Zero ZF9 vs Brammo Empulse R: Talking With Wes Siler

First, a little context.

I’ve been riding motorcycles since around 1970.  I like riding motorcycles a lot more than I like talking about them, working on them, reading about them or playing with all the shiny gadgets on them.  I have peculiar tastes in motorcycles.  I bought a single-cylinder 600cc with only a kick-starter back when electric start was the latest new refinement in street bikes, and, not only did every bike have one, but they started omitting the kick starter entirely.  When I bought the bike in 1987, the salesman told me “You’re the only asshole in New England who’d buy this bike, you know.”

I like tube steel frames designed in the 1970s.  I’m not a fan of dials, gauges, lights and beepers on a motorcycle.  I like light, nimble tight bikes that can do curves gracefully, and I really enjoy riding a speeds of around 50-80mph on the street.  That’s because those are speeds that I can have the most fun at, and stay alive if things go horribly wrong.  I’ve been on bikes when things have gone horribly wrong, and as much as I love speed, I don’t want to do that anymore.

For me, riding is a complete physical and emotional experience.  Riding motorcycles is far more than specs on paper.  Even the slightest nuance can make the difference between a bike I love, and a bike I can’t wait to park.

As a result, even from the very beginning, I found myself modifying my bikes.  I can’t claim to be a “builder”, but I’ve never been satisfied with the compromises that manufacturers make to satisfy a broad audience. The final manifestation of that is the R5e.  I wanted to find out what a high-powered electric bike felt like to ride, there was nothing out there even close to what I was looking for, so I modified a great old bike myself to find out. The result, if you don’t mind my sayin’ is a bike that goes as fast as an Empulse…  maybe not as far, but definitely as fast.

So, I’m interested in what makes a great bike, well, great.  I want to know how to build a better bike.

Fast forward to the release of the Brammo Empulse R, and the Hell for Leather review that came out this week.  Here’s a guy who’s ridden both the Empulse and the Zero ZF9, and has a completely different response to the Brammo.  Much as I wished I could dismiss his opinions as party-line anti-electric in his RideApart video as the viewpoint of a die-hard gas biker unwilling to consider new technology and the hurdles that come with it, there was a big part of that video that was painfully true.  I simply couldn’t dismiss it.  Electric motorcycles are still very much a fringe phenomenon.  Now, this same guy gets on the Brammo Empulse R, and has a completely different response.  “The Empulse is simply a more pure experience than any gasoline-powered bike could ever be.”

Here’s the thing.  If you look at the specs, there’s not a whole lot of difference between the two bikes.  Seriously.  So as someone who fancies himself a builder of motorcycles I find myself asking what accounts for this huge difference in response from the rider of these two similar builds,  if it’s not the specifications of the bike?

So, I asked the guy.

This is Wes Siler, the main force behind Hell for Leather, and his response, word-for-word to my questions about his review.  My question:

It seems like the bikes are pretty close on paper, so the difference in your response to the two is a little confusing. Why do you think the Empulse worked so much better for you? Was it the handling, maybe the little bit of added range? Is the acceleration hugely better? (I can’t find numbers for that…) Is it the transmission? That would be HUGE, it’s a major source of discussion in the forums, and a big deal when Brammo made that decision. Or maybe just the simple fact that you didn’t get stranded lol?

His answers:

Why did the Empulse work so much better for you?

…as a serious motorcyclist, I just want a serious motorcycle, not a loose conglomeration of parts that are vaguely capable of transporting me a short distance. The Empulse is a full-realized, consumer-ready product that goes and stops just like an ICE bike and handles even better than one. There’s no cut corners and no bullshit. 

Was it the handling, the added range?

Yes and Yes. On the Empulse, the handling is just out of this world. That’s because Brammo fitted real motorcycle parts like actual motorcycle tires, actual motorcycle suspension (fully adjustable, fancy stuff), actual motorcycle brakes (radial Brembos) and actual motorcycle wheels (forged Marchesinis). But, also because they spent a huge amount of time developing the chassis on the kind of roads actual motorcycles are ridden on. 

Not lying about the range helps too. 

Is the acceleration hugely better?

Yes. Pull away from a stoplight on the Zero and you’d be in a very tough, head-to-head drag race with a 50cc scooter up to about 35mph. Pull away from a stoplight on the Brammo, slipping the clutch to keep it in the powerband, and you’d beat pretty much any car and could even get the edge on some ICE bikes. Thanks to the gears, that continues up to 100mph+. It’s not going to give an RSV4 a run for it’s money, but it’s enough to ride it like a real motorcycle. 

Is it the transmission?

Yes. It seriously does build back in a much-needed element of man/machine interaction. Thanks to it, the Empulse feels like a motorcycle. Without it, the Zero feels like a transportation appliance. 

