- Nate Kuhn
And now for something completely different...
I am an aggressively curious person and am always interested in trying new things. For example I’m not a typical Chevrolet Volt enthusiast but I was VERY excited to try one out years ago. Also, despite my large stature, I am DYING to have a go on a puny Honda Grom motorcycle. There’s nothing about either vehicle that will likely lead to a discovery that I absolutely NEED to buy one, but I want to see what they’re like nonetheless. In my opinion, there really is very little that can be called a “Bad” experience. Every new thing you try teaches you something, adds to your repertoire, and helps level out your ongoing perspective on everything life has to offer.
So when something vastly unique or different comes along the automotive landscape, it is ALWAYS something I want to experience. Be it a Nissan 350z with a Corvette engine in it, a go-kart with studded tires on a frozen lake or checking out new hybrid technology, I’m always thrilled with a go “around the block”. Sometimes, the weirder the better.
When the Polaris Slingshot first debuted many people including myself did not know quite what to make of it. A three wheeled vehicle made by a snowmobile company powered by a GM drivetrain that is seemingly as wide as an Aventador but with an overall length smaller than a Miata is not at all your typical Everyday Driver. To a sports car owner, it seemed like a less stable machine that would not be as good at cornering as a car, and to a motorcyclist it seemed like a poor replacement for the leaned-over dynamics of a 2-wheeled machine. In all, I didn’t really “Get it”. But I was hugely curious.
I sat in one at a motorcycle show that first year of its release. While the seating position was extremely aggressive and set the stage for something exciting, to me the Slingshot seemed like not much more than a minimalist open-air sports car. Similar to an Ariel Atom or KTM X-Bow except with one wheel out back for some reason. It absolutely didn’t remind me of a motorcycle in any way. It had side by side seating, a steering wheel, 3 pedals and a manual gear shifter in the normal place. Sure there were no doors or roof, but it had seat belts and an e-brake handle. Upon further inspection it was even powered by the running gear from a now-extinct Pontiac Solstice. Sounds pretty car-like to me, save for the belt-driven central rear wheel with a monoshock keeping it in contact with the ground.
So it’s definitely not a motorcycle. But why isn’t it a car? Do a little digging, and it ends up making sense. Because it has three wheels, it’s not a car in the legal sense, so it eschews things like traditional safety rating, crash testing and all those pesky technical hurdles that make cars so difficult to design, engineer and market. It’s also why something this crazy and seemingly exotic isn’t THAT expensive. Clever.
Truthfully, as both a motorcycle rider and a sports car enthusiast these three wheeled contraptions have never really been appealing to me. They seem to offer the negatives of both without the TRUE advantages of either. They do seem to be selling fairly well because it’s more than just occasionally that I see them out on a nice day. I happened to be on vacation in Arizona recently, and the opportunity came up to rent one of these things for the day with my own money. I am not one to pass on that unique experience and I couldn’t think of a better place than Arizona to see what the fuss was all about.
The first thing you notice as you walk up to a Slingshot is that it’s extremely low and wide. I wouldn’t doubt if it was wider at the front fender arches than a Viper. It also has a seat height lower than just about anything I can think of for that proper sensation of hovering just above the pavement that gets thrown around a lot.
Once you realize it’s designed to have the seat stood on as you get in and out, ingress is very easy. If you can lift your foot to roughly knee-height you can get into a Slingshot. The rubbery-textured weatherproof seat is surprisingly comfortable. It’s firmer than most car seats but is supportive and works well. Neither myself at 6’2” or my wife at 5’1” had any complaints about comfort or ergonomics. Maybe they’re onto something here.
Like a car, most of the controls are just where you’d expect. Aside from some buttons moved to the bespoke center console (that is waterproof of course) you just get in and drive away like a car. Unless you’re a stranger to wearing a helmet (required by the rental agency and honestly recommended by me as well), it’s remarkably normal within just a few blocks.
