2021 Polaris Slingshot First Drive Review: A Tricycle Made For Two

First Drive / Comments

What's got three wheels and is a blast to drive?

The Polaris Slingshot is not a car. It has a steering wheel, pedals in a footwell, seatbacks, and steers via two wheels at the front. However, technically, it's a three-wheeled motorcycle, which benefits car enthusiasts who like to complain about the number of driver aids and heavy safety equipment forced on cars by legislation. It saves weight by having a single wheel at the back, there are no doors, no airbags, and the interior is weatherproof as it doesn't have a roof unless added as an accessory. That means the Polaris is minimalistic, light, and gives a raw driving experience. The Slingshot does come with seatbelts, traction control, crumple zones, and anti-lock brakes, as Polaris cares about its customers. However, there's no rearview camera or sensors to beep at you when the vehicle thinks you are doing something wrong because Polaris trusts its customers to have fun with their vehicle. Which is exactly what we did in Malibu after Polaris invited us out to test its latest creation.

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Exterior Design: A Pure Head Turner

The Slingshot's styling was incredibly important to Polaris. The company markets the vehicle as much as a form of expression as a driving experience. Visually, it's dramatic with angles and design touches that Lamborghini enthusiasts will appreciate. It takes on the old school mid-20th century roadster styling and brings it right into the 21st century with long front wing guards and a nose cone, but adds sharp lines and a long list of appearance options so owners can express themselves. It can come in single colors for the more reserved or bright multi-color schemes and accenting for those that want to be noticed. At its highest trim-levels, Polaris offers the Slingshot R with asymmetrically designed Neon Fade paint, blacked-out badging, and matt-black lightweight aluminum wheels. Even in a simple color scheme, the Slingshot turns heads in traffic.

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Engine, Performance, & MPG: High-Revving Fun

The first Polaris Slingshot models were outfitted with a GM-sourced engine. Now, standard models are powered by an in-house designed 2.0-liter double overhead cam engine with 178 horsepower and 120 lb-ft of torque. The maximum torque doesn't come until 5,000 rpm, but the engine revs out to a highly entertaining 8,500 rpm. The Slingshot R boasts 203 hp also revs out to 8,500 rpm, while its 144 ft-lb of torque peaks at 6,500 rpm.

A manual transmission comes as standard, but an AutoDrive transmission is also available. The AutoDrive is an automated version of the manual, using computer-controlled hydraulic actuators to shift gear. Polaris went down that route rather than a purpose-built automatic transmission as it saves 55 lbs on weight, which would put the Slingshot overweight for the motorcycle category. Without passengers in either manual or AutoShift spec, the Polaris weighs just 1,650 lbs.

The EPA doesn't have a rating for the Slingshot, but expect around 25 mpg around town and 28 mpg on the freeway.

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Driving Impressions: The Automotive Mullet

By describing the Slingshot as an automotive mullet, we do not mean to be derogatory. Quite the opposite, in fact. The Slingshot really is all business at the front and fun at the back. The front wheels benefit from independent double-wishbone coilover suspension, and the steering is responsive, with plenty of feedback and grip on offer. At the back is a single 20-inch wheel on standard models and a 21-inch wheel on the Slingshot R. A single coilover unit controls the rear swing-arm suspension system, and while the rear tire is grippy, there is just one of them, so the becomes loose when provoked by a heavy left foot. Deliberately lean on the throttle too hard exiting a corner, and there's no snap as traction is lost. Instead, the rear wheel breaks predictably, and the traction control isn't too quick to bring it back under control. That means a whole lot of fun when driving the Slingshot hard, but you do have to provoke it, and the Polaris does feel grippy and safe on the street.

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We had some wicked fun on the canyons of Malibu, particularly on the tight and technical switchbacks on Decker road. The lightweight machine has a center of gravity that mocks the average sports car, a good heft to the steering wheel, and remarkably predictable driving dynamics. Familiarity comes quickly, and while the Polaris isn't as sharp and precise as some sports cars, it's a joyfully fun and exhilarating vehicle to let loose. It has real chops when carving corners and a frantic feeling when linking them together by mashing down on the throttle.

