SAT Testing: Slingshot Automatic Transmission

Joe Gresh
by Joe Gresh

It's like having a friend do the shifting

At Daytona, Polaris loaned me a Slingshot for a few hours and I’m not even sure the three-wheeled Slingshot should be in, but that’s Evans’ problem. I just do the typing. The 2020 Slingshot is mostly new from the brake pedal forward. The driving experience is 80% automotive, 20% ATV Quad, and 100% motorcycle when it rains. It’s going to take me more than a few hours to acclimate to the oddness of this gearbox and the three-wheeler’s handling characteristics.

One thing that takes no getting used to is the new, proprietary-Polaris, 2000cc, 203 horsepower (claimed) R-spec ProStar engine: This engine flat rips. Gone is the old Slingshot’s 170-ish horsepower General Motors supplied engine along with most of the old front end. Polaris has a slightly cheaper SL-spec 178 hp version of the ProStar, but if you’ve come this far, you may as well go all the way. I’m going to make a bold prediction here: Look for a restyled ProStar engine to show up longitudinally-mounted in an Indian touring bike. With a simple frame stretch, Indian could close the door on the competition and pay homage to their great inline fours of the past. C’mon, you know you want a 200-hp bagger.

The new ProStar engine. Plenty of power to put those other 3 wheelers on the trailer.

The Slingshot’s transmission is like no other automatic I’ve driven. It’s a manual 5-speed gearbox that is computer controlled and electrically shifted. Going from Drive to Reverse you can hear mechanical linkages moving around under there. Shifts are very positive if a bit slow. The transmission has two modes, Comfort and Slingshot (sport). There is no paddle option. If you floor the throttle in Slingshot mode, the transmission holds each gear longer, shifting up at around 7,000 rpm-ish. Comfort mode shifts sooner but is still plenty sporty. I left the transmission in comfort mode because I’m an easy-going dude.

Working the throttle-by-wire in a sedate fashion you can ease off a bit and make the transmission shift up whenever you like. With a bit of practice, I could make the trike feel almost like a regular manual transmission.

You can’t see the automatic transmission for all the automatic transmission in the way.

Slowing down creates more odd sensations. The computer gives the throttle a blip to help each downshift and that’s fine until the Slingshot is nearly stopped. In the final few feet of travel the transmission shifts into first with that little blip. It’s startling until you get used to it. This automatic rewards a more involved driver with smoother operation.

At a standstill in Drive, the transmission disengages completely and there is no tendency to creep forward like a normal auto trans. When it’s time to go the Slingshot moves off the line smoothly, only making a slight dog-bark sound from the right rear between shifts. The barking dog has nothing to do with the automatic. I suspect some sort of belt-drive harmonic is making the sound but I’m no drive train engineer.

It’s kind of a motorcycle. Time to bring back the autocycle segment.

If you’ve ever had a passenger shift gears in your car as you steered and worked the clutch while eating a hamburger, you’ll have a good idea of how the Polaris transmission feels. It’s unusual, but then, I guess, the whole rig is unusual. In the end, it gets the job done.

I’m predisposed to dislike automatic transmissions, most motorcycle guys are. When I returned the Slingshot to the Indian dealer on Beach Street, the loaner crew asked me how I liked it. I told them that the transmission was going to take some time to love. “Try the manual version,” they said.

Automatic cockpit simplicity, just push R or D like an old Plymouth Valiant. The only thing I would change is to swap the forward/reverse buttons to make them correspond with the direction of travel.

It stunned me how much better the manual transmission trike performed. The Slingshot went from powersports vehicle to honest-to-god sports car. It felt like the Slingshot lost 500 pounds. It was responsive, it did everything I wanted it to do and did it exactly how I expected. The change was so dramatic I told the Indian crew to go back to only building manual transmission Slingshots, like they used to. In short, the manual transmission so completely transformed the driving experience I’d buy one if I had mad money.

The manual transmission dispenses with a lot of parts. You can see the thing.

There is a lot more ground to cover on the Slingshot, but it’s going to take a full MO road test to gather that data. Here’s my takeaway from the short time I had behind the wheel: If you must have an automatic by all means get one. It works well enough and the weirdness complements the whole goofy three-wheel thing. If you want a sports car on three wheels, get the manual transmission. Fittingly, It’s only available in the high horsepower R model.

Manual cockpit. This is the one you want. What a fun moto-car-cycle.
Joe Gresh
Joe Gresh

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