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New Trends in Motorcycling – Automatics!

It’s time for a major change in motorcycling.  

Really?  How many times have you heard that one. It’s interesting – over the years, motorcycles have experienced some amazing technological advances – ABS, Traction Control, Ride-by-Wire, Active Suspensions…even specialized protective gear. All of these technologies are aimed at providing extra safety for our riding pleasure. They’re all good.

Ridley Auto-Glide

But what technologies and inventions have you seen that make biking easier? Well, you might say, today’s advanced bikes are better balanced than yesteryear’s – and you’d be right. But I really mean ‘easier’.

- Easier to learn to ride, easier to ride, easier to cruise.
- Easier for novices and aged drivers alike.
- Easier for those who have never used a clutch.
- Easier for those who’ve never been exposed to the bare-bones riding elements, as we have.

Ergonomically? With changes in hand controls, brakes, electronic ride controls? Nothing.  
Oh, wait a minute!  Everything!!

Some manufacturers have made shiftless bikes – automatic or shift-free bikes using CVT transmissions. Great news!

And how have Canadians fared in this area?  Horribly. 

I wonder why. To start with, Canadians are getting older… here are some facts: 1 in 5 Canadians are now aged 65+, and by 2013, that will be 1 in 4*1. In fact, back in 2012, 21 per cent of Canadians were over the age of 60. By 2030, that proportion is projected to rise to about 28.5 per cent, and by 2050, 31 per cent — nearly a third of all Canadians*2. When these seniors want to continue motorcycling (with arthritis), it’s only a matter of time until their hands and feet find shifting tougher and tougher. Here’s another example, having nothing to do with age - You want to ride with your friend or spouse or mistress (good for you!), but he or she doesn’t want to learn how to use a clutch. Do you just give up, or get your friend or partner a scooter?

Well, you’ve seen my articles on next-gen scooters and how great they are, that’s one way to go.  But, some bikers only want motorcycles – and who can blame them for all they offer?  So, if you chose motorcycles, you now have 2 choices - ‘automatic’ (gas) motorcycles, or electric ones.

Automatic motorcycles aren’t new. Honda had introduced them some years ago, but because the bike was expensive and improperly weighted, it wasn’t a runaway success.  Either was the Aprilia Mana, or the Ridley Auto-Glide.  That’s too bad, as that early lack of success ruined the path for Honda’s revolutionary CTX-700N DCT model in Canada. Automatic motorcycles look, handle, and are as powerful as the motorcycles we’ve been used to. But when it comes to shifting, they use a CVT-like transmission, allowing the rider to concentrate on other biking essentials, such as balance, monitoring traffic and road conditions. Only upon very close inspection would anyone realize your motorcycle is shift-less.

Aprilia 850 Mana

Honda’s CTX-700N DCT

So, what choices do you have if you want an ‘automatic’ motorcycle in Canada?  Well, this is where the short-sightedness of various manufacturers has let us down.  It’s not news that Canada poses an issue to vehicle manufacturers – because of our unique vehicle regulations and inordinate taxes, we often get the dregs of their vehicles.  For instance, I had a MazdaSpeed 3 (great car!) and I didn’t get anywhere close to the interior goodies that Americans got - for a far higher price. The same principle applies to motorcycles. So, that’s one reason why we don’t get the same varied bike selection as our fellow Americans. The other reason is Canadian marketers – far fewer vehicles are sold in Canada, so analytically obsessed marketers must be sure those sales will occur. As a result, while American Honda dealers are seeing resurgence in DCT automatic motorcycle sales, we don’t even get the choice of being able to buy one. You can always buy one in the U.S. (this is OK with Transport Canada’s rulings), but you’d need to check with Honda Canada if you can transfer warranty. Regardless, you’ll pay a fortune in extra taxes & transportation.

