric superbike as I hummed along at the speed limit, hoarding my watts.
I made it to Hood River with 31% battery life and plugged into a level two charger as if I’d encountered a gushing garden hose in the Sahara.
So far, this mental watt accounting wasn’t really the stuff of daring trip reports in adventure-bike forums. I did not interact with a remote rainforest tribe, but I did interact with a construction worker in a day-glo vest at my charger. He and his quiet, wiry buddy had laid down the giant paper template to spray paint “EV Parking Only” on the charging spots I was using.
“Nice bike. What is that thing?”
“A Zero! It’s electric.” I proudly feigned ownership as I walked him through its merits: quiet, smooth, instant torque.
“What kind of range does it get?” he asked. I gave it to him straight: about 100 miles at highway speed. Construction Guy’s wraparound mirrored sunglasses could not hide his look of surprise. After answering his question about price – $20,000 – he looked at me as if I tried to sell him a Juicero. In a parking lot shared with windsurfers driving $100,000 Sprinter vans, somehow I was the biggest sucker of them all. I sheepishly dropped the act and let him know I was merely reviewing it before silently motoring off.
As I whizzed away from this last chance to charge on the edge of an electric desert, the DSR-X told me I had 63 miles of range. Google Maps told me I had 80-mile ride, hence my opening dilemma. That range had to be conservative, right?
Making my appointment on time was important; making it back on time was not, so I pushed on. The lush scenery of the western Cascade mountains transformed to the arid cliffs and ponderosa pine of the east as I wondered how long it would take a AAA truck to reach me, or what they would even do with a dead EV. I made my appointment with time to spare, but it cost me. My battery now sat at 37%, and the nearest charger was about 40 miles away.
But now I knew the bike well enough to cheat the estimates. Without an appointment to make, time was now on my side. I coasted back toward civilization gingerly, letting the bike regenerate energy on long downhills as I took in the scenery. If riding my magic carpet in Portland’s rush-hour traffic was fun, riding it along the Klickitat River was transcendent. This was the daydream Zero sells, and I lived it for 35 glorious minutes as I encountered not a single other vehicle.
My gambit worked. When I rolled up to a charger with a healthy 13% left in the pack, I wasn’t just relieved, I was proud of myself in the same way I might’ve been if I just gotten done conquering miles of rugged trails. The beer I drank with dinner felt earned.
Maybe that’s what it means to adventure on an electric motorcycle. Aboard the DSR-X, your enemy is not nature, which $20,000 worth of cutting-edge motorcycle technology glides over with relative ease. It’s the limited reach of civilization, which constrains every trip in a way that makes it, well, it’s own kind of adventure.
On just one trip, I’d spoken with a half dozen strangers curious about the bike, stepped out of my comfort zone by pushing it past where the screen told me it would go, and visited new destinations just to charge. On my final leg back to Portland, I stopped at Skamania Lodge, an upscale resort with gobs of free chargers in its parking lot. Some sort of exterminator convention was happening inside, and as my bike charged, I busied myself by photographing the extensive collection of Dale Gribble vans and trucks in the parking lot, capturing each one like Pokémon.
Was this adventure? I’m not sure Hemingway would approve, but to me it felt like an extension of the ride – just another unexpected corner of the world to explore. On a gas bike, I would have filled up at a Shell station in two minutes and been on my way. That’s undeniably more convenient, but if you’re looking for convenience, wouldn’t a car be better?
Motorcycles are fundamentally inconvenient. We get too hot riding them, too cold, soaked by rain, covered in bugs. Aboard the DSR-X, time spent charging is just one more addition to that list. If you’re willing to file it alongside the other challenges of riding on two wheels, you’re rewarded with a clean, quiet, supernaturally smooth thrill machine.
So if your objective is to go as far as possible, as fast as possible, across any terrain to the foot of remote glaciers in the Yukon, this motorcycle is objectively a terrible choice. But if your definition of adventure looks something like mine – doing things the hard way to experience something different – you might just find the DSR-X leading you down some unexpectedly fun roads. Even if they do all have to lead to chargers – eventually.
- The wildest electric motorcycle got wilder at CES 2023
- 2023 BMW iX M60 is electric, spacious, and surprisingly quick
- Harley-Davidson’s second electric model will be smaller than the LiveWire
- Tesla delivered more electric cars in 2019 than in any previous year
- BMW will launch an electric version of one of its most popular models in 2020