2020 Polaris Slingshot first drive review: Keeps it weird, adds more wonderful
Part motorcycle, part car and all attention whore, this three-ring circus is completely reborn with a new engine, transmission and loads more substance.
Chris PaukertFormer executive editor / Cars
Following stints in TV news production and as a record company publicist, Chris spent most of his career in automotive publishing. Mentored by Automobile Magazine founder David E. Davis Jr., Paukert succeeded Davis as editor-in-chief of Winding Road, a pioneering e-mag, before serving as Autoblog's executive editor from 2008 to 2015.
Chris is a Webby and Telly award-winning video producer and has served on the jury of the North American Car and Truck of the Year awards. He joined the CNET team in 2015, bringing a small cache of odd, underappreciated cars with him.
Five years and 30,000 sales later, it's still rare enough that people point. Some furrow their brow in quizzical expressions, while others smile, clap and snap photos. Part-car, part-motorcycle, part-roadgoing robotic lobster, the Polaris Slingshot remains irrepressible and impossible to ignore. And now, with the almost all-new 2020 Polaris Slingshot seen here, this three-legged creature isn't just better to be seen in, it's worlds better to drive.
Yes, I said "almost all-new." Despite looking similar to the Slingshot that's already on the market, this 2020 model is around 70% different, including Polaris' first in-house-designed four-cylinder engine and an optional AutoDrive automatic transmission. The latter figures to be a key addition, as the Slingshot has thus far been off-limits to anyone who can't drive a manual. Virtually every other area of this trick trike has been reworked, including a totally new steering system, revised braking and suspension setups, plus a substantially updated cabin. This new Sling is improved enough that it not only deserves to earn interest from those who were unconvinced by its predecessor, it should provide ample reasons for existing owners to consider trading up to Version 2.0.
If you're not particularly familiar with the Slingshot, you might not even notice that its design has been reworked, as its form factor remains the same. This is a three-wheeled autocycle with two wheels up front and a single, exposed drive wheel out back. Of course, there's also the Polaris' unusual bodywork draped sparingly over its tube-frame, open-cockpit chassis.
Watch this: 2020 Polaris Slingshot first drive: Similar looks, all-new fun
Lead designer Tiger Bracy says the original Slingshot was inspired by everything from Roman soldiers with "crazy helmets" to World War II fighter planes, speed boats and mythological flying serpents. If Bracy were talking about anything other than a Slingshot, you'd probably think that he was indulging in nonsensical designer hyperbole, but with this vehicle, you can actually visualize these influences. The designer says if anything, the new 2020 model brings the design closer to those first sketches drawn years ago. "With the incremental changes that we made it's really starting to look like what we originally intended. Not that it didn't before, but it's even better now."
Look closer, and you'll notice a bunch has changed, in particular, there's striking new LED illumination up front. There's a slim rectangular headlamp mounted centrally, flanked by a pair of arrowhead-shaped daytime running lamp arrays. The new lights give the Slingshot an unmistakable nighttime visual signature, and should improve visibility significantly over the outgoing model, which was a bit weak in terms of illumination. The new fenders are more flared-in than before thanks to redesigned closeout panels that provide improved aerodynamics. Suffice it to say, if you liked the way the outgoing Slingshot looked, you're going to love this one. If you didn't, well... perhaps you might be interested in something more traditional looking, like a Vanderhall Venice.
The heart of the new Slingshot is its engine, a Polaris-designed, 2.0-liter, naturally aspirated four-cylinder dubbed Prostar. While the Minneapolis-based powersports manufacturer won't reveal which company machines the engine, officials did note that the block comes to life in Germany adjacent to some Mercedes-AMG V8 hardware. Hmm.
In any case, the new powerplant is an aluminum-block, dual-overhead-cam unit available in two distinct states of tune: On base SL models, this inline-four puts out 180 horsepower and 120 pound-feet of torque on high-octane gas. In R spec, power is bumped to 203 hp and 144 lb-ft. If those numbers don't sound earth-shattering, it's worth noting that the Slingshot only weighs about 1,650 pounds (about 40 less than last year). By comparison, a Mazda MX-5 Miata -- as feathery a modern car as you'll find -- weighs over 2,300 pounds. Polaris claims the uplevel R spec hits 60 mph in 4.9 seconds regardless of transmission, en route to a limited top speed of 125 mph. Driving is believing, but you'll want to get that launch exactly right -- after all, you only have a single, 20-inch Kenda SS-799 tire putting power to the ground.
What all those numbers don't tell you is how much more pleasant the new engine is than the old General Motors-sourced 2.4-liter Ecotec, an engine that traces its lineage back to the long-dead Pontiac Solstice. The new powerplant is smaller, lighter (about 40 pounds) and more powerful, with an appreciably higher 8,500-rpm redline that makes for more aural excitement. In fact, the new engine sounds better from idle to fuel cutoff than the old GM mill -- a not insignificant bonus when you can't roll up the windows to mute its soundtrack.
I had the opportunity to drive a 2019 model back-to-back with the new R spec, and there's a huge improvement in both tractability and revvability, though there is ultimately less torque from the new engine than its predecessor (horsepower is up 30, but peak twist falls 22 pound-feet). Given how much more enjoyable the Prostar is to zing to the far end of its tachometer, it's a worthwhile tradeoff.
