2020 Polaris Slingshot Rattles Our Brains
New engine and automated transmission broaden its appeal…but not to us.
LOS ANGELES—Let me get straight to a rather uncomfortable point: I didn't enjoy the 2020 Polaris Slingshot very much, and I think—or at least hope—that's down to my own preferences more than flaws in the Slingshot itself. I liked the last Slingshot I drove just fine. This time around, I found it a much less pleasant experience.
Nevertheless, I didn't want to write a flat-out negative review, as that would be unfair to what is an exciting and largely well-engineered vehicle. I didn't want to write a just-the-facts review (a convenient dodge when you don't want to piss off the manufacturer) because that'd be a boring read. And I couldn't write a gushingly positive review, because that'd be dishonest.
So I've decided to tell it like it happened: What I did, what I liked, and what I didn't. While the Slingshot wasn't my cup of tea, it might be yours … you masochist.
Big Changes for the 2020 Polaris Slingshot
As crazy as 2020 has been, it's a banner year for this three-wheeled Batmobile: While it looks largely the same, Polaris says 70 percent of the parts are new, most notably the home-grown 2.0-liter engine that replaces the old Chevrolet-sourced 2.4-liter. More importantly, it can now be had with an automatic (or at least an automated) transmission, a change that is bound to open up Slingshot-ing to a much broader segment of the population.
Polaris was kind enough (or perhaps sadistic enough?) to send me two different Slingshots. First was the high-performance Slingshot R, which gets the 203-horsepower high-output version of Polaris' 2.0-liter, 8,500 rpm Prostar engine and couples it with either a five-speed manual or the new AutoDrive transmission. (This particular example had the stick.)
The stick-shift Slingshot R is ridiculously quick—0-60-mph in 4.9 seconds, according to Polaris, quicker than both last year's Slingshot and a Honda Civic Type R. But getting the Slingshot to hook up is still a problem: With all that torque going to just one wheel, you're almost guaranteed to break that rear tire loose.
Driving smoothly requires practice: The clutch take-up is abrupt, and there's a fine line between whiplash and the odor of smoky clutch. The brakes have no power assistance and the pedal feels stiff and spongy. On the plus side, I thought power delivery was more even than the old Slingshot, and the steering, while still highly responsive, felt less twitchy.
Great Handling—But at a Very High Cost
I took the Polaris out to my favorite curvy roads. The new Slingshot's handling is ridiculously good—the updated suspension gives the Polaris seemingly endless levels of grip and stability, but the trade-off is a ride as unyielding as a granite countertop. Bumps caused the Slingshot to feint left and right, and with little bracing from the seats and none elsewhere in the cabin, my flabby body was flopping all over the place—an unpleasant image, I realize, but an even less pleasant reality.
Incidentally, the Slingshot R has a Comfort mode, which has to be the most inappropriately named thing in the entire automotive industry.
Next, Polaris sent over the less-intense Slingshot SL, which gets less power (178 hp and 120 lb-ft) and a standard-fit AutoDrive transmission. It's a five-speed sequential manual, basically a stick-shift that does all the clutching and shifting for you, eliminating the clutch pedal and replacing the stick with R-N-D buttons on the center console. Gear changes are automated, but there's an interruption in the flow of power when the cogs are swapped, just as there would be with a manual. What's missing from AutoDrive is any provision for manual gear selection.
Take Two: The AutoDrive-Equipped Polaris Slingshot
Vowing to take it a little easier on my beat-up body, I headed for my second-favorite curvy road, which features smoother pavement and less intense curves. A better road made for a less unpleasant experience as I wasn't getting thrown about quite so much. The SL is noticeably down on power compared to the R, but it still accelerates with verve and spins its lone drive wheel with reckless abandon.
Unfortunately, Autodrive has the same problem inherent in any automatic: Lift off the throttle for a corner and it will upshift. Get back on the power and it has to downshift, and because this is a sequential transmission, the power doesn't come on right away: There's a little surge, a pause, then a big surge. Sport mode (Slingshot mode in Polaris parlance) reduces, but does not eliminate, the problem: It delays (and stiffens) the shifts, but unlike the driver it can't see the road ahead, and it will eventually pick a higher gear when you're seconds away from needing a lower one.
Credit where credit is due: The transmission is one of the quickest-shifting SMTs I've tried. I've driven cars with more turbo lag than the Slingshot has shift lag. But it's still the best of a bad lot, and its tendency to grab higher gears means you have to rely on the brakes rather than the engine to restrict speed. Given the lack of vacuum assist and the lack of feedback from the brake pedal, that's a less-than-palatable prospect. Autodrive is probably the 2020 Slingshot's best improvement, but it needs a provision for manual gear selection. Like, now.
What? What? You'll Have to Speak Up!
