Review: 2021 Polaris Slingshot adds paddles to the fun
When we drove the Polaris Slingshot last year, we noted a few things that we thought could use some improvement. Well, Polaris must have listened, as the new 2021 model has a lot of updates that make it one of the funnest vehicles we’ve driven.
At a glance
- Key changes for 2021 include paddle shifting and better transmission metrics
- Fast and fun to drive with a great road feel
- Stereo is largely pointless, but gets improvements anyway
- Not terribly expensive and fits a market not met by motorcycles
For those unfamiliar with the Polaris Slingshot, it’s a tadpole-style, three-wheeled autocycle that’s considered a motorcycle for registration purposes and a car for driver’s purposes. This means that in most areas, the Slingshot can be driven with only a standard driver’s license (no motorcycle endorsement required) and will be insured as an autocycle (usually cheaper than a motorcycle).
For the 2021 model year, the Slingshot retains the Polaris-made 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that can rev up to 8,500 RPM. Outputs are 180 horsepower (134 kW) and 120 pound-feet (163 Nm) in the lower two trim levels, and 203 hp (151 kW) and 144 lb-ft (195 Nm) in the R performance models. A five-speed manual transmission is standard, with a clutch and shift pattern similar to most cars and trucks with the same. A Magneti Marelli five-speed automatic transmission is also available at a US$2,000 upcharge, but this year it comes with paddle shifting and better programming. We asked for that after driving the 2020 model, and are glad to see it implemented.
The greatest improvement with the automatic is in having manual control over the gears without removing one's hands from the wheel. In Manual mode, the 2021 Slingshot will run the transmission up to 8,500 RPM and stop, but not auto-shift. The transmission will, however, downshift when it gets to its near-lug point (roughly 650 RPM) to save itself. This is a good setup, allowing the driver full control over the RPM when it matters, while saving the engine from a lurching shutoff if the driver’s focus is on something other than gearing (like, say, turning a hard corner and braking more than expected).
There will be those wondering why anyone would want an automatic transmission on a vehicle like this. To them I say, "just drive it." At speed, it’s easy to get frazzled and have no interest in taking a hand off the wheel. It’s also more convenient for the around-town driving this will see a lot of, plus having an automatic transmission gives the majority of potential buyers access where the manual-only option wouldn’t. To its credit, Polaris did a great job of finding the middle ground by giving the automatic manual control and paddle shifting. Some programming changes did the rest.
Those changes come in the form of smoother shifts when in Automatic mode, mostly by changing the timing for the shifting. In the "Slingshot" (sport/aggressive) drive mode, the shifting is much like it was before, allowing RPMs to run higher and aggressively changing gears for that sudden burp of power. In "Comfort" mode, however, shifting is less intense and much smoother. In manual shifting, we noticed, having one’s foot on the throttle (or off of it, depending) can smooth out the shifts considerably. Pushing slightly harder on the throttle as you pull the upshift paddle or letting off slightly as you pull the downshift reduces the jerky feel of shifts. It’s easy to get the timing down.
A few other things are also worth noting as updates this year. The stereo system, if you opt for the Rockford Fosgate upgrade, adds better speaker placement. Particularly for the tweeters, which are now a bit higher and more focused. As we noted with the 2020 model, however, the stereo is largely useless unless you’re idling at a stop light. In-helmet Bluetooth and comms are recommended instead.
Because the Slingshot is wide and low (its front track is about the same as a midsized sedan), it’s extremely stable. Cornering is tighter, however, as the Slingshot’s wheelbase is more akin to a compact at 105 inches (266.7 cm). This makes for a huge amount of fun, especially since the rear tire is the drive tire and, with a little practice, can be made to break traction briefly to sharpen turns even further. The 2021 Slingshot weighs about 1,700 lb (771 kg), give or take, and is shorter (at the driver’s eye level) than most motorcycles. Steering is only lightly assisted, making for a much better connection to the wheels and road, but not so hard as to require a lot of brute force to make turns.
As for performance, the new Slingshot is a blast to drive for a lot of reasons. Takeoffs are difficult to master, since all of the engine’s belt-driven power goes to only one (admittedly very wide) rear wheel. Learning not to screech that tire from a standstill in full launch takes some practice. Polaris says the Slingshot can sprint from 0-60 mph (92 km/h) in 4.9 seconds. Our own testing, which was done "flat-footed" (no rolling start), was initially at around 7 seconds, but improved to 5.3 as an average once we got the hang of the launch. We met Polaris’ number (which likely includes a rolling start) only once. So it’s likely possible that on a private strip with good conditions, beating 4.9 is possible.
Probably the greatest metric, though, is the Slingshot’s extremely fast-feeling pace. Jetting up the onramp to the freeway can have the rig at 100 mph (161 km/h) quite easily if the driver gets caught up in the thrill of acceleration. Holding highway speeds is easy, though, and downshifts or throttle presses to pass result in quick acceleration, even at highway speeds.
We didn’t formally test fuel economy in the new Slingshot. The EPA rates it at 35 mpg in the city and 45 mpg on the highway (78.4 and 5.2 l/100km) and we suspect those are close to accurate for most drivers with a judicious right foot.
On the whole, the 2021 Slingshot makes for a huge amount of fun on the road. It’s fast, engaging, and it catches everyone’s eye. Polaris has gone crazy with color options as well, with our red model being pretty boring by comparison. The Slingshot starts at US$19,999 plus delivery, with our test model being closer to $27,000 with options and delivery. Both factory and dealer modification options abound, and aftermarket options have gotten extensive as well.
Product Page: 2021 Polaris Slingshot
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But then, given a lack of traction control and generally poor design in getting power to the ground, I'm not surprised by Polaris sticking with ICE, they probably don't have a lot of electronic skills, it's not like they have a decent range of electric off-roaders yet either, they seem a long way behind where they actually should be - they could have been a market leader in the shift to electric.
(I drive EVs, so I’d love to see a small, two-seat model…something along the lines of an MGA, 914, or Karmann Ghia.