Back to Honda – they’re way ahead of the crowd with the CTX-700N DCT. The ½ Honda Fit power-plant’s low-slung’s centre of gravity makes riding and balancing this bike easy, especially for beginners. All controls are within easy reach and quite ergonomic – sit on one and you’ll know what I mean. Its suspension is competent; its street manners are near-perfect. By no stretch of the imagination is this a street rocket, but it’s not meant to be. Pricing is within just about every biker’s reach. This is a thoroughly modern bike line, so kudos goes out to Honda for their foresight. But… we Canadians don’t get to celebrate. And Honda wonders why the standard (ie shift) models in Canada are selling fine, but not wildly! Honda – you came so close – but no cigar for your Canadian market managers.
Suzuki used to have an automatic model, the 1982 model 450, but discontinued that a long time ago, and Honda had a 2-speed model also – they were way too early for the world to embrace them.  The other well-known Japanese manufacturers (Kawasaki, Yamaha) have shown little interest in getting to this market area, but if they watch the world markets, they should.  


Zero S

Now, onto electric bikes. Yup, you’re going to pay a premium for ‘going green’, but you have a few choices – Brammo or Zero. These belong more to the crotch-rockets than cruiser type, but they can still do the job.  Watch out for any range-anxiety long-distance trips, but for cruising around your neighborhoods, they’re quick, effortlessly powerful, and…wait for it… ridiculously quiet. In a way, they’re safer than any other type of bike, as you can literally hear all the traffic around you.  The problem is – they can’t hear you. So, now you have a dilemma, in deciding if you want a Harley-type noise-maker rattling your brain, or a quiet-as-a-green-forest glider that those 4-wheeler drivers can’t hear. The unfortunate part of this decision is that you’re not looking at any high-volume motorcycle manufacturer, nor are you looking at any firm with head offices in Canada – so getting parts will probably be lengthier and pricier than normal. But, they’re electric, clean, reliable, and … so cool!  These 2-wheeled versions of Teslas will attract any crowd – they may be the ultimate ‘pick-up’ bikes!
Again, Canadians lose out, unless you find that the ‘electrics’ are becoming more prevalent and well-supported closer to home.  When was the last time you saw one on the streets?

Regardless of your choice, every motorcycle maker should be trying to increase their market breadth and reach, and realizing world demographics and aging and those growing wants and needs, going automatic is the fastest way. Hopefully, they’re listening, for both their financial rewards, and our biking enjoyment into our golden years. In Canada.

*1: Canada GDP Growth, Standard Of Living Could Take A 20 Per Cent Hit From Aging, Says BoC; Posted: 04/ 4/2012 6:01 pm Updated: 04/ 5/2012 8:42 am

*2: CBC - How Well Is Canada Dealing With Its Aging Population?  October 1, 2013

Test Ride: 2011 Zero S (electric)

When a local dealership (Freedom Cycle) decided to become the exclusive Nova Scotia dealer for Zero electric motorcycles I was lucky enough to be offered a demo ride to see what I thought of it.

Having been a follower of the Zero brand for a number of years and a guy who likes gadgets Zero motorcycles have appealed to me on many levels from the very first time I heard about them. My early feelings about electric bikes were that electric motorcycle technology needed a little time to advance before it became mainstream but that the technology makes a lot of sense. Frankly though - the early efforts seemed a little too expensive given the range, quality, and thrill factor.

 Plus there was the risk that you'd buy this new technology and the next year some technology leap would occur and you'd be stuck with a serious case of buyer's remorse. Could 2012 be the tipping point for electric motorcycles?

There's no way I'd be willing to give up my internal combustion engine sport touring 800cc VFR could I? The thought wouldn't have crossed my mind - not until now at least. For 2012 Zero have made some huge improvements that will certainly attract plenty of NEW riders to the fold - the big question is; will it be enough to make some existing riders ditch their gasoline powered motorcycles and go electric?

The Zero S that I rode was actually a 2011 model; the ride approximately 23 kilometers of city and highway with lots of elevation changes and corners. The bike was new and the battery still being broken in. "Make sure you only take the battery down to half." - No problem!

 A limited distance test ride to be sure but long enough for some initial impressions.

It was a bright and sunny Friday in Halifax - but the weather was very cool. The gauge on my motorcycle was telling me it was ranging between 0 - 5° Celsius out. I wasn't sure how that might affect range but experience would be the the only way to judge that. 

