The new Polaris Slingshot three-wheeler is so much fun to drive that it’s a small wonder it’s even legal. But it is—only just. That’s because the latest big thing from Polaris is actually classified by the government as a motorcycle.
That means Polaris didn’t have to meet the host of regulatory requirements automakers are stuck with getting their tin boxes certified for the road, requirements that add weight and complication and which reduce speed and agility and fun. As a motorcycle, the Slingshot didn’t have to undergo crash testing. It doesn’t have airbags and safety glass and crumple zones and steel impact beams in the doors. Hell, the Slingshot doesn’t even have doors. You can reach out and touch the road, but we wouldn’t recommend it.
Nor will you find features like heating, air-conditioning, a roof, windshield wipers, center-mounted rearview mirror, and all those little yellow warning signs that cars come with reminding you what a dope you are. Perhaps best of all, the Slingshot doesn’t beep if you forget to turn off the lights, leave the door ajar, leave the key in the ignition, or forget to turn off your turn signal. We live in a beep-intensive world, so it’s nice to find yourself in a beep-free zone.
You’ll get lots of other noises—a roaring engine, a whirring drivetrain, and a whistling wind—but no beeps. The Slingshot might be worth it for that alone. The Slingshot doesn’t carry the slightest whiff of “retro” either in looks or approach. It is unashamedly modern. The polymer body panels fit together into an aggressive collection of angles and planes. If there are any designers at Polaris who belong to the cute and cuddly school of design, they were all on vacation when the Slingshot was conceived. It aces the badass test.
There’s a long tradition of manufacturers shoving three-wheelers through regulatory loopholes. The Morgan three-wheeler was originally built to avoid a tax that applied to cars. It turns out the thing was fun to drive, which is why Morgan is now building it again.
The parallels between the Morgan and the Slingshot don’t go much beyond the basic configuration. The Slingshot is faster in a straight line and faster around corners, and it costs three times less. In terms of pure fun, we can’t think of many vehicles without a sidestand that can compete with the Slingshot.
The machine comes in two flavors: the basic model, which is $19,999, and the Slingshot SL, which is $23,999. The extra four grand for the SL gives you a windshield, cruise control, an entertainment system with Bluetooth connectivity, special rims, beefier tires, and red paint. Most of those options can be had on the basic model, which is finished in a more subdued gray.
Any talk of three-wheelers very quickly turns to questions of stability. This is clearly an issue if you put your two-wheel axle in the back instead of the front. The former will tip; the latter will not. It’s simple physics. And physics is not just a good idea; it’s the law.
With two wheels at the back, inertial forces are forever trying to tip you forward. However, with two wheels at the front those same inertial forces dig your front wheels harder into the road. At the limit, the vehicle with one wheel in front will want to tip or buck you off, which is not fun. At the same limit the vehicle with two wheels at the front will lose grip at the rear, which is fun. And the Slingshot won’t buck you off because, crucially, you’re strapped inside it.
You can hurl the Slingshot into any corner at any speed, which we did, and a combination of innate balance and clever electronics will make sure you come out the other side right side up and grinning like the Grinch at a Christmas feast of roast beast.
When you drive a four-wheeler fast, the inside rear wheel will lift. So you could argue you don’t need that fourth wheel; you’re just dragging extra weight around. The only thing that fourth wheel gives you is additional rubber on the road, if it’s on the road. To compensate for the loss of that one-tire contact patch Polaris has done two important things. First, it’s fitted the vehicle with specially developed tires by Kenda; second, it’s fitted an electronic stability program (ESP) it developed in-house.
In terms of tires, the basic model comes with 205/50R-17s on the front and a 265/35R-18 on the back. The fancier Slingshot SL comes with 225/45R-18s on the front and a 255/35R-20 on the back. They stick to the road like ketchup on your fingers. When the tires give up on grip, which happens if you’re crazy enough to go there, the ESP automatically dabs the brakes to each wheel to make sure things stay under control. The system is so subtle in its operation you won’t feel any pull or tug as it does its work. You can turn ESP off, and we did, but we can’t imagine why you’d want to. The Slingshot is plenty fun with it on.
