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Object Of My Affection
I’d only driven the Polaris Slingshot the length of a half-dozen parking spaces, but something wasn’t right. Granted, it was raining, but the Slingshot had a disassociation with the pavement so peculiar that the sensation was utterly foreign. It wasn’t something I’d experienced on bicycles or motorcycles. Or from old trucks on older tires. Not even the fruit-slice-in-Jell-O handling of my VW Bus prepared me for what was about to happen.
I was at Polaris headquarters in Medina, Minnesota, and riding beside me was a project engineer keen to show the merits of the soon-to-be-released Slingshot. The engineer’s triumphant mood was matched in intensity by my trepidation, and I exited the parking lot and accelerated gingerly. A few miles later, while maintaining 40 mph in a straight line, the Slingshot spun violently, careened down an embankment, and landed in a swamp. Water engulfed my legs and began to rise up my chest as I fumbled underwater for the seatbelt release.
Freed from the sunken Slingshot, I waded to shore, scampered up the embankment, and waited alongside the engineer for a lift. Upon returning to Polaris (it was a short ride; we didn’t make it far) I debriefed officials and the engineer corroborated my statements: straight line, low speed, gentle steering and throttle inputs.
After lunch, in a room in which I’d been moored with other media, Polaris engineers returned. They were smiling. The problem—my problem—was simply that the front tires on the Slingshot I’d been driving had been mounted the wrong way around. Would I, they asked, like to give the Slingshot another go?
The rain, mercifully, had stopped as I exited the parking lot for a second time. As I drove past the spot of my crash, I noticed how close I’d come to thwacking trees and poles. To keep the chill at bay—and no small measure of reticence—I focused on the Slingshot.
In the gulf between two wheels and four is the three-wheeler, the vehicle that owes its existence to a legislative quirk
A Story in Two Parts
Hot stuff. In Canada, 1,373 Slingshots were recalled for improperly routed fuel lines. Since its 2015 introduction, Slingshot has been plagued with recalls, mere "teething problems" according to the sycophantic press.
The Slingshot’s cockpit is a mixture of a bumper car’s tub—a thought I’d had before my carnival ride to swampland—with an infusion of Barbie-car-like interior plastics. And that steering wheel. Pure 1980s Chrysler K-car. Concessions must to be granted to Polaris designers as the Slingshot’s (roofless) interior must endure the elements. But any road-going motorcycle does the same with far more style and thoughtful use of materials than the Slingshot.
On its exterior, the Slingshot’s black lower-body panels are paired with colourful panels on the hood and stubby tail section, while ATV-style fenders arc far above the front wheels. Rather than take advantage of the low cockpit to create a vehicle that muscularly hunkers on its haunches, the Slingshot achieves what should be impossible—a low vehicle that carries its visual weight so high that the cockpit’s inhabitants look like they’re stranded at the bottom of a well.
With the caveat that I was preoccupied with making it to the end of the day alive, my drive in the Slingshot on predominantly dry roads revealed a curious mix of quick, direct handling and go-kart-sophisticated suspension compliance. To achieve a similar dynamic in, say, a Mazda Miata, would necessitate firming-up and slamming-down the suspension while inflating tires to 90 PSI. But that, of course, isn’t the point. A Miata is invisible on the road while a Slingshot will never go unnoticed.
Another introduction. This time for the Spyder, the wheeled snowmobile-of-sorts from the maker of the Ski-Doo. In a darkened room, we awaited a video while the audio-visual man fumbled with the equipment. When the video started, the volume was too low, and we sat in near silence as a Spyder, backlit on a mountain road with pavement glistening wet, powered crossed-up flat-tracker-style through a corner. We, the invitees, made a low moan of approval, which prompted a factory-man sitting behind to lean forward and whisper, “You can’t do that.”
As every kid who’s flipped his tricycle and landed on his forehead knows, three-wheelers are tippy. Riding a Spyder above a sedate pace is an exercise in emasculation. It’s so dynamically unstable that it owes its existence to electronic intervention that cuts power and applies braking at an astonishingly low threshold of cornering grip.
Polaris Slingshot is the ATV reimagined as a sports car. (Yes, car.) High, tippy Spyder requires a lunar-lander level of sophisticated electronics to keep it upright.
In an attempt to understand the physics of three-wheelers, I slogged through a PhD thesis on handling dynamics, read articles learned, articulate, and asinine, and devoured every three-wheeler review I unearthed. I became familiar with the phrases “polar moments of inertia,” “half-tread in relation to centre of gravity,” and “yaw response time.” I read the transcript of two engineers debating the Delta configuration (two rear wheels, one front) vs. the Tadpole configuration (one rear wheel, two front). What did I learn, in layman’s terms? That three-wheelers have deficiencies grasped by vehicle engineers and peculiarities that perplex vehicle engineers honest enough to admit it.
Don’t believe the reservations of engineers? Believe Polaris. On the Slingshot website is this admission: “Slingshot is a three-wheeled motorcycle. It is not an automobile. It does not have airbags and it does not meet automobile safety standards. Three wheel vehicles may handle differently than other vehicles, especially in wet conditions.” You don’t say.
