COLUMBUS, Ohio — We like quirky vehicles that don’t fit into established segments, like the Polaris Slingshot. We love manual transmissions. It’s certainly no surprise, then, that after spending a couple of weeks with a 2021 Slingshot equipped with a proper shift lever and clutch pedal, we walked away secure in the knowledge that the five-speed manual transmission is the way to go for the ultimate three-wheeled experience.
Besides the gearbox, there isn’t much difference between the Slingshot life between the automatic we tested last year and the manual we tested this fall. Nothing changes with the seating position, the 2.0-liter engine — tuned to offer 178 horsepower at 8,500 rpm in the S and SL models, or 203 hp at 8,250 rpm in the S model we tested — or the handling characteristics. Either way, the Slingshot offers the kind of low-slung, wind-in-your-hair, barely-there experience of a classic roadster.
Those ponies supplied by the Polaris-designed four-cylinder engine come on strong as the revs climb. The base engine produces 120 pound-feet of torque while the upgraded version kicks out 144 lb-ft. With a curb weight of just 1,653 pounds (1,667 with the automatic), the power-to-weight ratio of 8.1 lb/hp pushes the Slingshot R to 60 miles per hour in just 4.9 seconds. The top speed is limited to 125 miles per hour, but that certainly feels sufficient.
More important than terminal velocity is the surprisingly strong 1.02 g of cornering grip on a skidpad. The Slingshot sticks to the road with a fierce grip so long as the driver doesn’t invoke too much wheelspin from the single belt-driven rear wheel with the traction control turned off. The variable-rate electronic rack-and-pinion power steering system is perfectly tuned for the Slingshot, and its 2.5 turns lock-to-lock feel appropriately quick.
There are two driving modes, one labeled Comfort and one labeled Slingshot. There’s a noticeable difference between them, and we (again, unsurprisingly) decided to leave it in sportier Slingshot mode. The immediate throttle response suits the manual gearbox quite well. Like traction control, stability control comes standard on the Slingshot, and it’s defeatable with a double press of a button located in the cockpit. With cold and wet tires, the electronic nannies really help; burnouts and donuts are a flip of a switch away even with warm tires. Stopping power from the 298-millimeter anti-lock disc brakes (one at each front wheel and one at the rear) is plentiful.
A 7-inch digital infotainment system called Ride Command sits at the junction of the center stack and dashboard. It’s easy to use, with clearly marked and weather-resistant buttons just below. A powerful 100-watt Rockford Fosgate audio system is optional (standard on the R trim) and recommended. Apple CarPlay and turn-by-turn navigation are also available, as is a backup camera that we found very useful for backing up the Slingshot’s unfamiliar triangular shape.
A base 2021 Polaris Slingshot S starts at $20,899 (including a reasonable $900 logistics fee) with the manual transmission or $22,599 with the automatic. The upgraded SL model runs $25,899 or $27,599 and the top-shelf R model brings extra performance for $32,199 or $34,199. A Limited Edition (seen in our image gallery) painted in bright green with digital graphics and blacked-out badges is exclusive to 2021. By way of comparison, a 2021 Mazda Miata Sport, which is a more practical (how often can you say that?) but less explosive vehicle, runs $27,825. A KTM 1290 Super Duke R Evo, which is a less practical but more explosive vehicle, costs $19,599. We'll let you judge their various value propositions.
If you decide the pricing is acceptable, there's quite a spread between the entry-level Slingshot and a fully kitted-out model like the one we tested. We definitely like the windshield, technology package and audio system of the upgraded SL trim, and the extra power provided by the R model is surely felt from behind the wheel. If you’re mainly looking for some fun in-the-sun-style, the SL ought to fit the bill. But if you want the ultimate Slingshot, you’ll have to be willing to drop more than $30,000 on a plaything. Whatever the case, we certainly wouldn’t blame you for parking such a best in your driveway in lieu of a more practical car or less practical bike.