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Battle of the Special Editions: 2019 Subaru WRX STI S209 vs. 2020 Porsche 718 Spyder Photo Gallery

Two very different special editions from two very different automakers.

Conner GoldenWriterWilliam WalkerPhotographer

The automotive industry has done its damnedest to stretch the definition of what constitutes a special edition vehicle. Between limiting it to special colors, wheels, trim pieces, and badging, we've lost trust in the vaunted and countless "Special Edition" cars that appear after nearly every auto show. When everything's special, nothing is.

Then, you have honest-to-goodness low-production specials like the 2020 Porsche 718 Spyder and the 2019 Subaru WRX STI S209, both of which played part in the field of 2020 Automobile All-Stars contenders. Forget limited-run upholstery and vinyl graphics; both of these cars lay claim to special-edition status through impressive attention to detail and enough extra performance hardware to fill a small storage unit.

That's not to say these are brothers-at-arms. Both fall under the purview of a skunkworks division within their respective automakers, and both are elevated performance variants of existing cars—but both have entirely different end goals and methods of execution.

Porsche is hardly a stranger to the special edition, what with a roster chock-full of ultra-low-production models spanning way back to its founding years in the 1950s. The good news is, Porsche rarely pulls a half-measure when developing these unique models, and the 718 Spyder is hardly an exception.

Developed mostly under the purview of the same division that handles Porsche's vaunted GT products—including the GT3, GT2, and associated RS variants—the Spyder is the last word in the soft-top 718 lineup (Porsche doesn't call this model a Boxster) if what you seek is outright performance. The Spyder follows a similar path to the regular 911 GT products, incorporating the entire front axle, subframes, rear dampers, suspension links, and ball joints from the GT3. Brakes are bigger, the exterior is more aggressive, steering is sharper, and of course, there's more power. A new naturally aspirated 4.0-liter flat-six is mounted midship, pushing out 414 horsepower and 309 lb-ft of torque, a sizeable horsepower bump over the 718 GTS with the 2.5-liter turbocharged flat-four.

It feels every bit the baby GT3 roadster it was designed to be, with rapier-precise handling, a wailing flat-six, and if you're an enthusiast after our own heart, a proper six-speed manual transmission. It's simply more of what we love from Porsche's GT division, now in a smaller, topless package. Porsche didn't put a hard production cap on the 718 Spyder, but that only means it will limit production to capacity. Don't expect to see one of these on every street corner.

The same sort of familiarity doesn't exist for the Subaru WRX STI S209. This is the first time any Subaru S-Line product landed on our shores, and Subaru wanted to do right by its longtime omission. As such, this Subaru WRX STI S209 wears a vehicle tag not from Subaru, but from its STI performance subdivision itself. In essence, this is the superlative STI, wearing the full catalogue of STI performance equipment, along with an extensive list of changes and upgrades to essentially every aspect of the car.

Seriously, nothing mechanical was left untouched by STI, including suspension, steering, brakes, transmission gearing, aerodynamics, and cooling, not to mention the four-cylinder pancake under the front hood. The 2.5-liter EJ-family turbo flat-four was especially massaged, now spitting out a thick 341 hp and 330 lb-ft of torque to all-four-wheels through a notchy six-speed manual transmission. Visually, revised front-and-rear bumpers, massive rear wing, and swollen fender-flares all add to the aggression and improve aerodynamic downforce.

In sharp contrast to the theoretically unlimited production of the Porsche 718 Spyder, only 209 of these Subaru WRX STI S209s will ever exist. They aren't cheap, either; prices started at a whopping $67,000, and if you read our interview with a market expert, some of these are going for more than sticker price.

These are special editions, the Porsche and Subaru way. Despite each's inherent specialness and excellent driving characteristics, these cars just didn't quite make the cut when presented with our roster of winners. Don't count them out, however—every car that gets an All-Stars invite has already won.