Whether they’re in cars or on the sidewalk, passers-by ask similar questions about the 2021 Polaris Slingshot R. “What is that?”; “how much does it cost?”; “do you need a motorcycle license to drive it?” That last inquiry is the key to understanding the Slingshot R’s appeal, but not necessarily in the way you might think. Because as it turns out, calling the Polaris Slingshot a three-wheeled motorcycle isn’t quite accurate. What it really is, is a wheeled version of a Jet Ski.
What’s the difference between the 2021 Polaris Slingshot R and the other Slingshots?
For 2021, the Polaris Slingshot R serves as the three-wheeler’s range-topping model. There’s a 2021-only R Limited Edition, too, but it’s mechanically identical to the ‘regular’ R. The only differences are some unique graphics, blacked-out badges, and lightweight aluminum wheels.
Besides its paint scheme, the biggest difference between the 2021 Polaris Slingshot R and the lower S and SL trims is under the hood. In 2020, the Slingshot ditched its GM-derived drivetrain for one designed in-house by Polaris. All Slingshots now have a 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, but the R’s version is more powerful. Instead of 178 hp and 120 lb-ft of torque, the Slingshot R makes 203 hp and 144 lb-ft of torque. That goes to the belt-driven rear wheel via either a five-speed manual or a five-speed ‘AutoDrive’ single-clutch automated manual transmission. And yes, it does have reverse.
That automated manual transmission, like the engine, is a Polaris design. And while it debuted in 2020, for 2021 it gets some software tweaks and paddle shifters, MotorTrend reports. The shifters are optional on the S and SL, but they’re standard on the Slingshot R.
Those shifters are just one of the otherwise optional features the 2021 Polaris Slingshot R gets as standard. Like the SL, it has a 7” center touchscreen, backup camera, Rockford Fosgate audio system, keyless start, and Bluetooth. However, the R also has turn-by-turn navigation, Apple CarPlay, and additional LED accent lighting.
All 2021 Polaris Slingshot models, though, have ABS, traction control, cruise control, stability control, LED lighting, hill-hold assist, and multiple driving modes as standard. Plus, multiple 12V and USB outlets. And for 2021, heated and ventilated seats are a stand-alone option. They, like the rest of the ‘interior,’ are weather-resistant, The Drive notes.
The 2021 Polaris Slingshot R isn’t a motorcycle or a car
Let’s get this out of the way ASAP: the 2021 Polaris Slingshot R doesn’t behave like a motorcycle.
For one, it’s wider than you think—the front’s “as wide as a sedan or SUV,” MT says. And while not enclosed by any means, the steel tubes, hood, seats, and body panels leave you feeling distinctly more secure and shrouded than on a bike. Plus, unlike on a motorcycle, I don’t have to wear earplugs when I’m going over 40 mph. Also, the Slingshot has a steering wheel, not handlebars.
But then, the Polaris Slingshot R also isn’t a car. Firstly, there’s no standard roof, nor A/C or heating. Secondly, “there’s no proper trunk,” The Drive points out. True, the lockable glovebox is somewhat spacious, and there are lockable storage bins behind the seats. But the bins are only big enough for a helmet or a backpack, not both. And even with traction control enabled, that rear tire can break traction easier than you might think. Ask me how I know.
But it’s grin-inducing fun
However, you don’t buy a Polaris Slingshot R, or any Slingshot or other three-wheeled vehicle, for practical reasons. Much like Jet Skis, people buy them because they’re fun. You can’t judge the Slingshot by the same standards as a car or a bike but on its own merits. Then, once you stop thinking about what the Slingshot R isn’t, you realize what it truly is. And what it is, The Drive says, is “a riot.”
While the 2021 Polaris Slingshot R is somewhat firm, “it’s surprisingly plush,” The Drive notes. And the payback is little to no body roll and sharp handling. It’s not a track car, but it makes for a fun canyon-carver “without the nervousness you might expect from a trike,” Roadshow reports. Taking it up and down a curving road will put a smile on your face.
In Comfort Mode, the steering is accurate and quick but a bit too light, which robs you of some confidence. It still delivers appreciable road feedback, though. The sportier Slingshot Mode, however, rectifies the weight issue completely. Like MT, I pretty much left the 2021 Polaris Slingshot R in Slingshot Mode all the time.
As I haven’t driven a pre-2020 Slingshot, I can’t say what the software tweaks changed to the automatic transmission. But while it’s not perfect, MT says it’s “among the best automated manuals on the market.” Upshifts are on the slow side, especially in Comfort Mode, which prioritizes smoothness over speed. Switching to Slingshot Mode solved this somewhat, but there was still a noticeable delay with the 1-2 upshift. It improved but didn’t disappear after about 10-15 minutes of driving, though, perhaps once the transmission warmed up. However, downshifts are always crisp, regardless of the driving mode. And I agree with The Drive and MT that using the metal paddles is both more fun and faster.
Should you buy a 2021 Polaris Slingshot R?
Being the range-topping model, the 2021 Polaris Slingshot R isn’t exactly cheap. A base manual S starts at $19,995; an R with Autodrive, meanwhile, starts at $33,299 before options. And most of its features are available as options on the SL. So, if you don’t want the extra horsepower, it’s not strictly necessary. But after driving for two weeks through a Chicagoland heatwave, I would recommend paying the extra $1200 for the heated and cooled seats.
To be sure, there are more practical sports cars, such as the Miata and the GR 86/BRZ. And if you want a three-wheeled motorcycle, there are Harley-Davidson trikes, Can-Am Spyders, and sidecar-equipped Urals. However, none of these behave quite like the Slingshot. And you can’t reach out and touch the pavement rushing past from a Miata’s seat.
‘Normal’ cars and bikes also don’t have the Slingshot’s street presence. I’ve never had a vehicle that attracted so much attention as the Slingshot R. People leaned out of cars and approached me in parking lots to ask me about it. One couple even snapped photos of it while it was parked in my driveway.
And while it’s not a great grocery-getter, the Slingshot is daily-drivable. The audio system is audible even at speed and the steering wheel controls are easy to use. And even if you’re not using the turn-by-turn feature, the navigation screen displays upcoming street names. Plus, shortly after I returned my press loaner, I encountered a Polaris Slingshot going down the highway during a thunderstorm with both occupants in full rain gear.
Buying a 2021 Polaris Slingshot R, then, isn’t a question of practicality. And if you were hoping to get a motorcycle-like experience, it’s not quite that, either. But then, people who buy Jet Skis don’t buy them because they’re like boats: they buy them because they’re Jet Skis.
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