The 2021 Polaris Slingshot Is More Of A Throwback Sports Car Than Any Miata

Illustration for article titled The 2021 Polaris Slingshot Is More Of A Throwback Sports Car Than Any Miata
Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway
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What is a sports car? Forget about lap times, forget about 0 to 60s, forget about quarter miles and top speeds. At its essential core, a sports car is a focused machine built for the sole purpose of connecting driver and road.

If that’s the design brief, the Polaris Slingshot nails the formula in a way that few others can. Polaris calls it an autocycle, because it isn’t a car, strictly speaking, but with seats and a steering wheel, it sure as shit ain’t a motorcycle.

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Think about these specifications for a second. This machine is better than a thousand pounds lighter than a new Subaru BRZ. It’s got a manual transmission, a rev-happy engine up front, rear-wheel drive, a tendency toward oversteer and costs less than $20,000 new. If Mazda dropped a new Miata with those figures, every single person reading this would be crying joyful tears the size of October cabbages. If you were ever looking for a modern car to revive the spirit of 1950s British sports motoring, this is it.

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway

This vehicle gets a lot of shit in the automotive community for being a little bit ugly and somehow uncool. Many people in 2020 still call the Slingshot bad because it was launched to lackluster reviews from overly-cynical reviewers six years ago. I actually enjoyed that first-generation Slingshot, but this new one takes everything Polaris learned from that model and improves a whole lot.

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway
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(Full Disclosure: Polaris invited me to test the 2021 Slingshot in warm and sunny Malibu, California. Many safety precautions were taken, including driving individually, sack lunches at the beach and proper masking/distancing protocols. I was offered transportation, but chose to ride a motorcycle down rather than fly. I covered my own transportation costs. I was happy to accept hotel accommodations and meals, however.)

(Testing Conditions: The test route arranged by Polaris involved a short transit section through morning Malibu beachside traffic, then a full day of driving on some of the greatest mountain and canyon roads that Southern California has to offer. Lunch was at the beach up the coast; then we were given free reign to head back to the hotel along whatever route we wanted. I chose the tightest and most technical roads I could think of, and I remain quite happy with that choice.)

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Polaris Slingshot Explained

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway
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The Slingshot is a three-wheel “autocycle” available at over 350 dealerships in North America. Since the vehicle launched, Polaris has been working diligently with states to pass legislation defining the autocycle category and ensure that a motorcycle license isn’t required to drive a Slingshot on the street. Thus far, 48 states allow the Slingshot on a standard driver’s license, with the only holdouts being New York and Massachusetts.

A year ago, for the 2020 model year, Polaris unveiled second-generation Slingshot that was 70 percent new. Gone was the GM-sourced 2.4-liter Ecotec engine, and in its place was a new, lighter Polaris ProStar 2-liter inline four that brought higher revs and more horsepower. The Aisin five-speed manual used in the GM Kappa platform (that’s Pontiac Solstice and Saturn Sky to you) was still around but with revised gearsets. Perhaps most interesting was that the Slingshot now offered an automated version of that same gearbox called AutoDrive.

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway

According to Polaris, despite the incredibly weird year that 2020 has been, Slingshot sales are up 80 percent, and 80 percent of all 2020 Slingshot sales were optioned with the AutoDrive transmission. Well, it seems that the customer base has spoken and automatic is exactly what the Slingshot experience was missing. The 2021 model doesn’t change much, but the Autodrive does get a more aggressive control map as well as an optional set of paddle shifters.

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Most important, at least in my eyes, is that with the new Slingshot Polaris has finally set the base model price under $20,000! The bargain basement Slingshot S is as minimalist as it comes: no stereo, no windscreen, no driver modes, and all colors other than white will cost you. But really, if you’re going to go the minimalist route of buying a Slingshot, wouldn’t you want to go all the way and get the lightest one with nary a bell or whistle in sight? I would.

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway
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The Slingshot comes in three trim levels: S, SL, and R. The S is a bare-bones model that starts at $19,999. The SL is the volume mover, with most of the options everybody wants as standard, like Apple Carplay and a windshield. Visually, the S stands apart as having a tubular steel rollover hoop above each seat, where the SL and R have big chunky stylized aluminum roll hoops. The R gets a boost in horsepower and some more aggressive colorways.

