2018 Slingshot delivers the shade, and the views
By Guido Ebert
I welcomed the assignment, especially with the extended stretch of wintery weather we’ve had in Minnesota. The voice on the other end of the phone line asked me to travel to southern California to do some location scouting for an upcoming event. Flight and accommodations would be set up; all I needed to do was pick my mode of ground transportation.
Hmmmm … a Goldilocks scenario, one in which a motorcycle wouldn’t supply a large enough platform for carrying my wife and gear while sitting inside a rental car wouldn’t accurately reflect the dynamic scenery I was there to discover.
Lets split the difference, I thought, as I rang Polaris to learn that they’d graciously supply us with a 2018 Slingshot SL ($25,499).
Unless you’ve been living off the grid for the past few years, you’ll know the Polaris Slingshot is a three-wheeled on-road vehicle increasingly referred to as an “autocycle.”
Autocycle design certainly differs from manufacturer to manufacturer, yet the basic layout usually includes a front-mounted engine sprung upon two front wheels, seating & cockpit designed for two people, and a single rear drive wheel.
While the federal government hasn’t created an official autocycle classification, 34 states – Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming – have enacted statutes defining these three-wheelers.
So, since no federal guidelines exist, and laws differ from state to state, owners in most states are able to operate the vehicles with a standard driver’s license while owners in six states – Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, Wisconsin – need motorcycle endorsements.
Flash forward a few weeks after that initial phone call to Polaris and we find ourselves standing outside a nondescript warehouse in an industrial area of Los Angeles. Parked in front of us is a Slingshot SL – which, much to my surprise, came accessorized with the optional new, color-matched “Slingshade” hardtop.
We gear up with our state-mandated helmets, lift the Slingshade’s dual gull-wing roof panels, put two backpacks filled with electronics in lockable storage hatches behind the seats, throw a couple of dry bags worth of clothes in the passenger footwell and climb in.
A quick review of the interior reveals a tilting Slingshot-branded steering wheel and standard five-speed transmission with three pedals, highly bolstered and adjustable seats with twin cup holders between them, and inboard mounted seatbelts.
Up front is a 7.5-inch-tall clear wind deflector that allows you to look past the massively sculpted fenders, and to either side are mirrors that offer a clear view of what you’ve passed.
The dash features a traditional automotive layout offering independent speedometer and tachometer, classic ignition key location on the steering column, push-button start, a traction control switch, glove box, and a centrally mounted Polaris Ride Command infotainment system featuring a seven-inch multi-touch display with glove-touch technology, GPS, phone connectivity, Rockford Fosgate stereo and back-up camera.
Press the clutch, turn the key and thumb the glowing red starter button. The engine spits to life, vibrating the chassis ever so slightly. Power comes from a 2.4L GM Ecotec DOHC VVT four-cylinder engine delivering 166 ft.-lb. of torque @ 4,700 rpm and 173hp @ 6,200 rpm. It’s the same type of lump used in the Chevrolet Cobalt SS and models from the defunct Pontiac and Saturn brands.
The engine may be a relatively small package in automotive terms but sounds meaty in this guise as it lopes between its large diameter intake and forward-mounted exhaust. And, as I later found out, it also offers more than enough grunt to sportily propel this 1,750-lb. vehicle to thrilling speeds on some of SoCal’s most fantastic roads.
We ended up scouring the desert and surrounding mountains for eight days, traveling 1,700 miles through Joshua Tree National Park, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, Cleveland National Forest, Mt. San Jacinto State Park, Palm Springs, Ocotillo Wells and Borrego Springs, around the Salton Sea and its below-sea level shoreline communities of Salton Sea Beach, Brawley, Bombay Beach, Slab City & Salvation Mountain, up Palomar Mountain (5,598 ft.) and through the high-elevation communities of Julian and Idyllwild.
