In Japan, Subaru's STI is about much more than the WRX

In which I ogle big wings and drive some STI forbidden fruit, all in the name of celebrating Subaru Tecnica International’s 30th birthday.

Steven Ewing Former managing editor
Steven Ewing spent his childhood reading car magazines, making his career as an automotive journalist an absolute dream job. After getting his foot in the door at Automobile while he was still a teenager, Ewing found homes on the mastheads at Winding Road magazine, Autoblog and Motor1.com before joining the CNET team in 2018. He has also served on the World Car Awards jury. Ewing grew up ingrained in the car culture of Detroit -- the Motor City -- before eventually moving to Los Angeles. In his free time, Ewing loves to cook, binge trash TV and play the drums.
Steven Ewing
6 min read
Subaru STI 30th Anniversary
Michael Shaffer/Subaru

Subaru's new STI S209 is an absolute hoot. But I'd be lying if I said driving a prototype of this upcoming, limited-edition sedan was the highlight of my recent trip to Japan.

STI -- Subaru Tecnica International -- celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. Earlier this month, it threw a belated birthday party at the base of Mt. Fuji, with big wings and gold wheels as far as the eye could see. Subaru owners and enthusiasts from across Japan flocked to Fuji Speedway to celebrate all things STI, and the automaker even used the occasion to introduce its 2019 WRX STI race car that'll compete in this year's Nurburgring 24-hour race. (There were also cookies, just sayin'.)

30 years of STI at Fuji Speedway

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Walking through the parking lots of Fuji Speedway provided a stark reminder that STI is far more than just an upper-crust trim level of the . In Japan, STI has touched everything from Subaru's R2 kei car to the Forester SUV, offering both bolt-on accessories and fully baked creations like the coveted S-line models, of which the S209 is the latest. WRX sedans and hatchbacks made up the majority of the cars on display, of course, but I couldn't help but fawn over not-for-US models such as the Levorg wagon, or the coveted Legacy STI S204 that never graced US soil. Modded street racers with fart can exhausts mixed it up with impeccably clean, bone-stock cars. Every hot Subie you've ever heard of was on hand, against the backdrop of gray skies and a ring of clouds around Fuji-san.

I could've spent all day walking the parking lots, poring over the details that set each STI-tuned Subie apart. But Subaru graciously provided a number of Japanese-spec STI cars for me to drive around the Speedway's short circuit. The objective here wasn't just to make me hella jealous that we never got these cars Stateside, but instead to show the breadth of STI's wares.

STI isn't just about big-winged WRXes, y'all.

Subaru Levorg STI Sport is one fast wagon

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Levorg STI Sport

STI Sport models are essentially the company's entry-level offerings. Think of how BMW offers the M550i and the M5 -- both are M-ified versions of the sedan, but the former is an M Sport creation, while the latter is a full-bore M car. Subaru doesn't offer any of these STI Sport packages in the US, but on its Japanese models, this treatment offers unique visual flair, as well as a handful of light performance upgrades.

Now, let's talk Levorg. The name itself is a portmanteau of the words "Legacy, "revolution" and "touring" -- the former because the car shares its platform with the , as well as the WRX and last-generation . Think of the Levorg as the WRX wagon you wish Subaru sold in the US. It uses the same FA20 turbocharged flat-four engine as the WRX, but makes 296 horsepower and 295 pound-feet of torque -- gains of 28 and 37, respectively, over the US-spec sedan. The Levorg is about 3.5 inches longer than the WRX we get Stateside, and it's only slightly heavier, trim for trim. It's as enjoyable to drive as any other 'Rex we get here. Even the continuously variable transmission isn't a total buzzkill.

The Levorg's STI Sport pack adds model-specific Bilstein dampers, 18-inch Rays wheels and upgraded brake pads, but the rest of the car's mechanicals are bone stock. A new front bumper, side skirts, rear spoiler and STI badges round out the exterior changes, and inside, the Sport gets special leather seats.