The SL and R have two driving modes, labeled Comfort Mode and Slingshot Mode. The Slingshot Mode will pump up throttle response and tighten up the steering effort for more aggro driving. Honestly, Slingshot Mode should just be the default.

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Top Takeaways

I could probably get away with a Polaris Slingshot as my only transportation. I say that knowing full well that I am ridiculously abnormal in my driving habits, as I have a very short commute, I live in a place that gets cold but doesn’t often see snow or rain, I have an incredibly high tolerance for minimalism and I give absolutely no fucks. I need very little from a car to be happy with it, up to and apparently including having no roof and only three wheels.

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The Slingshot is striking. I don’t actually hate the way it looks, though I can see how some people would be turned off by this Franz-Kafka-Woke-Up-A-Car visage. It’s alien, it’s foreign, it’s undefinable. For most of Polaris’s buyers, that’s exactly what they’re looking for. This is an extrovert’s machine. People want to be noticed if they’re driving a Polaris Slingshot, or at the very least don’t mind it.

The new engine is a nice little zinger compared with the old Ecotec mill. The biggest improvement is the extra 1,300 revs before hitting redline, which means it feels much more like a sports car than it did before. The new ProStar engine sounds pretty innocuous as engines go — it’s not a sonorous exhaust note, but then again neither was the one it replaced — so we’ll call that even-steven. Horsepower is up slightly on the lower-output version of the engine at 178, but torque is down a bit to 120. The highest spec R model comes standard with an engine re-map good for 203 horsepower and 144 lb-ft of torque.

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway

I have driven a lot of cars and ridden a lot of motorcycles, and the Polaris Slingshot has a weird way of straddling these two worlds. This is as close to a motorcycle experience as you can get while still using pedals and a steering wheel. The open air is more all-enveloping in a Slingshot than in any other run-of-the-mill convertible, just by dint of not having an A-pillar. Would I have this over a fun motorcycle? No. Would I have it over a bagger? Yes. Would I have it over a Miata or BRZ? In a heartbeat.

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The AutoDrive gearbox isn’t bad, per se, but I definitely would not be happy living with one. Because this is just a computer controlling the shifts of the regular manual transmission, it drives a lot like early automated manuals such as Ferrari’s F1 gearbox in the F355 or BMW’s SMG. It’s almost right, but not quite. It’s a little clunky, a little delayed and a little inconsistent when left in automatic mode. But, and here’s the big but, the paddle shifters make it pretty OK to drive when the driving gets a little more aggressive. In manual mode, you’re actually doing the shifting, and the gearbox will let you hang it all the way to the 8,500 rpm redline.

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway
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I understand why the AutoDrive gearbox exists. Obviously there are millions of potential customers who don’t know how to drive stick and aren’t willing to learn. That’s a shame, but it’s reality. And that’s made even more obvious by the insane sales spike Polaris has seen since introducing the automated manual. In the 2020 models, there wasn’t a paddle shift control mode even available as an option, so even driving aggressively, the computer made all of the choices, which would have driven me mad. From that perspective, the 2021 AutoDrive is a significant step up from the one it replaces.

At the first planned stop on our route for the day, I swapped my AutoDrive-equipped tester example for a proper three-pedal and never looked back. I get it, but it’s not for me.

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway

One of the great things about the Slingshot is that everything, and I mean everything, is customizable. Polaris will sell you pretty much any color combination, wheel set, accessory and programming you want from the factory. Sometimes that can go wrong, as evidenced by some of the heinous color combinations I’ve seen on Slingshots, but if that’s what you want, more power to you.

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What Stands Out

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway
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The new engine gets all the headlines, but honestly pretty much every other tweak that Polaris made to this vehicle outshine it in practice. The chassis tweaks are welcome, as the car now sits lower and wider than before with better steering programming and gearing and everything. It’s a more polished and sportier driving experience than before, and the engineering that has gone into that should be applauded.

Do you like big lurid smoky burnouts? You don’t need 700 horsepower and a 4,000-pound Dodge sedan to do them. Flip the traction control off and you’re rolling big white clouds faster than Elon puffing Rogan’s good stash. And when you put the power down it’ll actually boogie. The R is quoted as doing 0 to 60 in a traction-limited 4.9 seconds, which is plenty fast in today’s world. That’s quicker than a Miata or a BRZ by nearly a second.