All the while, the addition of the Slingshade proved effective in keeping our delicate northern skin shielded from the effects of the fiery orb in the sky that had been so elusive in our part of the country.
The interior proved comfortable, but with materials more reminiscent of a Polaris RZR side-by-side vehicle than a modern sports car. That’s OK, though, because it meant the surfaces could quickly recover from the sandstorms, rain, and snow we encountered in the region’s various microclimates.
The engine & transmission functioned as they should, with easy clutch play assisting the five-speed standard manual and power delivery that was strong but not violent. 1st gear (3.753:1 ratio) proved quite short, the fun appeared in 2nd, 3rd and 4th, while 5th gear (0.729:1 ratio) served as a sort of overdrive offering very little get-up-and-go. Suggestion: Find your preferred highway speed in 4th gear, shift to 5th and cruise.
An easy triple digits could be achieved without front end lift or drift on a desert straight.
Twin 298mm front brake discs and a single 298mm rear disc with stainless steel lines and ABS bring the vehicle down from speed unceremoniously and showed no signs of fade during our many elevation changes.
Traction Control can be switched off for complete hooliganism. But, even with it on, the rear wheel can kick out just a bit when shifting from 1st to 2nd during a hard launch. We experienced no adverse reaction from the rear end while navigating the twisties in 2nd and 3rd gear.
Speaking of twisties … we found them. Entering corners as one should – braking to appropriate speed, holding your line and accelerating out – delivered confidence, very little roll, and smile-inducing torque.
Sized 28 inches shorter but one inch wider than a 2018 Corvette Stingray, the Slingshot features a suspension geometry that keeps the vehicle flat through the tightest of turns while its speed-sensitive steering promotes stellar control.
Dual 225/45R18 Kenda front tires offer road-holding directional stability and a single 255/35R20 Kenda rear tire attached to a massive single-sided swingarm delivers the power via a belt final drive.
Important to remember is that there’s no good way to traverse roadway irregularities in or on a three-wheeler: one of your wheels will strike whatever you’re trying to avoid.
The worst bit of handling I experienced happened when we’d encounter roadway rumble strips, which California uses in the middle of two-lane highways. During passing maneuvers over these rumble strips, under acceleration, the front wheels would successfully traverse the strips while the rear wheel would lose traction for a split second and result in the rear end skipping out for a brief “oh, Shit” moment until Traction Control reeled everything back in. It happened more than a couple of times.
I’m now nitpicking, but a proximity key like that available with the Indian Motorcycle brand would be a welcome update.
As for consumption, a 9.77-gallon fuel tank of premium offered us a range of around 200 miles with a mix of spirited and relaxed driving. The tank is accessed via a traditional twist cap mounted on the rear left flank of the vehicle.
OK, the Polaris Slingshot isn’t for everyone. Let’s be honest: Visually, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it affair. And, priced at $25.5k, there are many vehicles out there to choose from in an effort to stimulate your travel experience.
Still, we couldn’t leave a stop at a desert oasis, gas station or grocery store without explaining the vehicle to multiple people – many pictures, many questions by folks from around the world.
Then there was the Ferrari 355 that we accelerated alongside on El Paseo Blvd. in Palm Desert, the 1970s Porsche 911 canyon racer who gave us a thumbs-up upon multiple sunrise encounters on Hwy 74 near Idyllwild, and the BMW and Ducati riders who offered a friendly salute after we played as a fast-moving pack on a twisting uphill above Borrego Springs.
So, in terms of performance, the Polaris Slingshot proved to be much fun chasing sportbikes through the mountain twisties and leaving rented Mustang convertibles in the desert dust. On the freeways within the LA basin, however, things seemed to get a bit more dicey as we traversed four lanes of uneven surfaces and a sea of rabid commuters in vehicles much larger than ours.
As for what we intended, the 2018 Polaris Slingshot SL with Slingshade served as the perfect platform for witnessing that beautiful desert-to-mountain landscape from an open-air vehicle.