When you look at the frame tube between the driver and the passenger on the 2020 Slingshot R, you’ll find a sticker that says, “This is a motorcycle.” Now, by our standards, it is not a motorcycle, as it doesn’t lean—that’s the standard handed down by my boss. We agree that the Yamaha Niken is a motorcycle with three wheels, as it is quite adept at leaning. Yet, we’re allowing the Slingshot R onto our pages, as it is at least motorcycle-adjacent, and it can serve as a feeder from the four-wheel world to a life on two wheels. That’s good enough for us.
How “motorcycley” the Slingshot is depends on where you live. In 47 states, you don’t need a motorcycle license to drive it, though you do in New York, Massachusetts, and Alaska. Some states require a helmet; others do not—no different from a motorcycle, in this case. However, Polaris, the maker of the Slingshot, recommends you wear a full-face helmet, even though it has roll protection. Finally, there are seat belts. You probably have to wear them, and we think you’d be nuts to pass on that bit of safety equipment. If you have any questions, your local department of motor vehicles or highway patrol will have the last word.
This year the Slingshot sheds the GM powerplant and gets an in-house 4-cylinder ProStar 2.0L motor by Polaris. In the case of the line-topping 2020 Slingshot R we are testing, that means a 1997cc DOHC motor that puts out a superbike-like 203 horsepower at 8250 rpm, along with a brawny 144 ft-lbs of torque at 6500 rpm. At 1640 pounds, the R is about four times the weight of a superbike, so it definitely doesn’t have the acceleration of a motorcycle. Still, there is plenty of torque and horsepower on hand to put your license at risk.
The manual-shift 5-speed transmission makes for an exciting ride. Notchy in the right way, the shifts are fast and sure. The engine produces a broad range of power, so five nicely spaced ratios are enough. We reviewed the Slingshot SL with the AutoDrive transmission. The action of the automatic is as frustrating as the manual transmission is rewarding. The fully manual transmission adds to the excitement. Sadly, four of five Slingshot buyers opt for the AutoDrive, and that’s a shame. The Slingshot platform works much better with the manual transmission.
There is no question that the 2020 Slingshot R offers a unique motoring experience. It has a favorable power-to-weight ratio—about eight pounds per horsepower—for something that doesn’t lean. There is no door, so you see the ground rushing past you. The 305mm rear tire is just waiting to be lit up. The two Kenda front tires refuse to push in corners, as they’re only trying to counteract one tire and 1640 pounds (plus you, and maybe a passenger). You’re probably wearing a full-face helmet, and you have seat belts on—just like a racecar driver. Many of these experiences will point a four-wheel aficionado in the direction of two wheels.
I could go into corners as hard as I dared, and the Kenda KR20X front tires refused to budge off the line. It’s a fun experience—pushing harder and harder, and continually being rewarded and enticed to do more. Eventually, my self-preservation instincts moved in—I have no interest in blowing a corner and crashing spectacularly—and I settled for going as fast as my mind would allow me to go. That meant I was going as fast as I could go with the reassuring feeling that nothing was going to go wrong. The Slingshot R doesn’t oversteer or understeer, and it goes where you point it without question.
Acceleration is brisk, and you can smoke the rear tire whenever you want from a standing start. It is entertainingly easy to spin the rear tire when dropping the clutch in first gear. The 2020 Slingshot R remains stable, though you might have difficulty convincing a law enforcement officer that you weren’t doing anything dangerous—just having some unadulterated fun.
A function of the balanced package, it’s much more difficult to break loose the rear end coming out of corners. It can be done, and a little drifting is good for the soul—again, don’t expect the law to agree. The R does require malice aforethought, as it’s not going to get a little sideways on its own.
The R is a confident freeway cruiser. As responsive as it is in corners, it would be natural to think it will be fidgety at high speeds. That is not the case, as you can spin along at extra-legal speeds without drama. The suspension is far from plush, so you will intimately feel the road. Fortunately, the harshest interaction is damped away, so the Slingshot is not overly upset, even on freeways with the worst joints between the concrete slabs. Rain grooves are not a problem for the Kendas.
Braking is outstanding on the 2020 Slingshot R, especially when you add in downshifting. Those three Kendas have side footprints and the rubber-to-weight ratio. Along with the two-piece composite rotors, they are there to help you slow down as well as accelerate quickly. ABS is standard, and non-obtrusive.
Around town, the Slingshot R is a blast. Here in California, we miss lane-splitting in urban areas, but we accept that when we are seated and seat-belted. Still, it is great fun to blast around town. Be prepared for unrelenting positive attention. People will be rolling down their windows to tell you how cool your Slingshot R is. We had the Stealth Black version, which looks like it rolled out of the Batcave after detailing by Alfred. Sadly, while I did give the two-fingers-down salute to oncoming motorcyclists—easily done with the door-free Slingshot—none responded with three fingers.
The interior of the 2020 Slingshot R is a mixture of spartan and luxury. The steering wheel is wrapped in leather, the accent lighting comes in two colors, and there’s a centrally mounted 7-inch display with GPS. On the flipside, there is no heating or cooling, the LCD dashboard is dated and difficult to read, and most of the passenger-compartment plastic looks like plastic. Regardless, it’s a comfortable ride that has the excitement of lots of wind, plenty of visual stimulation, and the impressively aggressive sound of the ProStar 2.0L engine.
While the 2020 Slingshot R is not a motorcycle, it is quite a bit of fun. If you have a significant other who isn’t excited about being on the back of a motorcycle, this is the next best thing. After a while, that attitude might change. For the driver, this will provide a taste of how much fun motorcycle riding is. We will leave it up to you to do the evangelical work to get a Slingshot owner to add a motorcycle to the garage, and they can let you take their Slingshot so you can have an eye-opening experience.