The U.S. government has finally allowed STI—Subaru’s elite squad of performance engineers—to build a tricked-out WRX for the American market, and the result is an incredibly sticky track-slayer. It’s the 341 horsepower 2019 Subaru STI S209, and it has so much grip even professional rally drivers will struggle to get it sideways.
(Full Disclosure: Subaru trekked me out to Lenox, Massachussets to meet a bunch of cool, vaping, sunglass-wearing Japanese STI engineers responsible for the new limited edition S209. They fed me food, drank drinks with me, and kindly let me take eight laps around Palmer Motorsports Park in a very grippy car.)
What Is It?
The 2019 Subaru STI S209 is very similar to the 2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA, which was based on a regular 2018 STI but featured weight reduction, suspension tuning, and tweaked calibration across the car for improved track performance. (The “RA” stands for “Record Attempt,” which was actually what the first STI car was built for, though it is a slight departure from the brand’s better-known all-wheel drive rally legacy).
But the Type RA didn’t get any power upgrades, like the Japan-only STI S208, leaving a hole in the U.S. market for something that takes the Type RA’s formula even further. That car is now the S209.
The S209 keeps the Type RA’s 2.5-liter boxer flat-four cylinder engine but adds a larger, HKS turbocharger boosting power from 310 horsepower in the Type RA up to 341 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque in the S209, with a claimed top speed of 162 mph.
The engine gets a larger air intake duct, a more efficient intake, higher flow injectors, and an improved catback exhaust system. The SI-Drive engine software has also been tuned with S-mode defaulting to circuit driving, S#-mode for acceleration-focused performance, and I-mode for slightly better fuel economy when not pushing the car too hard.
Subaru stated on this trip that there will only be 209 models built exclusively for the U.S. market. (Even if previous reporting stated 250, the company presented a slide dictating 209 cars this time around.) As for specs, 81 of these cars will be delivered in Crystal White Pearl paint over matte gold wheels, and the other 128 delivered in World Rally Blue over matte gray wheels. Subaru reps were saying that you can contact a dealer and have your name put on a list for the car, but if you want to mix and match the paint and wheels (like, I don’t know, gold wheels with World Rally Blue??) you’re going to have to sort it out yourself after you take delivery.
Why An American S-Series Now?
STI stands for Subaru Tecnica International, the semi-independent company that kits out regular Subarus for motorsports and the occasional limited edition production car.
The WRX has always been a Subaru, and the WRX STI has always benefited from some beefed up “Tecnica” from the firm, but the special production cars engineered in-house by STI haven’t always been truly “international.”
But now, for the first time, STI itself is finally taking its exclusive S-series of tuned production cars international, at least as far as we’re all concerned. They’ve broken free of the borders of Japan and the S209 is the first S-series production car to be (legally) sold in America.
Why now? Because the current generation of the STI sedan is the best-selling ever; because the STI Type RA featured hardware improvements and sold promisingly well but didn’t satisfy America’s demands for more power; because there was probably at least a little bit of pride within STI of keeping its best cars for the Japanese market up until now; because STI has to assemble its own special edition production cars and they can only do about two per day (in the S209's case, at least), which is not a lot and very difficult; and because, generally, the U.S. government is a bitch to homologate a limited production car with, the process is very expensive, and there’s likely very little direct monetary payoff for the company at the end of the day—but like all of life’s challenges, they have to be faced eventually, and STI feels that now that they’ve gotten one car through the door into the U.S. market, it will be easier for more to follow in the future.
Taking the S209 around Palmer Motorsports Park I discovered grip, grip, some more grip, fuck I’m not sure I can handle all this grip, where is all this grip coming from?
The Japanese STI engineers on-site for the event kept encouraging us to push the cars, suggesting we put the adjustable differential in its rear-biased mode, and sent us around the track clockwise, where most of the corners featured a late, sometimes initially blind, apex. This was all an attempt to get us as close to feeling the 1.08 lateral g-force Subaru claims the car is capable of achieving.
And you sure do feel something. Chris Atkinson, the World Rally Championship driver Subaru brought out to make sure we knew how to drive, even suggested most of us were “over-driving” the car due to the grip—if you took a corner too quickly or initially missed your line, the car was more than capable of making a mid-corner adjustment, despite the special Dunlop summer tires developed specifically for the S209 shouting in pain. (They are Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT600As, if you were wondering.)
Atkinson actually suggested most of us make slower shifts and enter some of the corners slower, despite the sensation that the car could handle more, if we wanted to improve our overall time (we were not being timed).
