I have been skeptical about the Nikola Zero, Nikola Motor’s all-electric UTV, ever since they announced some unbelievable specs. My main concern was that the Salt Lake City-based startup claimed that they were able to pack 125 kWh of energy capacity in a relatively small battery pack – beating any electric vehicle currently in production, including the Tesla Model S P100D.

Nikola Motor figured out that the best way to erase my doubts would be for me to actually try their new machine. They currently only have one working prototype and only a handful of people in the world, aside from the U.S. military, have experienced it so far.

In a bold move, CEO Trevor Milton decided to fly us to St-George, Utah last weekend to be the first outlet to try the machine. Here I share my experience…

First of all, Nikola Motor chose the right spot. St-George is where the Mojave Desert, Colorado Plateau, and Great Basin all converge into a spectacular geological area.

It’s the perfect place to experience a UTV and sure enough, there were plenty of UTVs out there, but one of them was not like the others.

They took the Zero out of the truck and it looked like no UTV on the road today, but that’s partly because it’s still a prototype – though they claim that it’s fairly close to a production-intent version.

It still has a few prototype parts, but mostly, it looks like a production unit, aside from the fact that it didn’t have any body panels when we tested it.

Considering the state of the vehicle, Nikola Motor wanted us to focus on the performance and experience instead of the design. At first, they didn’t want us to share any pictures aside from the renderings that they released a few months back, but after some discussions, they approved a few shots for us to share to get a better idea of the experience – and what an experience it was…

As Trevor starts to give us a tour around the vehicle to look at some of the main components, it’s unbelievable spec sheet, like 555 hp and 4,900 ft-lbs of torque, slowly starts to become a reality for us. We get a good look at the four separate electric motors powering the UTV and the surprisingly large battery pack running between the two axles.

In short, they basically attached the suspension of a 6,000-lb Ford Raptor on an insane electric powertrain and put a roll cage on top of it to create a 3,500-lb beast of a UTV.

While I’m making it sound simple, there’s actually a lot of engineering that went into this prototype and it shows. The suspension might sound like an overkill but the 20″ travel front and rear beat all the competition by at least 2″ and increases confidence on tough terrain, which is a game changer as we are about to find out on the trails.

The interior is fairly simple, which makes it easier to be waterproof. It’s actually quite conformable – even in the back you have leg room similar to what you would find in a midsize sedan.

I was quite surprised at the fairly advanced development on the user interface on the two screens. For small startups, it’s often something that takes a backseat, especially on a development unit, but you can see that they put the work into it.

The picture above is from when we started the day. It shows 92% state of charge and 153 miles of range. Trevor said that the Zero was configured with the top configuration, except for the battery pack, which was limited to 107 kWh. The production version will have a 125 kWh option for the top configuration, but 107 kWh (90% usable capacity) is still insane for the application and again, enough to beat any electric vehicle currently in production, including the Tesla Model S P100D (100 kWh).

To be honest, I still had my doubts at this point, which to my defense I think is fair since we are talking about a level energy capacity never packaged into this type of vehicle before – especially by a virtually unknown startup.

But I changed my mind real quick because what followed couldn’t be faked.

Aside from myself and another journalist, Nikola also brought three UTV enthusiasts who showed interest in the Nikola Zero on social media. They were randomly chosen to be among the first people to try the new electric vehicle.

I ended up going on my first ride with Trevor, Nikola’s CEO, behind the wheel, and with Sean and Mark as passengers. We are talking about 4 not-so-small guys and yet, the suspension barely dropped – giving us a very useful 14.5″ of clearance on this rough terrain.

We get our first proof that this thing is full of power right from the start when Trevor presses the accelerator and the Zero launches forward in the dirt.

Nothing we are not used to with performance electric cars, but it was an order of magnitude more fun to experience in a completely unenclosed UTV.

It felt like we were in a Star Wars Speedracer on Tatooine.

Unfortunately, there was no room to get a clean 0 to 60 mph acceleration, but Trevor says that they can do it in 3.9 seconds and it feels about right. The highest speed that we reached during our test ride was 57 mph (91 km/h) in the sand with the only sound being that sweet spaceship-like electric motor whine.

Nikola Motor says that in the right conditions, it can achieve a top speed of 80 mph (129 km/h).

Starting at about 2,600 ft of altitude, we then started climbing and that’s where this electric UTV started to show its real potential. The amount of torque it can put out at even just 1 mph makes it an almost perfect climber.

We ascended some 50+% grades like it was nothing. It’s hard to convey in words, but when you approach a slope like that, you think we are just gonna go up and flip at the top. Yet, with the Zero’s low center of gravity (thanks to its battery pack mounted on the floor), you actually stick to the ground as the four electric motors and all-wheel drive effortlessly speed through the incline.

With the kinds of grades we were hitting, a gas-powered UTV would have to get some momentum before hitting it just to try to get to the top.

Feeling quite confident in his prototype, Trevor stopped at the bottom of what had to be a ~50% grade and then seemingly punched it as the Zero and its four occupants flew through the incline.

At that point, Trevor tells me that he wasn’t punching it, but actually barely pressing the accelerator. It seemed unbelievable, but I was freaking out too much at this point to question it.

