Electric motorcycles are quiet but not completely silent. Before the handlebars wiggle in deep sand you’ll hear the crush as the hardpack gives way. The noise of a rear tire struggling for grip against a slick rock or splashing in the wake of a water crossing is audible for maybe the first time in an off-road riding career. Once you get used to the calm of desert riding without an exhaust note you won’t want to go back, and the all-electric Zero DSR Black Forest is a great bike to start with.
(Full Disclosure: Zero asked if I’d like to borrow a DSR Black Forest. I rented a trailer and went to the company’s headquarters in Scotts Valley, California, to pick it up. Last week, a representative of the company brought a second DSR Black Forest to me in Reno, Nevada, to go on a two-day off-road adventure, treating me to a meal on the road and some firewood for the campsite. I returned the bike to Zero mostly intact and certainly functional.)
The Zero DSR has been a staple of Zero sales ever since it was introduced in 2016 as a more powerful version of the company’s Dual Sport model. In fact, the company has had to crank up the production line for another run of DSRs because the allotment for 2021 has already supposedly been sold out.
It’s easy to see why. While the DSR is hardly a pretty motorcycle to look at, it is a capable no-frills bike with decent off-road chops. It’s still suitable to ride on the road but can certainly be pressed to climb some impressive hills. If you need one bike to do it all without burning a drop of gasoline, this is pretty much your only choice at the moment. As the powersports industry has exploded during COVID restrictions, so too has the desire for a go-anywhere EV like this, but it seems the world is waking back up.
Zero’s DSR is a surprisingly capable electric off-roader. Last year the company launched a special edition Black Forest model which came with bash bars, bark busters, a windscreen and a trio of Trax hard bags. It’s, uh, pretty good.
This bike is based on Zero’s first-generation architecture, which launched in 2009 as the street-going S model, theoretically making the DSR Black Forest a bit old-world in terms of technology. In reality, with 70 horsepower and 116 lb-ft of torque, a seriously comfortable seat and tall suspension, the DSR will still take you almost anywhere you want to go. As long as it’s within 150 miles of an outlet.
As with most other dual-sport motorcycles, the DSR is merely acceptable on the road. It’s not a bad ride on pavement, but its chunky rubber, tall suspension and heavyweight handling means it’s never going to be a corner carver. When the road gives way to dirt, however, it suddenly transforms into a wonderful ride. The soft, long-travel suspension soaks up the bumps, the tires grip loose surfaces and the weight feels balanced to contribute to the bike’s stability and traction.
I’ve had this DSR Black Forest in my home stable since last fall and it has served me well for all that time. It’s great as an easy-to-ride around-town hopper to run errands and pop over to the office. One of the great things about Nevada, however, is the ease of access to public off-road trails on Bureau of Land Management holdings. There are thousands of acres of wide-open trails within a mile of my downtown Reno home, with rolling hills and high Sierra mountain paths. I’ve done a bit of both with the DSR, and this is where the machine really excels.
The DSR Black Forest (as with all DSRs) comes with a 14.4 kilowatt hour battery pack to power its 116 lb-ft electric motor. Zero claims that will give you 157 miles of city range, which is probably true, but if you increase the speeds above 40 miles per hour, it’ll eat through battery much quicker. At highway speeds, you’re unlikely to go very far at all.
Without any options, the plastic part of the bike where your fuel tank would normally be is a small trunk, which would be fine for picking up some light groceries. Zero will fill that space with either a Power Tank battery, which gets you an extra 39 miles of city range, or a Charge Tank which is a 6 kW onboard charger with a J1772 plug allowing regular L2 charging at public stations. You can’t have both.
From dead, the bike will charge up to 100 percent on a 110-volt plug (the standard power plug is the same thing as your desktop computer’s power supply) in 9.8 hours. That’s a long time, but you’re never really running it all the way to dead, and it’s still pretty much a standard overnight charge. With the Charge Tank option, it’ll charge up in 2.5 hours.
If you’re riding this bike to work and back, you probably have enough range and enough juice to get back home with a decent percentage of your battery remaining. Plug it in to a standard socket and you’ve got a “full tank” ready to go for the morning commute the next day. If you’re going on an off-roading adventure, you’ll want to either live close to the trails as I do, or be able to trailer to get to the base of them.
There’s no loss of power with elevation because electric powertrains can function fine even in a vacuum. Low-end torque delivery of the powertrain is great for off-road riding if you are careful to modulate it well through the throttle.
This is a bike for hard-packed unpaved roads. It doesn’t really have the tires for deep sand as delivered, nor does it have the stamina for steep rock-bouncing hill climbs. If pressed, it’ll do OK in all elements, but if you’re doing some serious off-roading, you’ll want a more dirt-bike oriented ride — like what Zero offers with its FXS, for example.
I took this bike up to the infamous Old Toll Road off-road trail south of Reno, which leads up from the Virginia Foothills to the Virginia City Highlands, more than a few times. It’s an excellent piece of dirt, a mostly standard two-track trail that hasn’t been maintained in decades and features a lot of erosion. I have previously driven this trail in a 4WD Delica and it did OK, if that helps to provide a clearer idea.
I found myself sticking to the bike’s Eco mode while off-roading, not only to eke out more miles but to slow down the “throttle” curve and make the bike’s reaction to my inputs less abrupt. It’s a great way to prevent the bike from over-spinning the rear tires in loose sand, and you don’t often need quick throttle response when you’re not on paved surfaces anyway.
When you get into the sandy stuff, or you hit a steep hill, it’s just a simple button press to crank up the power and wheel speed by dropping it into sport mode. The throttle is a little harder to modulate, and harsh bumps become tire-spinning madness, but when you need the oomph, this is the way to get it.
