Glued to the window. I mean this kid’s face must have literally become fused with the glass. There is something about the raw enthusiasm of a child that’s quite effective for judging certain things about a car. Let’s put it this way, we were stuck in traffic, surrounded by hundreds of other cars, but this kid’s attention was transfixed solely on mine, and for good reason. Just look at this thing, it’s the Polaris Slingshot, and it’s friggin’ awesome!
The kid would’ve never even bothered to notice if I were in any sort of normal car, whether it be a Toyota Camry, a BMW M5, or probably even a Porsche 911. There was something vastly entrancing to his young mind about my Polaris Slingshot, to the point where he was trying to push himself through the window to get a better look at it. You’d honestly need to be in a Lamborghini, or something that exotic, to draw the same kind of attention this outrageous reverse trike does.
I think, by all definitions, the Polaris Slingshot can be considered a genuine exotic car. It commands crazy amounts of attention, it’s exciting to drive, and it’s totally idiotic in most practical ways. What I found in my time driving the Slingshot, though, was just how exotic it really is in the most classic sense. You see, the exotic car experience consists of a grand mix of excitement and frustration. The great aspects are incredible, but they are balanced out by serious flaws, which are often infuriating, excruciating, or both at the same time.
The question is, are the Polaris Slingshot’s good aspects worth putting up with its bad aspects? Or, for that matter, is it even worth your time in a world full of other wonderful cars and bikes?
I’ve wanted to drive a Slingshot ever since I first saw one fly past me on the road, so I decided to rent one and find out during a recent vacation in Myrtle Beach, SC.
So what exactly is the Slingshot?
As a reverse trike, it’s almost exactly what it looks like: halfway between a sports car and a motorcycle in almost every single way. It’s technically classified as a motorcycle, but in some states you can drive one with a normal car license.
It’s powered by a GM-sourced 2.4L four cylinder engine that sends 173hp to the rear wheel via a conventional 5 speed manual transmission. The drivetrain itself is more car than bike, save for the single rear wheel. The Slingshot’s curb weight is around 1,750 lbs, so its power-to-weight ratio is about 10lbs/hp, or similar to that of a new Porsche 718 Cayman or my dad’s 996 Carrera.
The Slingshot is quick enough to have a lot of fun with, certainly compared to other new cars in the same $25k range. Car and Driver tested a Slingshot and got 0-60mph in 4.6 sec, 0-100mph in 12.1 sec, and the ¼ Mile in 13.6 sec. Top speed is stated at 130mph, which I, having experienced what 95mph felt like in this thing, can tell you is way more than enough.
I’ll go more into what it’s like from behind the wheel later on.
Practicality and features
It’s an exposed two-seater, and while the Slingshot lacks a definitive trunk, but it does have two decent sized storage compartments behind each seat. There’s enough space that, if you packed right, you could take it on a trip for a few days. Just make sure the weather will be good…
The Slingshot also does have a basic radio and can sync to your phone, but that’s it for any luxuries.
The Slingshot is a little safer than a bike because you can’t really fall off of it, but it’s nowhere near as safe as a car because it doesn’t have much crash structure, and there are no airbags. I drove this thing about a month after my accident in my Miata, and I can’t say I wasn’t at least a little freaked out by the open exposure.
Helmet requirements, like a motorcycle, depend on what state you’re in, but you’re a fool if you don’t wear some type of head protection. It’s not about rolling over so much as it is about debris being kicked up by vehicles in front of you. The windscreen is very low, I had a few small stones ping me, which wasn’t fun. That said, the type of rock that could crack your windshield in a car would likely crack your skull open in this thing, so wear your damn helmet!
Like on a bike, weather is another major safety concern. I drove the Slingshot in unbearable heat, and words can barely describe how miserable I was at times when I was stuck in traffic. There’s no ventilation in the car at all when you aren’t moving, so you just roast in the sun, completely exposed. Also, for some reason, Polaris decided to cover the seats in black vinyl, which means you’re guaranteed to burn yourself if you leave it sitting out in the sun for more than a minute or two.