I’m used to a low seating position in my lowered FRS but this was an entirely different experience. Having my eye-level with the lower window edge of a Malibu is normal to me, but in the Slingshot I was looking up at the door handle on many vehicles. But aside from that and an open air experience far more exposed than in any traditional roadster, it drove pretty much like a car.
It’s not meant to lean like a motorcycle, and the combination of stiff suspension, low center of gravity and extremely WIDE track up front, it corners flat and really doesn’t deliver much different of an experience than a four-wheeled car. I was honestly surprised and a bit let down that the Slingshot doesn’t really FEEL nearly as unique as it looks. However, it was enjoyable to drive and really was nearly as easy to pilot as a Miata.
We took a recreational drive through Phoenix, and then up a few mountain passes and canyon roads winding our way to Payson, snaking through some back roads in the Tonto National Forest area that I have always been fond of. This roughly 200 mile jaunt was enough to put the Slingshot through stop/go city driving, full speed highway cruising and twisty canyon roads.
What I can say is that it was perfectly capable of doing all of this with ease. Upon first sitting down, the Slingshot doesn’t SEEM like it would be very comfortable but the suspension is sorted with much more care than you’d imagine. My wife isn’t one to keep quiet about the harshness or comfort factor of a “toy” vehicle, and we were both quite surprised with how comfortable we were for a few hours. There’s a storage cubby that will swallow up a few items or helmets when you park and aside from the complete lack of a roof it is arguably as practical as something like an Elise for daily use. Of course it doesn’t hurt to be in the Phoenix, AZ area since it only rains about 30 times each year and is sunny nearly every day.
The powertrain is a somewhat bland 2.4l GM 4cyl found in the base Solstice. Truthfully, it isn’t one of those engines that sings or really stirs you up. However, they’re cheap, simple, reliable and when pushing barely more than HALF the weight of a Solstice, it’s plenty powerful. Not super car quick, but faster than you’d think anything with 175hp should move. It’s not enough to be scary but plenty to be exciting. I’d prefer the revvy Vtec from a Honda S2000 powertrain but this is honestly fine for the kind of driving you’ll likely do with it. The transmission is nothing special, but it doesn’t detract or distract so no problem there either.
As for the earlier comparisons to a sports car and motorcycle, the first thing to get out of the way is the bike. The ONLY part of a Slingshot that is remotely motorcycle-esque is how open to the outside world it is. There is a very aggressive cutaway in the bodywork right about where your knees are. This makes for a very airy side view, and the chassis tub wraps under your legs somewhat similarly to an open wheel race car. Combined with the VERY low sill height you can look down to the left where the window switch would be on most cars and see pavement scrolling by behind the front wheel. That is perhaps the most bizarre sensation of the Slingshot experience, and I won’t lie when I say it’s a pretty great one. Perhaps only the Ariel Atom would feel more “airy” but it’s close.
Now, as a sports car alternative the Slingshot is pretty compelling. I drove it in a spirited manner without pushing TOO hard. I had seen a few YouTube videos that showed how easily they’d roll over when trying to hold a bit of a drift so I kept it at or under my 7/10 pace on the road. This is STILL probably a more vigorous pace than most people would ever attempt in one so I don’t feel like I was babying it.
At that 7/10 pace, the slingshot seemed to have endless front grip. There was no understeer at anything but what could be described as a tight Autocross maneuver. It was easy enough to induce a bit of rear end movement and some oversteer, but not as effortless as I had expected. You have to be TRYING to hoon it for it to really get out of shape. In another surprise, it felt completely stable at highway speeds up to about 95mph, switching lanes and dodging the plethora of cars that didn’t see me. I drove it so cautiously for the first hour or so and was ready for it to behave as twitchy and as unstable as I had imagined, but that just never came. It was easy and enjoyable.
