The next time you see someone driving around in a Polaris Slingshot, don’t snicker: They’re probably having a lot more fun behind the wheel than you are. I would know, because I used to be a dyed-in-the-wool Slingshot hater. However, after a week using one as a daily runabout, I have a new appreciation for the three-wheeler’s emphasis on driving excitement at all costs, even if it does require significant compromises.
The 2021 Polaris Slingshot R represents the best of the breed, with updates for this model year that include a Rockford Fosgate audio system with standard Apple CarPlay, revised styling, and an optional “Autodrive” transmission with paddle shifters. However, my tester was equipped with the standard five-speed manual gearbox, a must for maximum driver enjoyment. Of course, not even those updates can compensate fully for the Slingshot’s tiny footprint and attendant compromises – namely a lack of storage space and limited weather protection – so Polaris is still cautious to market the cyclecar as a weekend toy, not a daily driver.
With that in mind, it’s hard not to become at least a little endeared to the Slingshot, as long as the weather’s nice and the roads are twisty.
Look-At-Me Grocery Getter
My first task in the Star Wars podracer of an automobile was meant to be a quick jaunt to the grocery store. My return home was delayed for two reasons, however. First, passersby are quick to swarm the Slingshot with questions, skepticism, and compliments. As soon as I pulled up to the local Albertson’s, three neighbors asked everything they could about the little car – how much does it cost ($31,299 plus $400 freight and any dealer destination fees), is it as fast as it looks (it’s faster), do you have to wear a helmet (yes), do you feel silly driving it (well yeah, a little). This happened all week.
The second reason my milk-and-bread run took a little longer was because once I got in and started driving, the Slingshot made me want to take the long way home. The crisp dusk air cycled through the doorless interior, and the engine and transmission work well together to make hasty (but not frenetic) exits from stoplights. And watching a winding neighborhood road duck and weave under the long hood and peaked fenders is a uniquely fun experience, making every errand just a bit more enjoyable.
As soon as I pulled up to the local Albertson’s, three neighbors asked everything they could about the little car. This happened all week.
I tried to capture the same lightning in a bottle the next day, but I made the mistake of starting my journey after lunch instead of dinner. That meant that I had to bear the full brunt of the afternoon sun, and with no overhead protection or air conditioning, the interior of the Slingshot quickly became almost unbearable. Polaris offers a set of heated and ventilated sport seats in its accessory lineup, which may have made the trip a bit more palatable. As tested, though, the Slingshot was decidedly unpleasant when idling through hot, heavy LA summer traffic that kept me from at least enjoying some wind in the cabin.
Once the roads opened up a bit, things became slightly more comfortable, although those unventilated, marine-grade vinyl seats create perfectly swassy conditions. Still, without as much traffic in the way, it became much easier to forget about my sweaty back and just enjoy the drive.
Good Hustle, Kid
First off, the Polaris Slingshot R is a genuinely capable performance car. A double-wishbone front suspension and swing-arm rear axle do a good job maximizing the tires’ contact patch over varying road surfaces. The Slingshot is prone to some crash-through over broken pavement, a problem exacerbated by the triangular layout – odds are good that at least one of the wheels will encounter a pothole.
But the payoff for the stiff ride is zero body roll, which also helps provide incredible response from the unassisted steering. Corner turn-in is sharp and controllable, and somehow, kickback over bumps is nonexistent. And thanks to a curb weight of just 1,640 pounds, the steering wheel is still easy to muscle around at low speeds. Transitional response is among the best in the business, making the Slingshot a delight to hustle up a deserted canyon road.
The Polaris Slingshot R is a genuinely capable performance car.
The engine and transmission also do their part in such situations. The shifter is definitely rubbery and vague, but the pedals make up for it by offering good clutch feedback and being perfectly placed for heel-toe braking. New for 2020 was a 2.0-liter ProStar four-cylinder engine from Polaris, which replaced a GM-sourced EcoTec 2.4-liter. Unchanged for 2021, the front-mounted inline-four makes a healthy 203 horsepower in Slingshot R guise, up from 178 on the S and SL models.
Of course, it requires 8,500 revs on the tachometer to make that power, and there’s only 144 pound-feet available at 6,250 rpm, so you’ll need to downshift for forward momentum. Spinning that quickly, the engine doesn’t make particularly inspiring nosies, sounding like it came from Polaris’ RZR lineup (which it did). A new exhaust would do wonders. But if the engine doesn’t sound sporty, it certainly feels it, giving the Slingshot a 0-60 time of 4.9 seconds. There aren’t many $32,000 vehicles that can claim such fleet acceleration.
Not A Value Proposition
But the Slingshot demands so many compromises in its dogged pursuit of driving fun. There’s very little storage space – Polaris claims a combined total of about 3.5 cubic feet, but it’s split between a glovebox and two bins behind the seats, so hauling large items is all but impossible. The thinly padded seat is well-bolstered, but the bottom is so low and lacking in thigh support that your bum gets tired after an hour or so. And in spite of a robust safety cage and thick roll bar, the Slingshot feels incredibly vulnerable to distracted drivers – at least a motorcyclist rides high and can spot upcoming hazards.
Adding to the should-you-buy-one conundrum is a huge variety of traditional cars that offer similar thrills at a lower price. A 2021 Mazda MX-5 Miata Club starts at $31,285 with destination and is only a bit slower to 60 mph, while also offering air conditioning, weather protection, a better-shaped cargo area, and a full complement of airbags. At $35,195, a Ford Mustang EcoBoost fastback with the Performance package doesn’t offer wind-in-your-hair thrills, but it performs better and offers muscle car street cred and far more space.
Complicating matters further is the Polaris Slingshot S. Starting at $19,999 (or $22,299 with Rockford Fosgate audio), the base model has the same engine, transmission, and suspension layout, giving it all of the stylistic novelty and most of the driving enjoyment of its more powerful sibling. Spending less would also dull the pain of only being able to drive your new three-wheeled toy on those just-right days when it’s not too humid, hot, or rainy.
Still, the flagship Slingshot R has a lot going for it, converting me from overt disdain to amused respect. It’s unbounded fun in any driving situation, and it attracts more attention from casual observers than any exotic I’ve ever driven. Yes, it requires sacrifices of its driver, but for the person looking for a hilarious driving experience and nothing more, the Polaris three-wheeler is hard to beat.
Gallery: 2021 Polaris Slingshot R
2021 Polaris Slingshot R