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Automatic for the People: The 2020 Polaris Slingshot

by Jason Fogelson

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.

2020-Slingshot-R-Stealth-Black-01At 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.

2020-Slingshot-R-Stealth-Black-18Slingshot’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.

2020-Slingshot-R-Stealth-Black-25Slingshot’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.

2020-Slingshot-ProStar-Engine-05The 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.

2020-Slingshot-R-Stealth-Black-32Why 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).

highres-4702Getting 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.

highres-5436I 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.

239A6857Slingshot 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.

483A2357With 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.

highres-3092Photos (c) Polaris

All About Electric Motorcycles

by Jason Fogelson

Electric motorcycles are here, and soon they’ll make sense for many riders. In order to understand the latest crop of electric motorcycles, I think you have to look backward to the development of batteries, electric motors, the bicycle, and the motorcycle itself, which takes us back to the 19thcentury (and even earlier).

A battery is a device that generates and stores electrical energy through a chemical reaction. The first wet cell battery was created in 1800. In 1859, Gustave Plante invented the rechargeable lead-acid wet cell battery that was used in just about every motorcycle until the 2000s. Dry cell batteries were invented by Carl Gassner in 1886, and are used in flashlights, portable electric tools, and now in electric motorcycles. 

Michael Faraday image (c) Wikimedia Commons

Michael Faraday described the theory of electrons and magnets creating motion in 1821, which led to the development of the first electric motor by Thomas Davenport in 1834.

Gustave Trouvé’s 1881 Electric Tricycle

The pedal bicycle was put into commercial production in 1868, and bicycles took the world by storm. Of course, innovators wanted to up the ante, and immediately began to explore the idea of adding an electric motor to a bicycle. Louis-Guillame Perreaux filed the first patent for a motorcycle in 1868. The first functional motorcycles were steam-powered. In 1869 patents were filed for electric motorcycles, though batteries and motors were not well-suited to two-wheelers. Gustave Trouve demonstrated the first working electric vehicle in 1881, a tricycle with rechargeable batteries and an electric motor. 

Butler Petrol Cycle of 1888

Most sources say that the first commercial design for a self-propelled bicycle was the Butler Petrol Cycle of 1888, a three-wheeler. The first production two-wheeler to be called a motorcycle was 1894’s Hildebrand & Wolfmüller. The first production motorcycle in the United States was the Orient-Aster, built in Waltham, Massachusetts beginning in 1898. Indian Motocycle (sic) followed in 1901, and Harley-Davidson began production in 1903. 

1894 Hildenbrand & Wolfmüller image (c) Mecum

Electric motorcycle development receded into a niche as petrol bikes took off. The big challenge has always been the power source, as wet-cell batteries are bulky and difficult to integrate into a two-wheeled motorcycle. Fuel-cell bikes were developed and built as prototypes, beginning in 1967, and various low-powered, short-range production vehicles began to emerge in the last decades of the 20thCentury.

The 21stCentury has seen a rapid expansion in the production of electric motorcycles. Harley-Davidson has announced production plans for the LiveWire, an all-electric motorcycle, and has teased us with further electric plans. Polaris, Indian’s parent company, bought an electric brand, Brammo, and has hinted at the eventual arrival of electric bikes. Zero Motorcycles currently produces and sells a lineup of five models. Many more brands are working on products to follow.

Harley-Davidson LiveWire image (c) H-D

Why electric? 

There are several very good reasons to go electric. First of all, electric bikes use no gasoline (obviously), and are cheap to operate. The maintenance on an electric bike is minimal – there’s no oil, no transmission, no radiator. It’s a breeze to keep an electric bike running. Just keep the battery charged. 

An electric motorcycle is nearly silent, which makes it somewhat less offensive to non-riders. This silent operation is good for ear health, and good for situational awareness. You can hear more of what’s going on around you on an electric bike.

MotoE image (c) Ego Electric

Electric motors excel at delivering torque, the twisting force that bikes use to accelerate. Peak torque is available as soon as you open the throttle and continues to be delivered throughout the rev range. On a gasoline-powered bike, you have to wait as torque builds with RPM, and then shift to the next gear as torque tails off, and begin the climb again. One of the bigger challenges with an electric bike is modulating torque so that it doesn’t overcome available traction. Manufacturers accomplish this with electronic intervention, and it gets better and better all the time.

