Automorbit, Motorcycle – Here we are again. Every few years Polaris (or its PR rep) rings up Motorcycle.com with the opportunity of reviewing the latest Slingshot, a vehicle now designated as an auto-cycle in most US states. It’s not a motorcycle, we know (and I’m sure there will be folks reminding us of that in every comment section available online). For 2020, Polaris tells us its three-wheeler is 70% new with upgrades spanning from the cockpit to the all-new Polaris-built Prostar four-cylinder engine and the AutoDrive “automatic” transmission mated to it. With such substantial upgrades to the machine, we were happy to flog the Slingshot SL for a couple of weeks to give our take on the new machine. This will be a motorcyclist’s perspective of the 2020 Polaris Slingshot SL.
No, For Real
I know. I know! “It’s not a motorcycle, blah, blah, blah.” Can we get past that? You know what it is? Fun. What kind of powersports enthusiast turns down the opportunity to test something… interesting. That’s not to say the Slingshot doesn’t have its disadvantages. But mostly, I learned to enjoy my time spent with the 2020 Slingshot SL.
70% All New!
What Polaris is most interested in telling you about is the all new AutoDrive “automatic” transmission. Well, it’s not actually a traditional automatic transmission, but rather a Magneti Marelli single-clutch hydraulically actuated system fitted to the standard five-speed manual transmission. What this does, of course, is offer prospective Slingshot owners the chance to experience the three-wheeled open-air world of the Slingshot without the previously required knowledge of how to operate a manual transmission. Replacing the standard stick shift in the center of the machine are three buttons labeled R, N, and D. Simple as that.
“We are excited to announce Slingshot’s first-ever automatic style transmission. Our new AutoDrive transmission will open the door for more people to get in, stand out, and take their driving experience to a whole new level,” said Mike Dougherty, President of Polaris Slingshot.
Also a major feature of the 2020 models, perhaps more so among performance-minded enthusiasts, is the all-new Polaris-manufactured Prostar 2.0 L Inline Four-cylinder engine. This powerplant is the first of its kind for Polaris, although the company has been producing engines for its ATVs and UTVs for quite some time, as well as V-Twin engine production for Indian motorcycles.
The 2.0 L found in the SL is purported to produce 178 hp at 8,500 rpm (quite high relative to four-wheeled contraptions) and 120 lb-ft of torque at 5,500 rpm – a 46 lb-ft deficit from the 2018 Slingshot SLR tested back in August of 2017. The R model is said to produce 203 hp at 8,250 rpm and 144 lb-ft of torque at 6,500.
“The all-new ProStar 2.0L engine delivers more power and more fun, while the completely redesigned cockpit and interior elevates the shared experience for both the driver and their passenger,” says Dougherty.
I don’t have any experience with the previous generation of Slingshot aside from a passing glance on the rare occasion I’d see one in the wild – meaning this is also my first hands-on experience with the cockpit. With that said, I found myself using some of the 2020 updates everytime I drove the machine.
The redesigned interior includes a new LCD dash in between analog speedo and tach dials, that offers plenty of standard information to scroll through like trip meters, fuel stats, voltage, ambient and engine temps, odo, etc. The center-mounted 7-inch Ride Command display will look familiar to those who’ve used the display on Indian touring bikes and provides loads of info spread across five pages. Two pages include specific vehicle and trip information (much of which can also be seen on the LCD dash) while the other three display Bluetooth connected phone options, music, and (if equipped) navigation. The 7-inch screen also displays what’s behind you when in reverse thanks to the handy back-up camera. It’s pretty difficult to see what’s behind you while seated in the Slingshot so this was a welcome feature.
What I found most useful about the new interior though was the new flat-bottom steering wheel. Not only is it smaller and a different shape, but it also features multi-function controls and integrated cruise control, which allows you to switch screens, change music, set cruise, and switch ride modes all without removing your hands from the wheel.
Before I get into the meat and potatoes of what the Slingshot SL is like to bebop around town in, or how fun it is in the mountains, I want to remind you of what I said earlier: This will be a motorcyclist’s perspective of the 2020 Polaris Slingshot SL. What I mean, is that this review comes from a performance-minded editor at Motorcycle.com.
The majority of motorcyclists the world over hold two-wheeled machines to a higher standard when it comes to performance. We want brakes powerful enough to put 200-plus horsepower sportbikes on their nose at the end of a long straight, and we shift when we want to shift, sometimes expedited by the odd quickshifter. I guess what I’m saying is, if a manufacturer gives us a sporty thing, we have certain expectations. Here we go.
