Neither fish nor fowl, only fun.
The Polaris Slingshot SL you see here is red, but base versions come in only one color: titanium metallic. One might call it gray, as in the gray area between cars and motorcycles, a regulatory DMZ where few dare to tread.
Yes, the Slingshot is a three-wheeler, a reverse trike, the ol’ tripod. Three points make a plane, but it’s not plain whether Polaris will be able to convince state bureaucrats that this contraption belongs to the motorcycle family. Freedom-loving Texas, for instance, will happily let you park your helmetless carcass on a Hayabusa, but it blocked sales of the Slingshot on the logic that it has bucket seats and is thus not a motorcycle. Go back to the drawing board and come back when it’s more dangerous.
Indeed, the Slingshot has waterproof seats, three-point belts, and forged aluminum roll hoops. It has a steering wheel and a five-speed manual transmission, with reverse. The view ahead is of two wheels sprouting from forged aluminum control arms, flanking a long hood that conceals a longitudinally mounted GM Ecotec 2.4-liter four-cylinder. A familiar piece from the Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky, here it makes 173 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque. From the front seats forward, it’s kind of as if you’re driving Mad Max’s Saturn Ion.
It’s behind the front seats where things get really weird. The steel space-frame chassis comes to an abrupt end, sprouting a gigantic swing arm that rides on a coil-over. The back half is propped up by a single wheel shod with a 265/35R-20 Kenda car tire (base models get an 18-inch rear wheel and tire). A driveshaft runs between the transmission and final-drive unit, which connects to the rear wheel via a carbon-fiber-reinforced belt. At 149.6 inches long and 77.2 inches wide at the front, the Slingshot has some singular proportions. It’s nearly eight inches shorter than aMazda MX-5 Miata and a couple of inches wider than a Lamborghini Huracán.
The base Slingshot has no windshield, but our SL had the optional medium-height screen, which is just about tall enough to keep the bugs out of your teeth but not from splattering against your forehead. Each seat has an integrated, molded headrest that’s defiantly convex and forces your head down when you’re wearing a helmet. The solution is either to recline the seat enough to get the headrest out of the way or just forgo the helmet. Sans lid, the Slingshot delivers the airy feeling of exposure you get in a vintage roadster, a sense that you could hang your left arm out and graze the pavement with your fingertips. In that way, this exercise in futurism is more like a Datsun 1600 roadster than any modern car.
The wide forward footprint means that the front end is stable, but the Slingshot doesn’t have a car’s commitment to a straight path. The rear end is a puppy, following along wherever you go, but also stopping now and then to sniff the shrubbery. Even with stability control activated, you can get a wiggle from the tail on a strong 1-2 shift. The GM four-banger at first seems a disappointing choice for power, but it turns out that 173 horsepower is quite a bit for a vehicle that (a) weighs less than 1800 pounds and (b) has one drive wheel.
Large-radius corners require a lot of small steering corrections; tight stuff is more the Slingshot’s specialty. Turn-in from the electrically assisted steering is almost startlingly immediate, as there’s not much rear grip to resist a change in direction. A Slingshot would be a riot on the Tail of the Dragon and a drag on your highway drive to get there.
The Slingshot interior basically has only one button, there to turn off the stability control. Do so and you’ll soon find that the Slingshot can do Hellcat-quality burnouts through first and second gears, all while making a noise like someone mixing cake batter with a Bell Huey II helicopter. The exhaust system, muffler and all, is crammed into the space ahead of the passenger’s-side footwell, a design Polaris might want to rethink. For one thing, that’s a lot of heat trying to boil out toward the cockpit. And Polaris would have more leeway to tune the sound if the exhaust system were any longer than a flugelhorn.
Its maker claims no official zero-to-60 time, but the Slingshot probably does the sprint in less than five seconds. You can see why Polaris wants to downplay that number, because five seconds is woefully sluggish by motorcycle standards. It is indeed quick for a car, but the company prefers to distance the Slingshot from any mention of that C-word, lest more states join Texas in giving three-wheelers the hairy eyeball.
Besides, Polaris does have a point that this machine isn’t really about numbers. It’s about an experience that’s unlike any in a modern car or, indeed, on any bike. An Ariel Atom might come close in terms of low-slung, open-frame, bees-in-your-face excitement, but the Atom is much quicker and roughly three times the price.
The Slingshot starts at $19,999, which is a whole lot of crazy for not much money. Based on the initial orders, it turns out that a goodly number of Americans have 20 grand available to look like Batman in his bathtub every time they hit a Starbucks. Of course, novelty only gets you so far. Once the early adopters are sated and Slingshots become a semi-normal sight, continued sales momentum will depend on the machine itself.
And the machine is interesting enough to outlive the momentary hype of a hot introduction. Forget what’s going on behind the seats and it’s easy to pretend that you’re piloting your own open-wheel Formula car since the Slingshot is so low, elemental, and raw. It feels as if you’re getting away with something. And who knows? Maybe you are.
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