It’s early October in Austin and it’s hot. Very hot. Or at least that’s how it seems to me, having flown down for the weekend from rainy, 65-degree Washington, DC. My motivation for the trip was to catch a few sets at Austin City Limits and, more importantly, explore a city I hadn’t visited in decades from an entirely novel vantage point: the driver’s seat of a low slung, three-wheeled, open-air roadster dubbed the Polaris Slingshot.
But back to the heat. The sun beats down on my heavy black motorcycle helmet, testing the sunblock I applied liberally to my nose and hands before buckling in (a helpful tip from the Polaris team). We turn onto South Congress, a dozen or so curious, brightly painted little vehicles arranged single-file like flashy neon ducklings. The capitol building looms in the distance, its stately dome enveloped in late afternoon haze. As we pick up speed, the breeze becomes a full body affair, providing a welcome respite from the constant humidity as it rushes through the compact, well-ventilated machine.
At a stoplight, I hook my phone up to the Bluetooth-enabled sound system and dial in Wildcard, Miranda Lambert’s 2019 goldmine of an album (when in Texas, right?). We creep closer to downtown, weaving in and out of South Congress’s broad lanes and pulling onto a narrow street flanked by bars. “Tequila Does” pours from my speakers, and that’s when heads begin to turn.
“Hey, look at that!” shouts one onlooker from a crowded bus stop. “I’ve seen those before—those are sick.”
“How much does one of those run?” asks another admirer some blocks later, approaching my idling Slingshot in light traffic.
“They start at around 20, I think,” I say, trying to recall the ballpark numbers from the pre-drive briefing an hour before.
“That’s badass,” he proclaims, returning to the curb with a wide-toothed smile and a thumbs up.
I’m 15 minutes into my first-ever Slingshot ride, and I know one thing for sure: This is not your average city tour.
“We launched in 2015, after about 5 or 6 years of development, kind of turning that garage concept into an actual vehicle,” says Polaris Slingshot vice president Christopher Sergeant. “And we were met with pretty wild success right off the bat—oversold expectations by a lot.”
He isn’t joking. According to the latest numbers, Polaris’s Slingshot division has enjoyed 20% year-over-year growth since its original debut. An even more stunning number? 86% of customers are first-timers, and many—like me—are new to power sports all together, proving that you don’t need to be Evel Knievel to get behind the wheel of one of these suckers. In fact, you don’t even need to know how to work a clutch.
“In 2020, we introduced our first automated manual—it’s the same exact manual transmission, but it’s now a computer shifting for you, which gives the same Slingshot experience to everybody,” says Sergeant. “We did some market research and found out less than 2% of the automobiles sold have a manual transmission, and less than 15% of people report even wanting to learn how to drive a manual, let alone knowing how.”
“It’s the same transmission you’d have if you were shifting a manual car, but there is a computer doing it for you, so it’s a very unique experience,” adds Slingshot senior product manager Dan Burt. “It’s visceral in the fact that all the same motions are going on—it’s not just smooth all the way through; as you accelerate, you’ll feel it shift. It’s very much not like your car, on purpose.”
This move away from manual-only models has launched Slingshot even further into the spotlight. Dealerships around the country have gotten into the Slingshot game, while communities of drivers have come together to strut their stuff and show off custom rides in urban centers and rural locales alike.
“Slingshot customers are the most inclusive community I’ve ever seen in power sports,” Sergeant expounds. “I’ve ridden with them in a rental car, like a Nissan Sentra, just because I didn’t have anything else. They just really want to share the road with everybody else.”
That spirit of inclusivity extends to women and people of color, groups that previously made up a very small percentage of power sports enthusiasts. “We’re the most multicultural and most diverse product in Polaris’s portfolio,” says Sergeant. “60% more women purchase Slingshots than any other product in Polaris’s portfolio, and we’re 257% more multicultural—that means non-white males, basically. In power sports in the US, it’s largely 90-plus percent white males that do it. Slingshot’s a whole ‘nother category of people, and we love that because it’s in our DNA.”
On the second day of the trip, we branch out from Austin’s concrete jungle and hit the hills. Merging onto the highway, our vibrant fleet catches the attention of our fellow drivers, though we’re several feet below eye level for those in more standard vehicles. People honk and wave, and passengers whip out phones to snap a pic, all while we press down hard on the accelerators, feeling the wind whip through our helmets.