All Slingshots also come with antilock brakes and traction control, which on our preproduction test model could also be turned off, but, again, we can’t see why you’d want to. Even with traction control on, you can light the tires up in first and second gears and get a healthy chirp in third gear.
Once underway, the Slingshot doesn’t weave or waiver. It tracks where you point it. A quick jab of the throttle will quickly put you where you want to be on the horizon. On corners, it always seems to summon up the grip it needs to make you feel like a high-speed superhero. If by some wild chance you manage to turn it over—after getting hit by a train or running off a steep embankment, for example–the cast-aluminum roll bars sticking up over your head will keep your helmet or head from getting scuffed. Polaris was fond of reminding us that the roll bars can support five times the vehicle’s weight.
We drove the Slingshot on public roads and the Polaris test track, and it never once failed to impress us with its abilities, either in terms of road-holding or providing control with sometimes-ridiculous attempts to catch it unawares.
Climbing Into The Cockpit
This is an aggressive-looking machine. The front track is 6 inches wider than a Corvette C7, and overall it is 4 inches wider. So you won’t be threading your way through traffic in this baby.
Climb into the cockpit and strap yourself in with the three-point center-mounted seatbelt. The seats are clad in a thin layer of foam and are more supportive and comfortable than appearances. The driver’s seat adjusts fore and aft; the passenger seat is fixed. And as the driver’s seat moves forward it also slides higher to accommodate a greater variety of body shapes.
Adjust the steering wheel for optimal comfort—the instruments move with the wheel—turn the ignition key on, and hit the red starter button on the dash, race-car style. The motor rumbles to life and settles into a steady, throaty idle. Fuel injection means trouble-free starts.
The interior is basic and functional. Don’t expect a leather-clad steering wheel or hand-stitched upholstery. It is waterproof, and the important pieces are marine-grade. In fact, you can hose the interior out for cleaning; the drains are under the seats.
The entertainment system, standard on the SL, comes with an LCD screen and marine-grade speakers. The few controls you have are placed where you’d expect them. The turn-signal stalk extends well beyond the edge of the wheel, so there’s some risk you’re going to hook the thing getting in and out of the vehicle. And even with big hands, it’s a reach from the wheel to activate the turn signal. It really needs to be closer for hands-on-wheel activation.
The LCD screen is problematic because angle and location make it more or less invisible in daylight. Polaris is aware of that issue; the company might already have a fix in place. The entertainment center comes with six speakers mounted in the foot well facing your ears, Bluetooth connectivity, and a protected USB jack and power plug in the large glove compartment.
There’s another 12-volt socket at shoulder level between the two seats and above the pair of cupholders. That’ll be useful for something—a mini cooler or coffeemaker perhaps.
There’s plenty of room in the foot well, and the pedals are easy to work even with size-12 boots. The driver also gets a narrow footrest—a nice touch. The hand falls easily to the stubby, short-throw shift lever that works the five-speed transmission in the usual way. And even though the interior is a jumble of angles and panels, you will always find places to set all your arms and legs in comfort while underway. Polaris has managed to provide creature comforts that all the engineering might and power of an Audi, for example, is unable to provide in some of its models.
The windshield comes standard on the SL and is an option you should get on the base model. We can’t think of any reason for not having it, unless you’re a glutton for wind punishment. The windshield does what it’s supposed to do. If you’re taller than 6-foot-2, you might find some wind buffeting at speed; our Arai RX-Q easily dealt with that problem. Beneath that snarly exterior sits a chassis made of thin-walled steel tubing. Short of a carbon tub, there is no structure as strong or rigid. It’s what comes on motorcycles, monster trucks, hill-climb ravers, and anything where exceptional strength is needed.