Like any good thing, there are downsides.

2017 Zero S image (c) Zero Motorcycles

The big concern with an electric motorcycle is range. Even the best production electric motorcycles right now are rated for range under 130 miles per full charge. That doesn’t seem so bad, until you factor in charge time, which can extend to 10 hours or more using 120-volt household current. Level 2 (240-volt) chargers can cut that down significantly, and some Fast-Charge-capable bikes can be returned to a full charge from “empty” in 45 minutes or less. But even the fastest charges available take much longer than a gas-station fill-up, and charger availability varies greatly, depending on where you’re riding.

CSC City Slicker image (c) CSC Motorcycles

While I see silent operation as an advantage, many riders are concerned that without sound, they’re invisible to other traffic and pedestrians. While I don’t agree with the “Loud Pipes Save Lives” crowd, there is some legitimate concern that an extremely quiet bike might not get noticed on the road. 

The biggest barrier to widespread adoption of electric motorcycles today is cost. The least-expensive worthy examples at present start at about $9,000. Harley-Davidson’s LiveWire has been announced with a starting price of $29,995, and there are many bikes in between. New gasoline-powered motorcycles of similar capability and range can start as low as $4,000, and used bikes can be even cheaper than that. 

As more people explore and buy electric motorcycles, the technology will continue to develop, and prices are bound to fall. The big question isn’t whyconsider an electric motorcycle – it’s whento consider an electric motorcycle. 

Fuell image (c) Fuell Motorcycles

I Love Motorcycle Museums

By Jason Fogelson

I love motorcycle museums.

I grew up going to all kinds of museums with my family, and it became a habit when I travel. I go to art museums, history museums, natural history museums, car museums, technology museums, craft museums – just about any collection that someone opens up and calls a museum, I make time for.

My very favorite museums of all are motorcycle museums.

I can trace my love of motorcycle museums back to The Art of the Motorcycle, an exhibition at New York City’s Guggenheim Museum in 1998. Museum Director Thomas Krens engaged architect and designer Frank Gehry to create a beautiful environment that placed over 100 bikes on platforms along the museum’s spiral rotunda. At the time, the exhibition was a smashing success. It changed the way that people thought about motorcycle design, elevating it in consideration. Viewing the bikes in a traditional museum context filled me with pride at my choice of hobby, because like every biker, I already knew that motorcycles could be works of art. Now, everybody knew.

Not every motorcycle museum is as classy as the Guggenheim. Some are downright greasy holes in the wall; some are set up as time capsules and still life representations of a moment in time; some are simply warehouse spaces with bikes lined up side-to-side. But the opportunity to wander through collections and to see bikes in person that I’ve only experienced through photographs and description keeps me going back.

You can read about my Five Favorite US Motorcycle Museums on the Best Western site.

Harley-Davidson’s New Milwaukee-Eight Engine

by Jason Fogelson

A new engine from Harley-Davidson is big news. Last week, the Motor Company revealed its new Big Twin engine, the Milwaukee-Eight. Initially, this new engine will appear in the touring lineup, including the Road King, Electra Glide, Road Glide and trike variants – thirteen models in all. Some will get liquid cooling in addition to the air/oil-cooled versions, and there will be two new displacements: 107 cubic inches (1,750 cc) and 114 cubic inches (1,870 cc). Harley promises 10 percent more power and 8 – 12 percent faster acceleration, along with better heat management, lower vibration and a richer exhaust note. The Touring bikes will also get new front and rear suspensions, with easier tool-free pre-load adjustment for the rear. I can’t wait to ride these new bikes.

8186The engine defines generations in Harley-Davidson motorcycles, as styling evolves slowly.

Over the years, there have been numerous Big Twin engines fitted in Harley touring bikes.

  • 1909 – 1911: V-Twin
  • 1911 – 1929: F-Head
  • 1929 – 1935: Flathead
  • 1936 – 1947: Knucklehead
  • 1948 – 1965: Panhead
  • 1966 – 1983: Shovelhead
  • 1984 – 1999: Evolution
  • 1999 – 2016: Twin Cam

The first 6 engines got their names from H-D customers, nicknames that stuck as buyers bonded with their bikes. Starting with Evolution, the Motor Company’s marketing department took charge of the nomenclature.

