Road Trip

Pepperoni and peepers: Wandering wild, wonderful West Virginia in the Polaris Slingshot

The Polaris Slingshot SL is a capable carver but its automatic transmission isn't ready for prime time.

Photo by Chris Tonn

"Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." I doubt Mike Tyson knew he was paraphrasing 19th century Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke the Elder when he said it, but still, it's a great sentiment that perfectly describes the trip I had behind the wheel of a 2020 Polaris Slingshot SL.

The plan was to enjoy the open-topped nature of the Slingshot while winding my way from my home in Ohio through the vibrant leaves and majestic mountain vistas of West Virginia. Due to the pandemic, I still refuse to eat in restaurants – so I planned on sampling the unique cuisine of the region while driving the two-lanes.

2020 Polaris Slingshot SL The two-seater Slingshot SL is currently on the market for around $26,000.Photo by Chris Tonn

My first day of driving was magnificent, with cool temperatures and great roads delivering smooth asphalt to eat up. My return trip punched me in the mouth with a steady, frigid rain, paired with accidents on the interstate that kept me at a standstill while rainwater pooled on my lap.

That's I found out the hard way that you can't nosh on a pepperoni roll while wearing a full-faced helmet.

For the uninitiated, the pepperoni roll is a West Virginia delicacy - somewhat reminiscent of a Hot Pocket - developed by migrant Italian miners looking for a hardy lunch that could be carried down into the shafts without need for refrigeration. It's exactly what it sounds like – pepperoni (either in stick form or sliced as one might find on pizza) baked into a pocketable bread roll. The oils from the cured meat ooze into the dough, creating a layer of soft, slick bun that glistens with the color of a setting sun.

Pepperoni rolls are ultimately filled with carbohydrates, a touch of protein, salt, and all of the essential spiced greases that I need to at least maintain my lingering obesity. Indeed, pepperoni rolls aren't the healthiest snack in the world – but they're marvelous in moderation. After all, you don't ever read clickbait-y stories shadow-written by chambers of commerce and placed on sites listing the twenty-five best salads, do you? Nope. You read about guilty indulgences.

West Virginia autumn field The Polaris Slingshot SL served as a chariot for an autumn drive.Photo by Chris Tonn

Like the pepperoni roll, the Polaris Slingshot isn't meant for daily consumption. It's an acquired taste, something that isn't seen everyday. Heck, depending on the jurisdiction, it isn't even considered a car.

To find the best rolls in the state, I reached out to Candace Nelson. She literally wrote the book on the pepperoni roll. She pointed me to a couple of towns southwest of Morgantown, Clarksburg and Fairmont. As one might expect from small family-run businesses peddling a regional niche product, there are arguments among the proprietors about who was "first." Partisan patrons will further argue about which is best. But, really, it's meat and bread. What's not to like?

In Clarksburg, I sampled D'Annunzio's and Tomaro's bakeries. It was a Sunday morning when I rolled up to D'Annunzio's, a small shop nestled in what feels like an old residential area on the western side of town. Cars parked on both sides of the one-way street as people picked up bags of rolls and loaves of bread. One gentleman rolled up in a beautifully restored 1952 Buick, which grabbed the attention of passersby.

2020 Polaris Slingshot SL The pepperoni roll has been a staple of West Virginia cuisine for decades.Photo by Chris Tonn

The proprietor of crosstown rival Tomaro's, when I told him that I'd driven from Ohio just to sample his wares, walked to the back of his shop and returned with two rolls that were straight from the oven. And warned me to grab napkins – which I heeded. Still, sizzling orange grease streamed down my right arm as I bit in.

I tried to continue munching as I pulled away, only to remember that I'd strapped on a helmet. All but two states classify the Slingshot as an autocycle - New York and Massachusetts call it a motorcycle, meaning a motorcycle license is required. One helpful gent, noticing me struggle with a helmeted bite, told me that I didn't need to wear a helmet in West Virginia (laws vary by state). Whether true, Polaris made me sign a number of documents before handing over the key fob requiring me to wear a helmet. I really don't want my insurance claim denied should a bird decide to fly into my face as I'm negotiating a mountain switchback at speed, so I dutifully tossed the remainder of my roll in the glove compartment and wiped the orange grease from my face shield.

