DYLLWILD, California -- The Polaris Slingshot is awesome, which is not to say it’s great. It’s not. It’s awesome because it inspires awe, an emotion of mixed reverence, dread, and wonder, and that one hackneyed word encapsulates this eye-widening, three-wheeled toy plastered with stickers warning you about the automotive crash tests it didn’t have to pass.
Despite its seat belts and steering wheel, the Slingshot “reverse trike” falls into the gray area between car and motorcycle, skewing more toward the latter. The Polaris Slingshot is classified as a three-wheel motorcycle, a standard motorcycle, an autocycle, or an unconventional vehicle in all but two states (Hawaii and Maryland still need to be sorted out) and, as such, licensing requirements vary. You can sift through your state’s legal jargon or simply do what we did: Grab a full-face helmet, step over the Slingshot’s tube-steel frame onto its waterproof driver’s seat, and slide under its rubberized steering wheel.
This thing is seriously chintzy, from its spongy shift knob to its flimsy plastic bodywork to its tires specially designed by oh-so-legendary manufacturer Kenda. It’s chintzy even under the hood, where rust had eaten away at the exhaust manifold on our trike’s GM-sourced, 173-hp, 2.4-liter inline-four, which looked like it might’ve been plucked from a wrecked Pontiac Solstice at Pick-n-Pull. It’s chintzy as it is ugly. Obviously designed by a nerdy teenager, the Slingshot looks like a Lego, a “Transformers” robot, a pod racer from “Star Wars” from the front, and, from the rear, it looks absolutely abhorrent, like a matte black hot tub with a training wheel tacked to the back.
The Polaris Slingshot, seemingly held together by a couple dozen Torx bolts, may look cheap enough to be squeezed between bins of half-off movies at Wal-Mart, but it’s not. It starts around $22,000, and our top-trim model in attention-seeking Nuclear Orange Sunset paint cost about $4,000 more after adding a six-speaker audio system, a rearview camera, a 4.3-inch LCD center screen with Bluetooth connectivity, and a front windscreen to a barren list of standard equipment.
Press the Slingshot’s red plastic starter button, and the engine’s gritty, tinny clatter, the indolent blat from the exhaust dumping directly behind the right-front tire, and the shrill whistle coming from the belt whipping around the rear wheel create a vile cacophony we wish could be unheard.
Best you can do is make it harder to hear, first by putting on your helmet and then by getting the Polaris Slingshot moving, which is when the three-wheeler finally starts to charm. Its noise gets better when muted and mixed with rushing wind and an engine revving toward 7,000 rpm. The trike’s shift knob might be spongy, but the actual shifts from its five-speed manual transmission are anything but. The plastic Polaris has a 10:1 pound-to-hp ratio, better than an Alfa Romeo 4C, yet can only muster 0 to 60 mph in a little under 6 seconds, run the quarter-mile in 14.6 seconds, and top out at 130 mph -- if you’re willing to risk third-degree windburn, that is -- but it makes up for its lack of speed by being nimble and animated.
Turn-in is remarkably sharp, and seeing the front tires from the driver’s seat lets you comfortably put rubber on the ragged edge of the road. A super-slow steering ratio means the Slingshot needs a lot of hand-over-hand wheelwork, and a seriously overprotective stability control system that neuters performance with just a whiff of wiliness needs to be completely defeated to have tail-out fun. But tread carefully. Carving through the long, flowing curves in the canyons of California’s San Jacinto Mountains, the Polaris Slingshot felt perfect, sliding around predictably, but we were petrified when we came to a set of tight, blind hairpins.
The meat of the Slingshot’s weight sits over its front end and, while the trike’s wide stance gives it an impressive amount of hold, the lone rear tire will inevitably break loose, and the Slingshot will slide. Controllably, if you’re calm and meter out power slowly, but don’t coax it over rotate. You can recover from a tank-slapper in a car. Tank-slap a Slingshot, and you’ll likely put its thick, metal roll hoops to the test.
Pound for pound, dollar for dollar, there are far better performance vehicles than the Polaris Slingshot, but very few of them will make you smile when you’re scared senseless as well as capture the attention and imaginations of friends, neighbors, the nurse on her lunch break, the 4-year-old in her “Dora The Explorer” T-shirt, the couple visiting from Trinidad, and the hound dogs howling in the bed of rusty Chevy C10. The Polaris Slingshot isn’t great, but it is awesome.
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