The Milwaukee-Eight probably gets its name from Harley-Davidson’s hometown, hyphenated with a reference to its four valve per cylinder (eight valves total) design.

MY17 Lit Book Outtakes

I can’t wait to ride a new Harley-Davidson Touring bike. Stay tuned for a full review.

You can read my report on the Milwaukee-Eight at Forbes.com.

2017 Yamaha SCR950 Review

by Jason Fogelson

Everything old is new again. Motorcycles travel through trends where form follows function, then fashion determines form. It has happened over and over again, and will continue to happen as long as motorcycles are lifestyle accessories and not transportation.

Witness the latest trend: Scramblers.

BJN11415Back in the late 50s/early 60s, scramblers were the dual sports of their day. Stock standards were modified with knobby tires, upswept exhausts and mid-set footpegs. They were then ridden on the streets, on fire roads, on trails and all over the desert by tough riders who wanted to challenge themselves and their motorcycles. Picture Steve McQueen riding with his buddies, covered in dirt and dust. They’re riding scramblers.

Fashions change. Dedicated dirt bikes with long-travel suspension overtook scramblers. Sport bikes overtook standards. Choppers came and went, then came and went again. Dual sports rose. Cafe racers returned.

Now scramblers are having their day again.

BJN11750The latest is the 2017 Yamaha SCR950. It’s a very good bike. Is it a go-anywhere, rough-and-tumble scrambler in the tradition of the bikes of old?

Read my 2017 Yamaha SCR950 review on Forbes.com to find out.

Sturgis and Home Again

by Jason Fogelson

So, I finally did make it to Sturgis. I’ve had it on my wish list for almost two decades, and one thing or another has always kept me from getting there.

In case you don’t know, “Sturgis” is what motorcyclists call the Black Hills Motorcycle Rally, which just happened for the 76th time in and around Sturgis, South Dakota. Every August, bikers converge on the tiny town for a week of riding, drinking, eating, shopping and hanging out. 2015 marked the 75th annual gathering. It was the largest to date, with an estimated attendance of over 739,000. This year’s event was substantially smaller – probably in the 400,000 range.

Harley-Davidson has been a major sponsor of Sturgis for decades, and the vast majority of the motorcycles on hand are Harleys of assorted vintage. Still, wander the streets of Sturgis, and you’ll see bikes of every brand and style parked along Main Street. Many brands have formal displays and demo fleets in town, including such unlikely candidates as Moto Guzzi, Ducati, Royal Enfield and Can Am.

IndianRideCommand-2Indian Motorcycle has made a substantial push to increase its visibility at Sturgis, having scheduled most of its public and press debuts at the Rally over the past three years. The company puts up a big display and experience center on Lazelle Street in downtown Sturgis, and was the motorcycle sponsor at the Buffalo Chip, Sturgis’ 400-acre campground and event center.

Indian’s push into Sturgis is bold and audacious, and makes a whole lot of sense. Indian wants to take a chunk of Harley’s business, and this is where the customer base comes to live the motorcycle lifestyle. I saw a surprising number of Indian motorcycles on the streets – many more than the brand’s modest sales figures led me to expect. Despite Harley-Davidson’s dominant market position and loyal customer base, Indian is starting to gain a foothold.

My Sturgis experience was a positive one, I’m glad to report. I spent a lot of time riding, and got to see some of the major area attractions like Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Custer, Deadwood and Hill City. I rode in the big procession of the Legends Ride, and I saw the final heat of the Hooligan Races at the Buffalo Chip.

Mostly, I got to have the experience of being in the majority on the roads as a motorcyclist, a very rare opportunity for those of us on two wheels. At first, it was a little disconcerting. I’m used to seeing occasional bikes on my rides in different parts of the country. Even when I attend motorcycle events, the concentration of bikes thins out quickly away from the venue. But during the Black Hills Rally, there are bikes everywhere. Every parking lot is full of motorcycles. Eighty percent of the vehicles on the road are motorcycles. A few days in, and I felt the empowerment of being part of this group, and I realized that I fit in by virtue of my passion for traveling on two wheels. Even if I didn’t share many of the political views I saw advertised (Guns! Trump!), I started to see the great range of individuals at the Rally as my people.