Honestly it felt fantastic and really didn’t feel all that different from any normal front engine, rear wheel driven roadster for street driving. The only real challenge is when going over obstacles - a pothole or some debris in the road can be difficult to avoid when there’s an additional wheel in the middle of the vehicle and the ground clearance is barely a few inches. This is probably the biggest drawback of the unique layout and I feel is something that would always be a little annoying long-term.
Between the aforementioned disaster videos and what I've heard from people who have pushed these things a tad more than I did that day, I really don’t see the Slingshot as something that a hardcore sports car driver would want. While the engineering makes for a pretty normal experience when driven smoothly and somewhat gently, eventually this thing is going to remind you that it has a serious grip deficiency out back and would not be kind when that shows it’s hand. Add to this the huge hurdles you’d be in to get one on track - it’s hard enough to get a normal convertible approved for track days let alone this thing - and it really starts looking out of its element as a motorsports tool. It certainly loses any real interest I'd have of owning one.
Is that such a problem though? Honestly, the part of me that would LOVE to own a KTM X-Bow, Ariel Atom or BAC Mono but could NEVER afford to put one in my garage was hoping that the Slingshot would be an affordable alternative. It certainly LOOKS more like one of those than any traditional car does.
But in all honesty, the Polaris really isn’t a competitor to those. Not at all. For better or worse, I see the Slingshot as a cruiser. Something to take out on a nice day that is thrilling to those who wouldn't otherwise be driving something thrilling. Some may call it a midlife crisis car and there’s plenty of argument to back that up. We always jump right to the idea of the old guy in the Corvette driving under the speed limit in the left lane. Driving enthusiasts HATE that guy. Perhaps the Slingshot is best made for those types of people. It’s less than half the price of a corvette - about an equal investment to a Miata. And unlike those two (or any number of sports cars in between in their price range) there isn’t much sacrilege in the Slingshot just cruising along in the slow lane.
I’ll even say that at normal speeds, the Slingshot is VASTLY more exciting than a Corvette. The curse of a high performance car that can handle 170+mph is that they’re so hardcore. When doing anything inside legal speed limits, they really just make nothing of it. The Slingshot however, has a CRAZY sensation of speed at nearly any pace. Having the pavement scroll past you at what is basically an arm’s length away is very exciting regardless of your speed.
You also get something that gives you MUCH more open air driving than any normal roadster. For those who want attention, pulling into a gas station in a Slingshot is akin to exiting a spaceship on one of those long and steep impractical ramps we see in Sci-Fi movies. Everybody wants to get a closer look, everybody wants to ask questions and you get to be the center of attention for a MSRP under $30,000. For the prospective cruiser-type driver, the Slingshot offers more performance, handling and capability than they’d ever want as well. It’s a pretty compelling alternative to the “usual suspects” of the traditional recreational roadster stable.
The laws can call it whatever they want - to me it’s pretty much a car. One I thoroughly enjoyed driving sanely on a beautiful sunny day. It may have been less exciting or eventful than I anticipated but it was much better at being “just a car” than I expected it would be.
Not every car has to pull insane G-Forces or lap times. They CERTAINLY don’t all have to be practical or traditional. In an era of so many cars being watered down with the notion that they have to do everything you’d ever need, it’s refreshing that the simple act of removing a wheel can allow Polaris to sell the Slingshot at a price far less than the average car in the U.S. It gives an affordable, fun, unique experience at a price that is much lower than its curb appeal and image would suggest.
While I don’t have much use or interest for one myself, there are plenty of people who want a fun, flashy convertible to putt around in. Plenty of people won’t consider riding a motorcycle to get their open air recreational motoring and would likely enjoy this a lot. Either way, the Slingshot is definitely a unique experience that I suggest anybody curious try out for themselves. It may not be something I would buy, but I totally get why certain people would love them and am extremely happy they exist.
I write and I know things. I am also the resident motorcycle expert at Everyday Driver - check out the Cycle Report on our YouTube channel. The views and opinions expressed here are my own and may not align with the founders of Everyday Driver.