Slingshot Touring: 1,500 miles on Three Wheels
Los Angeles to San Francisco and back in a three-wheeled, open-topped car-bike.
There’s heavy cloud coverage and I can’t see the stars. My eyes consume the vast, black emptiness. It’s a scary feeling not seeing beyond your headlights, like wading in deep water. The wind penetrates my leather jacket. It’s not late but I’ve lost track of time. Luckily, I’ve lost a few fast-lane blockers, too, and now ahead is an open stretch of California Highway 101. It’s cold. I’m tired. I push on.
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The Polaris Slingshot is comfortable at 90 miles per hour, but needs a little encouragement for triple digits. I push a little harder. It’s not a motorcycle, it’s not a car, it’s just fun. And damn it, I’m tired of explaining that at every gas station stop.
I’m too tall for the windscreen, so my head is in the turbulent wind. This makes the radio a little hard to hear at 100 mph. My thumbs nestle into the recess in the Sparco steering wheel, my butt is planted firmly in the racing seat. With my eyes forward, I continue onward to San Francisco. Not for any record – only for my chance to escape.
The Polaris Slingshot is a machine designed for intense, ridiculous, and loud fun. Let's get one thing out of the way first and foremost: it’s a damn car already. The state of California begs to differ, though. It legally considers the Slingshot a motorcycle, meaning you need a helmet, but in California, you don't need a M1 license. Other states consider the Slingshot an Autocycle and do require motorcycle endorsements. Over the course of my 1,500 miles with the vehicle, though, the only times I ever felt the Slingshot resembled anything close to a motorcycle was during aggressive downshifts, when you feel a little belt slap and that single pivot point. Oh, and parallel parking is super easy.
I’m moving from the West to the East Coast and so is my best friend, Greg Anthony. I was unable to attend the launch of the new Slingshot SLR last year, but Abhi did an amazing breakdown of the technical aspects and the overall definition of what the hell a Slingshot is. I just wanted to drive one. Minus one famous YouTube rollover, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of the Slingshot. I like three-wheelers, I enjoy cars, and I love motorcycles. I really just like anything that’s fast. I felt the Slingshot would satisfy my interests.
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When you first sit in a Slingshot, you quickly realize it's not just any car – it’s a damn race car. The cockpit, seating position, and controls are all designed in traditional race car style. My knees up, arms bent like an F1 driver, the stance feels aggressive. I grew up racing NASCAR Saturday night circle track Mustangs, and always yearn for more wheel time. The moment I jump into the Slingshot's seat, I’m shot back into my racing years. Every grocery store commute in a Slingshot is a parade lap on a speedway.
Sizing it Up/Prepare for the Worst
As the trip looms closer, I envision the worst of every “what if.” When the Slingshot was delivered to my starting point of Long Beach, California, I had driven it everywhere, including to a new motorcycle media launch. After sharing my road trip plans with colleagues and fellow journalists, each and every one had the same reaction:
“That sounds like a terrible idea.”
There’s no real storage, except for a glove box and two compartments behind the seats. Yes, they’re lockable, but the total space adds up to about the same you'll find on a Harley-Davidson FL bagger.
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There are no windows and no windshield. I’m 6 feet 3 inches tall, and my head peers high above the wind protection of the standard windscreen. No heat, unless it’s hot outside and then the passenger side undercarriage gets extremely hot – so don’t put any electronics on the floorboard. It’s a tight, compact seat that seems likely to get uncomfortable after many miles. But you never really know until you try. Nothing is stopping me.
As Santa Barbara fades in my rearview mirror, the highway skirts the top of a small cliff facing the water. I’m chasing the sunlight, in a race against the night’s dipping temperatures. I’m several hours into the trip, but only a few hours outside of Los Angeles. There’s really only one non-freeway option to San Francisco: Highway 101. The Pacific Coast Highway is closed, and will be for a long while due to landslides and bridge construction. There’s Interstate 5, which would be a lot quicker and possibly warmer (as it cuts further inland), but it’s a Friday afternoon, meaning it’s full of minivans, BMWs, and semis.
