Low to the Ground and Out of This World

Reviewing the Polaris Slingshot SL
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Living in the same home for nearly 30 years, I am accustomed to the neighborhood teenagers asking, “What kind of car is that?” when a new model to be reviewed arrives in my driveway.

But on the morning last month that a Polaris Slingshot appeared, those gawkers weren’t sure how to classify a vehicle that looked freshly ripped from the pages of a superhero comic book.

“What is that thing?” they wanted to know. A fair question, really.

To these predrivers, dawdling on their way to junior-high classes, the Slingshot seemed a come-to-life vision of a sci-fi fantasy, a “Star Wars” runabout with an ominous snarl and a brilliant red glow. The stealth-fighter face, all angles and edges stacked on multiple levels, is but the first feature to rivet the gaze, foretelling the disconcerting details beyond: The front tires are in full view. There are no doors. And there’s only one wheel in the back.

This one, the styling promises, is going to be some fun.

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The 2015 Can-Am Spyder F3.Suddenly, a 3-Wheel Traffic Jam NOV. 14, 2014
Polaris, the Minnesota-based maker of motorcycles, A.T.V.s, snowmobiles and all sorts of off-road utility buggies, has conjured up an alternative form of transportation — or recreation — that’s not readily defined. Like a car, it has a steering wheel. The gearshift and clutch pedal poke up from the floor. You sit in conventional-looking seats with three-point safety belts.

But don’t jump to conclusions yet: The Slingshot has no top, folding or otherwise, and no windows to roll up. Its single rear wheel is driven by a belt.

Three-wheelers are hardly revolutionary; Karl Benz chose this layout 130 years ago, though his creation had a single wheel in front, tricycle-style. Still, a resurgence of interest in recent years has resulted in entries that include clean-sheet designs like the Can-Am Spyder and nostalgia-infused revivals like the Morgan 3 Wheeler and the Harley-Davidson Trike. Some are clearly variations on a motorcycle theme, while others attempt to fill in as minimalist automobiles.

There is solid logic behind the investment Polaris has made in producing something unlike anything else in its portfolio. The ever-present risks of the road are a strong incentive for prospective riders to seek more stable platforms, particularly as their families grow and their reflexes slow.

Many of Polaris’s customers are part of this aging demographic, given that the company’s motorcycle brands — Victory and Indian — make larger-displacement, higher-end bikes. The company is betting that the right sort of 3-wheeler might appeal to those enthusiasts, whose muscles are protesting or knee joints are wearing out. That would let riders like my family doctor, who sold his Harley only when knee problems forced the issue, continue to do weekend treks with his gang of surgeons and specialists.

While trying to place the Slingshot in a single category is destined to be a frustrating exercise, Polaris is very clear on the matter: The Slingshot is a motorcycle and will be registered accordingly. In states that require such things, the person in control must have a motorcycle license and all aboard should be wearing helmets. There are no airbags.

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Even so, the Slingshot has many things you won’t normally find on a motorcycle: A reverse gear, for instance, and on my Slingshot SL test vehicle, a reverse camera. Also, a Bosch electronic stability control and forged aluminum roll bars.

Polaris builds two levels of its 3-wheeler. The base Slingshot, finished in metallic gray, costs $20,959 including the delivery charge. The pearl red Slingshot SL is $24,959 and adds larger wheels, a weatherproof audio system and a low windscreen.

The simplest description of the Slingshot would say that it has a steel tubing space frame enclosing a General Motors Ecotec powertrain, all wrapped in plastic body panels. Despite the otherworldly visage, much of what bystanders cannot see is actually familiar. The 2.4-liter 4-cylinder, which produces 173 horsepower and spins to 7,000 r.p.m., is essentially the engine that served in the Pontiac Solstice.

The front suspension design uses conventional automotive control arms (though done in forged aluminum rather than stamped steel). The rear, appropriately, uses a motorcycle swingarm layout, its motions controlled by a hefty coil-over-shock unit.

Whatever the Slingshot should be called is less important than how it delivers on the promise of its appearance. Preparing for the first drive may be more disruptive than an attempt to define the Slingshot.

Putting on a helmet, but sitting in a chairlike seat rather than straddling an engine, reminded me more of driving a racecar than being on a bike. The visible frame tubes and low seat, barely off the ground, only reinforced the impression.

I quickly came to terms with that and soon dismissed my initial concerns over whether tall S.U.V.s and 18-wheelers would see me on the Interstate. (The Slingshot’s large blind zones are more worrisome.) Its wide stance — the front track spans 69.1 inches — takes longer to reconcile, and there’s a soundtrack of mechanical noises not heard on motorcycles or in cars.

All of that fades quickly, though, once you’re moving down the road. The engine is willing, and the 5-speed manual transmission shifts effortlessly; enthusiastic use of both kept mileage in the mid-30s.

Compared with a top-level sportbike, the Slingshot is hardly fast, having roughly the same horsepower but, at 1,740 pounds, more than three times the weight. The same math applies to the brakes: They are competent, but do not have the arresting-hook immediacy of a sport motorcycle.

A low seat and wide-open cockpit make for a purist, and somewhat throwback, driving experience that typical convertibles just don’t provide. The ride is delightfully compliant, and the Slingshot corners swiftly and accurately. More important, I detected none of the handling quirks, driving by myself or with a passenger, that are unavoidable in machines configured with a single wheel in front.

I would say that the Slingshot I drove — a preproduction example — had some room to grow. The exhaust exits under the front floor, making ear plugs, which I always wear on a motorcycle, a necessity. The bar-type gas gauge is so tiny that it went unnoticed for miles, and the accelerator pedal was too stiff. All are small, easily corrected niggles.

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If one must parse the terminology, the Slingshot is much closer to being a car than to its official designation of motorcycle. Beyond the obvious, there are other minor reminders: a parking brake between the seats, an ignition lock and turn signal stalk on the steering column.

Texas seems to have its own point of view, last week notifying Polaris that the Slingshot could not be registered there as a motorcycle for road use because the operator sits in a seat rather than straddling the machine’s backbone.

Polaris told dealers that the Slingshot had been approved by the state’s motor vehicle department, which then changed its policy. Shipments to Texas have been stopped, and the company is working to resolve the matter. When that happens, Texans will be able to join the fun.

Whatever unfinished business there is in the Slingshot’s first release will, I’m certain, be resolved by devoted owners who assemble in online forums to work out turbocharger kits and a thousand other upgrades. It has that degree of cult appeal.

As a tweener, the Slingshot runs the risk of meeting the wants of no one. Polaris has smartly avoided that fate, devising a roadster that is attention-getting, responsive on the road and thoroughly entertaining.

The SL version costs about as much as a base Mazda Miata or any number of decked-out large-displacement motorcycles, but that’s no measure of what an altogether different breed of machine it is. It stands alone as a recreational diversion that doesn’t need justification.

If only it leaned to turn corners.