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Exclusive: The 2019 Subaru STI S209 Brings Long-Awaited Power Increase to the Proto-Rally Patriarch

Car and Driver logo Car and Driver 1/14/2019 K.C. Colwell
a car parked on the side of a road: Subaru applies meaningful engine and chassis improvements that make the limited-edition STI S209 a legitimate track weapon.© Michael Simari Subaru applies meaningful engine and chassis improvements that make the limited-edition STI S209 a legitimate track weapon.

A couple of months before Subaru's special-edition STI S209 dropped at the Detroit auto show, Subaru invited us and only us to our favorite summer home of Virginia International Raceway, site of our annual Lightning Lap track blowout, to let us drive a nearly final product. While an early look and drive isn't unusual for a manufacturer to offer, we were pleased that our 12 years of lapping cars at VIR garnered the credibility that Subaru wanted us to lap there. And then Satoru Hasegawa, general manager of the vehicle experiment department at Subaru Tecnica International (STI), said that one of their goals was to beat the Cadillac ATS-V around VIR usinghumblebrag alertour Lightning Lap time of 2:59.8 as a benchmark. 

A Properly Special Heart

a car engine: Exclusive: We Lap Subaru's More Powerful and Track-Capable STI S209 at VIR© Michael Simari - Car and Driver Exclusive: We Lap Subaru's More Powerful and Track-Capable STI S209 at VIR

Until now, most special-edition Subies offered in the States have been largely cosmetic tributes. The STI, to most, is the WRX's top rung in the U.S. But in Japan, STI is essentially a niche manufacturer all its own that pumps out variants with significant performance upgrades. The S209 is the 10th S-line car since the S201 of 2000 and the follow-up to the Japan-only S208. STI is the department responsible for manufacturing legends like the 22B, Spec C, and S204ask a millennial fluent in Forza or Gran Turismo if those STI models don't ring a bell.

Unlike the 2.0-liter WRX STIs in foreign markets, the 209 maintains the North American EJ25 flat-four engine. Its 2.5 liters of turbocharged tomfoolery is bolstered with forged rods and pistons, a larger turbo from HKS (the impeller wheel grows five millimeters to 65 and the turbine expands by three to 56, compared to the 2018 Type RA), and an updated fuel system with a higher-capacity fuel pump and fuel injectors to match. The intake is redesigned to accommodate an easier-breathing conical air filter, and the intercooler gets a water sprayer to help cool the charged intake. Maximum boost pressure increases from 16.2 psi in the Type RA to 18.0. All told, the engine makes an estimated 341 horsepower and 315 lb-ft of torque (final figures are still pending). This is the first significant boost in power for the STI in, well, ever. Remember that it launched in 2004 with 300 horses. Fast forward 15 years, and the STI's engine puts out but 310 ponies, a measly 3 percent increase.

Heavy-Handed Chassis Upgrades

a car parked in a parking lot: Exclusive: We Lap Subaru's More Powerful and Track-Capable STI S209 at VIR© Michael Simari - Car and Driver Exclusive: We Lap Subaru's More Powerful and Track-Capable STI S209 at VIR

On the chassis side of things, STI did the orthodontic equivalent of braces, headgear, and a palate expander to the underside of the STI's well-aged unibody. The most interesting of these body braces are three draw stiffeners-two are oriented diagonally underneath the front of the car, and one connects the shock towers in the rear-that incorporate springs to preload the chassis without compromising the ride quality too much. Lateral suspension links get ball-jointed connections at the body and hub side to maximize chassis feel. The result is a buttoned-up body with crisp turn-in and minimal quiver.

Specially developed Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT 600A tires that are wider (265s all around versus 245s on the standard STI) on forged BBS 19-inch wheels fill obligatory fender flares. An increased wheel offset yields a 0.6-inch-wider track. Bilstein dampers, stiffer springs, a stiffer rear anti-roll bar, and more aggressive brake pads to match the stickier rubber, which Subaru says will hold on for more than 1.00 g on a skidpad, round out the chassis modifications.

Those fender flares, which are actual stamped metal in front and bolted on in the rear, increase the body width by 1.7 inches. Front, side, and rear skirts, all of which are otherwise available at the parts counter, come standard on the S209, as does a Type RA–looking rear wing on racy looking metal pedestals. The roof is unpainted carbon fiber.

Shaving Time on the Track

a car driving on a road: Exclusive: We Lap Subaru's More Powerful and Track-Capable STI S209 at VIR© Michael Simari - Car and Driver Exclusive: We Lap Subaru's More Powerful and Track-Capable STI S209 at VIR

All of these changes should net a car that is a little quicker in a straight linethink mid-fours to 60 mph and a high-12-second quarter-mileand significantly quicker on a track. Our laps at VIR were by no means perfect. Activating the intercooler sprayer requires the driver to pull on what would be an automatic's shift paddles, and we forgot to activate it on almost every hot lap (every pull of a paddle for 0.6 second gets you about two seconds of water spraying), so its theoretical benefit of about five horsepower was forgotten on the straight. However, after only a handful of laps we were running about five seconds quicker than the Type RA we lapped last year and just a tenth or two behind our ATS-V's time.

Subaru also had a Type RA on hand for us to refamiliarize ourselves with the track, and going from the Type RA to the S209 isn't a dramatic change, at first. The only interior differentiators are a few badges and some whitish-silver trim on the Recaro seats. The six-speed manual transmission and center differential controls, as well as the engine mode selector, are all familiar. Give the wheel a couple of tugs, and the increased effort is immediately apparent. Pin the throttle to the floor, and there's a slight delay in the response that is not present in the regular STI. This is a product of the larger turbo, but keep the engine on boil and lag shouldn't be a concern.

a close up of a car: Exclusive: We Lap Subaru's More Powerful and Track-Capable STI S209 at VIR© Michael Simari - Car and Driver Exclusive: We Lap Subaru's More Powerful and Track-Capable STI S209 at VIR

Braking and cornering, however, take a little more calibration than the extra oomph in the engine compartment. The Dunlops and brake pads allow you to drive deeper into braking zones than we'd ever imagined in a Subaru. And when you do get on the ABS, which seems perfectly calibrated for VIR's brand of asphalt, the nose feels as if it submarines into the tarmac. The one area we wish STI would have diverged is the seating. While the Recaros are perfectly fine for the regular STI, the new tires offer a lot more lateral grip, and you find yourself fighting to stay centered on the steering wheel. Fortunately, swapping out a seat is one of the easier modifications an owner can make.

Still, the rather large question is how much this will cost. Subaru isn't saying specifically, but considering the production run is limited to "around 200 units" and that the 2018 Type RA was a tank of gas away from $50,000, we're guessing the S209 will fetch somewhere between $60,000 and $64,999. One dollar more than that, and the S209 will find its way into our LL3 class, where it will be severely outgunned.

Even with our experience behind the wheel of a hard-driven prototype, there is no doubt in our minds that this will be the quickest and most capable STI ever offered in the United States. And we can't wait for the next installment of Lightning Lap to definitively determine whether the STI team reached its goals. Well, at least its goal of being the quickest LL2 sedan. We've already packed a Post-it note to remind us to activate the intercooler sprayer.

a red suitcase: A couple of months before Subaru's special-edition STI S209 dropped at the Detroit auto show, Subaru invited us and only us to our favorite summer home of Virginia International Raceway, site of our annual Lightning Lap track blowout, to let us drive a nearly final product.

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