Subaru has enjoyed two decades of success with the WRX, formerly known as the Impreza WRX. Originally debuted in 2002, it was the car that American sport compact enthusiasts clamored for: A turbocharged, all-wheel-drive, manual sport sedan bred directly from rally. Or was it?
The truth is that the United States always got heavily detuned versions of Japanese models with substantially different parts. A comparable Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) 2002 WRX makes 250 horsepower compared to 227 for the U.S., with the help of Active Valve Control System (AVCS) variable valve timing and heads with larger ports, along with tuning changes and more small revisions.
It doesn’t stop there. Even more changes were forced onto unsuspecting USDM 2004-2007 WRX STIs. The more explosion-prone 2.5-liter EJ257 making 300 horsepower made it to our shores, which has since been the biggest source of Subaru reliability issues. I worked at one of the better Subaru shops in the country for a short period and saw hundreds of blown 2.5-liter STIs and WRXs. I think I saw maybe five 2.0-liter WRXs and two needed rebuilds.
To start, Subaru bored and stroked the EJ207 to make the EJ257. It kept the JDM dual-AVCS variable camshafts where the WRX had no AVCS. Then, they added the wrinkle red intake manifold, but not the trick heads of the JDM STI. In fact, the 2004-2007 EJ257 was basically an EJ255 from a 2005-2006 Subaru Legacy GT with a different turbocharger but the same B25 heads. We didn’t get a proper STI engine until the much-loved 2008 STI hatchback, which had quad-AVCS and better W25 cylinder heads, still straddled with that cursed 2.5-liter bottom end now with forged internals. The WRX and Legacy GT diverged from this parts sharing in 2007.
The biggest indicator that the 2.5-liter engine was made to satisfy overseas emissions and drivability demands is that the 2021 model year STIs in Japan still use the EJ207, a 2.0-liter 8,000-rpm engine that makes more than 300 horsepower with all of the best parts Subaru can make. The United States always got the lesser stuff, and we did not get most of the special STIs of the past. The 2018 WRX STI Type RA is not the first Type RA, and the S209 is the ninth in a line of incredible hand-built STIs.
This brings us to my personal apex of the Impreza STI: The 2006 WRX STI Spec C Type RA-R. It is claimed to be the most powerful STI ever made, but modern STIs make similar power. This car is more about being lightweight, responsive, and devastatingly fast around a track. The “normal” Spec C Type RA recorded a blistering 7:49.41 lap around the Nürburgring. Spec C means competition, Type RA means record attempt, and the extra R means “racy,” according to Subaru.
For its home market, Subaru Tecnica International (STI) does a lot of small, special upgrades instead of larger changes. This continues to this day on the S209, and this RA-R has miniscule changes, such as optimized turbocharger compressor blades, a turbo speed sensor, a better-flowing turbo inlet with more heat shielding, and solid spherical suspension bushings instead of rubber complement specially tuned shocks, springs, and sway bars. As was customary for the most stiletto-sharp of Subarus, an adjustable roof scoop is featured. Finally, it has the first appearance of six-piston Brembo brakes on any Japanese car until the 2008 Lexus IS F.
As a nerd sidenote, I thought that the RA-R Brembos were the same as the 2018+ STI six-piston brakes, but they are actually different, which is cool. The RA-R has a true two-piece rotor, whereas the modern STI is still stuck with a single-piece rotor.
This STI is actually the coolest of them all, even cooler than the incredibly special 600-unit S204 with similar upgrades. The RA-R takes it further with the brakes, spherical joints, and the roof scoop. It is the true rally-bred Subaru some of us Americans always wanted. Just listen to the EJ207 sing to 8,000 rpm, making the smooth and consistent power that our garbage EJ257s couldn’t make.
Or listen to this actual Spec C Type RA-R make sweet, rumbly boxer music. The tone of the EJ207 is so different to the EJ257. It sounds happier, higher strung, smoother. Some of that is down to the equal-length headers of the version 8 and later engines, but a lot of it is down to the EJ being designed as a 2.0-liter engine in the 1990s, then adapted as a 2.5-liter into the 2000s. The actual internal harmonics and balance of the engine are as designed, whereas the 2.5s have more internal weight and different frequencies to deal with.
Forget about the 22B. This is the king of Subarus.
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