Ever since its launch in 2015, the Polaris Slingshot has been about attracting riders to a unique form of transportation. Slingshot is neither car nor motorcycle; it is a three-wheeled offspring of both. Call it an “autocycle,” as Polaris sometimes calls it. No matter what you call it, the second-generation Slingshot is set to arrive as a 2020 model with big ambition and a very clear mission: to attract a whole new crop of buyers.
At first glance, the 2020 Slingshot isn’t radically different from the outgoing 2019 model. Each features two wheels in front/one wheel in the rear and an open cockpit with side-by-side bucket seating for two. There are no doors or side windows – just a 7.5-inch tall windscreen, and polymer body panels give an angular, futuristic look that is almost worthy of an exotic supercar. A new front end with a more assertive look, front accent lighting and LED headlights and taillights, new wheel designs and bold color choices (Red Pearl, Blue Steel for SL models; Stealth Black and Miami Blue for R models) assure that you’re not going to go unnoticed at the gas pump. Introverts might want to avoid piloting a Slingshot – even though over 30,000 examples have been sold since launch, the three-wheeler is still an eye-catching anomaly.
Slingshot’s interior has been revamped for 2020, significantly upgrading the materials, finishes and build quality. There’s been great attention paid to touchpoints – places where your body has to come into contact with the vehicle. Switchgear is better, more precise. LED interior lighting is a welcome addition. The challenge with an open cockpit like this is balancing durability and weather resistance with comfort and styling. Slingshot walks the line between modern and stark. There’s not a whole lot of covered storage in the cockpit – a glove compartment, center armrest, and two lockable bins behind the seats – but it’s a little smarter and easier to access than before, and there are several places to stash a cellphone or wallet. Standard keyless ignition cleans up more clutter, and gives you a cool “Start/Stop” button in the deal. The steering wheel is now multi-function, and a racy flat-bottomed model. Despite the upgrades and classier look, Slingshot’s cockpit can still be rinsed out with a hose and drained by pulling a plug in the floorboard.
Slingshot’s frame is made from tubular steel, visible in some places on the vehicle between the bodywork. The suspension geometry and components have been enhanced for improved performance – more on that later.
Which brings us to the really big changes for 2020.
First of all, Slingshot gets an all-new engine, a naturally aspirated (non-turbo) 2.0-liter inline four-cylinder multiport injected gasoline engine that is tuned to produce 180 hp/120 lb-ft of torque in SL models and 203 hp/144 lb-ft of torque in R models. The old engine, which was a GM Ecotec 2.4-liter, peaked at 173 hp and 166 lb-ft of torque.
The new engine has a very different character than the outgoing one. It has a higher rev limit (8,500 rpm vs 7,200 rpm), and puts out its top horsepower near the limit, at 8,500 rpm, while the GM engine spiked at 6,200 rpm. That means that there’s a reason to let this new engine, which Polaris has named “Prostar,” run through the rev range – which gives it a really exciting personality and sound, which honestly fits Slingshot’s look better than the Ecotec did. Of course, switching from a proven workhorse engine from GM to a purpose-built new powerplant has its risks, but it also makes Slingshot into more of a complete, holistic vehicle, rather than a kit project. As Mike Dougherty, Polaris’ Slingshot President reminded me, “Polaris designs and builds a lot of engines.”
All of these updates and improvements are great, but they’re not even the big news.
The big news is, for the first time, Slingshot will be available with an automatic transmission. Up until now, the only choice was a manual five-speed. Now, a new “AutoDrive” five-speed automatic (or “automated manual”) synchromesh transmission is fitted in all SL AutoDrive and R AutoDrive models. A conventional five-speed manual is still available in the R Manual model.
Why is this big news? Because beyond enthusiasts, manual transmissions have fallen from favor, nearly to the point of extinction in the automotive world. New drivers aren’t interested in shifting their own gears, and have few opportunities to learn the skill in the first place. Polaris polled potential customers, and discovered that an automatic would make Slingshot even more attractive to a wider audience. I know that they’re right – even if it makes me a little sad.
Time to drive (or ride, depending on how you define the terms).
Getting into Slingshot takes a little bit of practice, but is nowhere near as awkward for me at six feet two inches than getting into an exotic Italian supercar, and is actually more comfortable and cozy once in place. I choose to gear up for a ride in Slingshot like I would for a motorcycle ride, with a padded jacket, gloves, and a helmet with eye and ear protection. For my first ride in the new three-wheeler, I also wore motorcycle pants and boots – mostly for weather protection, because the forecast promised intermittent showers (which never materialized, thankfully). On a nice day, I’d feel just as safe in jeans and driving shoes or sneakers. A helmet is optional in some states – check your local regulations – but I’d recommend wearing one anyway. Not only will it be handy in the unlikely event of an accident, a full-face helmet will help protect you from flying debris, wind and noise. Slingshot’s windscreen sends most of the blast over your head, but you’re sitting so low to the pavement that other vehicles can easily send a rock or tire tread your way. Find a quality helmet that fits well and that you like, and wear it on every ride.
I had the chance to drive all three Slingshot models on the road and on a closed-course racetrack, and even took a few laps in the 2019 model for comparison. The new Slingshot is faster and more maneuverable than the outgoing model. Polaris says the 2020 Slingshot can go from 0 – 60 mph in under five seconds, and that it can pull up to 1.02 g in lateral grip. With its two wheels up front and a beefy wheel in the rear, Slingshot is stable, nimble and fun to drive. I don’t think I’d spend much time seeking out racetracks for a Slingshot – it’s not that kind of vehicle, though it does perfectly well in that environment. But the real fun of a Slingshot is riding along the road, seeking out the challenging curves, and zipping around in a cool vehicle. The ground rushes past you, increasing the sensation of speed, and the sound of the engine and throaty exhaust sends tingles up your spine. Modern electronics, including Polaris’ Ride Command system with navigation and Rockford Fosgate audio (standard on R, available on SL) provide creature comforts and convenience, though using a Bluetooth helmet audio system might make actually hearing the music easier at speed.
The new AutoDrive transmission is good on the street, though I still preferred the manual transmission on the track. I suspect that Polaris will continue to tweak AutoDrive as production units get into owners hands. The good news is the new transmission makes Slingshot accessible to exactly the customers Polaris seeks. If you can drive a car with an automatic transmission, you can drive a Slingshot. And you’ll have a lot of fun doing it.
Slingshot starts at $26,499 for the SL AutoDrive. R Manual starts at $30,999, and R AutoDrive starts at $32,699. Polaris has developed an extensive line of accessories and modifications for Slingshot (Slingshot Engineered Accessories), including the Slingshade roof system (which I consider essential).
It’s tough to come up with a direct competitor for Slingshot. If you’re not a motorcyclist, it’s one of the easiest ways to get out in the wind and experience the road. A Mazda MX-5 Miata can deliver some of the thrills and more practicality, but it’s a different animal. Three-wheelers from Can-Am, the Spyder and Ryker, offer a unique experience, but lack the ease of operation and polish of Slingshot. The Morgan three-wheeler and Vanderhall vehicles take the three-wheeler equation to a different level of luxury and price points far beyond Slingshot.
With all of the new features and engineering, the 2020 Polaris Slingshot really delivers. I still hope that you’ll learn how to operate a manual transmission for a fuller experience, but AutoDrive opens up the Slingshot experience for everyone.
Disclaimer: This test drive was conducted at a manufacturer-sponsored press event. The manufacturer provided travel, accommodations, vehicles, meals and fuel.
Photos (c) Polaris