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway

One thing that the Slingshot does really well is drama. Sports car manufacturers over the last 20 years have worked diligently to make drama a thing of the past, building daily livability into the sports car experience. A base model Porsche 911 is hellaciously fast, but it doesn’t feel that way. Yeah, the Slingshot is pretty fast, but it feels even faster. Being this low to the ground and having something this lightweight and nimble with no, uh, anything around you, it feels like you’re going 100 when the speedo reads 50. Nothing screams old British sports car experience quite like that level of drama.

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The price really speaks to me. Instead of a Ford Ecosport, you could treat yourself to a weird and wild sporty driving experience for the same exact base price. I know which one I would prefer.

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What’s Weak

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway
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The Slingshot isn’t exactly sleek and sexy. It’s all sharp edges and harsh aggressive looks. I’m not a huge fan of the way it looks, but aggressive is what sells in sports cars these days. It’s definitely too ostentatious for my personality, but not enough that I would be completely turned off by it.

The higher spec models get expensive really quickly. The Slingshot makes a lot of sense at or around the base model price of $19,999, but with the R starting at over $31,000, it’s a lot harder to justify.

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Grip is a little bit limited. With a tire made specifically for the Slingshot, it’s not exactly a racing slick. I found that it was pretty easy to get the Slingshot to do whatever you wanted it to, while keeping everything under control, but if you’re not used to dancing on the edge of tire grip, you’ll definitely want to keep the traction control on and drive well within your limits.

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway
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The seatbelt shoulder strap is mounted at the inside of the car and clips in to a receptacle mounted on the outside of the seat. It’s a little weird feeling a seatbelt over your right shoulder going down across your chest at the opposite placement that drivers in the U.S. are accustomed to. Not necessarily a huge deal, but it’s minorly annoying. I got used to it pretty quickly.

Safety

HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA.

The majority of SUVs and trucks on the road these days would plow head-on into your face with their bumper. You’ve got a nice solid downbar of the chassis that runs from shoulder to calf, but your knees feel pretty exposed, and you can reach out and touch the ground. The roll protection feels pretty robust and trustworthy, but in a collision with another car, you’d be pretty fucked. That said, there’s a lot more protection here than there would be with a motorcycle, and I ride the hell out of those.

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Wear a helmet. Whether your state requires a helmet or not, wear one.

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Illustration for article titled The 2021 Polaris Slingshot Is More Of A Throwback Sports Car Than Any Miata
Image: Polaris
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I hate to hammer on this one, but buy the S model with no options. Not only is it under 20 grand, but it’s as minimalist of a sporty driving experience as you can get.

The harsh sharp edges are made somewhat innocuous when painted white, which is the only standard color.

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If it were me spending my own money on one of these, I’d get the one with no radio, no windshield, a stick and that’s it. Just me and the road. No matter what, you’ll want a full face helmet and a bluetooth comms system to talk to your passenger anyway, so why bother with an audio system that you’ll have trouble hearing over the wind and road noise anyway? Toss some audio in your helmet and get better sound for much less money. Plus it’s an incentive to wear your gear.

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway
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The base S model is down 25 horsepower on the more pricey R model and doesn’t have the fancy Slingshot Mode throttle and steering control. BUT Polaris is more than happy to sell you a horsepower upgrade tune and a Slingshot Mode tune for the throttle and steering to bring your bargain basement model up to driving snuff.

That’s how I’d have mine. Make this as close to a motorcycle experience as you can. Just you and the road. Let it rip.

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Class And Competition

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The Slingshot is like a cyberpunk reinterpretation of MG’s iconic MGB — only reliable and fast — which is exactly why it’s great. There isn’t anything like the Slingshot. It’s too weird to live, and yet far too rare to die.

Verdict

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Photo: Polaris/Barry Hathaway
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You have to be realistic about what the Slingshot is for. Is it a great car for most of the driving people do? No, but neither is a McLaren 720S. The Slingshot is as close to a supercar as a mid-level regional customer service manager is going to touch, so maybe let those folks have their fun. As a fair-weather driving experience for the American everyperson, the Slingshot makes a lot more sense than the V6 Mustang that is parked inside under a cover and only driven to car shows.

If you can ride a motorcycle, buy a motorcycle. If you can’t ride a motorcycle, get one of these. It’s way better than any other three-wheeler, and it’s better than a lot of four-wheelers.

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Jalopnik contributor with a love for everything sketchy and eclectic.

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