Reign it in, though, and the ride isn't too harsh to stop you from enjoying open-air motoring, albeit through a mandated DOT certified helmet in some states. Later in the day, we dropped out of Slingshot (Sport) into comfort mode and meandered down the Pacific Coast Highway. The throttle response calms down, the steering lightens, and we enjoyed a gentle drive as much as we did frolicking in the canyons.

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Off the line, the Slingshot is quick due to its lack of weight and responsive throttle, but the engine takes a moment to wind up. Once it does, it keeps going until it finally hits the 8,500 rpm limit. The manual transmission is an adept unit with a light clutch, perfect for the vehicle, but the automated manual is a very different animal. Gear shifts aren't quick and remind us of sluggish automatic transmissions from the 1980s and 1990s. That doesn't mean it doesn't come without charm, though. For touring rather than corner carving, it's perfectly fine for those that don't want to crunch through their own gears. With the optional paddles and manual mode, it bridges the gap between hardcore and softcore. The one weak area of the chassis is the brakes. The pedal is soft, and the lack of immediate stopping power you get from most modern cars takes some getting used to.

Our initial concern at spending a day in the Slingshot was comfort. A low ride height and coilover suspension isn't a recipe for a smooth ride. But it doesn't beat you up either. We didn't feel a harsh crash all day, but we did know exactly what the road felt like at all times. The Slingshot has communicative steering, but it mostly communicates through the seat of the driver and passenger's pants.

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Interior: A Motorcycle With Real Seats

The Slingshot's cockpit is bare-bones but perfectly serviceable. The seats are comfortable with some manual adjustment, and are padded enough to be lightweight but spend considerable time with. The seating position is low, and the driving position excellent, as is visibility due to a lack of pillars and a roof. The windscreen is low and more of a wind deflector than real protection as, even with a helmet on, the wind can buffet your head around. The small cockpit is an illusion as both wide and tall people can fit inside comfortably with plenty of room to the side and for legs.

The interior is weatherproofed, which means lots of painted metal and plastics, the latter of which are thick and hardwearing. The buttons for the drive system, on the steering wheel, and the infotainment screen are prominent and designed with gloved hands in mind.

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There is no trunk, so storage space is at a premium. A locker space behind each seat will store a small bag each, and there's a lockable glove compartment. Unfortunately, the lack of storage space with meaningful volume means couples will be out of luck trying to use the Slingshot for a long weekend.

The infotainment system on basic models consists of a 2.7-inch Rockford Fosgate screen and what the company describes as its Stage 1 Audio System. Higher trimmed models and the optional Technology package include a 7-inch screen, navigation, and improved audio.

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Pricing & Trims

Polaris offers the Slingshot in four trims, the stripped-down S model, the SL, the R, and the R Limited Edition. The Slingshot S starts at $19,999 for the manual transmission version and $21,699 with AutoDrive equipped. The SL starts at $26,699, while the R, with its performance and styling enhancements such as extra horsepower, larger rear wheel, signature lighting, and Multi-Tone Paint, starts at $33,299.

From there, Polaris offers extra packages to suit how people will use the Slingshot. The Excursion Series includes a taller wind deflector, heated and cooled seats, overnight bags for behind the seats, and extra bags mounted around the cockpit. The Drive Series package includes paddle shifters, a 'dead pedal,' a special tune on the engine, and heated and cooled seats. The Concert Series package features Stage 3 Audio and an interior lighting kit, while the Design Series goes nuts with the styling accessories.

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Verdict: A Pure Enthusiast's Car

The Polaris Slingshot might technically be a motorcycle, but by rational definition, it's a car. The Slingshot has a steering wheel, traditional seats, pedals in a footwell, and, most tellingly, doesn't fall over when unoccupied. It just happens only to have one wheel at the back. It is an attention whore out on the road, but it's looks are backed up with a driving experience that satisfies enthusiasts with its stripped down and raw driving experience. It gives the driver and passenger a connection to the outdoors that the mainstream sports cars can't get close to and is usually the motorcycle enthusiast's domain.

There are edge cases that daily drive a Polaris Slingshot, but those people are missing the point and would be better served by a Mazda MX-5. The Slingshot is a toy to wheel out at the weekend and just drive for the sake of driving. It's a lifestyle vehicle for those with a lifestyle that includes a spare bay in the garage and twenty to thirty grand to spend on something that is simply fun to drive. It's a real enthusiasts car, in the most basic and stripped down of senses.

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