Performance Cars

2019 Subaru WRX STI S209 Prototype first drive review: Grip, baby, grip

From Japan, with love: We get a quick sampling of Subaru's new range-topping STI S209 at Fuji Speedway.

Michael Shaffer/Subaru

In the US, we mostly know STI as the tippy-top trim of Subaru's WRX sedan. But to enthusiasts around the world, Subaru Tecnica International is highly regarded for its go-fast Subies of all shapes and sizes. It's the performance arm responsible for the absolutely legendary 22B, not to mention a bevy of other cars that'll make any Gran Turismo aficionado's face go all hearts-for-eyes emoji.

Since 2000, STI has built a series of what it calls S-line cars, beginning with the S201, and most recently including the Japan-only S208. For American Subiephiles, these limited-run S-line models have been a particularly tantalizing bit of JDM forbidden fruit. But we're finally getting in on the fun later this year, when the new S209 launches on US soil.

Boosted

The S209 represents the WRX STI's most significant increase in power since its EJ25 flat-4 engine originally launched in 2004. The 2.5-liter powerplant gets stronger internal components, a larger turbocharger and a redesigned air intake. Maximum boost pressure increases from 16.2 psi in the standard car to 18.0 psi here, and in a nod to the 2004-07 WRX STI, there's an intercooler water sprayer, activated via paddles on the steering wheel.

The end result will be somewhere around 341 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque; despite being shown in production guise at the Detroit Auto Show in January, the S209 is technically still in development, so those numbers are not quite finalized. Even so, these estimates represent an increase of 31 horsepower and 40 pound-feet over a standard WRX STI. And considering the EJ25 had only previously gained 10 horsepower over the course of its 15-year life cycle, this is a big improvement.

The S209 is 1.7 inches wider than a standard WRX STI.

Michael Shaffer/Subaru

Grip for days

Arguably more important than the power increase is how the S209 will put that added oomph to the road. A number of usual-suspect hardware upgrades are on hand: Bilstein dampers, stiffer coil springs, a larger rear stabilizer bar and reinforcements to both the front crossmember and rear subframes. Perhaps most significantly, the S209 benefits from a flexible front-strut tower bar, which helps stiffen the body without compromising ride comfort. Of course, considering the stock STI is already a pretty harsh-riding sedan, don't expect a suddenly softer Subie.

These chassis upgrades work in conjunction with 0.6-inch wider front and rear tracks, as well as 19-inch wheels wrapped in 265/35 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT600A summer tires. These tires were specifically developed for the S209 by Dunlop and offer a substantial improvement in traction over the standard STI's 245/35-series tires. Subaru says this improved tire setup will allow the S209 to pull 1.0 g of lateral grip.

To accommodate the wider track, the STI S209 has a 1.7-inch wider body, with bulging fender flares and functional bits of aero at all four corners, including a huge wing not unlike the one found on the STI Type RA. Higher-performance brake pads round out the major performance changes, and, also like the Type RA, there's an unpainted carbon fiber roof.

Aside from some special badges, the S209's interior is the pretty much the same as any other STI.

Michael Shaffer/Subaru

Track star

In the shadow of Japan's Fuji Speedway is the facility's short course: a quick, half-mile track with a couple of sharp corners, some brief sweepers and a long front straight. Exiting pit lane, the S209 pulls like any other WRX STI: there's a modicum of initial lag before the turbocharger wakes up, but then the full torque thrust hits at 3,600 rpm -- 400 rpm lower than before. In terms of acceleration, I don't expect the S209 to post remarkably quicker 0-60 times than a standard STI. The extra power is noticeable, sure, but not necessarily off the line.

Instead, where the S209 really shines is in its ability to carry more speed through turns. The nose digs in and goes exactly where I point it, with lots of feedback through the STI's thick wheel. Turn 2 is an uphill left-hander that plateaus at its crest, and I'm able to keep on the throttle through the entire corner, the S209 holding on tight and perfectly sorting itself out before diving in for Turn 3. The final left-hander before hitting the front straight is a late-apex corner, and the S209 rotates with incredible precision, never shimmying its big-winged rump out.

Subaru had an S208 on hand for comparison, and through the short course's tougher sections, it didn't feel nearly as sorted -- harder to manage, with a lot less grip. But in the S209, I find myself braking later and harder, going faster and faster as I recalibrate my brain to the huge improvement in traction afforded by the wider track and stickier rubber.

It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that wing.

Michael Shaffer/Subaru

It'll (likely) cost you

So, it's clear the S209 offers substantial improvements in WRX STI track prowess. And though this early test was limited to track driving only, I'm willing to bet none of this newfound cornering ability comes at the expense of on-road comfort -- or whatever an STI's version of that is, anyway.

For now, the biggest unknown surrounding the S209 is its price. There's no bones about it: this thing is going to be expensive. The 2018 WRX STI Type RA was a few vape cartridges shy of $50,000, so I'm going to best-guess $60,000 for the new S209. That's without any interior or tech updates, either. You'll get Recaro seats, suede inserts and a nice infotainment system, sure, but nothing different from what's offered in a base STI sedan.

Of course, expensive as it'll no doubt be, Subaru is only planning to build 200 of these seriously entertaining S209s. And considering this is the first time US customers will be able to get their mitts on a highly coveted S-line STI, I'm sure every last one will find a loving home.

Editors' note: Travel costs related to this feature were covered by the manufacturer. This is common in the auto industry, as it's far more economical to ship journalists to cars than to ship cars to journalists. While Roadshow accepts multi-day vehicle loans from manufacturers in order to provide scored editorial reviews, all scored vehicle reviews are completed on our turf and on our terms.

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