The Slingshot has no roof, which is where cars get most of their rigidity. It’s why convertibles are heavier than their hardtop versions, if the manufacturer has done it right. Even then, many convertibles will betray some cowl shake. Not the Slingshot; no twist or flex at all. Run it over any kind of road surface with bumps and ruts and camber changes and the chassis simply stays put.
Somewhat surprisingly, we didn’t notice squeaks and rattles from the polymer body panels. Lots of other noises but no annoying squeaks. The front wheels hang on hubs mounted to double wishbone suspension, itself tied together by an oversize anti-sway bar. Power is delivered through a driveshaft to a transfer case behind the passenger compartment, which turns power sideways to a Kevlar belt for the final drive. The rear wheel is mounted to a single-sided swingarm, again oversize.
The suspension setup on the preproduction Slingshot felt spot on, and it is adjustable. With only 5 inches between the lower frame rail and the road, suspension travel is limited. We managed to bottom the front end once, at speed, and after hitting a surprise bump midcorner while the suspension was compressed. The rear suspension is firm but supple and stays absolutely planted on the tarmac at all times.
Power comes from a four-cylinder, 2.4-liter Ecotec supplied by GM. The motor doesn’t sound pretty, but it’s a good one. The all-aluminum lump has variable-cam timing, good for more low-end grunt, and puts out a claimed 170 hp at peak. This tried-and-true engine has powered dozens of GM cars over the years, most of them weighing more than twice the Slingshot’s relatively puny 1,700 pounds. GM says the 2.4 has the fewest warranty claims of any it builds. And because it’s been around so long, there are plenty of bolt-on modifications if you want more power. Which would be insane.
Polaris hasn’t released official performance figures, but our informal timing puts 0–60 times under six seconds, and the gearing will push the vehicle to just north of 130 mph. Those numbers don’t put the Slingshot into supercar league, but you will have the pleasure of showing serious sports cars your fancy LED taillights, if you’re in the mood.
The motor sounds close by because it is, hidden under a hood that tips forward and out of the way when you need to get at it for servicing. There’s one big muffler forward of the firewall, and the exhaust spills out right there underneath the vehicle. There’s none of the soundproofing and padding you’d get in a car.
You can drive the Slingshot gently if you like, but it prefers to be driven hard. The motor revs freely and hard up to its 6,500-rpm redline. Tromp on the accelerator and the whole machine tightens up and settles for action. Keep the foot on the floor and you’ll tear through 100 mph before your brain has caught up with what’s going on—just how we like it. Apart from the numbers, the Slingshot feels very, very fast.
Driven normally, our test Slingshot returned 37 mpg on our one-hour ramble around the flats of Minnesota. Driven insanely dropped mileage to 31 mpg. There’s a computer on the dash that tells you how good or bad you’re behaving.
The Playing Field
The Slingshot is, for the moment, the only beast of its kind. There are other three-wheelers out there that allow driver and passenger to sit side by side—the Morgan and the Campagna T-Rex, for example—but not in this price range. A three-wheeler called the Travertson Striker is under development, but it’s not out yet, so it doesn’t count.
There’s the Can-Am Spyder, but you sit on it rather than in it, and rider and passenger sit front and back and on top rather than side by side and inside. The Spyder’s simply too different to be considered a fair competitor.
Find an empty parking lot to put the Slingshot through its paces, and you will experience a blur of speed and noise and G-forces slamming you left and right and forward and back that few vehicles can match. If that sounds like a good time, you won’t find anything in this price range that can do that. And if you like that kind of thing, get yourself a Slingshot before the regulators find out how much fun the thing is.
Polaris Slingshot Specs
2015 Polaris Slingshot
Base price: $19,999; SL $23,999
Engine type: 2384cc DOHC inline-four Ecotec
Transmission: 5-speed manual
Fuel capacity: 9.8 gal.