Wait, what is this thing?
The 2021 Polaris Slingshot SL is the scrappy middleweight of the brand's latest lineup of low-riding autocycles. It boasts a number of stock advantages over the the base model Slingshot S (including a 7.0-inch display with Ride Command, enhanced audio system and a back-up camera) at a much more approachable price (at least $6,300 less) than the higher-end Slingshot R models.
Is it new?
New-ish. The 2021 Slingshots hit dealerships at the very end of last year.
What makes the Slingshot special?
Well first off, it's not an automobile or a motorcycle — it's an autocycle. That's literally how this vehicle is classified, pointing to its combination of automobile and motorcycle features. On one hand, its controls (steering wheel, pedal, dashboard) and seating are very car-like. On the other, in New York state (but basically nowhere else), you're required to wear a full-face helmet and have a motorcycle license to operate it.
There's also that big ol' 20x9 wheel in the back powered by a 1,799cc engine rolling a belt drive. And unlike just about any other street-legal vehicle, the Slingshot sits so low that you can literally reach out and touch the ground as you're tooling around town.
For those in the know, that's nothing new, as the first Slingshots rolled out in 2015. What is new for 2021 are a few notable upgrades. Following the rollout of automatic transmissions last year (up till then, all Slingshots were stick shifts), these new models have a recalibrated AutoDrive system for more rapid shifting, as well as steering wheel-mounted paddle shifters. There's also a standard hill hold feature, Rockford Fosgate sound systems and Apple CarPlay (optional on the S and SL models and standard on the R models).
How does it drive?
As the headline of this story indicates, the Slingshot SL really does have a go-kart vibe. It's hard to get around that feeling when you're so low to the ground, strapped into a compact bucket seat with no roof over your head, wrestling with a tight steering column while wearing a helmet.
And believe me, that's not a complaint. As someone who very rarely gets around on anything besides a bike or a motorcycle, I welcome the maneuverability and open-air access afforded by this not-quite-car. From the moment I got in and took it for a spin through New York City's West Village, I could feel the rumbling engine just itching to open up. Sadly, I was stuck in traffic...until I hit the corner of Bleecker Street and a wide-open Sixth Avenue at speed, whipped into the turn and felt the back tire skid across a few lanes of traffic as I straightened up.
That moment was just a small hint of what this vehicle can do. The following weekend, I took a friend on a little jaunt up to Hastings-on-Hudson, a quaint little hamlet about 20 miles outside the city, and the ride provided a much fuller picture of the SL's potential. I personally lamented the automatic transmission (in fairness, a manual model is available, for $1,700 less), but I understand why Polaris added it: driving stick is a dying art that closes your vehicle from a much wider audience. And the paddle shifters are kinda fun, even if they do have a tendency to take over if you don't shift when you should.
As we zipped up the highway, my passenger couldn't get over the rush — and as I've learned with motorcycles, the smaller the vehicle, the less fast you have to go reach that rush. Once I hit 75 mph, we felt like a 1,749-pound spaceship soaring over the asphalt. When we reached our destination, my friend said she enjoyed it a lot more than riding on the back of my motorcycle — it delivers a similar windswept thrill, minus the hassle of having to, you know, hold on the whole time. Another nice factor: the small size and backup camera make it a snap to park.
That being said, driving the Slingshot SL is not all full-throttle bliss. While it does have independent suspension, you definitely feel the bumps. Driving through the city requires close attention, because anytime you pass over a semi-indented manhole, you've gotta negotiate a bit to avoid hitting it square with the back wheel and feeling your spine telescope in the process.
Another nitpick is something any motorcyclist can relate to: it’s rather frustrating to drive something that feels like a motorbike but gets stuck in traffic like a car. I was just aching to dart through traffic and cruise to the front at red lights, but instead I had to sit in traffic (eye level with SUV bumpers) like a schnook.
In fairness, though, the Slingshot SL isn't really intended to be one's primary vehicle. It's designed for fun. And when I took it out for one last cruise around the city the night before the end of the loan, the West Side Highway and FDR weren't too crowded, enabling me to really let this baby rip. It was so goddamn fun paddle shifting and jumping from lane to lane like a wannabe racer on the hunt for holeshots and pushing the 178 ponies up toward 100 mph, it's a wonder I didn't end up in Canada.
Anything else stand out?
The other upgrades are pretty nifty. While I still don't love the navigational know-how of Ride Command (the dashboard-enhancing system available on many Indian motorcycles, which share a parent company), it was wonderfully seamless pairing my iPhone with the 7.0-inch display and rocking out to the 100-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system.
I also liked the storage area behind the seats, which is ample enough to stash a helmet, bag and other road trip accessories. While the lack of a roof isn't ideal if you get caught in a deluge, the drainage system is quite effective. A couple hours after a rainstorm, I hopped in the Slingshot to find the molded foam seats and floorboards were already pretty dry.
And I'd be remiss not to mention the conversation piece factor. Parked on 15th Street, the Slingshot SL got loads of attention from passerby; sitting on my front stoop, I could watch a stream of pedestrians stop to ogle it and take pictures. One couple was so enamored, I let them hop in and snap some photos, which seemed to make their day.
Heck, every time I got in or got out or just sat in traffic, I received an admiring glance, a comment or a question, including many a "What the hell is that thing?" That's pretty cool but a bit of a double-edged sword when you just want to get in and go. Then again...you don't cruise around in a midnight-blue Batmobile if you're looking to keep a low profile, now do ya?
What's it cost?
2021 Polaris Slingshot SL
Base Price: $24,999 (manual); $26,699 (automatic)
Powertrain: 1,997cc four-cylinder
Peak Power: 178 hp
Peak Torque: 120 lb-ft
Fuel Capacity: 9.77 gallons
Max Wet Weight: 1,749 pounds