2021 Polaris Slingshot First Ride Review

John Burns
by John Burns

Riddle of the Sphinx on Wheels

It was a dangerous, dirty assignment, but somebody had to do it: Go spend a night at the Surfrider Inn in Malibu, to be up early next morning to flog Polaris’ new Slingshot, with the new, new Autodrive Transmission the next day. The Slingshot has been around since 2015, but only with a 5-speed manual trans until 2020. You may recall Ryan Adams’ earlier test this past June of the new, Autodrive-equipped 2020 Slingshot, in which he was less than impressed with that transmission and said: “My hope is that the next iteration of Autodrive will come with paddle shifters (that actually shift when you press them).”

Polaris listened! The silver things poking up inside the steering wheel are paddle shifters, upshift on the right side, downshift on the left. They’re retrofittable to any AutoDrive Slingshot.
As the sun sank into the Pacific and the Pinot flowed, the Slingshot guys boasted how successful the new Autodrive transmission has been. Slingshot says it nearly doubled its business during the May – September peak in 2020, and over 80% of new Slingshooters were new Polaris customers.

Polaris’ PR team had shifted its focus more toward the automotive and lifestyle press for this intro, but the Motor Trend guy had begged off at the last minute, hence our invite. What the heck, since this is a two-seater, I’ll kill several birds with one stone: Give Christine Rogers a break from the Covid cabin fever, get her to drive all day (a large chunk of Slingshot buyers are women), and work on my tan.

Polaris listened to our pleas: In addition to the new paddle-shift automatic transmission, they threw in a few more upgrades for 2021, including Hill Hold. A new Rockford Fosgate Audio system lets the world know you’re coming, and an updated 2021 RideCommand system now includes Apple CarPlay. Nothing spectacular, but then the 2020 Sling was 70% new, with a brand-new Polaris-built 2-liter four-cylinder that revs to 8500 rpm.

For 2021, there are four distinct models: S, SL, R and R Limited Edition. They’re all available with the new AutoDrive trans or a manual 5-speed. The biggest difference is that the S and SL models’ engines are rated at 178 horsepower and 120 ft-lbs torque, to the R’s 203 hp and 144 ft-lbs.

In Malibu, the kids manning the rooftop bar/restaurant act like you’re the first hominid to ever ask for coffee in the morning and are even more baffled by your request for cream and sugar. But once that’s settled, Chrissy Rogers wants me to drive first, and the big 305/30-R20 rear Kenda spins right up pulling onto PCH, yeeha! As soon as the AutoDrive trans reaches its shift point, though, there’s a noticeable lag before the next gear engages – and in spite of Polaris’ claims that the trans software is entirely new for 2021, I totally get what Ryan was complaining about in his review of the 2020 model.

In both automatic modes, sport and cruise, the transmission seems to pick unusual times to shift. In Sport, for instance, even if you’re just bimbling along in traffic at light throttle, the trans waits for the tachometer to climb all the way to 5000 before shifting into second, even though the engine has plenty of torque to upshift a couple thousand rpm sooner. (And delaying the upshift for so long makes the lurch into second even more noticeable.) Cruise mode is better, but neither mode shifts as intuitively and predictably as every automatic car I’ve ever owned.

Base model S in white. lounging on beach.

It’s a bit strange (so is the tachometer whose needle goes counter-clockwise), but your foot and brain seem to adapt quickly enough, and you learn to drive around the AutoDrive’s peccadilloes or just ignore them because other parts of the experience are pretty engaging. I mean, we’re driving around in the Malibu canyons on a gorgeous November day with the temperature in the 60s F. The new Rockford Fosgate stereo blasts out plenty of volume, enough that we were content to listen to Porsche Taylor’s tunes as we rode along behind her in the Black Girls Ride Slingshot S for a few miles.

Polaris Slingshot Malibu, CA 2020

I know most of these roads from years on motorcycles, and once we’d got past Porsche, it was time to sample the Slingshot’s wares. For it being so easy to break loose doing U-turns and things, the big rear tire stays glued to the road in corners quite a ways beyond what you (I?) would consider feasible, and the front Kendas also have tons of grip. Ryan Adams was underwhelmed with the Slingshot’s brakes; I felt like the triple 298mm discs were completely adequate though a bit high-effort, and pretty soon I was down with C. Rogers deciding she just wanted to passenge. Her excuse was that she couldn’t see over the tinted windshield, which was a perfectly good one as we were doing a lot of ducking in and out of shadows, which did make visibility a bit of a problem. At 5’8, I could just see over the windshield. The front fender flares poke up quite a bit too, further hindering shorty vision. The seat has no up/down adjustment, and no place has telephone books anymore.

There are two of us in there.

Soon, we were in full flog mode, and having way more fun than I’d expected to. One of the Polaris guys warned us to be careful of gravel in some of the corners; on the (in the?) Slingshot, I’d never been less concerned about the road surface. We’ve got two front tires man, what could go wrong? Once the suspension’s warmed up, the ride is also much nicer than expected; the whole vehicle is surprisingly comfortable and the cockpit reasonably calm. Rog has a steel rod in her spine, poor thing, but is usually pretty spineless when it comes to driving fast in cars. She’s been known to climb into the back seat of my old Jaguar XJ6 when we’re in a hurry, but in the 1659-pound Slingshot, carrying speed and g-forces the old Jag wouldn’t be nearly able to muster, there were zero complaints.

During this time, of course, we’d pushed the M in the console for Manual, and were using the paddle shifters. Ahhhh, better, but upshifts are still delayed entirely too long. The harder you are on the gas pedal – and the 203-horse inline Four encourages that – the more annoying is the delay to the trans feeding in the next gear; you actually load your shoulder belt at each shift as acceleration pauses for that split second. It’s like a GSX-R engine mated to a Harley Evo gearbox. Okay, not that bad.