It would’ve been great in cooler weather, but in severe heat driving a Slingshot is actually dangerous. I had the Slingshot for around 3 hours, and went through ten bottles of water trying to stave off dehydration and heat exhaustion, and I was not feeling good at all when I handed back the keys. Like a motorcycle, the Slingshot will require you to take environmental factors into account before you go out for a drive.
What’s the Slingshot like from behind the wheel?
In some ways it feels the same as a conventional car, but in other ways you’re keenly aware it’s a 3-wheeler.
As I said before the drivetrain is like a car’s. If you can operate a manual car, you can operate a Slingshot, no problem. It even has power steering and an entirely livable clutch, so the Slingshot is actually pretty tame to drive around town.
Just cruising around, the only time you’ll notice the Slingshot is a 3-wheeler is when you have to dodge a pothole. If you try let the pothole pass underneath the car, between the front wheels, you’ll be in for a serious bump in the ass. You have to remember to go around potholes and bumps in the road, and that’s not second nature when you’re used to 4 wheels.
Driving harder, the Slingshot’s 3-wheeler nature becomes much more apparent. Get on the gas hard in 1st or 2nd gear and it’ll want to spin the rear tire. Even with traction control on, it still struggles for grip. I also had it chirp the rear tire shifting into 3rd and 4th. It drives like a much more powerful car in terms of struggling for traction simply because it has half the grip at the rear.
Pulling in gear, you really need to let the engine rev out to find the acceleration you’re hoping for, but it’s there. I let it rev out to the top of 3rd a few times, and it was very exciting. While the Slingshot is pretty quick, it was more the exposure and the increasing wind shear that got my adrenaline pumping. I’ve driven many much faster cars, but you don’t feel the speed in something like a Lamborghini the way you feel it in this. You’d need to do 150 mph in a Gallardo to feel the same speed sensation you get in a Slingshot at 90 mph. Watching its plastic body panels flex in the wind as you keep your foot buried in the throttle was quite a thrill!
Cornering is an interesting endeavor in the Slingshot. The chassis itself is quite stiff. It turns in pretty well, and it feels solid cornering at a decent pace. However, as you push the Slingshot harder and harder through a turn, that single rear tire is always on your mind, and you know that once it loses grip, you’ll likely spin out. Maybe it’s just a psychological barrier, but just knowing I only had half the lateral grip kept me from wanting to push the Slingshot too hard through turns. Consequently, I didn’t get the same dynamic handling experience from it that I love in other, four-wheeled sports cars. The Slingshot is surely good for some low speed parking lot slides, but hanging its tail out at higher speed is not something I’d be willing to try unless there’s huge room for error.
Time to be a critic
Polaris made an interesting vehicle here, but it’s mostly interesting because it’s different. It’s also rather easy to make something so light relatively fast, so that doesn’t count for much. I’m going to lay it on here, but there is some silver lining at the end for the Slingshot.
The truth is, the Slingshot looks a lot cooler than it really is from behind the wheel. Literally everything about the way it drives could be much better.
First, it’s steering was overpowered to the point where it took away from the driving experience. Why the Slingshot has power steering at all is beyond me, it really does not need it. Its steering is nowhere near as sharp or connected as I had thought it would be. I wanted that raw “go kart feel”, and that’s not what it delivered.
The shifter was clunky, and felt out of place in a sports car. Anyone who’s ever driven a Miata or an S2000 will be vastly disappointed. The clutch also felt economy-car-grade, and didn’t have the precise bite people expect in a sports car.
The engine, while decently powered for the car’s weight, lacked any sort of character at all. You expect an exotic-looking vehicle to have a loud, finely toned exhaust note, but the Slingshot is actually fairly quiet, and it’s engine just drones along. I’m fine with the 170 hp, but Polaris seems to have done no tuning of the engine or exhaust system at all. It’s like they just took a generic GM economy car engine and plopped it, as-is, into their reverse trike. The engine is the heart and soul of any sports car, and the Slingshot feels totally uninspired.
