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The WRX STI has long been the pinnacle of Subaru performance in the US, but that's not the case across the Pacific in Japan. This is where Subaru has long sold its S-Series cars, the S201 through S208, all of which have been mere dreams to American enthusiasts. That all changes with the new S209, a limited-edition, range-topping STI that's finally being sold on US soil. And let me tell you, this one isn't for the faint of heart.
The S209 takes everything we love about the standard WRX STI and turns it up to eleven. Aggressive aero? Check. Carbon fiber wing and roof? You know it. Upgraded 2.5-liter turbocharged engine? Hells to the yeah. But amid all these upgrades, it's the chassis that gets the most attention here. In the words of my colleague Andrew Krok, "It's toight like a toiger."
How tight? Tight enough for a freshly opened can of Diet Dr. Pepper to spill when I'm driving through a residential neighborhood. Tight enough for an insane amount of bump steer to come through over each and every pavement irregularity. Tight enough for me to grin and laugh like a maniac as I pilot the S209 through the abandoned back roads of Northern California, only to turn around and run the same route over and over again.
Frankly, it's not surprising that the S209 is stiffer than a... well, you know. It has all kinds of race car goodies. Aside from the standard Bilstein shocks and springs, the S209 goes big with reinforcements to the chassis, a flexible front-strut tower bar, front and rear draw stiffeners and two beefy stabilizer bars measuring 24 millimeters up front and 20 millimeters out back. Combined with a quick 13.3:1 hydraulic-assist steering rack and 265/35R19 Dunlop SP Sport Maxx summer tires, how could the S209 not knock my socks off?
The turbocharged 2.5-liter four-cylinder engine is tuned to produce 341 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque, which is up from 310 and 290, respectively, in the WRX STI. A six-speed manual transmission puts the power down to all four wheels with front and rear limited-slip differentials. Drivers can dial in their center differential settings through the aptly named Driver Controlled Center Differential. I like to apply a heftier rear bias at times, just to get the S209 to rotate a bit more with throttle control, but the S209 does just fine on its own. On a track, the DCCD would definitely play a part in owning the circuit, but on my back roads, the automatic setting works great.
Keeping the S209 in third gear puts it in the perfect place for quick corner exits, with the engine's maximum torque coming on at 3,600 rpm. Yes, I feel every bump in the road with this super-stuff chassis and the bump steer is a little disconcerting, but the tradeoff is amazing. The S209 does my bidding at every turn, diving into turns like a demon, exiting smoothly and hurtling toward the next one.
Switching the SI-Drive system from Sport to Sport Sharp allows for increased throttle response and quicker acceleration. Subaru says the S209 can go from 0 to 60 mph in 4.9 seconds, which is more than doable, and totally hilarious.
Heavy acceleration calls for heavy braking, as well. The Brembo stoppers do a great job here, with upgraded high-friction pads and a linear pedal feel that dares me to brake later and later into each turn. Yes, those pads are a bit noisy and dust collects in the wheel wells, but these brakes show no signs of fade. Up front you'll find 13.4-inch discs with six-piston calipers, while out back the S209 uses 12.8-inch rotors with dual-piston calipers. All four discs are ventilated and cross-drilled to keep things as cool as possible.
The S209 has a neat little trick up its hood scoop: an intercooler mister. What would normally be a paddle shifter instead directs water onto the heat exchanger. Cooler air means more of it can be pushed into the cylinders resulting in a bigger bang and a bit more power under your right foot. It's not quite a, "Hit the Nos, Jim" level of boost. But if you're racing, every little bit helps.
The EPA gives the STI S209 a fuel economy rating of 15 miles per gallon city, 21 mpg highway and 17 combined. Those aren't great numbers, and there is in fact a $1,000 gas guzzler tax -- which Subaru of America pays. However, even after a week of driving this thing on the pipe, I end up matching the EPA's combined number. So go ahead, drive it like you stole it.
Inside, the S209 gets a few upgrades to set it apart from lesser WRX STIs. The Recaro front seats are heated, and they're finished in ultrasuede, as is the steering wheel. The fabric soaks up the sweat my palms are pushing out while I pilot this street-legal race car, which is helpful but also kind of gross. There are a few S209 badges sprinkled throughout the cabin, but other than that, the interior is pretty much like every other STI -- functional, but that's it.
Infotainment duties are managed by Subaru's Starlink software on a 7-inch touchscreen, with Apple CarPlay and Android Auto included. Starlink is pretty fine and generally intuitive, but it doesn't hold a candle to the sophisticated, feature-laden systems you'll find in other performance sedans. On top of that, there are no driver-assistance systems to speak of, save for cruise control. If technology is what you want, go get an Audi RS3 with adaptive cruise control and the super-slick Virtual Cockpit gauge cluster.
An Audi might seem like a league above the Subaru, but trust me, it isn't. The S209 costs $64,880, including $885 for destination, putting it right in German sport sedan territory. The RS3 starts at $57,195, including $995 for destination. Heck, even a BMW M2 Competition with more than 400 hp starts under $60,000.
You might think that'd make the S209 a tough sell, but that's not necessarily the case. Neither the Audi or BMW are as raucous as the S209. Heck, the RS3 is only offered with a dual-clutch transmission, which might be smoother, but certainly takes away from the added involvement you get with the S209's six-speed manual transmission. The M2 Competition certainly is rambunctious, but overall far more sophisticated. And in the end, what I like most about the STI S209 is actually its lack of refinement.
In a world where many performance cars seem like they need to be all things to all people, the S209 is just a pure, rockin' good time. It's blissfully free from electronic intervention and endless settings. The S209 is a car that just wants to be driven. Hard.