The arrival of the Lexus LS400 in 1990 was evidence that the Japanese could build a serious luxury sedan, but stylish coupes were another matter entirely. In 1991, Toyota tried to challenge all preconceptions with a sleek new 2+2 coupe intended to face BMW, Jaguar, and Mercedes on their own terms. It didn’t quite succeed, but it was a unique and memorable design with an unusual story behind it. This is the history of the 1992-2000 Lexus SC and Toyota Soarer.
COUPE DE GRACE
Even as its flagship LS400 sedan went on sale in 1989, Toyota was already considering the next steps for the Lexus brand. Plans included a new entry-level sedan to replace the underwhelming ES250 and a new midsize sedan, the GS, to slot between the existing ES and LS models. The most interesting development, however, was the conception of a Lexus coupe.
Big premium coupes and convertibles like the Mercedes SEC and SL, Jaguar XJS, and BMW 6-Series occupied a small but lucrative market. They sold in modest numbers, but well-heeled buyers were willing to pay a sizeable premium for their distinctive styling, making such cars very profitable. They also served as style leaders for their brands, adding luster to the rest of the line.
Several other automakers had recently tried to break in to the high-end two-door segment with mixed results. Cadillac’s Pininfarina-styled Allanté roadster and Buick’s two-seat Reatta had failed to lure buyers away from the established European leaders despite significantly lower prices. The Cadillac Eldorado and Lincoln Continental Mark VII lacked the cachet or sophistication to appeal to BMW or Mercedes buyers, while Honda’s Legend coupe was more of a two-door sedan than a posh sports coupe. Still, the coupe market remained a tempting target.
Nissan, which launched its Infiniti brand in 1989, had clearly thought the same thing. Shortly after the debut of the Q45 sedan, Nissan introduced an Infiniti coupe, the M30. An Americanized version of the Japanese-market Nissan Leopard, the M30 was upright and fairly sedanish, combining bland styling and unexceptional performance. Unsurprisingly, it made no particular impression on coupe buyers and Infiniti dropped it in short order.
Toyota had several options for developing a Lexus coupe: They could do as Mercedes had with its S-Class coupes and simply offer a two-door version of the LS400 sedan, but the LS400 had already drawn criticism for its unadventurous, derivative styling. They could create a Lexus version of the big Toyota Soarer luxury coupe, a home-market rival of the Leopard, but the existing Soarer dated back to early 1986 and was due for replacement. The third option was the most challenging: creating something entirely new.
Understanding the tastes of the U.S. market had always been a challenge for the Japanese automakers, whose designers and engineers often had very different values than their American customers. In the sixties and early seventies, Nissan had benefited (whether they appreciated it or not) from the insights of Yutaka Katayama, head of NMC USA, whose tastes were more in line with those of the American market. Toyota, for its part, decided to seek American help. In 1964, the company hired Strother MacMinn, a teacher at the Art Center of Pasadena, California, to train Toyota designers. Although MacMinn agreed to help, he warned Toyota executives that training stylists in Japan would not be enough. To understand American sensibilities, he said, Toyota’s designers needed to live in the U.S.
In 1973, Toyota leased a warehouse in El Segundo, California, near the Los Angeles International Airport, and established the Calty (from “California Toyota”) Design Research center, whose first production design was the popular 1978 Toyota Celica coupe. Encouraged by this early success, Toyota moved Calty to a larger studio in Newport Beach, south of Los Angeles, and hired a new design chief, former Ford stylist David Hackett. Hackett and his team, which included Calty’s first junior designers, would be responsible for many of Toyota’s later American-market designs.
Assigning the design of the Lexus coupe to Calty was a natural choice. When Toyota had studied the upscale American market to prepare for the launch of Lexus, their researchers had rented a house in posh Laguna Beach, California, a few miles south of the Calty studio in Newport Beach. Since Southern California would be a major market for the new coupe, Lexus management judged that Calty’s designers would be more in tune with buyer tastes than the stylists back in Nagoya. Rather than Americanizing a Japanese design, the Calty design would also become the basis for the third-generation (Z30) Japanese-market Toyota Soarer.
Located thousands of miles away from the conservative traditions of both Japan and Detroit, Calty designers had developed a certain flair for the avant garde. Its staff was small and quite young — Wayne Lui, who led the Lexus coupe project, had been hired straight out of design school back in 1982 — and they were always looking for ways to think outside the box.
Both Wayne Lui and design chief Dennis Campbell thought the Z30 should have a flowing, organic shape, eschewing both the sedan-like character of the Mercedes SEC and the angularity of the previous Z20 Soarer or BMW’s E24 6-Series. Rather than beginning with sketches and translating them into clay models, as is customary in automotive styling, Lui and Campbell developed early design concepts using plaster-filled balloons. Once they had established a basic shape, they moved directly into clay. Throughout the process, the designers worked almost entirely with three-dimensional models rather than flat renderings, very unusual for automotive designs.
Toshihiro Okada, head of product planning back in Japan, was not thrilled with either the unorthodox approach or its early results, but he gave Campbell and Lui permission to develop their design into a full-size clay model. To their relief, when they presented the clay to him six months later, he was very pleased with it. Their work also found an enthusiastic supporter in the coupe project’s chief engineer, Seihachi Takahashi, who would become an important ally.
