2021 Polaris Slingshot review: Still crazy after all these gears
Much improved, this trike still isn't for everyone, but that's by design. Just be sure you like attention.
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.
Well, this is awkward. Just by looking at our photographs of this 2021 Polaris Slingshot, you've no doubt already decided whether you like it or not. My guess is you've already figured out whether or not you're interested in taking a ride in one or -- gasp -- buying one. Heck, that'd probably even be true even if this particular example wasn't painted like a Nerf gun.
Since you're still reading, I'm going to assume you've got more than a passing curiosity in this funky three-legged roadster. Maybe you've been eying the Slingshot's substantial progress over the last few years. Heck, you might've even read my extensive first-drive review of the overhauled 2020 Polaris Slingshot. If you haven't already done so, check it out. Go ahead. I'll wait.
Still with me? What you need to know is that Polaris, a company best known for its snowmobiles and off-road side-by-sides, dramatically retooled its Slingshot trike last year -- about 70% of the vehicle was new, and it drove like it, too. Never mind the fact that it looks similar to the smash-hit model that's been stunting around since 2014, the new Slingshot is a proper second-generation model. That's thanks mostly to the fitment of the company's first internally designed engine, Prostar, and AutoDrive, an automated-manual transmission. The gearbox is particularly important, because it finally opened up the Slingshot Life to buyers who have been unable or unwilling to consider a stick shift. Good stuff.
While I found the 2020 Slingshot miles better to drive and live with in nearly every regard, it was still far from perfect -- especially the aforementioned AutoDrive, which was frustratingly rough-edged. So when Polaris reached out to me and said it had fitted paddle shifters and completely reprogrammed its hydraulically actuated, single-plate, dry-clutch five-speed transmission, I just had to give this model another go. The fact that Polaris also said it had improved the 2021 Slingshot's Rockford Fosgate audio system and ladled on even more personalization options would turn out to be icing on this technicolor tube-frame cake.
Prostar power and AutoDrive improvements
By way of refresher, the Polaris' Prostar heart is a 2.0-liter naturally aspirated four-cylinder engine built on aluminum-block, dual-overhead-cam architecture. For 2021, the Prostar is once again available in two outputs depending on trim. Base models, now known as Slingshot S, as well as midrange Slingshot SL models, generate 178 horsepower (at a sky-high 8,500 rpm) and 120 pound-feet of torque at 5,500 rpm on 91-octane gas. Uplevel Slingshot R models churn out 203 hp at 8,250 rpm and a healthier 144 lb-ft at 6,500 rpm, with those differences realized primarily through software tuning.
When it comes to sporty machines, I'm a diehard manual-transmission lover for their superior engagement quotient. However, this time, I made a point of asking Polaris to loan me the updated AutoDrive model to see whether it'd exorcised the gearbox's slow, jerky and often ill-timed shifts. I'd also lobbied specifically for paddle shifters in 2020, so I wanted to see how well these updates worked.
While I didn't have last year's model handy for back-to-back comparisons during my time with the 2021 Slingshot, I found it easy to appreciate the tuning progress that's been made. While still jerky and slow by modern automotive transmission standards, gear-changes are significantly smoother and quicker than before. Whereas cog swaps in last year's AutoDrive would set your whole body lurching back and forth like one of those inflatable tube guys dancing in front of a used-car lot, the 2021's gearbox will only leave your head bobbing like you're nodding along to a slick beat on the stereo. (Before you ask, Polaris didn't have the room to install a conventional torque-converter automatic.)
The best thing to do to smooth out the driving experience is to take advantage of the Slingshot's nicely sized paddle shifters at all times. They're a vital upgrade, not just because they help maximize driver engagement, but because by summoning gears manually, you subconsciously prepare your body for momentary shift shocks. Left to its own devices, AutoDrive can still deliver ill-timed shifts, but they're far fewer in number than before. These changes combine for massive increases in both drivability and enjoyment versus last year's two-pedal setup. As an added bonus, the new calibration includes a hill-hold feature so you don't roll back when starting out on inclines. It's helpful stuff, as this single-clutch gearbox behaves more like a manual transmission than it does a traditional automatic in this regard.
It's right about now that I suspect 2020-model-year AutoDrive owners will be muttering under their collective breaths. No worries, friends. Your local Polaris dealer will reprogram your gearbox to the 2021 tune for free, and you can add hill-hold functionality for $299. Paddles can be retrofit for $399, as well (the same price 2021 S and SL customers will pay to add them). It's all 100% worth your time and expense, I promise.
On the other hand, if you're still researching buying a new Slingshot, I recommend going with the less costly, less complex and smoother-driving five-speed manual transmission. Despite AutoDrive's improvements, I still think the DIY gearbox is still more fun to operate. Plus, it's just as quick, and it's a heap less expensive, too (more on this in a minute). Of course, that's my preference, but it doesn't mean you wouldn't be in good company if you splurged for the AutoDrive unit instead. Polaris tells me that some 70% of new Slingshot sales this year have been of the pushbutton gearbox variety, and in total, Slingshot sales are up over 40% so far during the first half of this year.
