The Nonsense-y Polaris Slingshot Is the Future of Driving
We’re halfway across the Bay Bridge when John asks the question he probably should have thought of before he buckled his seatbelt.
“This thing is street legal, right?”
Maybe he spotted the sticker that reads “This vehicle does not conform to the requirements of the dynamic or static tests set out in CMVSS 208.” Maybe he knows that’s the bit of the regulatory code that lays out crash protection standards. Or maybe he just figured a three-wheeler that looks like an off-brand Batmobile couldn’t possibly be allowed on public roads, let alone the bridge connecting Oakland and San Francisco.
“Yeah,” I say. Well, shout. We’re clocking about 60 mph in traffic and wearing motorcycle helmets. Our vehicle has a dinky roof and no doors or full windshield to block the noise or the wind, so conversation is limited and high-volume. John did want to know a few things when I picked him up from Casual Carpool, the wonderfully low-tech program in which people line up in designated spots, hitching a ride across the bridge with drivers eager to qualify for the carpool lane.
“What is this thing called?”
“How much does it cost?”
“Why does it exist?”
“It’s supposed to be for driving around for fun, like on a racetrack or on back roads.”
John climbed in and slapped on a helmet, but he didn’t ask the logical next question: If this thing is meant for fun, what are you doing taking it over the bridge at rush hour?
Well, I figured, before testing out the Slingshot in the conditions it’s made for, I’d do the opposite. And it’s not long before I’m wondering if I shouldn’t have taken the bus like usual. Because the Slingshot is not made for comfort, which means it’s not made for commuting. Storage space consists of small compartments behind the seats, which took me a week to find and barely fit my work bag. There is nothing between you and the engine, so it’s incredibly loud. And to reiterate, it has zero doors, half a windshield, and a roof whose main function seems to be offering a hard surface for my head to bang into anytime one of the three wheels hits anything bigger than a pebble.
At 8 in the morning, on my way to work, none of this is pleasant. I like my commutes civilized: a comfortable seat, protection from the elements, NPR at a moderate volume, no legally mandated headgear. This is not a daily driver.
It’s not until I get out of my daily routine that the Slingshot proves its worth. On a Saturday afternoon, I take the three-wheeler into the Berkeley hills, a land of tight turns, narrow lanes, and sudden elevation changes. During the entire hour of aimless, aggressive driving, I can’t keep a grin off my face. The wind feels good. The noise from the engine is visceral. Constant shifts between second, third, and fourth gears keep me engaged, and I hardly mind when the occasional bump in the road knocks me into the roof. Every once in a while, on a particularly hard corner, I get the single wheel in the back to slide just a bit, and I let out a whoop.
The Slingshot is a blast. And as humanity moves away from the idea of individual car ownership and even human driving, it might just be the future of driving.
Of course, that’s not why Polaris, the Minnesota-based maker of ATVs and snowmobiles, made the Slingshot. The founding premise, says Garrett Moore, the Slingshot product manager was, “What is the most fun that we can put into a vehicle?”
Turns out, putting more fun in starts with taking one wheel off. Polaris wanted a vehicle that blended the experience of a motorcycle with the stability of a car, and a three-wheel design kept the Slingshot to a svelte 1,700 pounds—light enough to qualify, officially, as a motorcycle. That got it out of meeting the most rigorous crash standards, so Polaris could sell a vehicle without, you know, doors or airbags. Not that safety wasn’t a concern: The Slingshot has a structural roll hoop, crumple zones, electronic stability control, antilock brakes, and seat belts. In most states, all you need is a standard driver’s license (Alaska, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, New York, and Wisconsin require a motorcycle license). Add in a 2.4-liter, four-cylinder engine good for nearly 173 horsepower and you’ve got a better power-to-weight ratio than a new Ford Mustang.
The Slingshot is technically a motorcycle, though Polaris likes to call it an open-air roadster. (Also, after my commute, I learned that, because it’s by law a motorcycle, I could have used the carpool lane even without a passenger sitting next to me. Lucky John.)
In the rankings of unusual critters, the Slingshot is up there with the sphinx, centaur, and chimera. It’s wider than a Corvette up front but hardly wider than a unicycle in back. The three-wheel design keeps down weight and helps get through tight turns, but it also means that anytime you maneuver to put a pothole between the front wheels, you’ve got half a second before the central-sitting back wheel bangs right into it. Moving the shifter feels like clanging a mailbox open and shut. When you come close to stalling, you can see the hood bouncing up and down as the engine vibrates. You ride just 5 inches above the ground, so it’s hard to get any closer—physically or mentally—to the experience of driving.
And that’s why the Slingshot is such a terrible commuter. Driving, most of the time, sucks. It involves traffic, red lights, speed limits. Modern cars, with their emphasis on comfort, silence, and connectivity, are an attempt to make the hell that is most driving palatable. But soon enough (OK, in a few decades) robots will make this kind of boring, painful driving a thing of the past.
Eventually, the computers will be in charge of getting us to and from the office, the supermarket, Thanksgiving at Grandma’s. And for everyone who still wants to drive for the thrill of the switchback and the freedom of the open road, there will be a Slingshot, or some descendent of it. How about an electric version?