AutoDrive needs a paddlin'
The other major drivetrain development is the availability of the aforementioned automatic transmission. More precisely, it's actually an automated manual -- a hydraulically actuated, single-plate, dry-clutch gearbox. There's no torque converter like a traditional automatic, nor is this setup as sophisticated or quick to shift as a dual-clutch transmission. In actuality, AutoDrive can be sloppy and deliver ill-timed gear changes, a reality compounded by the fact that Polaris didn't include paddles to proactively induce ratio changes manually. I ultimately found this pushbutton gearbox frustrating: It wouldn't let me take full advantage of the Prostar's rev range or allow for smooth around-town comportment.
Polaris officials say packaging and weight restrictions prevented them from considering a more traditional transmission solution. The mass issue is particularly important, because federal autocycle guidelines call for a 1,750-pound weight limit, a bogey that would be tough to meet once a few accessories are added. Where AutoDrive weighs just 14 pounds more than the manual, a typical torque converter would likely have added 60 pounds or so. Company reps I spoke with hint that shift paddles may be in development, but I think further gearbox tuning is also called for. As it is, it's a very smart development that the company now offers a two-pedal solution for buyers. I suspect that despite its shortcomings, AutoDrive could claim over 50% of new Slingshot production in short order, and its availability figures to juice overall model sales numbers significantly.
2020 Polaris Slingshot hides new heart under its crazy skin
For the first time, this trike offers a pair of drive modes, Comfort and Slingshot, with the latter featuring heavier steering as well as revised shift speed and timing on AutoDrive models. Sadly, these modes weren't available on my prototype test vehicle. Beyond powertrain changes, Polaris executed some very welcome changes to the Slingshot's steering and brake systems. The former has been completely overhauled and is now much quicker, allowing for keener turn-in. With about 2.5 turns lock to lock (a full turn less than before), the Slingshot feels friskier and more nimble, without the nervousness you might expect from a trike.
With 65% of its weight over the front wheels and just 5.4 inches of ground clearance, this tripod is stable. Polaris says the Slingshot is capable of 1.02 gs of sustained lateral grip, and a few lapping sessions at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park outside Phoenix, Arizona suggests that even if high-speed circuit driving takes some getting used to, the Slingshot's standard traction and stability control do a solid job of keeping the uninitiated from getting in over their head, even if these systems can occasionally seem intrusive.
Not only did I manage to sneak in some track time, I flung the Slingshot around on canyon roads and even got in a good amount of time on the freeway. Between its retuned suspension and uprated brakes, this three-wheeler is now good fun on twisty pavement. With the openness of the doorless cockpit and the low-slung windshield of my test model, it was easy to feel connected to the outdoors in a way that's impossible to manage in something like a Miata. You instinctively lean your body into turns like a motorcycle, but thanks to traditional bucket seats and seatbelts, you don't feel vulnerable -- instead, you feel like part of the action.
Depending on your personality, extended highway cruising can be a different story. Extreme wind buffeting is a fact of life, as is the reality that you can't really hear the 100-watt Rockford-Fosgate audio system with your helmet on. Bugs splatter and rocks glance off your dome lid while tiny bits of dust and road collect in your lap and across your midsection.
At near triple-digit speeds, Arizona sand stings the knuckles, your body is vibrated with the fervor of a coin-op massage chair and the atmosphere buffets your brain bucket with a thousand tiny little slaps per second. It sounds terrible, and objectively, it is, but it's also wonderful and exhilarating. I didn't manage it, but pegging the Slingshot's 125-mph v-max must be quite an event (one from which you probably naturally decelerate very quickly, too, since this Polaris feels like it has the aerodynamic properties of a parachute at high speeds).
Mercifully, you don't have to be of any particular disposition to appreciate the 2020 Slingshot's substantial cabin rework. Materials have been much improved, including nicer seats and a far more substantial steering wheel, complete with multifunction switchgear and cruise control buttons. A new center console is finally friendly to today's large-format
, and you no longer have to "chicken-wing" your right arm to reach the cupholders. You won't confuse material quality with a normal passenger car, but given that everything has to remain weatherproof and colorfast, Polaris has done a great job.
The Slingshot's Ride Command Infotainment has also been substantially overhauled, and the 7-inch touchscreen now features a faster quad-core processor and a surprisingly sharp rearview camera.
The 2020 Polaris Slingshot is poised to hit dealers this spring, starting at $26,499 for an SL with AutoDrive. If you want a manual gearbox -- and I certainly hope you do -- pricing for the R starts at $30,999 ($1,700 more gets you an R AutoDrive). No matter which way you go, that's a not-insignificant wedge of cash for a weekend toy. Fortunately, the Slingshot is also one of the most vivid and distinctive vehicles on the road, both visually and in terms of the way it drives. That, friends, is mighty hard to put a price on.
Editors' note: Travel costs related to this story were covered by the manufacturer, which is common in the auto industry. The judgments and opinions of Roadshow's staff are our own and we do not accept paid editorial content.