Driving the Levorg on Fuji's short circuit was a familiar experience, simply because I've spent lots of time driving US-spec WRX models in a spirited fashion. The upgraded dampers didn't do much to quell body roll in corners, but the plentiful turbo power and well-behaved CVT (yes, really) meant the Levorg could shoot its way out of corners with little fuss. It's as fun as any other WRX, just with more weight and usable space over its rump. Give it a six-speed manual transmission and I'd happily drive one every day.

Subaru BRZ STI Sport is the best kind of momentum car

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OK, we kind of got the BRZ STI Sport in the US, it was just called the BRZ tS. Our BRZ tS has the huge Type RA-style wing and Sachs dampers, while the BRZ STI Sport wears a more civilized wing, and gets better Bilstein suspension hardware. The short-throw shifter for the six-speed manual transmission, flexible chassis V-braces, larger driveshaft, 18-inch wheels, better brake pads and other aero mods, meanwhile, are shared between the US- and Japanese-spec cars.

Personally, I'm way more into the aesthetic of the BRZ STI Sport. The tS is a sweetheart and all, but that enormous wing, well, it's just not my jam. Besides, the JDM car can be had in Cool Gray Khaki, which in addition to being the most appropriately Subaru-named color out there, looks rad as hell. (Subaru does offer this color on the 2019 BRZ, but only as part of the limited-edition Series Gray pack.)

I've always loved the BRZ. It's a momentum car -- slow and steady but incredibly well balanced. It's way more fun to drive a slow car fast than a fast car slow, and the BRZ is living proof of that ethos. Around Fuji's short circuit, I could keep the 204-horsepower engine on boil in second and third gears and hardly touch the brakes. The short-throw stick was a joy to work, and the coupe's great steering and playful chassis made for great fun around the half-mile track. It wasn't the fastest STI I tested, but it's arguably the most engaging.

Subaru WRX STI S208 is a Japan-only track special

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STI S208

The S208 is a limited-run, Japanese-market STI S-line model, and the progenitor to the new S209. The two cars certainly look similar, but a number of important differences set them apart. For starters, the S208 uses Subaru's 2.0-liter EJ20 turbo-4 engine under its hood, while the S209 has the 2.5-liter EJ25 motor from the US-spec WRX STI. The S208 makes 324 horsepower and 319 pound-feet of torque, compared to the estimated 341 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of the S209. But the S208 is also 154 pounds lighter than the S209, so let's call it a wash.

In terms of power delivery, the two S-line models felt about the same when driven in close succession. The S208 delivers its peak torque at lower rpm, so it's more eager to build speed coming out of a corner in third gear. That said, the S208 felt a lot stiffer when I'd clip the apex curb of Turn 1, and generally had a tougher time settling itself over the uphill bend at Turn 2. The S209's wider track and sticker tires certainly made it more agile and better suited for high-speed cornering. But I'd be lying if I said I really noticed a huge delta between the two cars' performance abilities after only a few laps of Fuji's short course.

The Subaru Impreza WRC98 race car hits Fuji Speedway

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Bonus rally stage

Exciting as the STI models were to drive on track, I kept getting distracted by the very special guest sitting in the paddock: Subaru's Impreza WRC98 rally car. It's the car most famously piloted by the legendary Colin McRae, and the star of so many video games, not to mention posters on my bedroom wall as a teenager. It wasn't just there for show, either. Following my laps behind the wheel of the production STI models, I hopped in the snug passenger seat of the WRC race car, while pro driver Toshihiro "Toshi" Arai gave me an absolute thrill ride around the short, paved track.

Arai manhandled the WRC98 car like it was a toy. Left-foot braking and some handbrake pulls resulted in the rear end sliding around every corner, tires screaming and engine roaring as Arai slammed through gears with incredible speed and precision. Honestly, fun as it was to enjoy this rollercoaster ride 'round the track, I was more in awe of Arai's ability to make beating the snot out of the Impreza look like a walk in the park. You could tell he absolutely loved that car.

That's exactly how I felt driving the other STI products: Imperfect as they might've been, every last one felt like a familiar old friend, brought a smile to my face. Refreshingly analog in their approach to performance, these Subarus are the sort of cars that you just want to beat the snot out of, over and over again.

Here's hoping STI never loses that spunk in its next 30 years.

2019 Subaru WRX STI S209 Prototype: A love letter from Japan

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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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