I stopped for fuel and a soda, and encountered the pepperoni roll with which I'm most familiar. Home Industry Bakery of Clarksburg sells rolls throughout the state in gas stations and other convenience stores – I've even found them just across the river in Ohio when we visit the in-laws in Marietta. Home Industry sells a variety of rolls – some baked with cheese alongside the pepperoni. Yes, I bought a few of these for the glovebox, and pointed my three-wheeled chariot east. The next morning, I drove to Country Club Bakery in Fairmont, some twenty miles northeast of Clarksburg, to find a historical marker claiming they were the home of the original pepperoni roll.

2020 Polaris Slingshot SL The Slingshot is the perfect leaf-peeping-mobile, unless it rains.Photo by Chris Tonn

While the roads in the Clarksburg/Fairmont area are quite hilly, proceeding east on US 50 brings you into the heart of the Appalachian Mountains. Up and down, through the trees, the road invites you to push the limits of your vehicle and your nerve. The Slingshot was a mostly faithful companion on these twisties, gripping beautifully and turning in with verve. Further, Polaris has replaced the old Chevrolet Ecotec engine that had powered previous Slingshots with a 2.0-liter four-cylinder of their own design. Getting 178 horsepower at 8500 rpm in this SL trim is plenty to, yes, slingshot the three-wheeler out of switchbacks with alacrity. The upmarket Slingshot R delivers even more power, with 203 horses at the ready.

My gripe comes with the new AutoDrive automated manual five-speed transmission, which is standard on the SL trim. The more powerful Slingshot R offers a standard five-speed manual or buyers can upgrade to the AutoDrive transmission. In some ways, the AutoDrive is quite like a traditional manual – there's no torque converter, so releasing the brake while on a hill allows the car to roll. It doesn't creep forward at a light.

Unfortunately, those tendencies are overshadowed by the lack of refinement in the driving experience. It can be a challenge to pull away from a traffic light smoothly, as the transition from brake to throttle seemingly confuses the automated clutch and yields a chirp to the big rear tire that will surely grab the attention of passerby. Further, when trying to drive quickly in the mountains, I found the transmission painfully slow to shift. I'd send a size-12 request for a downshift via a stomp on the right pedal, only to be met with what seemed like an eternity while the transmission decided what to do. A downshift would then come with a clunk.

2020 Polaris Slingshot SL The Polaris Slingshot SL rides on two 17-inch front wheels and an 18-inch back wheel.Photo by Chris Tonn

Polaris tells me that the AutoDrive opens the Slingshot up to more drivers who don't want to (or can't) drive a manual – and I get that. It's mostly decent in the type of driving where I've typically seen the Slingshot – cruising the strip with music blasting, much as one might do on a warm summers' night. But when the rest of the car practically invites enthusiastic driving, the transmission really needs to play along, and the AutoDrive is not quite ready for prime time.

The interior is surprisingly roomy. I'm six feet, four inches tall, and I had leg room to spare. Head room, naturally, isn't an issue in a vehicle without a top. The seat looks quite basic, covered in a waterproof vinyl – but it's supportive and comfortable for two long days of driving. The 7.0-inch touchscreen is reasonably clear and bright, syncing easily to my phone via Bluetooth. I can't imagine trying to take a call at speed, however – but I played my Spotify playlists with ease.

The placement of the speakers is less than ideal, being placed in the footwells right where one might put a knee. The speakers pushed legs inboard, keeping my foot from reaching a frame tube that might be used as a dead pedal. GPS is available, but was not fitted to my tester. I'd have LOVED, considering the rain, the optional heated/cooled seats – those run $1199.00 each. As it sits, the Slingshot SL I tested with no options rings up at $26,499.

2020 Polaris Slingshot SL The interior of the Slingshot proved comfortable, even after hours on the road at a time.Photo by Chris Tonn

One of those lurching downshifts from the AutoDrive came as I encountered one of many slow crossovers meandering Route 50. Am I wrong in expecting people to attempt to maintain something close to the speed limit on rural two-lanes? A short passing zone opened where I did make my pass, but not without annoyance from the gearbox. But then another family, gawking at the magnificent leaves, appeared in my windscreen. And another.

I turned south, working my way toward the town of Davis. An old friend, a West Virginia native, had told me years ago of this town where he frequently vacationed with his family. Ski resorts certainly help bring visitors to the area in the colder months. Paired with Thomas, another town just a few miles north on WV 32, the two towns give a funky, bohemian coastal vibe that one doesn't expect if mining towns and Lyndon Johnson's war on poverty are all you know of Appalachia. Artisans and craftspeople dot the land, inspired by the spectacular scenery.

