Most of my time on the road is spent comfortably cocooned in a four-wheeled vehicle, whether sedan, sports car, SUV or pickup. But there’s something about driving al fresco that has its unique appeal. I’ve got an old convertible parked in my driveway. And, over the years, I’ve owned a few motorcycles. But I had the opportunity to check out an interesting alternative during a recent visit to Southern California: the 2023 Polaris Slingshot.
First launched for the 2015 model year, the Slingshot is something of a hybrid. Rather than tandem, it offers side-by-side seating and a bit more comfort and protection than a motorcycle — with a 2+1 wheel layout that, physics reveals, is a bit more stable than a bike’s design. But with no roof, side doors or windows, and only a stub of a windshield, the driving experience is a lot closer to what you’d experience on a two-wheeler.
There’s no question this isn’t luxury transportation, but the Slingshot can be a lot of fun to drive. It’s reasonably quick and surprisingly nimble. And the latest version has undergone some much-needed upgrades. It delivers a bit more power, a slight improvement to its gearbox — especially the automated manual package — and some welcome new creature comfort features.
I spent a long day clocking a couple hundred miles behind the wheel of the 2023 Polaris Slingshot R, starting out on a surprisingly cold and dreary morning from Newport Beach, California before running east into the Santa Ana foothills. Here’s what it was like.
If you’re looking to turn heads, the Polaris Slingshot certainly won’t disappoint. (And, according to the company’s data, that’s one of the two biggest reasons why people buy the three-wheeler.) Depending upon whom you ask, you’ll get responses ranging from bold to audacious to obnoxious. I like to think of the design as the love child of a roadster and a Jeep stripped down to bare essentials for an off-road adventure.
The composite hood is all curves and angles and barely conceals Slingshot’s drivetrain. Back of that, there’s more surrounding you than you’d find on a motorcycle — but not much. That starts with that stubby windshield which does a reasonably good job directing the breeze over your head until you get out onto the freeway. There are no doors, no windows. But there is a rollbar — or, more precisely, twin aluminum roll hoops behind each seat on my Slingshot R.
The cabin is fairly basic, though I was pleased to see the sort of integrated steel bars that provide at least a modicum of side-impact crash protection. New this year is the flat-bottom steering wheel. It tilts but doesn’t telescope. There are a handful of controls built into the wheel for basic vehicle and infotainment functions. And, yes, my Slingshot R had a small touchscreen display. It was repositioned this year to reduce glare on bright days – though, as I found out, it didn’t entirely eliminate it. I was pleased that my test vehicle featured a useful, spring-mounted holder for my iPhone that clipped onto the top of the instrument panel.
Polaris has come up with a surprising range of variants, starting with the stripped-down Slingshot S which doesn’t even feature a backup camera. At the other end is the well-equipped and more powerful Slingshot R which gets a big boost in power, as well as features like grippy sport seats.
This year also brings a limited-run Roush Edition which adds some interesting features, including an Excursion Top, a unique instrument cluster, different body graphics and slotted brake rotors.
The company has what you might call a mix-and-match approach to Slingshot. “Accessorization and personalization is a big part of the Slingshot owner experience,” Joey Lindahl, the Slingshot marketing director, explained as I crammed my head into a full face helmet.
You can order most, though not all, of the high-end features to retrofit lower-trim models. This is great for someone who can just manage a $20,000 budget but eventually hopes to reconfigure their Slingshot more like a top-line package that pushes into the mid-S30,000 range.
Polaris claims it has updated or upgraded 70% of Slingshot’s parts since 2020. That includes the four new LED accent lights and bug-eyed LED headlamps.
The most important update comes with the swap of a 2.0-liter homebrew Polaris inline-4 gas engine that replaces the old GM I-4. It’s a torquey little package that can rev up to 8,500 rpm. In its most basic kit, in the S and S-Tech models, it produces 178 horsepower 120 pound-feet. The R, however, takes the pony count up to 203. Power is delivered to the single rear wheel through a belt drive system.
