The first-ever U.S.-market “Tuned By STI” model does not disappoint.

– Palm Springs, California

Subaru has updated the BRZ regularly since introducing it in the U.S., with refinement, equipment, engine, and visual tweaks. But this is the version I’ve been most excited to test out: the 2018 BRZ tS. The suffix stands for “Tuned by STI,” meaning the engineers at Subaru Technica International have massaged it for even more thrilling handling.

For starters, that carbon fiber reinforced polymer (CFRP) rear wing is not just for show. Above 50 miles per hour, “we pick up a little more downforce in the front and a lot more in back,” says Todd Hill, BRZ car line manager at Subaru of America. It’s even adjustable, though not with fancy electronics; owners adjust the wing between two angles of attack simply by undoing a bolt on either side.

2018 Subaru BRZ tS

Chassis changes begin with STI-tuned coil springs that are 15-percent stiffer in front and 3-percent stiffer in back, while the Sachs dampers have a different, tS-specific tune compared to the ones employed on the regular BRZ Performance package.

A pre-loaded brace between the front suspension member and subframe is designed to keep the two from moving as much under load, while redesigned engine-bay “V-braces” further stiffen up the chassis. Gone is the not-that-grippy Michelin Primacy HP rubber in favor of Michelin Pilot Sport 4 summer tires, and they’re on 18x7.5-inch wheels – the first factory 18s offered on the BRZ in this country.

The braking package mirrors the one introduced for 2017 on the BRZ Performance package, with 12.8-inch front rotors gripped by four-piston Brembo brakes up front, and 12.4-inch rotors with two-piston Brembos in back. That’s far more aggressive hardware than the base car, which has 11.6- and 11.4-inch rotors, respectively. That the upgraded calipers look slick with Brembo’s trademark white-on-red color scheme is only a bonus.

So confident was Subaru in the performance of the Brembos that the cars did not receive any special pads or fluids for track use, and after lapping sessions concluded, the cars were driven straight back to a nearby hotel without any parts replacement. When I drove a BRZ tS toward the end of the day, its middle pedal remained impressively firm despite the on-track abuse.

The tS treatment does not entail any powertrain modifications, so the 2.0-liter flat-four engine continues to offer 205 horsepower and 156 pound-feet of torque. The car is available only with a manual transmission; Subaru says about 80 percent of U.S. customers buy their BRZ so equipped anyway.

I put it all to the test with a run up and down a section of State Highway Route 74, south of Palm Springs, that would be the perfect hill-climb course were it not for all the other traffic. Even so, it’s wicked fun to thrash the tS around the sinewing curves. It turns in quickly, grips strongly, and is infinitely adjustable with the throttle if, say, a bend suddenly tightens or an unexpected Lexus RX appears. The brake pedal firms up quickly, providing a lot of confidence.

2018 Subaru BRZ tS
2018 Subaru BRZ tS
2018 Subaru BRZ tS
2018 Subaru BRZ tS

The BRZ is at its best when you keep the engine screaming; peak horsepower arrives at 7,000 rpm, just 400 rpm before the redline, so you need to keep the tachometer needle pointing straight up for maximum performance. Fortunately doing so is a joy, thanks to the direct-feeling gearbox and perfectly placed pedals that make it simple to elect a lower gear.

The tS brings out even more smiles lapping at The Thermal Club, a race track located about 35 miles outside Palm Springs. With outsized lateral grip and braking compared to its acceleration, the BRZ is easy to drive around the circuit. I carry a lot of speed and momentum through the corners, even if my speeds on the straights aren’t tremendously high compared to, say, the WRX STI Type RA I also drove at Thermal.

Yet that’s exactly what makes the BRZ tS so alluring for track-day attendees: You can wring the car out and use up all of the grip on every turn without too much fear. It’s a quick car on track, yes, but not so quick that you don’t feel like you’re really working to get the most of out it on every lap. Can I feel the extra downforce at speed? Not really – but the tS strikes a nice balance between easy on-throttle adjustability and reassuring stability in a straight line.