West Virginia countryside waterfall The scenery of West Virginia is underrated.Photo by Chris Tonn

I too was inspired. This is not a land that has remained untouched by human hands – after all, some of the wonder of these magnificent vistas is that they exist at all. The Appalachian Mountains have been scarred by energy extraction for over a century, and yet the land and the people thrive. From the laborers down in the mines to the painters selling their wares at a flea market to the families gawking at the leaves, the people of West Virginia are fiercely proud of their land and their traditions. The scars left by the mines simply show us where West Virginia once was – they don't define the future.

For most of my drive, the 2020 Polaris Slingshot SL was a great companion for exploring this little corner of West Virginia. I found myself closer to the road, to the scenery, and to the people as I drove along. I cracked open my face shield, and inhaled the clean autumn air that I recall from my youth – bonfires with piles of leaves burning. I could smell the yeast from the bakeries making their pepperoni rolls from a mile away. I spoke to pedestrians when stopped in towns. I wasn't walled off from the world with two tons of steel and glass. I was part of that world. I experienced it. I lived it.

2020 Polaris Slingshot SL The Polaris Slingshot SL comes well-equipped.Photo by Chris Tonn

And then it rained. And I experienced that a bit more intimately than I'd have preferred. I loved driving the Slingshot, but my next trip through the area will come in a car with a roof of some sorts.

And a trunk to bring home scores of rolls.

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The Nissan GT-R probably isn't the first supercar that comes to mind, but it's worthy of consideration if you're not all about being seen.

Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

You put the pedal down. A confident growl busts out the back end. The wheels may squeal, and you might too. It's not all about the power, though it has plenty. The 2021 Nissan GT-R delivers the type of drive experience that you're never going to get from an electric vehicle - and it's magnificent.

Godzilla has been in production since 2007 with nips and tucks and add-ons here and there along the way. It's not as sleek or stylish as the Audi E-Tron GT or even Audi's R8. There's no giant wing out back à la McLaren and certainly nothing Italian about it. The GT-R is it's own man.

Even areas of the country that are supercar-heavy, aren't heavy with GT-Rs. A Ferrari or Lamborghini is a bigger status symbol for adoring eyes. It's the real drivers out there who know that a GT-R is perhaps the better investment for someone who wants a supercar to drive, not just to be seen in. Its unique looks are subtle but properly athletic.

2021 Nissan GT-R Premium The car is capable as a daily driver but it can also push the limits during a track day.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

2021 Nissan GT-R Premium

The reason for that starts but doesn't end with Nissan's 3.8-liter twin-turbo V6. It rests below the hood, not behind your ears, and delivers 565 horsepower and 467 pound-feet of torque creating a visceral acceleration experience. It's enough to satisfy you, bring a smile to your face, impress those around you, and make you realize that Godzilla really is a beast.

The six-speed dual-clutch transmission in the GT-R Premium ($113,540 base price) manages the power nicely and shifts relatively smoothly - it's no Ford 10-speed automatic and that's okay. If you want a GT-R with a manual transmission, you'll have to upgrade to the NISMO model. Don't "save the manuals" me. So few people are buying them that they're becoming extinct despite your bumper sticker saying and hashtag. Most supercars don't have them. Nissan is just simply following an industry trend and the DCT is perfectly fine for drivers not spending the majority of their time on a track.

All wheel drive is standard on the model, meaning that the GT-R sticks to the road as you put it through its paces. That also means that you don't need to head home every time there's rainfall or snow in the forecast, and you can take corners a little faster than the local constabulary may prefer.

The car has athletic looks despite not conforming to the typical supercar design language.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

2021 Nissan GT-R Premium

Proper engineering has made the GT-R a great daily driver. It's fun to push it around the twisties on a winding road in the country during a long weekend, but it's also not a bad car to commute or run errands in (it has a real trunk!). Like any good supercar, the GT-R goes right where you want, when you want it, whether you're doing slow speed maneuvering around a neighborhood or putting the throttle down on the highway. The speed-sensitive steering calibration is spot-on.

Parts of the interior are dated, especially when compared to other vehicles in its price point. But none of those parts are enough to make the GT-R even the least bit undesirable. The seats are surprisingly comfortable and the ride isn't too harsh. Analog dials are a nice break for the eyes.

