Above: The Slingshot from Polaris — three wheels, two seats and one whale of lot of fun.
Writer: Chad Taylor
Des Moines, in case you haven’t been paying attention to the articles all your friends are posting to Facebook, is a City on the Move. Best place for YPs. Or hipsters. Or married couples under the age of 30 with one kid and two or more dogs.
There are many ways to gauge whether your city is “growing up,” such as employment rates, median income, number of artistic events and how many times talk show hosts name-check you in their monologues. But there’s another, more subtle marker for maturing cities: What kind of toys are available?
Recreational rides are not new to Des Moines, of course. Motorcycles are mostly for show, as are ATVs, RVs and even the occasional Jet Ski or snowmobile. But in the past three years, we have seen a new market arise: street-legal, purely recreational cars—vehicles with most of the same things your average Nissan Sentra has, except for any kind of practicality. These are not daily drivers. They aren’t grocery-getters. These are vehicles that exist purely to bring out on sunny days, rip down the highway or cruise through downtown just for kicks. Then they go right back into the garage until the next time you need to blow off a little steam. Who cares if you can’t take the kids to soccer practice in them? These vehicles are sexy and fun.
You don’t need more than a glance to realize the dramatic difference between the Slingshot and your average sedan. For starters, rather than heading to a traditional car dealer to find one, you will instead end up at an ATV dealer, such as Van Wall Powersports in Indianola.
There, you’ll immediately notice that the Slingshot lacks things you’d expect in a car—like doors or a second rear wheel. In fact, the Slingshot looks so unlike anything else on the road, people don’t know what to call it. Until last year, Iowa’s DMV classified the Slingshot as a motorcycle, requiring operators to pass a motorcycle test to obtain the proper license. This year the Slingshot has been reclassified more generically as a motor vehicle.
This does not, however, make the Slingshot a “car.” Polaris, which has been trying to get Slingshots classified as motorcycles in states where they’re sold, has not put the vehicle through crash testing. There are no airbags, no crumple zones and no safety features to speak of at all. However, with the reclassification, anyone with an Iowa driver’s license can now get behind the wheel and experience the Slingshot.
And boy howdy, what an experience it is. The Slingshot’s biggest strength is its stability. The front wheelbase is 6 inches wider than that of a C7 Corvette, but the vehicle has only a 5-inch ground clearance, meaning that you’re hugging the ground with really long arms. This keeps the Slingshot amazingly stable; Polaris says lateral force in a tight turn can approach 1G, the force of gravity.
The whole shebang is moved by General Motors’ Ecotec inline four-cylinder engine, mounted longitudinally and attached to a five-speed manual transmission. The engine produces 173 horsepower and 166 pound-feet of torque at the wheels, more than enough for a vehicle weighing in at only 1,700 pounds and sending that torque through a single drive wheel in the back.
What does all that mean for the driver? That depends on where you’re coming from. Motorcycle enthusiasts may be disappointed in the acceleration: Polaris lists no
0-60 mph time, but somewhere in the 4.7- to 5-second range is a pretty safe bet. The Slingshot has a top speed of 130 mph, but even getting it to 100 is a slog because the vehicle loses oomph at the top end of the power band.
But that’s all OK, because the straightaways aren’t where the Slingshot makes its hay. Once you get into the turns—the sharper the better—you’ve found home. The Slingshot provides one of the most confident cornering experiences I’ve ever had, with excellent weight distribution and the ability to just know that you’re not going to roll over, no matter what you do. This is a vehicle that knows its purpose and executes it wonderfully. It might not have a proper windshield, doors, trunk or roof, but a Polaris Slingshot, in the right hands, delivers entertainment that is virtually unmatched.
Alfa Romeo 4C
Unlike the Slingshot, the 4C is most definitely a car—a great looking one, at that. With the Italian styling that you’d expect from its heritage, the 4C is low-slung, sleek and beautiful. It’s also one of the most singular driving experiences currently for sale in the capital city.
Blessed with a chassis and body built almost entirely of carbon fiber and aluminum, the 4C weighs a svelte 2,300 pounds. This, paired with the car’s 237 HP turbo four (producing 258 pound-feet of torque), means that the 4C is quicker than a hiccup. The top speed of 160 mph is certainly nothing to sneeze at, but the 4C’s sprint times are incendiary: The car rips from 0 to 60 mph in 4 seconds flat (some online reviews claim times as low as 3.8 seconds). From there, if you choose to keep your foot to the floor, it’ll only take another 6.5 seconds to run the car up to 100 mph, and you can get the 4C through a full quarter mile in right around 12.5 seconds.
But while the 4C may have little in common with the Slingshot in terms of looks, styling or performance, they are practically brothers when it comes to a complete lack of practical amenities. The 4C does come with a roof, windshield and doors. It does not, however, have a glove box or a trunk of any appreciable size. There is no cruise control, no spare tire, and nothing in the way of sound dampening, meaning that a rough road will make the car sound like it’s shaking apart.
But guide this sexy beast out onto the open road and none of that matters. When you get your foot on that slender gas pedal, hear that turbocharger spool up, and feel yourself melt into the back of your (nonadjustable) seat, you remember why you were drawn to fast cars as a kid. Driving a 4C is as close to getting into a Hot Wheels car as humans may likely get. There are certainly faster cars out there, and most definitely cars that provide a more practical, comfortable riding experience. But there are very few available that give you such a visceral sense of speed, and none in town that look quite as good doing it.