Get ready for a motorcycle revolution. That deep Harley rumble and the siren call of the Suzuki whine will soon be sharing the road with silent bikes. A slew of sleek, lightweight machines, either fully electric or hybrid, is making its debut and signaling a paradigm shift in both motorcycle culture and green transportation.
The $9,950 Zero S will go on sale this spring, one of the first plug-in motorcycles widely available in the U.S. Weighing in at just 225 pounds, this bike is made by former NASA engineer Neal Saiki and his three-year-old Santa Cruz, Calif., start-up.
Electric bikes’ biggest draw is the fact they cost less than 1 cent per mile to drive; Saiki's Zero S goes 60 miles (96 km) on one charge and can hit 60 miles per hour (96 km/hr) at top speed.
Its dirt-ready predecessor has already proven itself on the U.S. market. Last year, Zero sold out of the electric Zero X dirt bike and had a six-month waiting list for that model. Saiki expects the same this year, despite the downturn. More than 100 buyers have already made $1,000 deposits to reserve Zero S's, sight unseen.
Other electric options, with top speeds of 70 and 150 miles per hour, respectively: the $8,500 Electric Motorsport GPR-S (currently available for order) and $68,995 Mission Motors Mission One (slated for delivery in early 2010).
There are even more electric models coming down the pike, including an electric motorcycle from Honda, promised for 2011, and the forthcoming $11,995 Brammo Enertia. Hybrid offerings like the EVII and Piaggio are also joining the pack.
BY THE NUMBERS:
Until the first quarter of 2009, when the economic crisis sent U.S. motorcycle sales tumbling 21 per cent, bike sales had grown steadily, increasing 58 per cent to 6.6 million since 1998, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council (MIC).
Motorcycles tend to do well in tough economic times, as drivers look for ways to save on fuel and vehicle purchase costs. Americans bought 1.1 million motorcycles last year, the sixth year in a row that domestic bike sales topped 1 million units, according to the MIC. Prior to this six-year period, the last time U.S. motorcycle sales topped 1 million was in the early 1970s, when oil prices jumped.
Honda President and CEO Takeo Fukui says he expects motorcycle sales to support the company through difficult times. He even predicts consistent and extended market growth in Asia and South America, where motorcycles are used for daily transport rather than recreation. Honda sold 15.1 million motorcycles worldwide last year, up 12 per cent from 2007.
Historically, Americans have used motorcycles for play, not work, while Europeans and Asians rely on small motorbikes for inexpensive transport through narrow streets. But that divide is slowly narrowing, says Paolo Timoni, president of Italy-based motorcycle maker Piaggio USA. Piaggio sells seven brands of motorcycles and scooters worldwide.
Motorcycles are gaining traction in the States mainly because commuters are realizing how much gasoline they can save, how much easier it is to find parking, and how effective bikes are for avoiding congestion, Timoni says. Not to mention the fact that electric bikes require almost no maintenance (since they have only one moving part) and will never leak gasoline or brake fluid.
A recently passed 10 per cent U.S. federal tax credit for electric motorcycles has no doubt helped spur interest as well.
Of course, it will take some doing to convince Harley loyalists to convert to electric machines. But electric-bike makers say they aren't necessarily trying to win converts. Instead, they want to sell motorcycles to people who already love them and are looking to augment their garage portfolios with something green.
Those electric makers will know they've hit it big when they get a Hell's Angels chapter of their own.
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