If the wheels and wing don’t give it away, there are still more visual clues that the BRZ tS is something special. New STI underspoilers (available from Subaru dealers in the U.S. as accessories) are fitted all round, the fog lights are deleted in favor of STI covers, the grille is accented with STI’s signature Cherry Blossom Red trim, and the mirrors and all exterior trim have been blacked out. Of the 500 cars to be built, 225 will be painted WR Blue Pearl, 105 will be Crystal Black Silica, and 170 will be Crystal White Pearl.

Inside, the red-accenting theme continues, touching the seatbelts and the stitching on the various leather and Alcantara components. There’s a small serial plate by the shifter indicating the car’s production number out of 500. A frameless rear-view mirror is a nice touch, too. The seat bolsters, shift knob, engine-start button, and the bottom of the steering wheel are also all done up in red for tS duty.

2018 Subaru BRZ tS
2018 Subaru BRZ tS
2018 Subaru BRZ tS
2018 Subaru BRZ tS

While the related Toyota 86 does offer a fewer dealer-installed TRD parts, they don’t come close to the tS’s performance.

This car is not the first tS model; Subaru has previously offered the treatment on the Exiga, Forester, and BRZ in Japan. But those cars were modified post-assembly by STI’s technicians, a strategy that wouldn’t allow for homologating them for sale in the U.S. To build the BRZ tS, Subaru had to integrate the changes on the car’s production line; only the underbody spoilers are fitted after the fact at U.S. dealers, and that’s simply because the car won’t fit on transport trucks with them attached. Subaru representatives hint that because the company’s factories are already running at maximum capacity to deliver mainstream models, it’s a tough sell to get special-edition variants added.

“We were able to work really, really, closely together [with STI] and get these cars homologated for the U.S. market,” says Hill. “The hope is that we can do more of these in the future.”

Incidentally, all versions of the BRZ receive some additions for the 2018 model year: three-blink turn signals, welcome lights, redesigned LATCH car-seat attachments, and upgraded infotainment systems (with Apple CarPlay/Android Auto on the Limited and tS). Some chassis reinforcements are added, too, in the rear bulkhead and the firewall.

About the only downsides to the tS package specifically feel like nit-picks. It is the heaviest BRZ, matching the automatic-equipped model at 53 pounds heftier than the entry-level Premium trim – though at 2,842 pounds it is still a featherweight. At $34,355 with destination, it’s a pretty steep increase over the BRZ’s $25,595 entry price – though still a deal by modern sports-car standards. Finally, fuel economy ratings are down one mile per gallon in the city and two mpg highway versus the regular car; that rear wing does raise the BRZ’s drag coefficient by five percent.

Then again, the sort of shopper who wants the added performance and excitement of the BRZ tS isn’t going to care too much about those demerits. This car is, by far, the hottest BRZ that Subaru has ever offered from the factory in the U.S. And while the related Toyota 86 does offer a fewer dealer-installed TRD parts, they don’t come close to the tS’s performance.

It’s for that reason that there is no doubt all 500 copies of this car will sell out very quickly. Whether you’re buying it for on-road thrills or track-day lapping, the Subaru BRZ tS is the best distillation yet of all we’ve wanted from the rear-wheel-drive sports coupe. Way more than just a wing, it’s a car that will make you smile from ear to ear all day long.

Photos: Michael Shaffer / Subaru

2018 Subaru BRZ tS

Engine 2.0-Liter H4
Output 205 Horsepower / 156 Pound-Feet
Drive Type Rear-Wheel Drive
Transmission 6-Speed Manual
Weight 2,842 Pounds
Seating Capacity 4
Fuel Economy 20 City / 27 Highway / 23 Combined
Cargo Volume 6.9 Cubic-Feet
Base Price $33,495
As-Tested Price $34,355

2018 Subaru BRZ tS: First Drive