Later, I rode shotgun with Atkinson on a hot lap, halfway through which he attempted to get the car sideways. With traction control all the way off, the rear-diff in its rear-biased mode, and only a few minutes after a light drizzle of rain, it took a World Rally Championship driver three attempts to get the car to cleanly slide due to the sheer amount of grip.
The first two attempts you could feel the car almost hopping under the pressure of breaking traction, almost as if traction control was still on (though it definitely wasn’t), frustrating Atkinson to eventually really throw his shoulder into a spin, finally managing three or ten celebratory donuts before we headed back to the pits reeking of burnt rubber.
The modifications to the S209 translate directly to its performance, with the tweaked front suspension offering incredible control in the hydraulic steering, and the noisy six-piston Brembo brakes never seemed to lose feedback or begin to fade, despite six hot laps in quick succession.
The car is incredibly easy to drive and extremely confidence-inspiring, third gear is a gift from god and your best friend on most of Palmer track, and then there’s the looks.
The wide-body kit on the S209 looks incredible, with stretched fenders making more room for functional cooling ducts, a massive rear-wing that should tell everyone your STI is super special, and the Cherry Blossom Red STI accents making the car look as awesome as it drives—there’s even a painted bar in the trunk that guards the added rear draw stiffener so you don’t bump it with your Costco pack of 3,000 vape cartridges.
The incredible traction of the S209 is great for high speed precision track driving, but if the car has to piss off a professional rally driver before it can reliably get sideways, I worry STI hasn’t engineered in any sort of “fun mode” that allows for some smokey silliness. They definitely hit their targeted mark, improving the car in every way for circuit work, but some people want cool drifts sometimes, too, and I feel they’ll miss it here.
I mean, even as it is, the S209 is a fun car, just a very strict one.
Jalopnik Social Media Editor Aaron Brown, the only other person on staff who has driven the S209 in prototype form, owns a regular WRX STI which I frequent many miles in. The one thing I hate about long journeys in his car is sitting in the back seat, where the exhaust noise, especially around third gear, drones at such a loud volume I grow sick of it in about two minutes. It appears to be no different on the S209.
Speaking of the noise, one of Aaron’s complaints when he drove the car is the tweaked exhaust on the S209 really isn’t very special at all, and I have to agree. It’s only loud for the rear passengers, and while its note from the exterior or the driver’s seat isn’t bad by any margin, it has no real special character or quality over a standard STI.
On the track, I found that trying to get the car to gain speed was somewhat of a struggle past 100 mph. While Palmer doesn’t really have any long straights, it does have a long stretch past the pits with a gentle curve that should allow for any car to really open up.
Entering the straight in third and shifting to fourth, I was bumping into the rev limiter around 115 mph with no time to shift into fifth before having to brake no matter how hard I pushed it. I felt like I should have been able to get more out of it, especially with its claimed top speed of 162 mph. I’m not sure how you’d ever realistically achieve that speed. (Not that you’ll have very many chances to try.)
As for the interior, it’s all the standard STI layout, with some welcome soft-touch materials on the dashboard and leather trim around the center console, and lovely alcantara-like Recaro seats. But I did have a few issues with the seating position.
In my ideal position, the seat still felt high with no electronic adjustment to lower it any further, and my left shin would rub the plastic edge of the paneling under the steering wheel occasionally when shifting.
And while the seats were mostly comfortable in everyday driving, the bolstering seemed very insufficient for track driving. I even got Atkinson to say he wished for more bolstering, and the STI representatives on sight confirmed to me that the Japanese-market S208 got similar seats with more bolstering, but they won’t be available on this car.
Other than that, I really have to dig for complaints. I think it’s curious that there’s only two cosmetic options for specifying this car and wish you could at least request swapped wheel colors, there are no options available (you’ll have to navigate exclusively using Apple CarPlay or Android Auto, which is honestly fine), and, uh, I guess I wish it were a hatchback? But you can’t have everything.
It’s hard to come to a strong verdict now without knowing how much Subaru plans to charge folks for the S209. In the event presentation, they mentioned the car’s carbon roof—which saves eight pounds of weight—is commonly only available on cars valued around $70,000. The 2018 STI Type RA was around $50,000.
I would guess we can expect the S209 to MSRP for somewhere between that, at least before the dealerships throw on their markups and people start asking ridiculous sums for the car on Bring A Trailer a year out from its November delivery date.
On paper, maybe the S209 will not quite seem to be enough for what people will have to pay for it, if only because the next STI better step up to a level pretty close to matching this. But given how popular the STI has become in America, Subaru will have no problem moving 209 of these. I just hope owners go out and actually drive them.
Update, 10:27 a.m.: The title and text has been uploaded to reflect that the STI S209 is technically a 2019 model year, not 2020 as initially reported. Shwoops.