2021 Polaris Slingshot R Review: A 203-HP Three-Wheeler Is For Those Who Live Out Loud
The Slingshot is obviously a bold (and expensive) choice. But once you settle it, it's a riot.
In sun-soaked cities like Miami, you could throw a rock in any direction and hit a Polaris Slingshot. Where I live in the Midwest, they’re pretty alien. When I took delivery of the shouty blue-and-orange 2021 Polaris Slingshot R that Polaris loaned me, I was the talk of the small town pit stop just off the interstate. You quickly get used to the stares—you’ve got to if you’re six-foot-five driving a three-wheeled, sorta-muffled sports car—but that’s a big part of why anyone buys these in the first place. And I'm sure you're dying to hear the answer to questions like, “How do you fit in there?" and "Is it any fun?"
The answers are decently, and yeah, it is. More so than I expected, but without being fast enough to get you in a tangle with every guard rail or, in my case, barbed wire fence. The highly optioned Slingshot R I spent time with is the one Polaris hopes will get upscale buyers into showrooms and out the door with a new set of keys and some freshly inked paperwork.
It’s got all the luxuries (sans a roof, which Polaris will sell you for another $3,000 if you want it) and an automatic gearbox, making it more accessible for the masses and probably more profitable given the $35,000-plus MSRP. Yes, I know that’s Mazda Miata money. And no, I can't say the two vehicles are interchangeable in any way. The Slingshot is a singular experience, for better and for worse. Stuck somewhere between a motorcycle and a car, some of the slings and arrows it endures from enthusiasts are deserved. Spend some time with it, and the novelty of a modern three-wheeler grows into a firm appreciation that something so completely ridiculous is still road legal in 2021.
2021 Polaris Slingshot R: By the Numbers
- Base price (as tested): $19,999 ($35,649) both before destination
- Powertrain: 2.0-liter four-cylinder | 5-speed automatic | rear-wheel drive
- Horsepower: 203 @ 8,250 rpm
- Torque: 144 lb-ft @ 6,500 rpm
- 0-60: 4.9 seconds (est.)
- Top speed: 125 mph (limited)
- Curb weight: 1,653 pounds
- Quick take: Not quite as wild to drive as it is to look at. It's got plenty of power without being overbearing, a nearly equal mix of show and go with an emphasis on cruising.
What You Get for Buying New
Polaris doesn't usually build vehicles for the road. It's more into selling speedy side-by-sides like the RZR or ATVs like the Scrambler, both of which are available with honking 1,000cc engines. It built the first Slingshot for the 2015 model year. Back then they had 2.4-liter GM Ecotec engines. The three-wheeler is now in its second generation, with Polaris putting its own 2.0-liter four-cylinder under the hood starting in 2020.
Last year's updates brought big changes like that sharp LED lighting signature and the AutoDrive automatic transmission. Before that, Slingshots were only available with stick-shifts. For 2021, the Slingshot is largely the same as 2020's model, save for some new trims at the top-end as well as available paddle shifters.
There are four available Slingshot trims, starting with the base Slingshot S and topping out at the Slingshot R Limited Edition. Each comes with the 2.0-liter four-banger and the option of either a manual or automatic transmission. As I mentioned, those steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters are new for 2021 and try to bridge the gap between an engaging manual and a comfy auto. They're optional on all automatic Slingshots—save for the R models like this test vehicle, in which case they're standard.
That R trim is also something that's entirely new this year. After seeing how well customers took to the roadtrip-friendly automatic models—Polaris says 80 percent of dealers saw sales grow or stay steady year-over-year—it decided to make an even more cruisable variant with plenty of car-like features. The Slingshot R packs Rockford Fosgate audio with a touchscreen infotainment display that's capable of running Apple CarPlay and there's the small but welcomed addition of a backup camera. Throw in the interior accent lighting and you'll almost forget you aren't in a Honda Civic.
That's a joke. This thing has no doors and you can touch the road with your hand. Ask me how I know!
What Happens When You Take One Wheel Away
It's been a minute since I found myself giddy to sit down in a car and start it up. Maybe it's because I don't drive Bugattis on Thursdays like my friend Kristen, but that's okay. Before starting it, though, you've got to wait for the fuel pump to prime. It makes a noise so electronically laser-like that it'd totally fit in a sci-fi starship scene but, at last, you're ready to push the button once more and go.
I found myself always putting the Slingshot in its manual-shift mode. For someone who wants to feel sportiness in more ways than wind blowing through their helmet, you can't beat it. The purely automatic mode is fine for leisurely trips but if you want command over that zingy four-cylinder, you'll happily click the paddles every chance you get.