I don’t know if I ever need to go back to the Rally, but I will definitely return to the Black Hills during the off-season. It’s a beautiful part of the country, with fantastic roads and beautiful natural settings. The Old West atmosphere is for real, and I want to explore it without the crowds.

You can read my article about Indian Motorcycle’s 2017 Lineup at Forbes.com.

Photos (c) Jason Fogelson

A Conversation with Rod Copes, President, Royal Enfield North America

by Jason Fogelson

A few weeks ago, I rode and reviewed the 2016 Royal Enfield 500 Classic for Forbes.com. So when I got the chance to have a phone conversation with the manufacturer’s President for North America, I activated my trusty recording app and fired some questions at the man, Rod Copes. You can read my Rod Copes interview on Forbes.com.

If anyone has a chance to succeed with Royal Enfield, it’s Copes. He brings his experience with Harley-Davidson to the table, most of which was focused on developing motorcycle sales in markets outside of the USA. He’s doing the same thing with Royal Enfield – but flipped on its head. He’s taking a brand that is beloved in India and re-introducing it to the US.

RODThe time is ripe for Royal Enfield. The bikes are cool and retro, and they’re relatively cheap. They’ll appeal to the traditional motorcycle buyer – a guy with gray hair and a beard looking to squeeze more adventure out of life. They’ll also appeal to the buyer that every motorcycle manufacturer is chasing – the new rider. The low price, retro looks, light weight and demure performance will attract hipsters, women, young people and city riders. These bikes have a quality that is a buzzword right now: Authenticity. And if Rod Copes can keep the company on track while getting the word out and building a solid dealer network, buyers will discover Royal Enfield.

I think he can do it.

Photos (c) Royal Enfield

2016 Royal Enfield Classic Motorcycle Review

by Jason Fogelson

If you’re not into motorcycles, you may never have heard of Royal Enfield. Even if you are into motorcycles, and you live in North America, the brand may not be on your radar.

It’s all different in India. Royal Enfield outsells all other brands there, and India is an enormous motorcycle market. The brand has been available in the US for decades, but with little impact. Expect that to change, as Royal Enfield North America has just taken over distribution, wiped the slate clean and started over with the marketing, distribution and sales of these middle-weight bikes.

2016RoyalEnfieldFogelson-8The vast majority of motorcycles sold in the US are 800 cc or larger. Royal Enfield’s 2016 US offerings are 499 cc – 535 cc, a range that has been all but abandoned by most companies, who seem to be concentrating on 300 cc starter bikes and heavyweight cruisers, baggers and adventure bikes.

Why would you want a 499-cc bike like the Royal Enfield Classic? With just 31 lb-ft of torque, the bike is very friendly to new riders and returning riders. It is relatively light, and not a bit intimidating. Its retro styling — strike that. It’s not retro. It is authentically old-fashioned, carrying over designs from the 1940s and 50s. Anyway, its styling will appeal to older riders and hipsters alike.

You can read my 2016 Royal Enfield Classic Test Ride and Review on Forbes.com.

Photos (c) Jason Fogelson

Are you going to Sturgis?

by Jason Fogelson

Every year, I make plans to go to the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, and it has never worked out.  Well, this year, it might actually happen, thanks to Indian Motorcycle. They’ve invited me to cover the event, where they may be revealing new trim levels and talking about other interesting news.

I wrote a quick preview of the 76th Annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally for Best Western’s YouMustBeTrippin.com.

I have to admit, big motorcycle events really aren’t my thing. I’ve been to a bunch over the  years. While there’s a lot of entertainment to be had at a rally, from bike shows to live music to people-watching, the overwhelming number of bikes, people and sounds tend to turn me off after a few hours. I’ve seen some really dangerous riding at rallies and it sets my teeth on edge. I don’t mind the drinking and carousing and adult behavior — but it rarely makes me proud to be a motorcyclist when I see it in concentrated form.

So, why am I going? Well, it’s work, for one thing. And I really am curious about what Indian is going to have to say this year. They’ve been making a lot of big moves, and I want to hear about them first hand.

Stay tuned for a full report.

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