Polaris Slingshot Malibu, CA 2020

Annoying, but I was having so much fun exploiting the Slingshot’s positive attributes I began to not care. When our Polaris leader turned onto Latigo Canyon, it was like being a kid again, and on a road you know really well, you can time your shifts a bit ahead. My favorite part of that road is all second gear anyway. I dropped back from our ride leader a bit to give ourselves a gap before we hit it (dunno what happened to the rest of the automotive and influencer press back there?), and I’m pretty sure we got some air in that section, throwing the Slingshot hard from side to side. Rogers was actually whooping and giggling. Those seats have really good bolsters. You’ve got an Electronic Stability Control taking care of you, and Polaris specs claim a peak lateral grip of 1.02 g.

The last three-wheeler I rode was a Can-Am Spyder (quite a few years ago), and its electronics were way more intrusive than the Slingshot’s, which to me are invisible. All that happens when you overdo a corner is that the rear wheel steps out at the corner exit, which just adds to the fun even if it’s not as fast. No motorcycle could carry that much speed through that section of Latigo. Or any of Latigo.

Polaris Slingshot Malibu, CA 2020

We swang by Ken Vreeke’s digs while we were driving around to get a second opinion, and his was that the Slingshot seems like it could be a lot of fun, but the transmission would drive him crazy.

I guess that’s where I wound up also, with the caveat being that the more you drive it, the more you get used to the wonky transmission as the price you have to pay for the rest of the thing’s performance. Of which there is a lot, along with more comfort and convenience than I expected. Then again, that’s on a perfect, cool day along the Pacific. The new Drive Series option does offer some climate control for those poor slobs who can’t live in Malibu: “Curated to maximize the most of every drive, the Drive Series includes new paddle shifters, heated and cooled seats, and a new dead pedal to give AutoDrive drivers a convenient place to rest their left foot. Additionally, S and SL drivers can add nearly 15% more power to their ride with the stage 1 tune.” (There are a bunch of other packages you can learn about at the Slingshot website, too many to go into here.)

Then again, if you’re not enough of an enthusiast to learn how to operate a clutch, you may not even notice or care about the AutoDrive’s sabotage. (Some of the people we were with were more interested in the the sound system and the neon lighting options.) And if you do know how to shift or are willing to learn (it ain’t rocket surgery), the solution’s as simple as checking the “manual” box on the Slingshot order sheet and saving $1700. It breaks down thus:

  • S is available in White Lightning in both a manual ($19,999) and AutoDrive ($21,699)
  • S with Technology Package 1 is available in White Lightning in both a manual ($22,299) and AutoDrive ($23,999)
  • SL is available in Midnight Blue or Red Pearl in both a manual ($24,999) and AutoDrive ($26,699)
  • R is available in Stealth Blue and Sunrise Orange, in both manual ($31,299) and AutoDrive ($33,299)
  • R Limited Edition features an exclusive, custom-inspired Neon Fade paint, and is available in both a manual ($32,799) and AutoDrive ($34,799) transmission
Our Slingshot R in Stealth Blue was pretty, pretty fun, even for a sometimes reluctant passenger with a jacked back. That big rear Kenda tire is specially grooved to spit water in both directions instead of just one.

For the person who already has everything, the Slingshot’s a really fun toy, and possibly practical too. The Polaris people tell us it’s classified as an “Autocycle” in all 50 states. In most of them, that means you don’t need a motorcycle license, and also entitles it to use the carpool lane. In lots of places, that’s reason enough all by itself to Slingshot.

Didn’t take us long to trash out our Slingshot R. If you were expecting luxury, you should’ve been expecting a big toy with kind of a marine or UTV vibe, designed to survive out in the elements.

A couple of years ago, Harley was bragging about how its trike sales were taking off, and there’s currently a 2020 CVO Tri Glide starting at just $48,999. Polaris says its average customer age went down a couple years in 2020, to 48 years old. So, we’re definitely not after the same demographic, and America’s two bike makers are approaching the problem, literally, from different directions. But when I get there, and it’s not so far away, I know which one I’d rather drive. Ride. They should have the gearbox sorted by then.

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John Burns
John Burns

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3 of 18 comments
  • David K David K on Dec 11, 2020

    Yes, they have been out now for going on 7-years and I don't think they have even sold a thousand, lol. I finally figured out why they decided to design their own engine. They submitted an experimental military vehicle to the US government to try an earn a contract but it didn't quite cut it.

    • NMBill NMBill on Apr 12, 2022

      Try to find a dealer with one on the showroom floor. We’ll wait….

  • NMBill NMBill on Apr 12, 2022

    A little late responding on this one. I have ridden bikes (sport, adventure, dual sport) for over half a century and am considering a Slingshot. Not that I can’t or don’t want to ride a bike anymore. I would keep at least one bike, if I did decide to buy one.

    My spouse no longer desires climbing on the back of a bike and, though I always enjoyed having her along, riding with a passenger was never as much fun as riding without. The Slingshot offers much of that open-air joy (and misery) of a bike.

    I wouldn’t buy an AutoDrive, because I prefer shifting myself. I’d make the same choice in a car, even though modern automatics are much faster shifting. The brakes are unassisted. I’m sure most road testers never drove a sports car without power brakes. One figures it out, if one wants to slow/stop.

    Slingshots are pretty much only available by order now. I’m sure the Magneti Marelli unit which does the shifting of the manual transmission made the Slingshot accessible to the “can’t drive a stick” masses.