Expert Reviews

Test Drive: 2016 Polaris Slingshot

AutoTrader SCORE
This score is awarded by our team of expert reviewers after extensive testing of the car

The Slingshot looks drastic. Radical. Extreme.

The following is a list of cars that my mother has referred to as the Batmobile:

Corvette Stingray
Dodge Viper
Jaguar F-Type
Toyota Prius (??) [??? – Ed.]

The other day, Mother Pritchard recanted all former occurrences of calling a car the Batmobile when I arrived for supper in the Polaris Slingshot.

“Oh, no, THIS is the Batmobile. The real Batmobile,” she said, walking out into the driveway with an apron and a saucy ladle and a gigantic grin you could see from Google Earth.

“What the hell is it?!” she asked. Shortly, all of her neighbors were checking it out, too. Ditto a lady that was walking her dog nearby. And two people who were just driving by, but pulled over and parked and got out for a look.

The Slingshot looks like designers were instructed to break up anything more than four square inches of smooth bodywork with a vent, or an angle, or a slash. It looks like something drawn by a ten-year-old gearhead with sharpened pencil crayons and a ruler. It attracts crowds of cellphone-wielding teenagers. Or maybe there was a Pokémon inside? The Slingshot looks drastic. Radical. Extreme. It draws crowds like a car ten times its $31,000 sticker.

But let’s dispense with the important part first: the Polaris Slingshot is not a sports car. Read that twice.

And it’s not a bike either.

And sure, it’s a bit of both. It’s a car, in that you don’t need a motorcycle license to drive it, and that it has a steering wheel, and that it has an interior, and that you feel funny walking away from it without remote locking the doors, since there aren’t any. And it’s like a bike, in that it has rubber seats, that you shouldn’t take it through a car-wash, in that you need a helmet to drive one, and that it’s one-wheel drive.

But Slingshot is a toy. A novelty. A plaything. A compellingly priced alternative to a quick open-topped sports car you’ll only drive when it’s nice out. A unique way to access the open-air thrills, speed to spare, and silly-good fuel mileage of a motorcycle, if you’re tired of motorcycles, for some reason. Your very own open-wheeled racecar – one that’s street legal.

You get in, climbing over the exposed tube-chassis segments, plopping in behind the rubbery steering wheel and belting up the inboard-mounted seatbelts. There are two cupholders. A stereo. Cruise control. Tilt steering. A back-up camera. And the whole interior, and the storage compartments within, are waterproof. Said storage facilities include a bin behind each seat large enough for a helmet, a small packsack, or a bag or two of groceries. There’s a glovebox too, big enough for your wallet, hat, cell-phone, and a few other at-hand knick-knacks. There’s a USB port and 12-volt power outlet inside, too.

Fit, finish and detailing call a boat or an ATV, not a car, to mind. Much of the cabin implements are rubberized, heavy-duty, and designed to withstand the elements. This is a street-legal power-toy, after all.

Insert the key, and Slingshot fires up via a centrally mounted ignition button, in bright red. The engine? Straight out of your grandmother’s G6: a 2.4L EcoTec unit with 173 horsepower, driving a five-speed manual transmission, then a driveshaft, which propels a final-drive unit modified to accept a belt-drive assembly. Said belt is notched, reinforced with carbon fiber, and spins the single rear wheel (or vaporizes it, if you turn off the traction control. Yahoo!).

Much of the driveline is an asset. Unlike granny’s G6, the engine only has to motivate about 770 kg for Slingshot duty, meaning the power-to-weight ratio is sports-car proper. The clutch is light and forgiving, but not sucky and mushy, and it doesn’t feel like it’s made of cheese whiz. The shift action is pleasingly light, well-lubed and precise. It all balances the enthusiast’s desire for a solid clutch-bite and precise action against forgiveness in stop-and-go traffic. You won’t stall it, and it’s buttery smooth.

