Road Tests

One Week With: 2018 Polaris Slingshot SLR LE

Three: wheels. Two: seats. One: blastoff.

And now for something completely different. You’re gazing at a three-wheeled, open-cockpit two-seater that’s fully street-legal. But it’s not a car. It’s not a new, industrial-sized Veg-O-Matic, either. Nor is it an airplane or a spaceship or, despite all that “Lime Squeeze” paint, the flavor of Chuckles candy nobody wants. Nope, the Polaris Slingshot is technically an “auto-cycle.” In ten states, you need a motorcycle license to drive the Slingshot (in California, where I live, and most other states, a standard driver’s license is fine). And, not surprisingly, the Slingshot shares many motorcycle-like traits: You’re out there in the open, exposed to the wind, the bugs, and passing Escalades, the exhaust note riding along with you, so low to the ground you could reach out and paint lane stripes if you wanted. The difference is, on a motorcycle, people don’t usually gawk at you like you’re naked, Hollywood Star Tour buses don’t pull alongside so everyone can lean out the window and bag today’s Instagram, and passersby at stoplights don’t usually run over, tap you on the helmet, and yell, “What the hell is this thing?!”

I experienced all of that—and a lot more—driving the Slingshot around L.A. Maybe if I’d worn a mask and a cape people would’ve left me alone (“Oh, look. There goes Batman. He looks busy.”).

Minnesota-based Polaris may be best known for its snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles, but with the Slingshot it’s built something unlike almost anything else. I mean, the Campagna Motors T-Rex 16S has three wheels, but it starts at $58,000. The Ariel Atom is also low and wild and open, but it has four wheels—and costs a ton more. The Slingshot, in contrast, starts at just $19,999. And even my fully loaded SLR LE tester—including alloy wheels, 200-watt Rockford-Fosgate audio, 10-way adjustable Bilsteins, even touchscreen navigation—checks in at only $31K. That’s not a lot of bread to dazzle Hollywood tour buses or play superhero any time you want.

But the Slingshot is a lot more than just a striking piece of eye candy. It’s also a flat-out blast to drive. Inside the space-frame steel chassis sits a GM Ecotec 2.4-liter four-cylinder (which saw duty in the Pontiac Solstice) mated to a five-speed manual transmission. The numbers won’t take your breath away—173 horsepower, 166 pound-feet of torque—but the Slingshot weighs just 1,750 pounds, giving it a power-to-weight ratio not far off the BMW M2’s. Besides, it’s only got one drive wheel. Turn off traction control and the Ecotec will easily light up that poor, solo rear tire in first and second gears. The thing does donuts better than Krispy Kreme.

When I picked up my 17-year-old daughter from school, at first she wouldn’t even get in. “Is that thing really a car?” she asked. “I mean, there’s a wheel missing back here and … where are the doors?” Five minutes later, though, after she had taken few pictures, put on her helmet, and posted to social media while we motored home, my daughter’s smartphone lit up with replies from friends begging for a ride. Driving a Slingshot for a week is like borrowing a pet tiger cub. Everybody wants to come over and play.

Can you use the Slingshot as a car? Uh, sort of. The interior is fully waterproof, so don’t worry about the lack of a top when it rains, assuming you and your passenger are prepared to get soaked. Inboard seatbelts and big roll hoops provide welcome security. There’s a small, lockable cubby behind the seats, but storage space is pretty minimal.

That said, if you’re just looking to get somewhere, have at it. I actually braved L.A.’s fearsome 405 freeway in the Slingshot. The Polaris itself did just fine: The rear wheel—on a huge swing arm with a coil-over shock and fed by a carbon fiber-reinforced drive belt—skips a tad over really big bumps, but otherwise the vehicle tracks well, it’s impressively vibration-free, and it easily lopes along with traffic flowing well above the speed limit. But you feel so exposed. An errant Miata could crush the Slingshot—to say nothing of big sedan or an SUV. You’re on red alert all the time, scanning the mirrors, pre-selecting evasive routes, keeping a steely eye on the guy texting at the wheel in the next lane. I do all this in any vehicle, of course, but the stakes are higher when you’re sitting inches off the ground in little more than a big paper airplane. It doesn’t help that nearby motorists all swoop in for a closer look.

But the Slingshot doesn’t exist for commuting. It’s exists for generating g forces and grins—and on that score it delivers in spades. Up in Malibu, on some of SoCal’s best wriggly stuff, the SLR delivered a rush akin to piloting a single-seat formula car on a track. It turns-in fast (steering is power-assisted), and it’s remarkably stable through quick corners. That single 305/30ZR20 Kenda SS-799 rear tire hangs on mightily, way better than I expected (switch off traction control, though, and the rear end gets really playful). The wind blasts at your helmet, the engine roars, the five-speed shifter snicks neatly through up or downshifts, the ABS-equipped, vented disc brakes are robust and without fade. And that view! This is motoring in full IMAX—with Dolby Atmos sound. You couldn’t be more “one” with the road unless you were riding a 173-horsepower skateboard.

Frankly, the Slingshot puts a lot of conventional sports cars to shame. In comparison, they feel big, clumsy, remote. The Slingshot is anything but: Driving it is as immediate as grabbing a live electric wire. There’s something undeniably wonderful about a motoring machine with so few pretenses, such pure dedication to driving joy. Just enough wheels to keep it level, an ultra-light frame dressed in flamboyant body panels, two seats, and horsepower aplenty to keep you feeling that afternoon mountain-roads blast even when you’re lying in bed at night. And all at a sticker price that screams, “You can afford me!”

But remember: Buy a cape, too. When people see the Slingshot, they kind of expect it.

2018 Polaris Slingshot SLR LE Specifications

PRICE $30,999/$30,999 (base/as-tested)
ENGINE 2.4 DOHC 16-valve I-4/173 hp @ 6,200 rpm, 166 lb-ft @ 4,700 rpm
TRANSMISSION 5-speed manual
LAYOUT 0-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD motorcycle
EPA MILEAGE N/A mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 149.6 x 77.9 x 51.9 in
WHEELBASE 105.0 in
WEIGHT 1,750 lb
0-60 MPH 4.8 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 130 mph (est)