That’s the other thing. Trevor was actually able to tell me this as we were driving up and down the hills at fairly high speed and I was able to hear everything he said – something impossible in a loud gas-powered UTV. The sound of the blood rushing through my body from the G force was probably a higher barrier to a conversation than any sound coming from the Nikola Zero.

At one point during the climb, we hit some interesting rock climbing spots – places where the CAN-AM UTV following us with the film and engineering crew couldn’t even get through, but the Zero with its massive suspension, 35″ tire, and full torque even at a crawl, could climb up it like a goat.

This is also a cool shot because it gives us a good look at the bottom of the vehicle.

The suspension takes most of the beating, but with this kind of terrain, that plate is gonna hit a few rocks. It made me cringe every time, but Trevor assured me that it wouldn’t be an issue.

The skid plate makes the vehicle slide on anything it can hit and if it does make a dent in it, it has to be an impressive one since the battery pack is still a full inch higher in the frame and it has a kevlar reinforced enclosure.

I assume that you can get used to it after a while and stop cringing every time you hit something, which is also amplified by the fact that you can hear the impact better without the sound of an engine drowning everything else.

We kept climbing.

After about an hour of intense driving through the hills and dunes, we made it to the top about 1,500 ft of altitude higher. It felt like we made it to the top of the world and yet, without burning a drop of gas.

On our descent, we were having fun and even getting some energy back with regenerative braking. Everything was peachy until we got stuck behind a Yamaha UTV on a trail.

It was a great example of just how much better an electric UTV can be. It had trouble crawling in some rocky terrain and as we were waiting behind it, we were breathing their dirty exhaust.

At the first opportunity to safely overtake it, Trevor pressed on the accelerator (again only slightly) and the Zero just zoomed past the UTV like it was a rock just sitting there.

We got back to camp and Trevor took the other journalist and the other UTV enthusiast for a ride while I was coming down from the excitement of this crazy experience.

Unfortunately, that ride got cut short because the Zero blew a rear half drive shaft on its way up the hills. They said that it was one of the non-production parts on the UTV and they had to weld two half shafts together to make it fit – creating an additional failure point. The production version is going to have a custom-made single piece, which they think is going to fix the problem.

Nonetheless, it was still an interesting showcase of the Zero’s capabilities since they were able to bring the UTV back to camp without any help because it still had full use of its front motors.

Once back at camp, we were able to take a look at the energy consumption. Here’s before we started and after about two hours of some intense driving up and down hills:

The range indicator is not the best since it’s highly dependent on the kind of terrain and the kind of driving you are doing, but Trevor shared the state of charge data and he wasn’t lying.

We started out with 91% of the 96.3 kWh total usable battery capacity (90% of 107 kWh) and we ended up using 33% for about 34 kWh of energy capacity. And the battery was still at 58% state of charge.

In order to get an idea of just how crazy it gets out there, here’s the energy consumption per mile/km of our ride in the Zero versus my Tesla Model S (the recent spike in my S is because of the insanely cold weather we got over the last few days but you still get an idea):

The Zero averaged about 740 Wh per mile. That’s about 460 Wh per km versus normal driving on the road in a Tesla Model S consuming just over 230 Wh per km. That’s the kind of energy it takes to move a vehicle like that in this harsh terrain.

After that, they put the UTV back in the truck, but technically, they could have easily driven it to the nearest welding shop to fix the rear half shaft or even halfway to Salt Lake City to Nikola’s HQ to eventually put the production part in the Zero.

Needless to say, I was impressed. I tried to press Trevor to know how they managed to pack so much energy in this relatively small vehicle and he wouldn’t say much. He said that they are using the highest capacity li-ion cells from LG and Samsung and that they patented the battery pack architecture.

Those patents should become public in the next year at which point we should have a better idea of how they did it. I might have an idea of how they did it, but it would only be speculation at this point. We might talk about it on our next podcast. Stay tuned.

Either way, mea culpa. I was wrong. They actually did it. This is my “I was wrong face because this thing actually took me up 1,500 ft in altitude in impossible terrain like it was nothing.”

Conclusion

I think it’s quite easy to see how the Nikola Zero has an opportunity to be a game changer in the UTV market.

It takes everything that is great about UTVs, the versatility, the utility, and the ability to relatively safely go explore off-road terrains, and it makes all those things even better with more power, torque and range.

Then it takes what is bad with UTVs, like the polluting emissions, noise, and unreliability, and it gets rid of those. Maybe it still has something to prove when it comes to the last point, but there’s no doubt that an electric vehicle has the opportunity to be more reliable. We are going to have to revisit that with the production version.

Speaking of the production version, Trevor said that they plan on making a few hundred units next year and then ramp up to a few thousand units in 2019. It will start at about $35,000 for the base 75 kWh battery pack version and a fully-loaded 125 kWh version will cost about $55,000.

It’s definitely on the expensive side for UTVs, but it’s certainly not that expensive when you look at what you are getting in terms of capabilities and energy capacity.

There are also plenty of other features that we didn’t have the chance to get into, like the V2G capacity, a solar generator to take the vehicle on long-distance off-road trips, CCS fast-charging capacity, public road driving (in states where legal) with an accessory kit, and more.

We have to revisit the vehicle when they will have a production version, but I am truly impressed so far. It’s hard to describe with just words and pictures – a good test drive video would be more representative. Nikola had a film crew that captured the experience and it should be released next month with the launch of the production version.

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