Polaris' New "Motorcycle": The Slingshot



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>> Aaron Cortez


July 30, 2014

Polaris' New "Motorcycle": The Slingshot

This week, Polaris released this unusual yet exciting three-wheeled vehicle, the Slingshot. They call it a motorcycle, but with bucket seats, a steering wheel, and a powertrain from GM, it really stretches the definition - but they have their reasons for doing it!

polaris slingshot in action

Polaris, the reigning king of recreational vehicles like ATVs, side-by-sides, and watercraft, has finally added a motorcycle to their lineup - or at least, that's what they are calling this unusual new vehicle, the Slingshot.

The Slingshot is a unique vehicle. It's built on a tube frame that sits only 5 inches from the ground for a very Lambo-like stance, adding to the angled bodywork to give it a healthy dose of exotic car appeal. Also very car-like is the powertrain. A GM Ecotec inline-4 with 173 HP and 166 ft/lbs of torque mated to a 5-speed manual transmission propels the Slingshot, which makes it easy to break traction in the first three gears (though with only one rear tire, this shouldn't be all that hard to do.)


polaris slingshot powertrain
Slingshot has an unusual powertrain; its all car until the rear, where it turns into belt drive.

Starting at $19,999, and rising up to $23,999 for the better equipped SL model, the Slingshot isn't cheap among motorcycles; but in the space where it's competing, the growing three-wheeled vehicle segment, the price is quite competitive. It is only a few thousand more than America's most popular three-wheeler, the Can-Am Spyder, ranging from $14,999 to $22,999, and nowhere near the cost of the more similar Campagna T-Rex, which will cost you a whopping $57,999 to take home.

Tipping the scales at 1725 pounds, the Slingshot is tiny by when measured by car standards, but it's a whopper among motorcycles. It outweighs the top-of-the-line Can-Am Spyder RT by nearly 700 pounds – the weight of another large motorcycle - yet still comes in at about half a ton less than a small sports car.


polaris slingshot frame
The Slingshot's "spaceframe," a lightweight tubular frame with integrated roll bars.

In fact, the Slingshot's power-to-weight ratio, at 0.10 hp/lb, is higher than that of a 2014 Porsche Boxster. Combined with its advanced electronic stability system, this should make for a helluva good time shredding asphalt through windy roads. The Slingshot falls just short of the Can-Am in power-to-weight, however, at 0.11 hp/lb, and it's certainly lower than most motorcycles - even the hefty Honda Goldwing comes in at 0.13 hp/lb.

But that certainly doesn't mean it couldn't positively fly through your favorite canyon or mountain road. The Slingshot looks like it was purpose-built for aggressive, flat cornering, with its low center of gravity, wide set low-profile tires, and deep side-by-side bucket seats with three-point harnesses.

However, these are exactly the things that make it distinctly un-motorcycle-like - no matter what Polaris says.


polaris slingshot cockpit
Slingshot's cockpit; note the manual shifter, hand brake, and media center with LCD screen.


3-Wheeled Motorcycle, or 3-Wheeled Car?

Whether or not three-wheelers like the Can-Am Spyder constitute motorcycles continues to be the subject of much debate in the riding community. However, one simply can't argue that there aren't numerous similarities between Can-Ams, trikes and normal motorcycles. The upright, straddling riding position, the front-to-back orientation of riders in the saddle, the handlebars, hand clutches, and foot shifters are generally accepted as inherent part of "riding," whether it's on two wheels or three.

But there really isn't much about operating the Slingshot that could reasonably be called "riding." The steering wheel, the hand shifter and foot clutch, deep side-by-side bucket seats with seat belts, and a wide chin spoiler all look more like parts of a vehicle you'd "drive" than "ride." The Slingshot is much more of a three-wheeled car than a three-wheeled motorcycle. So the big question is - why call it one?


What's In a Name? A Lot, Actually

Calling the Slingshot a motorcycle may be semantic stretch, but believe it or not, it does fall within most legal definitions of the term. And Polaris is taking full advantage of this; you see, designing the Slingshot to technically classify as a motorcycle gets Polaris around some very significant, and ultimately very expensive, legal requirements that would exist if it were a car.

Polaris' own words lead us to this conclusion. The disclaimer on the Slingshot's website states: "Slingshot is a three-wheeled motorcycle; it is not an automobile and does not meet automotive safety standards. Drivers must wear helmets and seat belts and have a valid motorcycle license."


polaris slingshot disclaimer
Polaris' telling disclaimer about the Slingshot.

In other words, if Slingshot were an automobile, federal regulations would have required Polaris to include a number of vehicle safety features - air bags, front and rear bumpers, and crumple zones, to name a few - that would have made development of the vehicle far more complex and costly. This would, of course, have been reflected in the Slingshot's price, likely pushing it out of the price range where the project have been economically viable.

So as un-motorcycle-like as the Slingshot might be, it may have been a clever business decision by Polaris to call it one. The bulk of the riding community will likely remain unconvinced, and it's likely that few non-riders will really buy the "motorcycle" moniker. Nevertheless, by calling it one, they managed to make a fun vehicle for a price that can still be considered affordable for many buyers in the recreational vehicle market.


Unintended Consequences

Calling it a motorcycle, however, has some other unintended consequences - namely, what laws apply when you ride one. As has been seen in the past with Can-Ams and trikes, the three-wheeler falls into an unusual legal gray area, one that is both confusing and interesting. Ultimately, it has everything to do with the way laws are written and how "motorcycle" is defined therein, which varies from state to state.

As a result, the way motorcycle laws apply to three-wheelers is very inconsistent across the country. Again using the Can-Am as an example: in California, a normal automobile driver's license will get you in the saddle legally. In the rest of the country, however, a motorcycle license is generally required. A few exceptions occur, such as in Texas and Virginia, where a separate classification for three-wheelers exists.


Three-wheelers fall into a legal gray area; some states have responded with laws like this bill from Texas, which took effect in September of 2013. (Texas S.B. 763)

What about getting your motorcycle endorsement then? Again, it's a legal tangle – and for the most part, the law favors calling three-wheelers "motorcycles." This means that, in most states, you can actually take your motorcycle skills test on a three-wheeler; according to Can-Am's Licensing Requirements Tool, Alaska, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and Wyoming are the only states where you cannot use a three-wheeler to get your motorcycle license.


Call It What You Want

Polaris calls it a motorcycle. The law apparently does too, at least most of the time. Inevitably, some riders (or are they drivers?) will too. After all, the wind is in your hair, you need a motorcycle license ride one, and you'll get soaked in the rain, just like "regular" motorcycle riders.

And honestly, it just looks fun as hell to drive, no matter what you want to call it. Nevertheless, you may want to think twice about parking this thing in a "motorcycles only" parking spot, especially in a crowded lot. That may be going just a little too far!


polaris slingshot front view
Whatever you call it...the Slinghshot will definitely get talked about.


What would you call the Polaris Slingshot, and how do you think it will sell?




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