Improved dynamics and fun factor
Either way you slice it, the 2021 Slingshot is genuinely quick. Even with modest power outputs, the Prostar only has around 1,650 pounds to motivate (some 700 pounds lighter than Mazda's feathery MX-5 Miata), so progress is brisk. Accelerating to 60 mph happens in 4.9 seconds, says Polaris. Because you've only got the one 305/30 20-inch Kenda SS-799 tire out back, you have to work to get the power to the ground instead of up in the air in a plume of acrid smoke and rubber bits. It's fun to try and master launching, and midrange acceleration is fun, too.
Top speed is a modest-sounding 125 mph, but trust me: Even if you're a speed demon like me, you won't regularly feel the need to go into the triple digits. Driving the Alabama-built Slingshot at freeway velocities is a singularly visceral experience, one with your knees in the breeze and your head and body vibrating at distinctly different rates. Your noggin bounces around from the onslaught of air rushing over the Slingshot's insect-like bodywork and your body buzzes from the chassis' vibrations. It's hardly a serene sensation, but it's good fun. Plus, you feel closer to what's going on outside than you do when piloting anything this side of a motorcycle. With its cut-down, speedster-style windshield, you'll definitely want to wear a helmet, if only to prevent getting clunked in the forehead with an errant bug or rock (a brain bucket may also be required by law, depending on where you live).
When it comes time to exit the freeway and head for a twisty road, know that the Slingshot's handling is significantly improved versus pre-2020 models. That's particularly true for the steering, which boasts a much quicker rack (2.5 turns lock-to-lock, versus around 3.5) for much more immediate responses. Even with three contact patches instead of four, Polaris says you can pull up to 1.02 g in corners, and the ride quality from the redesigned double-wishbone suspension is more agreeable, too.
Unfortunately, I've found that braking varies to a surprising degree from Slingshot to Slingshot in both feel and effectiveness, and the binders on the two-tone Sunrise Orange and Stealth Blue tester seen here were noticeably spongier than in the 2020 test models I experienced at the launch.
You ought to know that the entry-level Slingshot S comes standard with a five-speed manual gearbox for $20,399 delivered ($19,999 plus a $400 "logistics surcharge"), but if you want AutoDrive, you'll need to sneak a further $1,700 from your child's college fund. That's also just the tip of the three-wheeled iceberg. At the other end of the spectrum, if you're feeling flush, you can splash out on the Slingshot R Limited Edition, a loaded-up, one-year model that includes lightweight forged alloy wheels and a Stage 2 Rockford Fosgate audio system that includes Apple CarPlay integration and embedded navigation on the 7-inch touchscreen for the first time. You can clock one of these special $33,199 models on the street by spotting its highlighter-like Neon Fade paint and blacked-out wheels and badges. That's all well and good, but if it were me, I'd stick with a base or midrange model and save a few shekels for fuel and for visiting Polaris' exhaustive accessory list.
That's not to say I didn't appreciate my Slingshot R tester's generous equipment roster, which included Stage 3 roll-hoop audio kit and add-on heated and cooled seating surfaces for a total of $36,649. However, once you get to the higher-power engine of the midrange SL, the driving experience is almost entirely the same on costlier models, and no amount of add-on accessories will make the Slingshot's waterproof interior a meaningfully more luxurious or versatile place to be. (To be fair, the cabin in the 2020 and 2021 models is heaps better than the original Sling.)
It's probably just a personal thing, but I find the Slingshot's value equation to be far more attractive in the $25,000 range. Spend much more than that, and it's too easy to have your mind wander to thoughts of something like a Miata, which is worlds more refined and more usable ride on a daily basis -- even if it's a heck of a lot more ordinary and not at all a vehicle that most Slingshot intenders would even consider.
Side note: It likely wouldn't help the Slingshot's cost equation, but there's a big part of me that wants to see Polaris offer an electric Slingshot. While I enjoy EVs, I'm not someone who routinely suggests that everything would be better running on batteries -- I still love the snarl of a good engine and, as I mentioned earlier, I still prize the bond created with vehicles when they let me shift for myself. In this case, though, I think a Slingshot EV would be excellent. You'd get quicksilver acceleration and you'd have it without any transmission refinement issues. Besides, Slings generally aren't long-distance machines by nature, so you probably wouldn't need a huge battery pack.
Polaris owns both GEM and Aixiam, the latter being a French brand of neighborhood vehicles that are so tiny and low-speed that they actually don't require drivers' licenses in many markets. While both brands' models are far too modestly powered for something like a Slingshot, Polaris is also teaming up with Zero electric motorcycles for an emissions-free side-by-side. In any case, it's clear Polaris has a measure of expertise in electrification.
Niche, yet with surprisingly broad appeal
Even without any sort of electrification, it's obvious this 2021 model isn't just the best Slingshot ever, it's a machine with broader appeal across an even wider spectrum of buyer demographics. From grizzled old riders who can't throw a leg over a motorcycle frame any longer, to young urbanites who deck their trikes out in light kits and loud stereos, to Everyday Joes and Janes who just want something fun and unique for the weekend, the Slingshot enjoys the type of classless appeal that most automakers and motorcycle manufacturers would kill for. Besides, you simply can't buy a more attention-getting ride for less money. As someone who appreciates vehicles that color well outside the lines, it's great to see the Slingshot finding so many different audiences.