BMW used to reserve its most powerful M3 engines for the European market, along with tasty specials like the Evolution and CSL. You may be less aware of a similar forbidden-fruit injustice Subaru has been perpetrating against its American fans since 1998: The STI S-series cars, sequentially numbered S201-S208 have been restricted to the Japanese market. Well, this year the Pleiadian stars have aligned to sell the 2019 WRX STI S209 in the U.S.A.—and not in Japan.
You know Subaru Tecnica International (Subaru's motorsport subsidiary since 1988) from the scores of Impreza WRX STI models we've gotten over the years. They've all been tuned by STI, but these U.S.-legal models have been built in the same plant that built our mainstream Imprezas, while the S models have always featured low-volume hand assembly work conducted at a separate STI factory. Many of these modifications would have required costly crash testing certification to be sold here.
At long last, Subaru and STI have surmounted the many high hurdles required to certify the STI operation as a U.S.-homologated manufacturer and to homologate the upgrades that are to be made to this new highest-performing Impreza. Huzzah! But is the North America-certified 2019 Subaru WRX STI S209 a "real" S model, or will the fanboys still be grumpy?
With 341 hp and 330 lb-ft, its 2.5-liter turbo engine handily outmuscles the 2.0 liters in all its S-models predecessors, and it'll certainly be rarer—only 209 are planned, as compared with 300 to 600 of each earlier model. As with all its S cars, the STI mods are laser-focused on optimizing driving dynamics.
The basis for the new S209 is the 2018 WRX STI Type RA, which produced 310 hp and 290 lb-ft. The 31-hp and 40-lb-ft upgrade seems modest, but the effort required to achieve it was extensive. The power and torque curves are fatter, too, with torque up about 10 percent everywhere north of 3,600 rpm. But the chassis development work is even more extensive and impressive.
Much of this work centers on removing the "slop" or slack that exists in all suspensions and is responsible for the momentary delay between turning the steering wheel and the vehicle beginning to turn. This "hysteresis" often causes drivers to turn in too much and then correct. Suspension nerds are encouraged to geek out with us in the suspension sidebar. Naturally the springs and dampers are uniquely tuned for STI, with the springs lowering the body by roughly the same 10mm the oversized tires raise it.
Those tires are wider, stickier 265/35R19 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT600As. They were developed specifically for the S209 using compounds and tread patterns chosen to maximize grip in both wet and dry conditions while optimizing steering response and stability. They're wrapped around forged BBS wheels that are a half-inch wider than the RA's (now 9.0 x 19). This new footwear adds about 24 pounds of the S209's 90-pound weight gain over the Type RA. The latter car's Brembo brake hardware carries over, but with higher-performing pads. These noisier, dustier versions are credited with reducing fade by 30 percent.
Most of the S209's exterior modifications are either to cover the wider tires or contribute to reducing aerodynamic lift by 30 percent. These include the front splitter and canards, side spoilers, functional air outlets in the front fenders, and that big adjustable carbon-fiber wing in back (which carries over from the S208). It creates 42 pounds of downforce at 75 mph in its standard position, 60 pounds in its max-attack setting.
To assess the suspension's slop-reduction for myself, I strap into the nicely bolstered Recaro seats, grab the Ultrasuede steering wheel, and head out onto the winding 13-turn Palmer Motorsports Park in rural Massachusetts. We're running the track "backward," to slow things down a bit (more decreasing-radius corners) and to convert the most precipitous drops into climbs. I'm instantly struck by how delightfully direct and communicative the hydraulically assisted steering feels. It's a revelation in this age of lifeless electric steerers. The quick (13.3:1) ratio is shared with the WRX STI's, but it seems quicker still, and sure enough, I never find myself unwinding an excess input. Later during a ride-along with former Subaru rally racer Chris Atkinson, I notice he's not correcting his steering inputs, either.
The total amount of lateral grip is the second obvious takeaway from this drive. Subaru is claiming the S209 will generate 1.08 g on the skidpad, and it certainly feels like we're generating a lot more than that in the valley turns that are compressing the suspension. I also utilize these turns to try out the different center-differential locking programs, and the (-) setting definitely seems to leverage the engine's substantial torque to help turn the car in, though Atkinson says he generally leaves it in its automatic setting. My sole complaint on the track is that the shorter-throw shifter keeps hanging up between gates on my 3-4 upshifts. Perhaps I just need more practice or I'm hurrying it.
On the rural-road drive home from the track, the ride quality is firm and a bit busy (I'd counsel the STI team to develop magnetorheological shocks for the S210), but it's never harsh. And that louder exhaust makes itself nicely known during hard acceleration, though it largely fades into the background while cruising along. I don't probe the claimed top speed of 162 mph, but a few blasts through the gears confirm that Subaru's acceleration estimates of 4.9 seconds to 60 mph and 13.3 seconds in the quarter are conservative by at least 3-4-tenths.
Pricing hasn't been set yet, but expect to pay $10,000 more than the ($49,855) Type RA. The S209 is a monospec car, with the only choice being color—World Rally Blue with Matte Gray wheels (128 to be built) or Crystal White with Matte Gold wheels (81). Subaru hasn't established an order bank yet, partly because it's still trying to work out how it will allocate the 209 units among its 600-plus dealers. Suffice to say, they'll be hard to find and probably marked up. A lot. But at least you don't have to wait 25 years to import one.