LAGUNA BEACH, Calif. -- The first clue that the 2004 Subaru Impreza WRX STi means business is in the middle of the instrument panel.

There's no radio.

The thinking, according to Subaru planners, is that racers who are buying the wicked-looking STi for its performance potential on the track don't want the extra weight of an audio system.

As for the lucky few who are shelling out $31,000 for one of the 300 cars a month that are being imported from Japan -- and have no intention of racing their STi -- these well-heeled consumers typically prefer to spend big bucks on a custom audio installation.

Not that a radio and a couple speakers are going to have much of an impact on this compact, all-wheel-drive sedan's performance, including 0-to-60 acceleration in an eyeball-popping 4.8 seconds.

If the lack of a proper sound system isn't a giveaway, the ridiculous oversize biplane spoiler on the decklid, the gaping hood scoop and the meaty Bridgestone Potenza RE070 tires should alert even innocent bystanders that this high-potency limited edition of the WRX -- compliments of Subaru Tecnica International, the tuning and motorsports arm of Japanese parent Fuji Heavy Industries -- is not meant for the faint of heart.

We had a chance to sample the STi, which goes on sale later this month, on the twisty Ortega Highway that runs northeast into Riverside County and on an autocross course at California Speedway, not far from scenic Rancho Cucamonga.

The performance potential is almost frightening. Like its chief rival, Mitsubishi's Lancer Evolution, the STi and its predecessor, the WRX, were honed in World Rally competition.

Think of the STi as an exaggerated version of the WRX, with an even hotter engine, more capable chassis and, well, fewer distractions (read "creature comforts").

Where the WRX delivers 227 horsepower from its turbocharged, single-overhead-cam 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine, the STi kicks things up a notch with a larger turbo powerplant -- a DOHC 2.5-liter variant of Fuji's familiar horizontally opposed four Output is phenomenal: 300 horsepower and 300 pounds-feet of torque, fed to all four wheels through a six-speed manual gearbox and a driver-adjustable variable center differential.

Visually, the most noticeable change -- outside of the aforementioned spoiler and hood scoop -- is a new front fascia. Gone are the Impreza's signature round headlamps, replaced by a semi-trapezoidal design that incorporates high-intensity-discharge lamps. In the rear, the taillamps mimic the general shape of the headlamps.

You'll also notice the 17-inch, Z-rated Bridgestone tires are mounted on gold-toned BBS alloy wheels. Look a little closer, and you may even spot the Brembo disc brakes that can haul the STi down from high speeds in a hurry.

All this hardware, including a quicker steering gear and a race-tuned and lowered suspension, endows t he STi with impressive, nearly preternatural ability. Younger, quicker drivers than me were turning unbelievable times on the autocross course. And out on the Ortega Highway, it becomes an exercise in frustration to keep the speeds below legal limits because that turbo engine revs so willingly and freely.

Subaru anticipates that nine of 10 STi buyers will be male (versus four out of 10 for the garden-variety Impreza), averaging about 33 years of age. Needless to say, we're talking some fairly affluent young males here who won't blink an eye at paying a $5,000 premium over the price of a standard WRX for the privilege of piloting the ultimate Subaru.

Or, for that matter, $2,000 more than Mitsubishi's Lancer Evo, which gives up 29 horsepower and 27 pounds-feet to its rival.

In the high-speed sweepstakes between these two rally-tuned street racers, the difference seems inconsequential if you truly want to be the fastest and most furious.

'04 Subaru WRX STi

Wheelbase (in.): 100.0

Weight (lbs.): 3,263

Engine: Turbo DOHC 2.5L H-4

Output (hp): 300

Torque (lbs.-ft.): 300

Base price: $30,995

Source: Subaru