While $35,000 is far from cheap, the feeling you get when taking off in the Slingshot rivals that of more expensive exotics. The road I live on has a short series of esses before reaching the stop sign at the highway, and it was great to shift from second to third with my wrists cranking one way and then the other. It feels lightweight with zero body roll, kinda like you'd expect from an open-wheel race car but without the jarring bumps.
My advice is to leave traction control on when driving public roads because the car is still a blast when pulling out onto the street or from a stoplight. The Slingshot's systems are mostly non-invasive; I can only think of twice when they limited the 203 hp making its way to the lone rear wheel.
As you might expect, even slow speeds feel fast and the limit is usually close by since you're dealing with one less contact patch than normal. Typically, I'm an advocate for more torque; in this case, though, it'd make the Slingshot a real handful. You might consider that a good thing if you're an experienced driver, but since most people who buy these are more interested in slow-paced day trips or cruising the boulevard, I don't think it'd be an advantage.
The automatic transmission does compromise outright shift speed, however, and it's hard to say why it doesn't shift faster. It doesn't need to be bang-bang all the time, but even in the sportiest drive mode, the pause between gears is a noticeable obstacle keeping you out of the powerband. It's puzzling when you rip from a start, send it up to 7,000 rpm, and have to sit and wait for it to grab second, third, and fourth (fifth is really just for cruising). It's not a dealbreaker while driving through town, though.
Regardless, most people who buy Slingshots will get the automatic and enjoy it. The suspension is still reassuringly firm when driven fast and through turns, relaying what's going on with the front tires as well as what's up with the rear. When you near the limit, you're notified but not alarmed by the back tire's skrrt with the slightest amount of hop; that's how you know it's time to back off. Once you've returned to normal driving, it's surprisingly plush. The steering is easy and not especially communicative; that might've been done on purpose to smooth out the ride, which you'd expect to be harsh but pleasantly is not.
I was impressed with how planted it felt despite only having three wheels and, really, I didn't mind the automatic transmission. I would've preferred a manual and maybe even a sixth gear, especially when I was in fifth with the revs a little higher than I'd like for highway cruising. Nevertheless, it's a decent driver's car. But if you're looking for outright performance, you're better off getting something with four wheels, plain and simple.
What's Good, and What's Not
Fortunately, there's a lot more to file under the former category than the latter. You have unlimited headroom, which is nice. There's also plenty of room in general, which is really saying something considering I'm six-foot-five and I logged plenty of seat time with a passenger beside me. One day, I drove it over 100 miles total and never felt cramped or fatigued; if you can handle the ingress and egress, you should be fine.
There's no proper trunk, though there are individual storage compartments behind each seat. They're large enough to hold a helmet bag and a few shopping sacks, so long as whatever's in those sacks is flexible. The best answer is to wear your helmet at all times to make more room for your day's haul at the Harley-Davids—er, Polaris gift shop.
Furthermore, I was impressed with how well everything held up to the elements. It rained while I was testing the Slingshot, but it looked like nothing ever happened the next day. The seats were quick to dry and the speakers performed as usual. The same was true after I washed it for my fancy-schmancy photoshoot.
While the driving dynamics are impressive, especially coming from a company that doesn't usually build road cars, the Slingshot's interface design falls short. The infotainment menus aren't the most intuitive, the configurable driver information display is a little clunky, and the dash-mounted indicators for the blinkers and high-beams are situated too high up. I know not everyone's as tall as me but I didn't even know that light panel was there for the first four or five days I drove it simply because I couldn't see it. Overall, there are functional reasons why the interior screens and switchgear look like they were ported over from a rough-and-tumble RZR, but the execution feels less connected to the Slingshot's lower-end lux goals here.
So long as you can get past the somewhat awkward controls, including the buttons used to shift the transmission from neutral to reverse and drive, it's a fine place to spend several hours at a time. That Rockford Fosgate audio is super, too, and you can hear it clearly, even with your helmet on. In the Slingshot R, it'll even turn the volume down as you drive slowly through town. The last thing you want is someone looking at you, right?
The Polaris Slingshot R Versus...
There aren't many players in the three-wheeled autocycle category, so logically, some pit the Slingshot against the Miata. It has quite a bit more power than Mazda’s famous roadster—203 hp compared to the MX-5’s 181 hp in a package that's nearly 700 pounds lighter. But the Slingshot is down a wheel, as if you could forget, and that brings with it all-new criteria.