After we exit the highway, it’s easy to see Texas Hill Country’s magnetic appeal. Winding roads crisscross the landscape, revealing epic views of the Austin skyline around every hairpin turn. I’ll admit, as a power sports novice, I was nervous at first—I’ve never even ridden shotgun on a motorcycle, let alone piloted one myself, and my day-to-day Jeep Renegade keeps me elevated and protected from the elements. But each mile in the Slingshot makes me more comfortable, and feeling the computer-activated gearshifts beneath my feet is infectiously exhilarating.
“Where do our customers come from? Why are they buying Slingshot?” asks Seargant. “The number one reason is style, what it looks like and the attention it gets you.” However, he adds, “The second most important reason is an open-air cockpit—you see everything. There’s a quote from back in 2020 I like to say, that birds are even prettier in a Slingshot, because you just notice way more than when you’re driving in the air-conditioned moving living room that is your car. You’re side-by-side.”
Sergeant isn’t exaggerating. As we maneuver around curves in the lush hillside, nature feels closer than ever. Birds rustle in the trees, chipmunks dart across the road ahead, and the sun’s rays feel less oppressive, falling into step with the crisp wind swirling around the cockpit. Miranda Lambert makes a return, her crooning vocals and driving beat a fitting soundtrack for the leisurely weekend ride.
After a brief stop-off for lunch at a lakefront restaurant just outside of Austin, we’re on our own, given the option to return to the hotel individually, no longer caravanning through the Lone Star State as a guided group. I steel myself for the solo journey—did I mention I wasn’t much of a power sports person?—but after a few minutes on the open road, my only company the GPS competing with the sounds of surrounding wildlife, I ease into my bucket seat and let myself take it all in.
By the time I roll up to the hotel a few hours later, I have one important question on my mind: How do I get one of these for myself?
For those of us unable to purchase a Slingshot of our own—whether it’s the $20,000-plus price tag, lack of secure parking, or, in my case, a wife I’m certain won’t be convinced—there’s the rental market. Fly into just about any major metropolitan area in America, and you’ve got a choice between booking a generic sedan, dropping a bit more cash for a high-end convertible or SUV, braving public transportation, or taking your chances with cabs and rideshare apps. Or, as it turns out, you can rent a Slingshot, inevitably transforming a boring old business trip or family vacation into an adrenaline-fueled adventure.
“A quarter of our owners are daily drivers, this is their commuter vehicle—when it’s sunny out, they just go to work,” Sergeant notes. “The rest of them go on either multi-day or day trips, going out, cruising, having lunch, having an overnight with whoever. It’s really a vehicle to get out and experience the road, just being outside.”
Slingshot’s shiny new 2022 lineup includes six different models, ranging from the basic S class (purchase price starts at $20,799 for auto drive) all the way up to the souped-up Signature SE ($35,799 and up for auto drive). Each is designed to be extremely customizable, a feature that adds an extra layer of excitement for renters, as you never know what you’re going to get. From a vast array of colors to add-ons like roof attachments, undercarriage glow lighting, and impressively powerful audio systems, it’s difficult to find two vehicles that look and feel the same.
Polaris’s website lists 74 Slingshot Adventure operators in the US, spread out between guided tours, self-guided tours, and standalone rental agencies. They’re predominantly available in temperate climates with ample paved roads, since Slingshots don’t provide much in the way of insulation and protection from the elements, let alone heating, air conditioning, or snow tires.
Six operators call Florida home, offering opportunities to explore Orlando, Tampa, Cocoa Beach, St. Augustine, Clearwater, and even Cape Canaveral via your own open-air roadster. The outdoorsy set can take advantage of seasonal operators in Colorado’s rugged mountain landscape, with outposts in Grand Lake, Woodland Park, and Minturn (just imagine those selfies). If you’re looking to knock something off your bucket list, both Hawaii and Alaska can hook you up with a Slingshot to remember—Hawaii, in particular, lays claim to a whopping 18 tour and rental companies.
But it’s not all beaches and snow-capped vistas. Big cities have also joined the flock, from Chicago to Los Angeles to New York. Wherever you end up, you’re never far from jumping into the driver’s seat. Just don’t forget the sunblock.