I’ve ridden motorcycles in hail, snow, and with rain so unrelenting that sky, earth, and seas became one. Yet the motorcycle behaved predictably. As conditions worsened, traction and stability decreased, but linearly, with enough feedback to judge speed and lean angle appropriately.
On January 16, 2015, Mike Jonikas, Polaris vice-president of Slingshot, issued a “stop ride” for the Slingshot. “…Some vehicles may have defective ball bearings located in the steering rack which, should they fail, will result in unexpected loss of steering control.” And then Jonikas, with note-perfect comedic timing, continued. “…Second, but unrelated to the steering issue, Polaris is also voluntarily replacing roll hoops on certain Slingshot vehicles.” Journalist Dennis Chung, who reported on the recall for Motorcycle.com, could have pressed Mr. Jonikas about a recall that, suspiciously, pairs steering failures with collapsed roll bars. Chung brushes it off. “Recalls and safety bulletins are a normal course of business…,” Chung writes. “It’s not entirely surprising, therefore, that the Polaris Slingshot has a few teething issues [italics mine].”
Polaris’s investigation result—that my crash had been the result of reversed tires—comforted them far more than it satisfied me. It didn’t seem plausible that their explanation was entirely true. And it wasn’t. Having returned to Polaris after my second go aboard the Slingshot, I was greeted by the news that the engineer who had been passenger for my crash, had himself crashed while driving a Slingshot. On the same road. In a straight line. With tires oriented in the correct direction.
Once I’d returned home, and told Polaris I intended to write of my experience, I became a person of interest to the public relations department. Could I, they asked, return and drive the Slingshot again so there’s no need to dwell upon the crash? Ah, no. Eventually, Polaris capitulated to my request: furnish an engineer to explain the discoveries of the crash postmortem. I was told changes to power steering calibration and front-end geometry cured the Slingshot of its wayward ways. Engineers also confessed that considerable development testing had been done in the wet prior to my crash.
But let’s backup. Why a three-wheeler in the first place? Neither the Slingshot nor the Spyder lean like a two-wheeler. And, aside from responding to steering input slightly more quickly, the experience of driving a three-wheeler is indistinguishable from that of a four-wheeler—under ideal conditions. (For an example of what happens under less than ideal conditions, re-read the second paragraph.)
As kids we rode dirt bikes. Schoolmates outside town rode three-wheeled all-terrain vehicles on farms. Serious dirt bike crashes, despite our excess of testosterone, were rare, yet three-wheeler carnage was astounding. Eventually, ATV manufacturers dumped three wheels for four and bloodshed abated.
Motorcycles are miserable when it’s hot and frigid when it’s cold. And then there’s rain. Compared to a car, they’re uncomfortable. All of them. Even a Gold Wing. But none of that matters. Because motorcycles lean. The sensation of banking into a series of corners, on a racetrack or on the way to work, is so invigorating, demanding, and fulfilling, that it negates the negatives.
A Spyder maintains a motorcycle’s negatives while eliminating its single redeeming quality—the lean. At the Florida launch of the Spyder, I anticipated it would die a quick and ignominious death in the marketplace, and be interred alongside the amphibious car and the Segway. The first half-dozen Spyders I saw in the wild were, quite sensibly, ridden by leg amputees; the next few hundred weren’t. The Spyder was a success.
Bombardier Recreational Products, the Spyder’s manufacturer, understood what I, as a motorcyclist, missed. It takes a healthy mix of co-ordination, confidence, and cognitive ability—all of which decrease with age—to operate a motorcycle safely. Many try motorcycling but don’t ever gain ease on a bike. And my penchant to lean into corners isn’t as universally revered as I’d thought. And judging by the flip-flops, shorts, half-helmets and halter-tops that adorn Spyder riders, it’s apparent that riding a Spyder is viewed as safer than straddling a motorcycling.
Coming or going, the three-wheeler has always been unsure of the way ahead. Wicker seating is due for a comeback.
A Spyder may be less likely to become flummoxed by the low-speed, loose-gravel encounters that terrify many a springtime motorcyclist. But, assuming that its wayward tendencies are reigned-in by its electronics, is a Spyder safer at all speeds?
If a car backs out of a driveway or turns across my path, I like my chances better on a motorcycle. If we resist becoming fixated on the obstruction in our path, we can often slalom to safety. The Spyder, with a car’s width and a motorcycle’s vulnerability, is the worst of both worlds.
If gaining a fourth wheel stabilized ATVs, why not add a wheel to the Slingshot and Spyder? It’d be all upside and no downside. Polaris, again, gives the answer, stating the Slingshot “does not meet automobile safety standards.” Road-going three-wheelers are exempt from the crumple-zone and airbag laws that apply to four-wheelers (cars), and are categorized, instead, as three-wheeled motorcycles. There’s a simpler explanation. The Slingshot is a car that lacks a car’s safety and stability. It’s a legislative dodge as dubious as offshore bank accounts, the war on drugs, and Jonah living inside the belly of a whale.
To seriously scrutinize the three-wheeler will cause them to slowly wither and quietly die—with a funeral service notable for its conspicuous absence of mourners.
Next, in Part Two—Italian scooters, Yamaha’s Niken, and the unexpected future of motorcycling