First off, If you’re purchasing the Slingshot to tap into the fun of driving the sporty three-wheeler fast, do yourself a favor and opt for the manual. Of course, that means you’ll also have to spend the extra $4,500 to purchase the R model, as the SL is only available in automatic.
While I agree with Mike Doughtery and Polaris’ decision to offer the Slingshot with an automatic option, saying that I was underwhelmed with the 2020 Autodrive would be putting it lightly. Around town shifts are jerky, and while in “Slingshot” mode, the transmission holding gears longer only seems to exacerbate the issue. Thankfully, “Comfort” mode shifts through the gearbox quicker at lower rpm, making around town driving a little smoother, not completely so, but every little bit helps.
It’s when you want to drive the Slingshot a little faster that the Autodrive really lets you down. Shifts are incredibly slow no matter which drive mode you’re in, and getting the transmission to shift down a few gears as you enter and exit a tight corner leaves you waiting for the Autodrive to catch up well past the apex. The new motor sounds great as it revs, but the Autodrive automatic manual transmission (AMT) really sucks the sporting experience out of the Slingshot. My hope is that the next iteration of Autodrive will come with paddle shifters (that actually shift when you press them). Then everyone’s happy. You can have your cake and eat it too.
I wish I could say that was the end of my critiques of the new SL, but the brakes are a letdown, as well. The thing begs to be driven hard. So, it should have the stopping power to get things slowed down quickly. It doesn’t. The complete lack of initial bite and stopping power requires real effort to mash the brake pedal further into the floorboard in order to get the thing stopped where you want. It seems a bit unforgivable to have such subpar braking performance on such a light machine.
Once you get used to the fact that you’re just along for the ride while the transmission lazily does what it wants, you can start to enjoy the Slingshot SL. I ended up leaving the Slingshot in comfort mode around town just to keep the ride smoother. Unfortunately, if you all of a sudden want a little more get up and go around a corner – or when your coworker tells you to light up the rear tire for his little girls – you’ll be waiting even longer for the lethargic transmission to do its thing. If you anticipate your need for speed, the red button on the steering wheel allows you to switch between ride modes on the fly.
Within the first few days of having the Slingshot, I was ready for it to go back. It wasn’t until I had a day in the mountains that I learned to enjoy it more. Still let down by the transmission, one can manage to have fun unwinding a set of curves in the three-wheeler. The vehicle feels quite stable hustling through a set of curves – even when all three tires start to howl in protest . The traction control and vehicle’s stability control do a good job of letting you have a bit of fun before interrupting the experience. You can, of course, switch those nannies off and roast your singular rear tire to your heart’s content with burnouts and donuts. That part is as fun as it sounds.
The new motor revs up excitedly in “Slingshot” mode and delivers a mean exhaust note while doing so. Power-wise, around town and on tight twisty roads, the Slingshot SL has plenty of get up and go. It’s hard to say I’m okay with losing 46 lb-ft of torque from any previous iteration of a vehicle, but with how easy it is to spin up the rear tire, I’m not sure I’d miss it.
As I type this with slightly sunburnt hands – a product of the permanent convertible and my paleness, the vehicle sits in my driveway filthy. The downturned exhaust does a great job of kicking up dust as you sit in a gravel turnout. Then the first rain we’ve had in a while did its job to make things worse. I would suggest a cover or a garage if you’re able.
An industry friend of mine described the Slingshot as having all of the downsides of a car and all the downsides of a motorcycle. Maybe that’s a little harsh? Maybe. If you’re looking for an interesting machine to peacock around in, the Slingshot is quite good at that. You’ll get stares, have your picture taken, be asked questions, and generally be in the spotlight anywhere you take the thing. If you’re looking to tap into the performance potential of the light, wide, and low chassis and the high-revving new motor, opt for the R model in manual.
Could I see myself owning the Slingshot SL? Absolutely not. Did I have a bit of fun while having it around for two weeks? Yes, but I’m ready to have my driveway back.
I hope Polaris continues to sell these things and that Autodrive brings in an entirely new swarm of customers. They tell us 75% of Slingshot customers are new to the brand, and that its auto-cycle has one of the largest female percentages of users across powersports products for the Polaris. There is work to be done on the Autodrive AMT. We’ll keep our fingers crossed for paddle shifters.