Subaru WRX STI S209 First Drive Review: Faster and Fantastic

This (very) limited-edition STI model is the WRX, all grown up.

PALMER, Massachusetts—It seems almost criminal, this 2019 Subaru WRX STI S209: It's precisely the car many of us have waited for from Subaru, but only 209 of them will come to the U.S. And with more than 600 dealers, good luck to Subaru executives in figuring out who gets one.

And good luck to us buyers in trying to find one for sticker price, which our educated guess says will be about $60,000, roughly $10,000 more than the 2018 Subaru WRX STI Type RA, which was also limited (to 500 cars) but didn't offer this much power.

You won't know it by looking, but there is a huge difference between the S209 and all of the Subarus that came before it—to America, anyway. Every previous S model, which Subaru has built periodically for nearly 20 years, has been restricted to the Japanese market because the conversion was too extreme to allow them in using the regular STI WRX's homologation. The cars would have had to undergo and pass the entire federalization process—including crash testing—to be sold in the States. That's expensive, especially if you're talking about just 209 cars.

But the company is feeling pretty healthy—Toyota just upped its stake in Subaru to 20 percent, while also confirming a second-gen BRZ and 86—and it decided to homologate the S209. But it's homologated as an STI, meaning Subaru's performance arm, Subaru Technica International, might be stepping up with its own identity. STI has been around for 30 years, but we've come to think of it as just a model designation rather than as the separate factory that it is. Our guess is we'll soon see the STI badge on some additional models, similar to Mercedes' AMG, BMW's M, and Hyundai's new N.

Subaru's WRX models, depending on which one you choose, can be genuine bargains: The base 2020 WRX (the S209 carries a 2019 model designation) with a six-speed manual transmission, all-wheel-drive, and a 268-hp, 2.0-liter turbocharged boxer four-cylinder is as much fun as you can have for $28,500. So what makes the S209 worth double that?

Start with the engine: It's the veteran EJ25 2.5-liter turbocharged four-cylinder boxer, which is standard in the 2020 WRX STI and STI Limited. But massive reworking, including a bigger HKS turbocharger and larger injectors, ups the S209's horsepower to 341 and 330 lb-ft of torque, compared to the current STI's 310 horses and 290 lb-ft.

That doesn't seem like a huge gain on paper, but on the road and the racetrack, it's substantial. Subaru claims a zero-to-60-mph time of 4.9 seconds, and we think that may be modest. Add in a delightful short-throw shifter on the six-speed, and this is Powertrain Done Right.

During the press presentation at an inn in rural Massachusetts, the Subaru execs used the word "hysteresis" a lot in reference to the slack in the suspension's execution in a turn, which can be massive in a luxury sedan or minimal in a proper sports car. Subaru engineers say they edited out as much of this slack as they could, using tuned springs and Bilstein dampers, new bushings, and front and rear draw stiffeners (a horizontal bar and spring combination that adds stiffness). The rear stiffener bar is deep in the trunk, protected by a separate red bar whose job is to make sure you don't cram a hard suitcase up against the draw stiffener.

While our perhaps poorly calibrated asses can't precisely measure hysteresis, they can tell you that this is the best-handling Subaru ever. That's brought to you as well by some surprisingly versatile Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT600A summer radials, mounted on 19-inch forged BBS alloy wheels. The brakes are Brembo units with six-piston monoblocks up front and two piston pieces in the back, all fitted with high-friction pads. But you know what helps a lot, too? The S209's old-school, smooth, precise hydraulic steering. We miss you, partner. Electrically boosted steering might be saving us a shot glass of gas every month, but it isn't the same.

Outside, you'll immediately notice the widebody kit, needed due to the wider track that comes courtesy of wheel offset. It looks great. There are a few other tipoffs, including the S209 badge beneath the big adjustable rear wing, and the color: The car is available only in the familiar World Rally Blue with matte-gray wheels, or Crystal White with matte-gold wheels. There will be 128 blue S209s offered, and 81 white ones. The blue look is iconic, but we vote for the rarer white.

Inside, front seats are Recaros with S209 on the headrests. The eight-way-adjustable seats were fine on our road drive, but during our track drive at the 13-turn Palmer Motorsports Park, we would have welcomed more side bolstering. The aluminum pedals and cherry-red accents are appealing, but in a $60,000 car, some customers might find them slightly downscale.

There are no options on the S209; it has Subaru's Starlink multimedia, which includes Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There's no navigation system, no sunroof. Subaru worked hard to lighten the car, including a carbon-fiber roof that saves eight pounds. Still, the car is about 90 pounds heavier than the model it is based on, the Type RA. Still, even at 3,500 pounds, the S209 is so very light on its feet.

Our on-track sessions at the very entertaining, four-year-old Palmer Motorsports Park (it's in Palmer, Massachusetts, if you'd like to visit—and you should) started out slowly as we learned both the car and the track, but our comfort level rose dramatically after just a couple of laps.

The S209 charges hard into corners, and when the tenacious Dunlops finally give up, they do so gradually. Brake fade was slight but never an issue. There isn't a lot of adjustment built in to the S209 aside from the center differential, which seemed happiest on track in its rear-biased mode.

The transmission is a six-speed manual, but you'll find paddle shifters behind each side of the fat little steering wheel. In the S209, they control a system that sprays water on the intercooler, giving you a little bit of push-to-pass power. The water is stored in a gallon-size container in the trunk where the spare tire would sit; instead of the tire, you get an inflation kit. Use the right or left paddle, it doesn't matter.

If it's possible for a car to be profoundly exciting and docile at the same time, Subaru hit on the formula here. The S209 is entirely tolerable around town and on the highway, but on the track, it will make you feel far more competent than you probably are. As mentioned, the problem is likely going to be finding one. And if you think $60,000 is expensive, we wish you luck in finding one for that amount.

2019 Subaru WRX STI S209 Specifications
ON SALE November
PRICE $60,000 (est)
ENGINE 2.5L turbocharged DOHC 16-valve H-4; 341 hp @ 6,400 rpm, 330 lb-ft @ 3,300 rpm
TRANSMISSION  6-speed manual
LAYOUT Front-engine, 4-door, 4-passenger, AWD sedan
EPA MILEAGE 15/21 mpg (city/hwy)
L x W x H 181.8 x 72.4 x 58.1 in
WHEELBASE 104.3 in
WEIGHT 3,500 lb (est)
0­-60 MPH 4.9 sec (est)
TOP SPEED 162 mph (est)
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