I don’t recommend getting too far off the beaten path without a second person in your entourage because of the bike’s weight — this DSR is a 500-pound bike. If you dump it and have to pick it up yourself, you’ll be properly wiped out by the end of the ride. Many hands make light work. You wouldn’t want anything simple to spoil a good bike on a good trail for a good day.
The sound. This is a quiet bike, but it’s not silent. That signature Zero electric motor still has a lot of character to it, and you can tell exactly what it’s doing at any given time by pitch and tone without it masking out the surroundings.
Crack open the throttle on flat terrain and it’ll “WHEEEEEEE” until the cows come home. Hit some moguls at a consistent speed and the bike will YUM-YUM-YUM-YUM-YUM through them with aplomb. The audible difference between eco mode and sport mode is instantly apparent. It’s a living thing, but it doesn’t like to shout about it.
Despite the impressive photos, I spent the vast majority of my time with this bike riding it around town, never really taking more than 30 miles at a time. In that context, it’s awesome in that you just plug it in when you get home (there is a 110-volt socket extension cord you can keep in the swingarm storage) and it’ll be full of charge in short order for the next time you take it out.
The DSR’s 150 miles of city range translates pretty well to 150 miles of off-road range. If you’re keeping speeds low and not pushing too hard, you’ll be able to ride pretty much an entire day off-road without worrying.
So much of this bike is near perfect, across many daily applications. If you’re going to pick one bike to ride on- and off-road for the rest of your life and budget accordingly, this is a pretty good place to start.
Riding off-road on an electric bike is an absolute joy of simplicity. There’s no fear of stalling, shifting at the wrong time, or being in the wrong gear. You don’t have to worry about slipping clutches or catching a false neutral. You’re always ready for whatever Mother Earth decides to throw at you.
My biggest gripe with this bike is the side stand. It doesn’t have enough surface area to hold this bike up in any kind of loose surface, and the bike is too heavy for that. Most of the time when you park it off-road, I found myself needing to poke around for a rock to prop it up on. Considering that other sportier bikes come with optional center stands, this is one item that really needs it standard.
Electric power is great for pretty much everything, but there are two situations off-road where it falls flat on its face.
1. A few times I found myself climbing relatively steep grades. For those steep hills eco mode didn’t provide quite enough shove to get to the top, and I was forced to dip it into sport mode for the full fat powerband. The trouble here, however, was that I would on occasion find a protruding root or rock which would kick the rear tire up off the ground and spin the rear wheel up to what seemed like 70,000 rpm. Without the forward traction, it would spin up and dump the bike out from under me.
2. Going down hills is a little bit more difficult without an engine to do the braking for you. For any downhill grade, you have to ride the rear brake and be as gentle with the front brake as you can. If your speed gets away from you, the rear brake becomes quite useless as the ABS kicks in and your speeds increase, requiring more front brake to keep speeds in check. If you get too far into ABS and front brake, it becomes quite easy to fold the front under if you hit a patch of loose dirt. It’s something you get used to, and adapt your riding to work with, but it’s not great if you aren’t used to it.
The downside of a quiet bike is that the three hard bags mounted on the back are prone to rattle. Every bump, bash and bang turns into a metal-on-metal clunk. You get used to it pretty easily, but it’s certainly an annoyance at first.
Range anxiety and charging infrastructure are real concerns, obviously. This becomes even more concerning when you get really far out into the wilderness. I never ran out of juice, as I planned correctly, but I was certainly worried about it a lot more than I would have been with a gas bike.
The Black Forest package includes a windscreen that is positively useless. The stakes that connect the screen to the bike have ball mounts on their ends, which means the screen simply falls over either with the wind at road speed or with bumps at low speed. I removed the screen myself, which is an easy enough process. I like all of the other parts of the Black Forest edition, but would recommend ditching the windscreen as soon as you buy it. It doesn’t block the wind, but it does impede your view of the bike’s gauges. It’s the worst of both worlds.
Zero’s monochromatic gauges are getting dated at this point. Considering Zero’s SR/F and SR/S both have TFT displays and advanced everything, the technology exists in the company’s own lineups, just not on this particular machine. It’s a bare-bones bike, and maybe it should stay that way, but a gripe is a gripe.
The suspension is good, but not great. Harsh transitions and jumps are fairly easy to bottom out the shocks. If you aren’t a corn-fed American boy like me, you might have a better experience. I’m likely a bit too heavy for what this was built to handle.
I understand that this is meant to be an on-road and off-road bike, so it isn’t meant to have hardcore knobby tires. If you’re going to spend more time in the dirt than on paved roads, I’d recommend picking up a more dirt-oriented set of tires. On a recent off-road camping trip, I found myself dumped on my ass in the sand more than a few times. While I realize at least some of that may be owed to user error and a relative unfamiliarity with dirt riding, I’d have had fewer falls with better tires.
The joy of this bike is to point it into the wide unknown and just aim to keep the tires in the dirt as much as possible. There is an added challenge to riding off-road with an electric motorcycle, but it’s well worth considering. It’s a surreal, otherworldly, exciting and future-forward experience that every rider needs to try at least once. Personally, I’ll never go back to a gas burner.
The Black Forest model is nice if you do a lot of camping and need the extra luggage space. For a price similar to the DSR BF’s $18,995 starting MSRP, I’d go with a regular DSR (which comes in a choice brown and gold color anyway). The non-Black Forest DSR starts at $15,495, while the lighter-weight but shorter-range DS model kicks off the range at $10,995.
I’d also go for the dual sport drop bars, headlight grille, aggressive foot pegs and bark buster hand guards. I don’t really need the hard cases and I’d rather forget the touring windscreen exists.