The Slingshot achieves ignition with a dense hum that turns a head or two, but isn’t obnoxiously loud, despite the compact exhaust system which exits beneath the passenger footwell. At lower revs and light load, it sounds like a quiet motorcycle (according to my cameraman), and opened up, a delightfully raw roar escalates as the short initial gears come and go at redline. At max revs, there’s a discernable hiss from the exhaust, which sounds like it’s choking a little, which makes me think the EcoTec engine would be thankful for the addition of some high-flow exhaust bits.

And don’t miss the frequent “Whoop whooooooooooop whooooooooooooooooop” from the transmission coming in through the floor. Taken with the raw engine note, this sounds like a proper motorsports toy.

And it goes. Quickly. Gears one through three are on the short side, and help slingshot the Slingshot along in city traffic with mischievous snappiness. It’s not street-bike fast, in fact, you should likely avoid a Mustang GT or Camaro SS at a red light, too, but, but for pleasing responsiveness and smooth performance throughout, they’ve hit the mark, here.

How’s she drive? Car-like, in many ways. The turning circle is similar to a compact car, the steering feel is instant and sports-car like, with plenty of low-speed assistance but not enough to make it feel soggy, and on twisty roads, the instant turn-in and sharp responses call the Scion FR-S or Mazda MX-5 to mind.

With only one contact patch at the rear, the Slingshot can be throttle-steered easily around corners if you’re delicate, and calls a high-powered, short-wheelbase V8 sports car to mind. It rotates, slightly and with friskiness, but never feels like it’s about to put you on a speed-date with a piece of infrastructure if you’re being reasonable. Really smash the throttle in first, and the engine output only slightly outguns traction, so you get plenty of forward momentum, but minimal squirm. Very tight, aggressive cornering sees the rear end lean heavily about the wheel, which may take some getting used to. But ultimately, as hard as your writer pushed it on public roads, Slingshot simply felt like a nimbly-bimbly little rear-drive coupe, and that’s just fine.

Ride quality is absolutely sporty-first. On rougher real-world, in-town roads, the Slingshot rides like a hardcore track-toy: rigid, busy, and calling machines like the Porsche 911 GT3, or Corvette Z06, or Ariel Atom to mind. Shocks are stiff, and the chassis is as rigid as a gluten-free pancake. It’s a busy highway ride, too, and the soft but constant jiggling beneath, combined with the sound of the driveline and wind passing through your helmet, reinforce the uniqueness and rawness of the experience. No squeaks or rattles to report, either.

Brakes perform with urgency and the ABS system engages smoothly, though the pedal feel takes some learning, if you’re coming out of a sporty car. Simply, the effort required to generate a sudden stop is fairly aggressive, and the pedal travel is fairly long.

A few other details are notable.

First? The seats are a soft and rubbery plastic material with plenty of give, and prove to be considerably more comfortable than they look, at least for your semi-athletic writer, whose back is in good shape. Thing is, they don’t breathe, so if it’s hot outside, a torrent of back sweat on par with Niagara Falls is in your immediate future.

Second, the headlights, which consist of halogen projectors, are good, not great. Light output is bright and focused, though peripheral roadside illumination is fairly poor, and the reach of the setup is adequate at best. High beams are decent, though shoppers interested in regular after-dark drives may wish to consider some accessory lighting add-ons to taste.

Finally, the plastic partial windscreen is a little distracting at first, as it rests mid-way in your view, though your writer appreciated the near-nil presence of bugs and rocks and road debris entering his helmet and face, even on highway drives.

Complaints? The tall rear body section limits rear visibility, making proper mirror setup and careful shoulder-checks absolutely vital. Further, the back-up camera is wide-angle and high-resolution, but the display is all but impossible to see in direct sunlight, a definite oversight in an open-topped ride designed for sunny days.

Ultimately, Slingshot is an experience, as much as it’s a way to get around and enjoy the open road. Almost nothing else you’ll find for the money is this unique and striking. It’s a little weird, a little different and a little unconventional – but it’s got the sounds and the moves and the looks and the shifter, and the open-topped magic to put a grin on your face on every drive.

Campagna T-REX
Can-Am Spyder
Model Tested 2016 Polaris Slingshot SL
Base Price $30,999
A/C Tax
Destination Fee $1,330
Price as Tested $32,579
Optional Equipment
Setup: $250