2019 Subaru WRX STI S209 first drive review: No more half measures

Palmer Motorsports Park is not for the faint of heart. Over its 2.3 miles, this 14-turn track features 190 feet of elevation change and, if you're running it in the clockwise configuration, tricky late apexes that take forever to show up. It can make mincemeat out of a car that isn't prepared to fight for every mote of grip.

Thankfully, I have just the machine: The 2019 Subaru WRX STI S209.

Ninth time's a charm

STI's "S" cars live atop the hierarchy, a tier above the traditional STI we're used to in the United States. The first of these cars, the S201, arrived in Japan in 2000. The seven cars that followed it have all been Japan-only specials, too, because of the way they're constructed. The "donor" cars are still built at Subaru's usual facility, but then they are plucked from the line and sent to STI's own in-house experts for additional modifications above and beyond the mass-market vehicles.

It's that modification process that has typically relegated these cars to Japan alone. In the process of changing parts here and there, the vehicles are no longer eligible for US import under our country's homologation rules, which are among the strictest. Given the groundswell of enthusiast support here, though, Subaru finally saw fit to make the effort to get its latest "S" car to the US. 

According to the automaker, this required hundreds of tests and an equal number of documents -- emissions tests, crash tests, durability tests, the whole nine yards.

A thorough reworking

It doesn't take much to discover that STI heavily modifies its "S" vehicles, even in comparison to some of its hotter variants like the WRX STI Type RA.

"S" cars promise the strongest connection between the driver and the road, and many of the modifications on the S209 are in pursuit of that goal. The body wears wider fenders, one of the easiest mods to note at a quick glance, which allows the S209 to fit fatter wheels and tires, increasing the contact patch and, by proxy, mechanical grip. Canards on the front bumper and the adjustable wing out back help push the body toward terra firma, while a nearly obscene number of vents and inlets seek to channel air more efficiently, aiding cooling.

Many of the S209's most important parts can't be seen without digging a little deeper. Up front, there's this special bit called a flexible draw stiffener, which uses a bar and spring combination to laterally firm up the chassis, reducing the time between turning the wheel and turning the car itself -- this clever little piece of chassis tech is borrowed from STI's Nurburgring 24 Hours race car. There's a second flexible draw stiffener in the trunk, too, protected by a pink bar so that owners don't accidentally smack the thing when loading up the trunk.

The pink bar itself doesn't do anything other than protect the actual draw stiffener behind it. Better safe than sorry.

Subaru

That's just the start. Out back, STI replaced some of the suspension's rubber bushings with hard links containing spherical joints, which the company says will reduce friction and improve the contact between the rear tires and the asphalt. Moving back to the front, STI took its front stabilizer bushings and removed the slit that makes them much easier to install, reducing deformation under load at the cost of install complexity. The carbon fiber roof sheds 8 pounds of weight and ever so slightly lowers the center of gravity while, again, stiffening up the body. Combined with sticky Dunlop SP Sport Maxx GT600A summer tires, the S209 promises a maximum lateral G of 1.08, which is mighty grippy.

And I haven't even talked about the powertrain yet! The S209 uses Subaru's 2.5-liter EJ25 flat-four engine, chosen over the usual 2.0-liter found in newer "S" cars because the EJ's low-end torque is better suited for American roads. Like everything else on the car, the engine has been gifted with a whole bunch of new kit, including many parts from the S208 like the exhaust valve springs, flywheel and clutch assembly. A new intake improves the sound and reduces pressure loss. A larger HKS turbo is tucked away in there, too, raising maximum boost to about 19 psi, and larger injectors and a beefier fuel pump ensure there's plenty of fuel to go with that air. While Subaru promised forged pistons when the car made its auto show debut, it decided to stick with cast pistons, which vastly improve durability according to internal tests.

The result is an output of 341 horsepower and 330 pound-feet of torque. The dyno curves are quite different, with the S209's torque coming online later in the revs due to the turbo's larger size. STI was thorough.

On the road

My first experience with the S209 comes on the drive from our hotel in the Berkshires to Palmer Motorsports Park. From the first time I turn the steering wheel, it's obvious that STI's serious chassis mods have dramatically improved the steering, eliminating nearly every millimeter of the wheel's "dead zone." Even the most gossamer of touches on the steering wheel result in lateral movement. Combined with the hydraulic steering's honest-to-goodness feedback, it's one of the best steering systems I've ever experienced.