Considering the R weighs in at 1,749 pounds, complete with nearly 10 gallons of fuel, that translates into an impressive power-to-weight ratio of less than 8.6 lb/hp. It’s about 9.3 lb/hp on the S model.
I purposely saved the subject of the transmission for last here because it has been the most controversial subject. You can order a Slingshot with a 6-speed manual. But in today’s world, most buyers are opting for manumatic alternative, the AutoDrive system featuring a single dry-plate clutch.
The addition of an infotainment system, a few years back, was big news in the Slingshot community. It’s a reasonably easy system to use, and by repositioning the screen, Polaris made it a bit easier to read and operate unless the sun takes dead aim at the display. That said, I found myself relying more on my iPhone 14 ProMax clipped to the top of the instrument panel when it came to searching out a route.
This is a fairly bare-bones vehicle. Adding a heated seat also generated some headlines on the fan websites. But the audio system has been upgraded this year with a new Rockford Fosgate Stage 2 system. There’s also Apple CarPlay and Android Auto.
Driving the 2023 Polaris Slingshot is, to use an outdated term, a real hoot. Slam the throttle on the R and you’ll feel the back wheel start to spin. But once it hooks up you get reasonably solid acceleration. No, it’s not a crotch rocket. You won’t embarrass a Ninja motorcycle, but you’ll get to 60 in about 5 seconds with the Slingshot R. And that feels like a rocket in a vehicle like this.
Top speed is an electronically limited 125 mph. To be honest, I had no intention of verifying this. Even as my confidence level improved I was quite happy to ease back off the throttle once I hit 90. Anything over 75 starts to see enough air swirl around the nose to buffet your helmet. And the noise level was cacophonous and near-deafening as the needle crossed 80.
At more modest speeds, however, the Slingshot was a great drive. It delivered sports car-like handling up in the foothills of the Santa Anas, Polaris claiming it could manage 1.08G turns. I didn’t have the instrumentation to validate that but experienced gut instinct appeared to back that up.
Returning to the transmission, here’s the good news: the AutoDrive seemed to operate much more smoothly than in past years. However, it’s still not a match for the manumatics you’ll find in most of today’s automobiles.
My biggest complaint came with the brakes which didn’t completely feel up to the job. And I found several colleagues fielding the exact same concern. You could scrub off speed, as needed, but you also had to work them a good bit harder than would seem right. And that’s doubly surprising considering they’re Brembos. I hope to try out the slotted rotor package on the Rousch special edition at some point.
Still, for the money, Polaris has come up with the sort of package I think will work for a lot of folks looking for something more connected to the environment than an SUV — but more substantial and easier to manage than a motorcycle.
If that applies to you note that there’ve been some changes to relevant laws in recent years. Depending upon where you live your state may classify a Polaris Slingshot as either a motorcycle or an autocycle. Some states may also require helmets — a good idea wherever you live. At this point, only one state still requires a Slingshot owner to get a motorcycle endorsement on their driver’s license, and that is apparently up for repeal this year.
2023 Polaris Slingshot R — Frequently Asked Questions
Is a Polaris Slingshot a good daily driver?
There certainly are folks who will drive a Polaris Slingshot every day, much as some commute by motorcycle. But there are definite drawbacks, starting with your exposure to the elements. You’d likely not want this as your only transportation in colder, wetter climes. And, even in better climates, it would be a rougher ride on a longer daily run.
What is the fuel economy rating for a Polaris Slingshot?
With a number of different models to choose from, you can expect the Polaris Slingshot to deliver anywhere from around 28 to 33 miles per gallon.
What is the top speed of a Polaris Slingshot?
The three-wheel Polaris Slingshot is electronically limited to a top speed of 125 mph. But, unless you’re a serious speed freak, don’t expect to get anywhere close to that. Our own experiences suggest few will want to push much higher than 80.