Why this STI from 1998 stole the spotlight at Subaru’s Detroit reveal

1998 Subaru 22B front 3/4

Subaru’s big reveal at the 2019 Detroit auto show this year was something American enthusiasts have long lusted after—a vaunted S-line performance model built by STI. The 341-hp WRX STI S209 is the ultimate expression of Subaru’s performance heritage, and in the past such models were never offered in North America. Right on stage with the S209 was a clear reminder of that fact: the legendary 1998 Subaru Impreza STi 22B. And even after the cover came off of the new car, the gorgeous 22B still stole the show.

So why does anyone care about a 21-year-old Subaru that never even appeared in U.S. showrooms? Because the 22B was the car that Subaru built to honor its 40th anniversary, as well as its third consecutive World Rally Championship titles in 1995, 1996, and 1997. The 22B combined everything Subaru had learned into one absolutely brutal package, sending off the Impreza in a blaze of WR Blue and gold glory.

1998 Subaru 22B front
Sandon Voelker
1998 Subaru 22B

Based on the contemporary ImprezaWRX Type R STi, the 22B featured a bored-out 2.2-liter turbocharged four-cylinder engine that Subaru said made 280 hp. That’s what it said, anyway. At the time Japanese automakers had a kind of handshake agreement to cap output at 280 hp in the Japanese domestic market, but given the Type R STi was rated at 280 hp from its 2.0-liter engine, and Subaru almost certainly turned up the wick in other ways as well, most believe the 22B made more like 300 hp.

As in the new S209, Bilstein provided the shocks for the ultra-stiff 22B. Other performance upgrades included a twin-plated metal and ceramic clutch to better hold up to the heat and abuse of rallying and repeated launches. The 22B’s aero kit featured unique front and rear fenders, hood, and an adjustable rear wing, all which harkened to the Peter Stevens-designed WRC race car.

The example used as part of the S209 reveal at the Detroit auto show  is one of two examples in the United States, and it belongs to Subaru of America. The other apparently lives in the collection of a—very lucky—Subaru dealer.

1998 Subaru 22B rear 3/4
Sandon Voelker
1998 Subaru 22B

Many Americans became enamored with the 22B STi by driving the virtual version in the Gran Turismo franchise. That’s because only 400 examples were made in real life for Japan, and the other 24 made it to either the UK or Australia. Although Hagerty editor-in-chief Larry Webster did have the chance to get behind the wheel back in his days at Car and Driver, and he said the 22B was a riot. “Get yourself on a deserted, winding dirt road, and you can have the sort of fun reserved for guys with Finnish last names,” he said in the 1999 review.

That’s still true of the WRX STI, but it was in part enthusiasm for the 22B (and the American-spec Impreza 2.5 RS) that convinced Subaru to bring the first STI to North America in 2004. And the rest, they say, is all-wheel-drive history.