TOKYO -- Subaru aims to further boost profits on booming U.S. sales by expanding its STI performance line.
To fuel interest in the tuner packages and special editions, Subaru debuted an STI Performance Concept car this month at the New York auto show. It not only showcases STI's potential but foreshadows an STI edition of the BRZ sporty coupe due in America.
Subaru Tecnica International has been around since 1988. But Subaru now aims to step up marketing of its offerings to build performance cred as part of parent company Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.'s 2020 business goal of enhancing overall brand value.
"The United States is the highest priority for STI," STI President Yoshio Hirakawa said here. "We'd like to create a car that drivers can control like their own legs so they can push the car to the limit."
The redoubled focus is part of a wider trend among Japanese brands to cultivate a name for sporty, not just utilitarian, cars. Toyota plans to expand its Toyota Racing Development line. Nissan is doing likewise with its Nismo editions. Honda released a redesigned Civic Type R hot hatch with 300-plus hp.
Subaru's STI business has three pillars: Complete cars, performance parts and motorsports. STI editions usually mix and match special chassis tuning, responsive steering, heavy-duty brakes, bigger wheels, aero kits and pipped engines.
In the U.S., the biggest market for complete STI vehicles, Subaru sold 6,500 WRX STIs in 2014. It was the only STI model offered.
But as part of the expansion plan, the U.S. will get an STI version of the BRZ in "a couple years." The exact branding of this vehicle and its specs haven't been decided. But it may be billed as a BRZ "tuned by TSI," spokesman Michael McHale said.
While Japan sells fewer STI editions, it has embraced a wider array of nameplates, including STI editions of the Legacy sedan, Forester crossover and the BRZ. It has also offered a "tuned by" version of the Exiga minivan. Most were sold in limited edition batches of around 300 vehicles.
To strengthen the global branding of STI, the company also plans to phase out the SPT (Subaru Performance Tuning) line of performance parts in America. It will be rechristened as STI.
Higher STI sales could boost dealer and automaker earnings. In the U.S., for example, the standard WRX starts at $27,090, including shipping. The WRX STI starts at $35,290.
Any incremental vehicle volume is icing on the cake for a brand expecting its seventh-straight year of record U.S. sales. Subaru predicts its U.S. sales will grow 5 percent to 540,000 vehicles in 2015, moderating from a 21 percent jump last year.
The STI Performance Concept, based loosely on a BRZ body type, previews what might come. It is decked out in STI carbon-fiber aerodynamic parts including a rear spoiler. It also gets STI-tuned chassis, body, and air intake-exhaust systems.
Under the hood, it showcases the engine Subaru deploys in Japan's Super GT racing circuit: a horizontally-opposed 2.0-liter, four-cylinder, double-overhead-camshaft, 16-valve turbocharged unit, generating 345 hp. Subaru says, though, that it has no plans for a turbo BRZ production model.
"It's a way of demonstrating the abilities of the STI business," McHale said. "Raising the profile of STI can only mean good things."