A car swiftly shifts into the slow lane as I blast past him. I’ve lost count as to how many fast-lane squatters I’ve urged out of the way, but this one snaps me into realization: I’m driving like an asshole.
The Slingshot overcomes me. I’m consumed by it’s prowess. I feel possessed. It’s like in The Lord of the Rings, the more you wear the ring, the more you become an aggressive, obsessive crazy person. Well, maybe it’s like The Mask, where you become an exaggerated version of yourself. Or maybe I’m just a complete asshole? Yeah, probably.
Either way, the Slingshot has a way of bringing something out of you, but I can’t figure it out just yet. I shake the thought and point north. Onward.
Miles before, I had picked up a $40 open face helmet from Cycle Gear, with a large, clear visor, which made the trip much more comfortable. Despite the cold, I’m thankful for the new helmet as I grab a cup of coffee and a pack of jelly beans at a 7-Eleven outside of Salinas. It’s nighttime now, and temps have dropped. Luckily the wind has died down. The coffee keeps me awake and warm, the jelly beans keep my spirits high, but I’m still two hours from the city. It’s intimidating to be alone at an unkempt gas station in the dark with a flamboyant vehicle. People either think you’re rich or just dumb to drive this around a sketchy section of town.
I feel eyeballs glaring. My stomach drops as I see a beat-up Crown Vic screech into the gas station, stopping abruptly between two gas pumps next to mine. It's obviously not there for a fill up. The windows are tinted and it sits there idling as I scramble to reach for my keys. The two rear doors sling open and two elementary school-aged children in pajamas leap out.
“Wow! What is it? It’s like the Batmobile.”
They ask me questions, but so many and so quickly that I struggle to answer as their fingers run across the tops of the fenders.
“Want to sit in it?” I ask.
They look at each other, wondering if this was too good to be true, their expressions telling as they try to remember what their parents warned them about strange men with candy. They look back at me and simultaneously shout: “Yes!”
The little girl hands me her phone with Snapchat already pulled up. She models for the camera, asking me to retake photos with multiple angles, stating, “This is so extra,” which, as an old man, I can only assume means "cool." Her father speaks Spanish and she’s interpreting technical questions for me to answer. Every gas station stop is extended by at least 10 minutes with a similar story.
Like a dorky dad trying to order extra cheese dip at a Mexican restaurant, I use my broken Spanish to say good night to them.
“Buenas noches… ¿Si?” I stammer, asking if that was the right way to say it.
They smile, chuckle, and repeat it back to me, “Buenas noches.”
The most in-your-face factor with the Slingshot is the amount of public opinion. People either love it or hate it. Most love it. On this stretch of my road trip I will only receive one head shake of disapproval from a grumpy, chubby face – hanging out of a Prius in San Francisco.
“Hey, it’s better than a Prius, buddy,” I'll call out.
It’s a joy to see people’s interest piqued. The tone in their voice changes, and they excitedly ask and endless stream of questions. The Slingshot begs for attention.
Burrito Run. Enter San Francisco
As I inch closer to the city, it’s apparent people are increasingly less thrilled with the Slingshot. Also, there are more slow drivers in the passing lane. To city dwellers on an evening commute, I’m nearly another vehicle — or whatever the hell they think I am — to get in front of.
It feels like they’re more aggressive toward me as I attempt to merge or stay with the flow of traffic. The low ride height makes the Slingshot look small to even a Corolla with taller mirrors, so I’m constantly concerned about my fenders getting scuffed as each Prius or BMW cuts me off.
A motorcycle can feel gigantic in a line of traffic through a busy city, but the Slingshot feels tiny as you stare upward at the tall buildings that surround the elevated highway. Though, that’s a view that serves as the major advantage of the Slingshot. There aren’t any pillars blocking your view like in a convertible. Sadly, you can’t split lanes with a Slingshot like you can on a motorcycle (You'd struggle to do so even if allowed; the Slingshot is more than 6 feet wide – CC), but at least I feel a little more relaxed and can enjoy my surroundings.