Where you just pin the Zero and try not to be too disappointed, on the Empulse you’re chasing a powerband, downshifting as you enter corners to use the engine braking and to get ready to achieve maximum acceleration out, and just generally using both hands and both feet and climbing all over the bike to make it go as fast as possible. 

It’s all the above, working together in perfect harmony, that make the Empulse so special. It feels like the next evolutionary step of the motorcycle, full stop.

There’s not much more that I can say.  It’s going to take a while for me to really digest what all this means for motorcycling in general, or electric motorcycles, but it’s refreshing to step back and take a nice, clear look at what makes all this work, and why it’s been a lifelong obsession, in the words of one of the most rabid enthusiasts, as well as someone who has a pretty decent command of the language.

Now, the one thing that remains a question is the acceleration issue with the Zero.  Why, at similar specs, is the Zero such a dog off the line?  There’s been a lot of discussion about that over the last few years, but early on, Zero limited the off-the-line performance, possibly to deliver a little safer, albeit less thrilling, and more economical ride.  Here’s a thread by the legendary doctorbass about “pimping” the Zero, on Endless Sphere.  The wisdom of de-tuning the acceleration of a sport bike eludes me, but, whatever.  The unsubstantiated numbers I’ve read online are that the Zero accelerates at around 0-60 in 10 seconds or so.  The Empulse is rumored to be closer to 4sec.  A huge, huge difference, and the difference between a scooter and a real motorcycle.  So, if you love the Zero and just want a better ride, you can always hack, or swap, the controller.

…but it sounds like there’s more to it than that, alone.

Thanks, Wes, for taking the time to answer my questions, and thanks for the great work.

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8 responses to “Zero ZF9 vs Brammo Empulse R: Talking With Wes Siler

  1. It should be added that I’ve also been THE biggest supporter of electric motorcycles. I think you guys have selective memories. I’ve put them (including Zero) in Wired, GQ, Jalopnik, Gizmodo, PopSci, Popular Mechanics and we’ve covered them more than any other publication on the planet at HFL:

    http://hellforleathermagazine.com/tagged/electric/

    What you saw in that episode was an electric enthusiast disappointed in a disappointing product. Nothing more.

    • Fair enough… and to be clear, I wasn’t saying you were all that stuff, just that I wanted to dismiss the video as such. But couldn’t. Thanks for the link, and the support, Wes!

    • ” we’ve covered them more than any other publication on the planet at HFL”

      I would respectfully disagree. (though 400 posts – including scooters – is quite impressive.

      http://green.autoblog.com/category/on-two-wheels/

      Yeah, ABG has some bicycles, alt-fuel and three wheeler thing-a-ma-jigs mixed up in that 104 page-long category, but still, definitely more than 400 concerning electric motorcycles/scooters.

  2. Regarding the whole single-speed versus multi-speed gearbox discussion, I lean towards favoring a single gear, if only because I grew up riding snowmobiles instead of motorcycles.

    Given enough voltage and a big enough motor, I believe any advantage of the multi-speed transmission goes away. Really hope HFL can ride the Mission R, or something from Lightning Motorcycles. Or, MotoCsysz. Or, even Münch.

    • We’ve ridden the MotoCzysz E1PC. Mission and Lightning are, in my opinion, fairly irrelevant in that they’re prototypes that don’t really set out to achieve anything new. No new tech, no new ideas, just big motors in relatively conventional configurations. In the history of electric bikes, they’ll be (fast) footnotes. Show me real consumer products or genuine innovation if you want me to get excited, I’m tired of vaporware.

      You’ll like that gearbox when you try it. I understand the argument that a big enough electric motor doesn’t technically require one, but it’s a very welcome re-integration of man/machine interaction and the ability to multiply and divide torque is always useful.

      Most of the talk of not needing the gearbox seems to come from people that don’t spend an awful lot of time riding bikes.

      • Huh. Richard might take issue with your opinion of his bike (the Lightning)… vaporware? You can own one, built to order. Know anyone who can buy and accept delivery on an Empulse yet? How about even a firm delivery date? I too am tired of vaporware, and that’s why I love the way Lightning hit the market, and even now, have little interest in, or patience with Brammo.

        As far as your last comment, I’ve been riding for over 40 years… but don’t feel I need a gearbox on my bike, or any electric bike I’ve ridden that’s got adequate power. In fact, you may have noticed that I’ve said a few times, after 40 years of riding, I’ve experienced “something I’ve never experienced before on a motorcycle…” stuff like that. Riding a bike without a power band or the need to shift is unlike anything in motorcycling. It is, however, different from what you may be used to.

        Turnabout being fair play and all… I’ll say, most of the talk of wanting a gearbox seems to come from people that don’t spend an awful lot of time looking past what they’ve become accustomed to. Rather than looking for an electric bike that can give you a ride like a gas bike, how about considering that it may be something altogether different?

        …just a thought.

  3. Pingback: Transmission Debate: Qualifying Results at Laguna Seca FIM eRR | The Electric Chronicles·

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