But the real reason you're in the GT-R isn't because of the the amenities. It's because you love to drive. Because you're confident enough to go with Godzilla rather than a flashy Italian or German. Because you understand that the car nicknamed after a fictional monster, and its gasoline-powered ilk, are in danger of going extinct as carbon neutral priorities seem keen on removing the type of visceral fun that internal combustion engines provide.

The car has analog dials in front of the driver.Photo courtesy of Nissan North America

If we're going to have to make concessions to make the air and water cleaner, it would be nice if, on the other end of the spectrum, the powers that be let us keep having the muscle of the GT-R.

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The 2021 Honda Accord Sport is a budget-friendly model with a lot of pep.

Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

Critics and buyers have loved the Honda Accord for a few decades now. Though it's frequently compared to the Toyota Camry, there's some models in its class that are giving the Accord a run for its money - the Mazda Mazda6, Subaru Legacy, Kia K5, and the Hyundai Sonata just to name a few.

Where the Accord wins versus the competition isn't on price or features, styling or appointments, tech or drivetrain. It wins because it's a whole package, especially as tested in the 2021 Accord Sport variety.

For the new model year, Honda has focused on updating the fascia and improving the tech in the Accord. They're all good gains.

2021 Honda Accord Sport The car's wheels help elevate the sporty profile of the car.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

For the 2021 model year, Honda sells the Accord in six trim levels: LX, Sport 1.5T, Sport Special Edition (SE), EX-L, Sport 2.0T, and Touring. Honda leant the Sport 2.0T, which has an upgraded powerful 2.0-liter turbo-four is paired with a 10-speed automatic transmission and produces 252 hp and 273 lb-ft of torque. It's available in Accord Sport 2.0T and Touring grades. The 2.0-liter is far more fun to drive than the base 1.5-liter four-pot.

Honda has done a good job differentiating the Accord from the Acura lineup, making its drive dynamics not nearly as athletic as the TLX's but still engaging, while allowing for pointed steering and easy maneuverability. Acceleration won't knock anyone's socks off, but that's not a reason to ignore the Accord. The Accord Sport has paddle shifters, which work better for mountain driving situations than they do for deriving true sport functionality, as you would get with a manual transmission.

Honda has also upgraded the braking system for 2021, designing it to engage more smoothly, especially at low speeds. The result is measured performance that is neither grabby nor soft.

Honda upholsters the Accord Sport with cloth seats but nice finishes elsewhere. While a lot of attention is given to leather upholstery, there's actually nothing wrong with the cloth seats. The ones in the Accord Sport are not only attractive but don't draw the heat of the sun or cold of the clouds and snow into them like leather does.

2021 Honda Accord Sport The interior of the Accord Sport is well appointed.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

Buyers can spec their Accord Sport with a number of options, including appearance and weather protection packages. But, with the 2.0-liter powertrain, it already comes loaded with most of the desirable features buyers want including an 8.0-inch infotainment touch screen, 12-way power-adjustable driver's seat, eight-speaker audio system, leather-wrapped steering wheel, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, a leather shift knob, rear spoiler, sport pedals, chrome exhaust finishers, fog lights, moonroof, heated front seats, remote keyless entry and engine start, and a wireless device charger.

The Honda Accord Sport starts at $27,430. Upgrading the engine adds $4,530 to that price tag, but also gets you the moonroof, heated seats, power-adjustable driver's seat, remote functionality, and device charger. That brings the MSRP of the Sport 2.0T to near $32,000. Knock a few bucks off in dealership negotiations and you're sitting quite pretty for under $30,000.

In the Sport trim level, the Accord is just as nice as Mazdas, nicer than the K5, and on-par with the Sonata. The Mazda is equally as engaging to drive but its infotainment system leaves a lot to be desired.

2021 Honda Accord Sport Honda's steering wheel makes operation of radio, cruise control, and driver assist features easy.Photo by Eileen Falkenberg-Hull

2021 Honda Accord Sport

Subaru offers all-wheel drive standard on the Legacy, something the Accord does not. But, it's not as powerful nor is its infotainment system as nicely designed. The Sonata also isn't as powerful and the sporty Sonata N Line grade takes track-readiness a step too far, ruining ride quality. The K5 might end up being the Accord's closest competitor with plenty of power, but the interior is more parts bin than is optimal.

But what about the Camry? The Toyota, now with available all-wheel drive, does offer a lot to its customer base, but it's aging quickly, especially the interior. Other models offer just as good dependability and for a lower price. They're also more fun to drive.

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