The first thing that strikes you when you sit on the Zero is that it "feels" like a motorcycle. You can't compare the Zero to an electric pass through seating scooter you see struggling to keep forward momentum at the slightest incline. No, this is altogether different - it's a serious machine. If you ride a motorcycle or have ridden a bicycle this is the position you're accustomed to. Seating is upright and the bars are wide, putting you in what I'd consider a very "open" body position. If it's windy out and you don't have an optional windscreen it's getting you in the chest. Personal preference would dictate whether you'll enjoy that or not. I thought it was great. 

I got the feeling I was sitting on top of the motorcycle more than "in it" and that's a sensation enhanced by the flat motocross like seat. There's no indentation in the seat so you and have nothing to feel how far back you are when you push back from seat. There's also no gas tank hump because it's all electric of course!

Another thing you can't help but notice is the silence. Complete and total silence! When it's running and you're stationary the Zero makes no noise whatsoever. The only indication you have that it's on and ready to roll is a big green light on the dash. No rumbling vibration, no blipping the throttle in neutral to hear the raucous exhaust note. Nothing! That will take some getting used to but it's nice too. Electric bikes are fun too - they're just different.

Top speed that I attained was 71 MPH (110 km/h) uphill and a little faster downhill. It's claimed the 2012 model is a bit faster and can reach a top speed of 88 mph (140 km/h) or 75 mph (120 km/h) sustained speed.

 The Zero feels lightweight and nimble - definitely a fine tool for an urban environment. I almost felt like I was riding a bicycle, albeit a very speedy one that I didn't have to pedal. I had to consciously remind myself on several occasions that shouldn't act like I might on a bicycle.

The fact that the 2011 model has no clutch and no engine braking is a bit of a different feeling but one you quickly adjust to. You need to use the brakes a little more than you might on an internal combustion engine machine because of the lack of engine braking. In 2012 the bikes will include regenerative braking which will help deliver a little power back to the battery and provide a bit of engine braking feel.

2012 has brought forth significant enhancements that may very well prove to be a tipping point in the popularity of electric motorcycles. The improvements are so significant that Freedom Cycles ordered a single 2011 model to be used as a demo and will begin stocking the dealership with 2012's. 

The S and DS models have a new brushless PMAC (permanent magnet alternating current) motor which replaces the brushed motors of previous years. The battery packs have dramatically increased capacity - moving from a 4.2 kWh cell pack to the standard 6 kWh or optional 9 kWh. New controllers more effectively manage the engine and regenerative braking has increased range to a very respectable 114 miles (183 km's). Performance is significantly better too; max torque is WAY up and that translates to quicker acceleration and more entertaining riding - and more of it per charge. 

There's a quick charge optional feature too for the S and DS. For the Zero S and Zero DS, the first "2x" quick-charge accessory adds a charger that plugs into its second charge circuit (the onboard charger is plugged into the first). It's a $595 option but takes the charge time for the 6 kWh and 9kWh models from 6 and 9 hours to 3 and 4.9 hours respectively.

So getting back to my question - Could 2012 be the tipping point for electric motorcycles? I think it may be. There's definitely some exciting things happening in the electric motorcycle world and 2012 could very well be the year that people really start to see electric bikes become more accepted and mainstream.


S ZF6 (6 kWh battery)

MSRP $11,495
City range: 122 km
highway range: 69 km
Charge time: 6 hours
Weight: 297 lbs

S ZF9 (9 kWh battery)

MSRP $13,995
City range: 183 km
highway range: 101 km
Charge time: 9 hoursWeight: 341 lbs


- No gas to buy - ever!

- No chain to oil
- Limited maintenance required

- Sufficient range for commuters and casual riders

- Incredible equivalent fuel economy:  
 -- 2012 model is rated for 487 MPGe (0.48 liters/100km) city and 273 MPGe (0.86 liters/100km) highway. Cost to charge the battery is less than a dollar.
- Should be classed as a 200 cc motorcycle for insurance purposes (cheap!)


- Upfront investment
- Range
- Dealer coverage and options for servicing

Starts at $11,495 CAD for the S ZF6
+ $2,500 for the S ZF9

+ $595 Quick Charge device
+ $347.37 Side Bags
+ $99.99 Windscreen

Additional Links:

Zero Motorcycles
Freedom Cycles (Halifax, NS)

ZeroS photo slidshow (Note to mobile users - sorry if you can't see these. Picasa uses flash):