The biggest issue, endemic to both Slingshots I drove, was the noise. (I blasted way too much music in my 20s and am paying the price in my 40s, and as a result I'm very protective of what hearing I have left. ) The Slingshot is way too loud, and the soundtrack isn't particularly pleasant. Even with earplugs and a full-face helmet, both Polaris Slingshots had my ears a-ringin'.
Oh yes, helmets: The Slingshot is technically an autocycle, which means helmets are not required in all 50 states, though a placard inside said they should be worn. Regardless of the law, my opinion is that anyone who drives a Slingshot (or a vehicle like it) without a helmet ought to have their brain examined-and probably will, without the need for surgical tools, if they get into a crash. Remember, you don't have to drive badly to get hurt in a Slingshot—you just need one of the other 230 million licensed drivers in this county to drive badly.
But a full-face helmet really puts a damper on that great-outdoors experience, and isn't that what the Polaris Slingshot is all about? I think I could forgive many of the Slingshot's sins if I didn't have to drive it with a bucket over my head, but at the end of the day, I prefer not to risk death.
A Younger Guy's Opinion of the 2020 Polaris Slingshot
I was concerned that I wasn't giving the Polaris Slingshot a fair shake, so I asked Billy Rehbock, our social media guru and a younger and more pliant man than I, to take the Slingshot SL for a spin. Here's what he said:
"I didn't expect much from the Polaris Slingshot, having driven the previous-generation car before, and it was exactly what I thought it would be: A compromised, slower, and goofier-looking alternative to the autojourno's perennial favorite, the Mazda Miata.
"The Slingshot isn't particularly fast, and it isn't helped by the sluggish sequential automatic transmission. Nowadays, most cars have competent auto 'boxes with manual shift modes. The Slingshot has neither and it's really hard to predict the transmission's behavior. Stepping on the throttle results in a long hesitation before the transmission figures out what gear it needs to select. Slowing to a stop, it jerks and shudders as the gearbox downshifts. Under full-throttle acceleration, the Slingshot can't help but chirp or torch its rear tire, which was hilarious to me but not quite as funny to my fiancée.
"In the Malibu canyons, the Slingshot was at its best. The steering is great and the brake pedal feel is awesome. I felt really connected and was surprised at how much I felt I could trust it. I'll admit I was impressed at how well it handled.
"But that doesn't mean that there weren't other drawbacks. It's so damn loud that it's impossible to have a conversation with one's passenger, especially with helmets on. The suspension is stiff and pretty jarring, even though the seats are comfortable and supportive. After our enthusiastic jaunt in the hills, my fiancée and I were exhausted from being shaken up. The Slingshot's saving grace is its awesome sound system, which we could hear crystal clear even through our helmets, even on the freeway.
"Did I have fun in the Slingshot? Yes. Did I have as much fun as the people who asked me 'Is it as fun as it looks?' thought I did? Absolutely not. This is a vehicle for people who think Miatas are too girly or who want supercar levels of attention on a subcompact budget. Bottom line, the Polaris Slingshot wouldn't be my first choice."
You Take a Slingshot, I'll take a Miata (or a Vanderhall)
I'm in agreement with Billy. I don't mind three-wheelers; in fact the wacky Vanderhalls are among my favorite rides. But the Vandys feel like something built from plans in the back of a magazine, while the Polaris Slingshot takes itself more seriously. It's very well engineered and assembled, and if you told me it was built by Mazda or Chrysler or Honda—well, okay, maybe not Honda—I'd believe you.
But at the prices Polaris is charging—$26,000 for the SL and $31,000 for the R—I'm with Billy in that the Slingshot wouldn't be my first choice. I'm too lily-livered to drive a motorcycle in Los Angeles, so I'd go with a Miata: Same price, plus air conditioning, a fourth wheel, a trunk, and the option of driving in the rain—and plenty of sun on your noggin since there's no helmet required.
Is the Slingshot right for you? I wouldn't steer anyone away, but I would recommend a nice long test drive before you commit. I am sure the 2020 Polaris Slingshot is someone's idea of fun—it's just not mine.
2020 Polaris Slingshot Highlights
- Extensively updated for 2020 with 70% new parts
- New Polestar-sourced engine
- Available 5-speed automated transmission
2020 Polaris Slingshot Pros
- Looks like nothing else on the road
- 203 hp version is very quick
- Stereo capable of shouting down engine and wind noise
2020 Polaris Slingshot Cons
- Hard, jittery ride and ear-bleed levels of engine noise
- Poor brake pedal feel
- Prone to wheelslip on acceleration
- No manual shift mode for automated transmission
|2020 Polaris Slingshot R Specifications|
|ENGINE||2.0L DOHC 16-valve I-4/203 hp @ 8,250 rpm, 144 lb-ft @ 6,500 rpm|
|LAYOUT||0-door, 2-passenger, front-engine, RWD autocycle|
|L x W x H||149.6 x 77.9 x 51.9 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.9 sec (est)|
|TOP SPEED||125 mph|