Naturally, the super-stiff body does mean that the S209 is a little harsh over certain kinds of pavement, and the big ol' tire contact patches transfer a healthy amount of road noise into the cabin on rougher streets. Yet, everything settles down nicely when the S209 reaches smooth pavement, acting not much different than a standard STI.

The S209's seats have decent side bolstering, but the thigh support doesn't exist for skinnier folks, leading to some sliding around during sprightly maneuvers.

Subaru

The interior is, in traditional Subaru fashion, mostly fine. There's plenty of visibility on all sides, and the honkin' wing out back doesn't obscure entire vehicles, which is a nice touch. Plastics abound, but STI threw in some leather-wrapped parts on the dashboard and center console for a slightly more premium touch, reflecting the leather-trimmed seats. The seats are probably the weakest point of the whole car, lacking the lower bolstering needed for high-speed antics -- Subaru told me that Japan-spec "S" cars have far tighter seats, but since the S209 was built for America, the automaker had to sacrifice some of that bolstering to accommodate Yankee badonkadonks. The seats are also mounted surprisingly high, and they're unable to get as low to the floor as I'd like.

STI's powertrain prowess is on display in the S209. The adjustments are immediately felt, with the power coming on strong, accompanied by a meaner exhaust note thanks to a revised exhaust system. The sedan hustles with confidence through traffic and around curves, and its six-speed manual gearbox has 10% shorter throws that add a nice feeling to the stick. The clutch pedal's bite point is rather high, which takes some getting used to, but it's nothing that time and experience can't smooth out. I recommend the softest vehicle mode, Intelligent, when driving around town, because the throttle is far too touchy for smooth driving in the default Sport or hardcore Sport Sharp modes.

On the track

Palmer Motorsports Park is an excellent place to test out the S209, especially in its clockwise configuration. Complicated double-apex turns and a whole lot of uphill driving means the car's all-wheel-drive system is earning its keep, clawing at the ground through the tires to pull the car out of some tricky situations.

Before I set out, one of STI's Japanese engineers gives me a recommendation for how to set the car up. Sport Sharp mode is mostly acceleration-oriented, so it's best left in the default Sport mode, where the throttle is touchy but not an on-off switch like it is in Sport Sharp. He also recommends changing the locking center differential's automatic mode to provide extra rear bias, reducing some of the car's understeer in favor of a higher proclivity for rotation. It's definitely a good recommendation, as it allows me and my co-driver to tilt the S209's nose toward an apex with a slight lift off the throttle.

Grip everywhere.

Subaru

All those aerodynamic upgrades might give the S209 a bit of a Fast & Furious look, but hot damn, are they useful on the track. The canards and the wider rubber make for a prodigious amount of grip -- every time I think I'm reaching the limit of adhesion, I'll give it a little more throttle and find the tires are nowhere near maxed out. Chris Atkinson, an Australian rally driver who Subaru brought to the event, backs up my assertions with his own praise for just how planted the S209 feels when it's hustling. The immediacy of the steering combines with this grip to make the car feel damn near invincible in a way that the regular STI and even the Type RA do not.

When it comes time to stop, physics once again takes a backseat to STI's engineering competence. While the S209 uses the same Brembo brake system as the base STI and Type RA, it features heavier-duty pads that aim to reduce fade. There are tradeoffs, naturally, coming in the form of additional dust and noise, but them's the breaks. Every stop begs me to wait a little longer and push a little harder. In conjunction with the tires, it's some of the sharpest, most confident braking I've experienced in a passenger car. After 12 seriously quick laps between me and my co-driver, the S209's brake pedal feels only marginally different than when we started the day. Backup pads are always a good idea to bring to a track day, just in case, but the Subaru's stoppers are more than ready to handle a couple hours of abuse with room to spare.

Down to brass tacks

Subaru is bringing just 209 examples of the S209 to the US, its sole market. Deliveries are expected to begin around November, but the automaker is still sussing out the details of which dealers will receive them. Pricing is also TBD, but it should arrive within the next couple of weeks, and given the fact the Type RA costs around $50,000, I'm not expecting the S209 to be cheap. While Subaru said it discourages dealer markups, dealerships are independent businesses that have plenty of leeway to tack on a "market adjustment" or two, so those 209 lucky buyers might end up paying far more than what Subaru puts on the window sticker.

The 2019 Subaru WRX STI S209 is not here to half-ass anything. It's a dedicated performance car that shows off every inch of what STI's engineers can do. If you never go to the track, you'd be doing this car a disservice by owning it.


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 multiday 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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