Traffic flows onto the Bay Bridge as I head toward Treasure Island to pick up Greg. The lights, sounds, and smells of the city make the trip worth it. I chuckle when I realize how I look. I’m in a Slingshot loudly playing pop music in Bay traffic. I’m equal parts excited, embarrassed, and self reflecting.
It feels like my outside elbow drags the pavement when I ride slow on the highway, giving me time to appreciate the elements. I keep expecting to be irritated by the traffic, but it feels more like a relaxed break, slowing me down to take it all in.
I call Greg as I descend toward Treasure Island from the mountain. He meets me on the curb outside of his apartment complex, helmet in hand. He quickly shows me he can jump into the Slingshot, landing squarely on the seat, feet on the pedals in one swift motion. Although, on the first attempt, he thought he broke his thumb.
We head off to our favorite burrito shop, a customary stop when in San Francisco together. At Taquería El Farolito on Mission Street, anything with “super” on the menu is delicious. The street is animated with the whoops and hollers from smokers outside of bars and young girls in miniskirts huddled in a line waiting to get into a club. We bump it up a notch and begin to blare late-’90s pop, like Limp Bizkit and NSYNC out of the speakers, wishing we had "Now That’s What I Call Music Volume 9." The whoops and hollers cease.
The next day, riding through the island looking for a good photo spot, we stumble across Jason Pullen. He is nice enough to wheelie around the Slingshot a bit for photo purposes, before we hand him the keys. We immediately regret this decision. He leaves barely enough tire for the long journey home.
The Slingshot is the perfect vehicle for experiencing the city. It’s nimble, low to the ground, and completely open. It provides a new and exciting perspective. One passerby thinks it's a grown-up version of the electric rental trikes scattered throughout the city. Other tourists occasionally wave at us from the sidewalk. The day I leave, I come down with a nasty cold. Prolonged suffering with a nice view wins out over a short boring ride home, so I head down Highway 101 again.
Despite my head cold, I jump onto Highway 58 east of Santa Margarita – a fun motorcycle road. It's a quiet Monday, so the road is empty and filled with rolling hills that feel like a roller coaster amid tight twisties. This is my first experience with aggressive driving in the Slingshot.
The grip is simply amazing. Maybe my judgement is skewed by the fact I expected less traction (Missing a wheel equals missing traction, right?). Turns out this isn’t the case. A real racecar has a sharp, steep breaking point that’s unforgiving. The Slingshot, with traction control on, never gets unmanageably tail happy and body roll is minimal. It is also surprisingly forgiving, even of bad driving mistakes.
It does, however, reward a good setup for a corner. Proper trail braking, the right steering input, and a smooth downshift result in a hellishly fun corner entry. But if you're just slightly off, a quick downshift will load the swingarm and point you in the wrong direction.
The Slingshot makes peak torque of 166 pound feet around 4,700 rpm. The gear ratios feel tight, and I'm always able to stay in the sweet spot in power. The Slingshot's peak 173 horsepower is made a little higher than peak torque – at 6,200 rpm. The Slingshot is high on fun, low on BS. Around 45-65 mph, the Slingshot feels a bit twitchy. This is possibly an aerodynamic issue or simply a toe alignment. Push it a little faster and the air becomes your friend. Not the safest realization, but I made it home in one piece.
At least one journalist warned me of all the suffering I would encounter before the start of my journey.
“But that’s the story,” he explained. “The interesting part is the suffering.”
But for me, that was very little of the journey. The seat never became unbearable, the cold never kept me from enjoying the open road. However, it was nearly impossible to maintain the speed limit.
A solo motorcycle road trip isn’t about the suffering, nor is it about the handling or the fun riding. Instead, it’s about forcing yourself into an adventure. You create stories to tell at the bar or bench race in your friends’ garage. So, if you’re still trying to figure out if it’s a car or motorcycle, from this perspective, the Slingshot is a motorcycle. It’s a vessel bound to make unforgettable memories. You don’t have the option to roll up the windows, turn up the radio, and check out. The ergonomics are comfortable, the handling is on point and aggressive, and the power is always there. The traditional gearbox and clutch all result in a racecar with tags. Never mind there’s a missing wheel.
You want to hate the Slingshot? Hate it. For me, I don’t give a damn. I love it.