For the better part of two decades, those of us in the U.S. have looked longingly across the oceans as Subaru released a slew of special edition Imprezas in Japan and the UK. When the WRX finally made the trek to the States in 2002, followed by the STI two years later, our thirst for rally-bred performance was satisfied to a point.
While the WRX and STI (and by extension, the Mitsubishi Evolution) kept our turbocharged, all-wheel-drive lust at bay, a never-ending string of factory-fettled variants continued to come out of Fuji Heavy Industries. Names like Spec C, Type RA, Type RAR, S202, S203, S204, WR1, Spec D and RB320 all begged the question: Why not here?
Well, ask and ye shall receive. After countless caffeine-fueled late nights at Subaru of America HQ, we've finally got a hyped-up STI of our own. And it's not only better than the standard model, it's less expensive to boot.
Only the most irritatingly obsessive Subie aficionados could spot the Subaru WRX STI Special Edition from afar, as the sole exterior differences are its dark gray 18x8.5-inch, 14-spoke wheels pulled from the Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) Spec C and Aspen White exterior (more colors to be available once the initial 125 units sell out). Get a little closer and you'll notice the standard HID headlamps have been swapped in favor of conventional halogen units, and if you pull out your micrometer, you'll find the Special Edition sits one mm lower than its standard counterpart.
That minimal ride height reduction comes courtesy of the JDM Spec C suspension, which has been swapped in unchanged from its Japanese cousin and features 16-percent stiffer front springs and 29-percent stiffer rear coils compared to the stock STI.
The final pseudo-Spec C transformation comes in the form of a thicker rear anti-roll bar (by one mm) and a set of harder rear subframe bushings. And if you're wondering why Subaru just doesn't port the Spec C to the U.S. and call it a day, blame the Feds. The new hatch would have to be re-certified for the U.S. market, and there's no chance the safety boffins in Washington were going to approve the lightweight seats, plastic windows and other assorted kit for sale in the States. You can write your local legislator, but don't expect a response.
Inside, all of the important bits are present and accounted for, including the six-speed manual gearbox, Driver Controlled Center Differential (DCCD), driver-selectable Vehicle Dynamics Control (VDC) and beautifully bolstered front thrones (you get a plaque with the release number, too). All you're giving up is the automatic climate control (replaced with a trio of manual knobs), six-disc in-dash stereo (swapped for a single-disc unit) and 10-speaker setup (who really needs more than four speakers, anyway?).
While the Germans would doubtlessly have you paying out your orifices for a de-contented, yet slightly grippier setup, Subaru has taken a different tack. The standard STI comes in at $34,995, while the Special Edition stickers for $32,995 (plus $695 for D&D). That's still a bit pricey considering what's included (and what's omitted), but the real dividends should pay off on the track.
It's been a while since we've flogged an STI in anger around a road course, and unfortunately Subaru didn't provide a standard model for comparison, but it took all of two turns to remember why the STI should be a staple of every gearhead's garage.
Although the 305 horsepower and 290 pound-feet of torque provided by the turbocharged 2.5-liter remains the same, choose the right gear and the minimal turbo lag and effortless tractability of the boxer four makes the first straight on the Streets of Willow Springs evaporate in a cacophony of speed and sound.
Going wide for the first slight right-hander, the stock Dunlop SP600 245/40R18 summer performance rubber gritted into the pavement, reassuring us that grip would give out long after our gumption. And when we finally reached the slightly off-camber 90-degree right, we had a chance to reacquaint ourselves with the stoppers. The same Brembo units fitted to the standard STI were more than up to the task of hauling down all 3,400 pounds with ease, with just a slight chatter from the ABS as the tires fought for traction on the uneven surface.
While steering revisions weren't listed among the modifications on the SE, the connection between the tiller and the tires seemed that little bit quicker and more precise. We'll simply chalk it up to the Spec C suspension, which not only allowed us to make minor, instantaneous steering corrections, but provides considerably more front-end grip than we remember on previous iterations.
After a handful of laps it was obvious that a few minor tweaks in the rear and the JDM-spec suspension had changed ever-so-slightly the character of our beloved STI. It seemed more content with smooth inputs than before, with a laser-guided precision that felt decidedly more Evo IX than hotted-up 'Rex.
That impression lasted all the way through our second stint on the track, when we disengaged the traction control and let the STI do what it does best: Mercilessly pummel corners into submission.
The everlasting allure of AWD performance machinery is its inherent ability to be chucked, tossed and recklessly exploited. Throw even a mild-mannered rear-driver into a bend with that kind of wanton abandon and it'll put up with the abuse... right up to the point where you're picking sand out of your clenched teeth. With the STI, it feeds off the mistreatment. Barrel 20-percent faster into a corner than physics should allow, lift off the throttle and the rear end rotates with quickness. Lay back onto the long pedal and ride the slide to the exit. When the tires begin to give up the ghost mid-corner, tap the middle pedal with your left foot (thanks John!), quell the understeer and then feed in the power. It's nearly idiot-proof, and fiddling with the DCCD to suit your driving style makes the whole package that much more alluring. Once we get it onto the road and see how the Spec C suspension deals with the daily grind, we'll be sold, but the overall ride feels promising thus far.
As with everything in life, it's all about compromise. With the STI Special Edition, you have to give up a few creature comforts for a slight yet significant increase in performance. That's something we've been asking for since the WRX first hit our shores, and not only has Subaru made good, it's charging us less for the privilege. Porsche, take note.