If you get honked at while parking in San Francisco, you can safely bet you’ve ticked someone off by beating them to a spot. So, as I muscled the vivid blue sedan into a prime space, and a manic baring of the horn ensued, I steeled myself for a minor fit of road rage. Imagine my surprise, then, when turning to the source of the racket, I found myself saluted not by the proverbial finger, but by an upraised thumb.
The thumb in question belonged to the driver of a Subaru Outback, riding on enormous tires and jacked up to a vertiginous height, whether in homage to monster trucks or the Paris-Dakar, I wasn’t quite sure. “That’s the really rare Subaru…” the driver said, peering down longingly from his perch. “The S209…awesome!” The Subaru STI S209 is rare, indeed. And as I would discover shortly after this encounter, a particularly delicious flavor of awesome.
For the past 18 years, motoring fans in Japan have reveled in a high-adrenaline subspecies of Subaru known as the STI S-Line. STI stands for Subaru Tecnica International, the marque’s motorsports workshop that is analogous to the Mercedes-Benz AMG division. Cross-pollinated with racing technology, STI’s S-Line cars are the most extreme civilian-issue Subarus to claw the tarmac; doing so with their proprietary symmetrical all-wheel drive. Subaru fanatics in the US, however, could only marvel from afar, since STI, which built its first S-line sedan in 2000, never exported one to our shores. Until now.
Packed with innovations derived from the marque’s WRX STI Nürburgring Challenge race car—which won the SP3T class at the 2019 24 Hours of Nürburgring—the limited-edition S209 is the most potent street-legal model ever built by STI. The production will be limited to only 209 examples, every one of them destined for US market.
Given its pedigree, the S209 yearns for a circuit, but lacking the requisite dispensation, I chose the next best thing, an early-morning sprint down Skyline Boulevard, a breathtakingly beautiful ribbon of blacktop stretched along the spine of Northern California’s Santa Cruz mountains.
I wound my way into the hills, cautiously at first. I didn’t know what the bespoke, summer-only Dunlop GT600A tires would make of the cold, fog-slicked asphalt, let alone the 330 ft lbs of torque from the car’s turbocharged 2.5-liter boxer engine. But a series of increasingly intense straight-line charges put my mind at ease, the Dunlops gripping the road as if its watery sheen were nothing but a mirage. According to Subaru, the S209 will pull more than 1.0 g of lateral grip—a statistic best verified on a course lined with proper crash barriers rather than redwoods.
Even under maximum acceleration in Sport Sharp, its most aggressive mode, the vehicle feels poised, composed, the induction noise and the thrum of the engine surprisingly subdued. The overall effect is of a machine more purposeful than showy, confident enough in its abilities that it needn’t resort to aspirational gimmickry. Likewise, if glancing in the rear-view mirror leads you to question the functionality of the gently arcing carbon-fiber wing, STI is happy to provide the data: 40 pounds of downforce at 75 miles per hour, or 60 pounds when configured to the maximum track setting.
What makes the model truly impressive is the transmission, its six speeds navigated by way of a stubby stick whose short, muscular throws make for a gratifyingly visceral experience. If you’re in the habit of running the engine to the redline, though, be prepared for a workout, as the close-ratio upshifts come fast and furious. The gearbox itself—the same unit employed in the WRX STI—feels extremely robust, devouring high-speed downshifts with relish, and screwing on torque during the upswing like there’s no tomorrow.
The Brembo brakes are similarly spot-on, their 6-piston front calipers and 2-piston rear calipers squeezing upgraded high-friction pads against cross-drilled steel rotors, vis-à-vis a fantastically firm pedal. The only feature that left me somewhat underwhelmed was the intercooler spray system, activated by a pair of steering wheel–mounted paddles, which boost power by lowering the intercooler’s temperature. The real culprit however, was the weather—the mercury that morning was in the mid-40s Fahrenheit, whereas the intercooler spray provides the most noticeable benefit in hot conditions.
Tucking into a tofu scramble at my favorite Santa Cruz breakfast spot, I found myself reminiscing about the last time I’d had so much fun on Skyline in an automobile priced less than $250,000. The S209’s MSRP, meanwhile is $63,995. How Subaru achieved that, I’m not precisely sure. All I know is that I want to get back in and drive.