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2019 Subaru WRX STI S209 Test Drive: Automobile All-Stars Contender

Paying BMW M3 money for a compact Subaru is crazy, probably.

Erik JohnsonWriterWilliam WalkerPhotographer

Automobile's All-Stars awards are back, and this year we have one of the best fields of cars we've ever evaluated. In total, we invited 21 of our favorite new or significantly revised cars to find out which are the very best of the best. We've split them into Contenders and Winners, but let us make it clear: every car invited to our All-Stars event is one of the most special cars on sale for 2020. Each day between March 8th and March 10th, we'll bring you a new batch of Contenders, and on Wednesday, March 11, we'll announce our 2020 Automobile All-Stars Winners.

When the Subaru WRX STI S209 was announced, we—and the rest of the internet—rejoiced. Subaru's limited-build, hopped-up S models are a two-decade tradition in Japan, but this was the first to cross the Pacific, and it would be a U.S. exclusive to boot. It was a shoo-in for an All-Stars invitation even before everyone found out how much each S209 would cost. That sum? A cool $64,880, or essentially one regular STI plus a base WRX.

Yikes.

But the thing is, it's really good. And really rare, with just 209 being built. In fact, it's good enough and rare enough that its price just might be justified.

Likened to "an STI Greatest Hits album" by senior editor Aaron Gold, the S209 is the 310-hp STI boosted and tuned to within an inch of its life. The 2.5-liter EJ25 flat-four gets a bigger turbo and larger injectors, resulting in 31 additional horsepower and 40 more lb-ft of torque. There's a giant wing screwed to the trunklid and dive planes stuck to the reworked front fascia. Fat fender flares provide shelter to wider tracks and sticky Dunlops found on no other factory Subie. Front and rear draw stiffeners stiffen the chassis by using springs to put constant tension on the structure. All fat has been trimmed from its steering responses with special suspension tuning. And, in what may be the most important element, the Crystal White examples have gold wheels. (The other available color, World Rally Blue, has matte-gray ones. Boo.)

As you might expect from anything bristling with this sort of focused hardware, the all-wheel-drive S209 shone brightest at Willow Springs, where it proved to be a "monumentally entertaining drive," in the words of Art St. Antoine. Seemingly always taut and tensed and ready to attack, it's nevertheless a playful track partner that's happy to be tossed into bends, where it will slither sideways up on its toes, before a dab of additional throttle brings it back in line for the following straight or short chute. The hydraulic steering has lots of feel, and every input delivers an immediate and appropriate directional change; there is little to none of the STI's once-prodigious on-track understeer. The brakes are strong and showed no tendency to fade even as our legion of hard-charging editors cycled through the car.

But the S209's charms became detriments to many on our staff when we took to public roads. Its animalistic nature translates to a flinty, uncomfortable ride on even slightly uneven pavement, and bumps also send the steering wheel jittering this way and that, requiring constant focus and correction. The wing and aerodynamic fillips that look so rad in a paddock become embarrassing plumage when you're not assaulting corners; even worse, to the untrained eye it looks as if you've Scandinavian flicked this rally-bred monster through a cheap accessory catalog. At least the lack of lateral support in the front seats becomes less of an issue away from a road course, as there you spend an inordinate amount of energy bracing yourself. "You'll sweat hurtling this winged beast from apex to apex," St. Antoine said.

Even so, every stint behind the S209's Alcantara-wrapped steering wheel is an event, and the car simply feels special in a way that many vehicles costing far more do not. Its lack of ultimate refinement is a huge part of its charm, and money that otherwise might have gone toward more sound-deadening or better interior plastics or plusher fabrics was, frankly, put to better use making the S209 the best-driving street Subaru ever.

The S209's single-purpose nature ultimately kept it from winning All-Star laurels, but its small cadre of buyers have a Subaru unlike any that's come before, and very likely to come in the future. While keyboard warriors may harshly judge those who spend 65 large on a compact Subaru, we aren't among them.

2019 Subaru WRX STI S209 Specifications
PRICE $64,880
ENGINE 2.5L turbo 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 181.9 x 72.4 x 58.1 in
WHEELBASE 104.3 in
WEIGHT 3,485 lb
0-60 MPH 5.9 sec
TOP SPEED 162 mph (est)

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2020 Automobile All-Stars Contenders

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2019 Subaru WRX STI S209 Test Drive: Automobile All-Stars Contender 

This limited-edition, U.S.-market-exclusive super-STI is unlike any Subaru that's come before, that's for sure. But is the WRX STI S209 an All-Star?

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