As analogous as the two might seem, there aren't many quantifiable fields where they really stack up. People who dig the attention and don’t mind the Slingshot’s incredibly specific purpose are more likely to choose it over a comparatively tame four-wheeled convertible. Oh, and if they dig rowdy one-tire fires, then the Slingshot wins by a block-long skid mark.
There are some three-wheelers that play in this same space, the Vanderhall Venice being one of them. Whereas the Slingshot boasts a knife-edge, futuristic look, the Venice is stylistically retro. Its base price is roughly $26,000 though you certainly can near the $40,000 mark with a GTS model. For that, you get a 1.5-liter turbo four-cylinder sending 194 hp to the front wheels, along with a plush interior. A six-speed automatic is the only transmission option.
There's also the Campagna T-Rex RR, which is similar to the Slingshot in theory but more extreme in execution. It boasts comparable power specs—208 hp from a Kawasaki inline-four—and the rear-wheel is chain-driven. The T-Rex features a fast-shifting six-speed sequential transmission and it weighs under 1,000 pounds, making it rowdier by nature. It's also way more expensive seeing as it costs $65,999 before destination.
Or you could just get a Mazda Miata and be done with it. You can have a roof, a trunk, and four wheels for a similar price. If you're six-five or taller, though, you might have a hard time fitting comfortably in the current-gen ND Miata; my knee gets stuck under the dash when depressing the clutch. Something to keep in mind!
Your Questions About the 2021 Polaris Slingshot R, Answered
I put out a feeler post asking what you wanted to know about the wonderfully absurd Slingshot back in May. Most of them pertained to my height and how livable the Polaris was in regards to that, though there were plenty of other good Q's I've picked to answer here.
Q: "Do you need a motorcycle endorsement?" — SailingEric
The Slingshot is officially classified as an autocycle, and where I live in Missouri, you do not need a motorcycle license to drive one—just a regular ol' license. Polaris actually put out this handy graphic in case you're unsure of your state's laws.
So if you live in New York, Massachusettes, or Alaska, you have to get a motorcycle license before driving a Slingshot. Sorry, I don't make the rules.
Q: "If you had one, do you think you will you be driving it much in mid-January?" — TwistedThumb
Nah, honestly. I'm warm-natured but it was still chilly driving at night when temps dipped into the 50s. That's not the Slingshot's fault, though. You can even get it with heated and cooled seats!
Q: "Are the seats comfortable for drives up to 5-6 hours?" — Brumski07
I didn't personally drive for that long all at once, though I imagine they'd be OK. I never felt sore after driving it—if anything, the seats could be a little more bolstered for people who want to drive fast in the turns. But I'll say yes, they'd be comfortable over the course of a few hundred miles.
Q: "I'm only familiar with Polaris engines in Indian products. How does this thing feel? I was always a fan of the underutilized EcoTec motor, and I'm not sure I'd trust them to put out a motor that could be as good as the old one." — TheDoctor7x
I've got no complaints about the engine. If you're part of the extreme minority who plans to mod the engine on your Slingshot, then sure, the old Chevy-sourced EcoTec would be better. But the 2.0-liter pulls strong in this application without making it a huge danger to drive during short full-throttle spurts.
Q: "Can you drift it? How terrible is it in the rain? Do you feel safe in traffic compared to riding a motorcycle?" — Steven Ford
I guess you could drift it, though I wouldn't in case there's, y'know, a bump. It truthfully wasn't bad in the rain—I did drive it during a decent sprinkle and I didn't come away completely soaked. And yes, I do feel safer in traffic than if I were on a motorcycle. The only daunting moment I experienced was when I looked under a semi-truck's trailer at an intersection to see if anyone was coming from the left.
The Polaris Slingshot R is good. If you're considering buying one but have held off so far for reasons that aren't financial, then I'd say to go ahead. Just don't expect it to do all the things a normal car can, like keep you dry and store something larger than carry-on luggage. Obviously. It's a toy, not a daily driver.
But there's good news for people who can't or don't want to spend roughly $35,000 on one—you can get a base model for way cheaper. The standard Slingshot S—which has a slightly detuned 178-hp engine—clocks in at $20,000 before destination. For that, you get the stick-shift and the same wild looks, minus all the stuff you might not care about—features like that fancy audio system, back-up camera, and touchscreen display.
I didn't expect to like the three-wheeler as much as I did. Truth be told, I didn't feel like a jerk driving it, even with all the attention it attracted. I had a great time behind the wheel and just because you're having fun, it doesn't make you a bad person. That's a nasty way of thinking. The Polaris brings legitimate joy to its drivers so let people do their thing—after all, if they're in a Slingshot, I highly doubt they'd be frowning.
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