Honestly, the Slingshot feels like a hodgepodge of different generic parts that have been thrown together in one funky wrapper. You don’t get the sense that much effort was spent refining each of those parts to really come together as one whole package. As a result, the Slingshot has to rely very heavily on its exotic, “something different” appeal.
For me, though, above all else, the biggest thing the Slingshot lacked was a fourth wheel. It plainly doesn’t have the handling prowess that makes a sports car so much fun to drive, and without that, it’s not really a sports car at all, is it?
Can pricing be the Slingshot’s saving grace?
I just levied a lot of criticism on the Polaris Slingshot for what it isn’t, but it’s also important to realize the context of what it is. If Polaris were to fix every shortcoming I just mentioned, they’d have built an Ariel Atom. Fun fact, the Ariel Atom costs more than double what the Polaris Slingshot costs.
The Slingshot starts at $22,000 and the prices go up to around $30,000 with different models. Think about what else you can get in that price range, you won’t find much else that will turn as many heads. The Slingshot may not be perfect, but it is genuinely exotic, for better or worse, and that’s pretty cool.
If you come from the world of two wheels, the Slingshot offers an interesting alternative, especially if you often have someone riding along with you. Let’s be honest, nobody really enjoys riding on the back of a motorcycle, it’s something they merely tolerate. The Slingshot is surely an improvement in that regard.
You REALLY have to want to be different to actually go and buy a Slingshot, though, because there are some very enticing other options on either end of the car/bike spectrum.
If you’re a bike person, your Slingshot purchase comes at the opportunity cost of some of the ultimate sport bikes in the world. The Ducati 1199 Panigale comes to mind, which has 30 more horsepower, 1,300 less pounds, and costs $3,000 less than the base Slingshot. There are plenty of other examples too, but let’s be real here, you’re not buying a Slingshot if you’re a serious motorcycle enthusiast. The Panigale is like the Ferrari of bikes, and the Polaris is a neat toy at best. Nowhere near the pedigree.
I’m afraid the same is true of the other options with four wheels, but I’m going to leave the faster alternatives, the Corvettes, the Porsches, and the Vipers, out of it. A Honda S2000 and a Mazda Miata Club Edition absolutely KILL the Slingshot in terms of the driving experience, and it’s all because of the handling. The sensation of being able to push a car hard through the bends, and the challenge of getting every ounce of momentum you can out of it. That’s an experience you won’t have in the Slingshot because there’s just no confidence in that single rear wheel near the limit of grip. For me, that neuters the driving experience.
The Polaris Slingshot is not a motorcycle and it’s not a sports car. In some ways it’s trying to be both, but in all of those ways it could never hope to seriously compete. The truth is, the Slingshot is different for the sake of being different, and that’s kind of fun in its own right.
It’s happy to go at a brisk, entertaining pace through corners, but it’s not about really pushing it. The Slingshot is mostly a cruiser, something to go out and enjoy some nice weather in, and definitely turn everyone’s head in town.
In short, the Polaris Slingshot is a 3-wheeled gimmick, but that kid in the other car didn’t know that. He saw it as a dream car, and that’s what most people will see when they watch you drive by. It’s fantastic if you love to be the talk of the town, but it leaves everything to be desired for any serious driving (or riding) enthusiast.
After Note: So I wouldn’t buy a Slingshot, I know, but that doesn’t mean I regret renting this one for a few hours during vacation. To the contrary. It may not be my favorite way to spend $20,000-30,000, but it’s a fantastic way to spend $100-200 for a few hours of fun. In fact, I think renting a Slingshot is the ideal way to experience one. It is something very different, and it’s worth trying out if you love driving things like I do. I got mine from the folks at Rollin Rental in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and they took great care of me, even threw in an extra hour in exchange for the plug. Hit them up if you’re in the area, just be careful if it’s really hot outside.
MoM Score: Polaris Slingshot
Primary Function: Driving Experience: 1
Secondary Functions: Practicality(1): 1
Visual Appeal: 2
Build Quality: 1
Value for Money: 0
Final Score: 5 / 10