We Drive the Wicked WRX STI S209 as Subaru Celebrates 30 Years of STI

Alongside the U.S.-exclusive car, we also sampled some of STI’s JDM delights.

Ken SaitowriterThe Manufacturerphotographer

Very few brands can claim to be synonymous with the field in which they excel. For a generation of fans, though, the World Rally Championship (WRC) was synonymous with Subaru Technica International, better known as STI. In the first year after its establishment on April 2, 1988, Subaru's motorsports division broke the 100,000-km average-speed record with a special Legacy Turbo, averaging 138 mph in the course of 20 days. It then went on to win three WRC championships in the 1990s, notch five Nürburgring 24 Hour SP3T-class victories in the 2000s, and remain a competitor in Japan's Super GT series for more than a decade.

To celebrate its 30th anniversary—it was really the 31st, but the Japanese fiscal year starts in April so we'll forgive them—STI held a Motorsports Day at Fuji Speedway and we were there. The event was a way for STI to share the milestone with fans and to thank them for their support, and also to announce plans, vehicle updates, and the driver lineup for the upcoming racing calendar to partners, sponsors, and media.

STI doesn't normally hold a Motorsports Day, instead leaving them to the likes of Toyota Gazoo, NISMO, Mazda, and Honda. But STI fans were clearly hungry for such an event, and they came I droves, with around 3000 loyalists in attendance. Fuji Speedway's various parking lots were packed with Subarus; from higher vantage points it was like looking down at an ocean of World Rally Blue, with most of the cars being lightly modified in some way.

The S209 Is Special

STI had a special treat at the Fuji Short Track, where we had a chance to try out some JDM-only models such as the STI S208, Levorg STI Sport, and BRZ STI Sport, plus get a quick drive in a prototype of the new, U.S.-only STI S209. We'd get a few laps in each car around the half-mile circuit.

Before going out on our own, however, we got a ride with Toshihiro 'Toshi' Arai in the S209 to get familiar with the track and to see how this car could perform with a pro behind the wheel. Arai-san is a proper WRC driver, having raced for Subaru in the Group N World Rally Championship from 1997-2000 and again in 2002-2003. In an instant I was hanging on for dear life as he pushed the S209 around corners in a way that surely violated the laws of physics somehow. The car just gripped and gripped, and then gripped some more—just as I'd assume the car was about to lose its connection to the tarmac, it somehow found a way to bite down even harder. Then we'd blast out of a corner and rocket on to the next one. It was exhilarating.

Just after, I was the first to drive the camouflaged S209, and while I don't know how many more times I can use the word "grip," but that's the keyword here. The wider tires (265/35 versus 245/35 on the standard STI) are specially developed by Dunlop for the S209, and they clawed the track with a tenacity rare in Subarus driven on pavement. There was a lot of talk about how confidence-inspiring the S209 is before we drove it, and that's certainly the case. Bolstering the car's approachable nature is a clever flexible strut-tower brace with a spherical joint in the middle to help the tires maintain maximum possible contact with the road.

This absolute beast of a car was also my first opportunity to sample the 2.5-liter EJ25 engine used in U.S.-market STIs, as Japanese versions only get the 2.0-liter EJ20. Given its America-exclusive status, the S209 is very much a development of the U.S. STI than one of the JDM car. Masuo Takatsu, chief engineer at STI, said "the larger engine was better suited for American tastes," and with 341 horsepower—31 more than the regular car—the S209 is the most powerful street model to wear an STI badge. The first S-series STI to cross the Pacific, it's a more compliant yet more capable weapon than the rawer S208 shown here in white. Just 200 units planned, and like everyone else in Japan I'm already very, very jealous.

Driving the JDM Models

It was almost cruel to go from the S209 and into the less powerful BRZ STI Sport. It's more or less the same car as the BRZ tS you get in North America but with chassis bracing and a smaller rear wing, because Americans love big, flashy aero, apparently. After all these years the BRZ still proves to be fun, though, and while it doesn't have the same level of roadholding and confidence as its all-wheel-drive siblings, it was still a very controllable and manageable car to steer around the tight and technical Fuji Short Course.

The Levorg STI Sport came last, and it's worthwhile to note that—like the BRZ ST Sport—it isn't a full-fat STI product. The STI Sport cars are all developed by the Subaru mothership with a few STI add-ons. In this way, they're analogous to AMG's 43 and 53 models as a sort of stepping stone between regular workaday models and their higher-performing halos. The Levorg STI Sport comes dressed with STI goodies such as a front spoiler, RAYS wheels, and STI-tuned adjustable Bilstein dampers. It's also only available with CVT.

But essentially, it's a WRX wagon. It has the same FA20F engine as the U.S.-spec WRX but upped to 300 horsepower. It's a very competent car, and you can really turn into corners aggressively and hammer on the throttle coming out of them without too much fuss or drama as the car sorts out your vector. It deals with sudden changes in direction well, too, impressively managing the transfer of mass. Of course, with a CVT it's never going to be as exciting as it would be with a manual. At the moment the Levorg is only sold in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and a few European markets. There are no plans to bring it Stateside, even though it would be a compelling offering with few natural competitors outside of perhaps the VW Golf SportWagen, which offers no performance variant here.

WRC Car, Ahoy!

Of course, an STI Motorsports Day wouldn't be complete without the appearance of a WRC car, and Subaru organized rides in an Impreza WRC 98 car from the Rally of San Marino. With the names Colin McRae and Nicky Grist plastered on its sides, this was a proper pinch-myself moment. What made it even better was we would be driven by Arai-san.

It's an understatement to say the first generation of the Impreza defined Subaru in terms of WRC. These were the cars that gave Subaru its three manufacturer's WRC wins in 1995, 1996, and 1997. Growing up in New Zealand, where Subaru dominated rally stages in the late '90s, Subaru and WRC was cooler and more iconic to me than Ferrari and Formula 1. To many, including myself, the Impreza WRC is the Subaru and the WRC car, and I was about to have a ride in one with an actual factory driver behind the wheel. As this was all in fun, the grip thing went out the door and Arai-san slid the car around the track as if it her were back on a rally stage. It was visceral, it was very cool, and it left a lasting impression.

And that's the core of STI. The performance and racing arm seeks to both deliver fun to owners and foster a connection to its machines even in those simply watching them compete. That it has largely succeeded over its three decades in existence was made clear during every moment I spent behind a steering wheel or in a passenger seat.