THE ART OF NO COMPROMISE
The problem with allowing designers to indulge themselves is that at some point, their work must be translated into a practical, producible car. Many automakers make their designers entirely subordinate to engineering; the stylists can’t even get to work until they have a validated ‘package’ of dimensions and engineering parameters. That approach ties designers’ hands, but it also helps to ensure that their designs allow room for engines, passengers, suspension components, and other important details. By contrast, if stylists work without a package in mind, as was the case with the Buick Reatta, their designs often end up being painfully compromised — if not ruined — in the translation to production.
Lui and Campbell’s coupe proposal seemed very likely to go the way of the Reatta. As designers often do, they had pushed their initial design as far as possible, expecting that they would have to make substantial compromises further down the road. Seihachi Takahashi, however, loved the design so much that he became determined to build it with as few compromises as possible. He flew Lui to Japan and put him up in a hotel to personally oversee the “productionizing” of his design.
It was a difficult process. The coupe’s complex curves were very difficult to produce and some of the platform’s hardpoints — the unalterable dimensions dictated by the suspension, the height of the engine, etc. — actually fell outside the dimensions of the clay model. The Lexus LS400 sedan’s 1UZ-FE V8 engine, which the Z30 was supposed to share, didn’t fit under the hood. The rounded edges of the nose didn’t leave enough room for headlights, even with compact projector-beam units. The grilleless nose, meanwhile, didn’t admit enough air to the radiator to prevent overheating.
Inevitably, Lui was ultimately forced to make some changes to the original design, but Takahashi would not let him despoil the essence of the original concept; instead, the engineers rearranged or redesigned many components to make them fit. The engine got a new air cleaner assembly to fit under the low hood. To address cooling problems, a duct was added under the nose to channel under-bumper airflow into the radiator, and an unusual hydraulically controlled cooling fan replaced the conventional electric unit. To deal with the headlight problem, the high beams were separated from the main beams and moved inboard, giving the coupe its distinctive ‘nostrils.’ Okada said that it was extremely challenging to get everything to work, but the design had fewer compromises than any other production car Toyota had ever offered.
THE SPORTING LEXUS SC
As a rule, big coupes tend to look sportier than they drive, aimed as they are at well-heeled and often older customers, but Takahashi wanted the new car to have a genuinely sporting feel. While the Z30 rode a shorter, narrower version of the LS400′s platform and shared as much of the sedan’s basic hardware as Takahashi could manage, the coupe’s suspension was significantly firmer and wheels and brakes were bigger. The coupe had far better body control than the sedan and a noticeably stiffer ride. The Lexus SC version of the coupe came only with a conventional suspension, but Japanese-market Toyota Soarers were available with a choice of conventional springs and shocks, adjustable shocks, air suspension, or a complex active suspension system with four-wheel steering, none of which were offered on the Lexus. Toyota subsequently adapted the Z30′s platform for the 1993 Supra sports car.
In the Japanese domestic market (JDM), the Z30 Soarer initially offered a choice of two engines: 2.5GT models had the 1JZ-GTE, a 2,491 cc (153 cu. in.) DOHC 24-valve inline six with twin turbochargers and 280 PS JIS (206 kW, about 276 hp), while the 4.0GT used the 1UZ-FE, the LS400′s 3,968 cc (244 cu. in.) DOHC 32-valve V8 with 260 PS JIS (191 kW). The initial U.S. cars offered only the V8, rated at 250 hp SAE (186 kW). A normally aspirated six-cylinder model with the 2,997 cc (182 cu. in.) 2JZ-GE six and 225 hp SAE (168 kW) was added after launch. V8 cars were offered only with a four-speed electronically controlled automatic, but the sixes could also be ordered with a five-speed manual gearbox.
The power was worthwhile because Z30 coupe was no lightweight — the lightest was more than 3,400 lb (1,550 kg) and a fully loaded JDM 4.0GT-Limited with active suspension was more than 3,800 lb (1,730 kg). However, even the V8 cars were about 200 lb (90 kg) lighter than an LS400 sedan and had shorter gearing for better acceleration.
Even with the potent engines and firm suspension, neither the Lexus SC nor the Toyota Soarer lacked for luxury features. The Lexus coupe offered much the same equipment as the LS400 sedan, including its distinctive electroluminescent instruments. Soarers were even more lavishly equipped, with standard digital instrumentation and options like GPS navigation, an in-dash television receiver, and a backup camera, options that at that time were little known in the U.S.
The Z30 Toyota Soarer debuted in Japan in May 1991, around the same time the new Lexus SC400 bowed in the U.S. The six-cylinder Lexus SC300 arrived in the U.S. three months later, although the similar Soarer 3.0GT wasn’t introduced in Japan until early 1994.
Press reaction to the Lexus SC400 was enormously positive. Most critics liked the sleek styling and were impressed with the coupe’s performance. In October 1991, Car and Driver clocked an SC400 from 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in less than 7 seconds and reached a redline-limited top speed of 145 mph (233 kph). That was on a par with the Mercedes 560SEC and BMW’s outgoing M6/M635 CSi and more than a second quicker than an Lexus LS400 sedan.
The JDM Soarer 2.5GT Twin Turbo was about as quick with automatic and even quicker with manual transmission, although the five-speed car was notably less flexible and needed an aggressive clutch drop for best performance. Nonetheless, the 2.5GT found some popularity as a pursuit car for Japanese police prefectures. The normally aspirated SC300 (and 3.0GT) was less impressive with automatic, but with the five-speed could perform nearly as well as the V8 cars.
The SC’s handling was similarly sporting. The LS400 had sacrificed cornering ability for a smooth ride, but the coupe felt decidedly more Germanic. The SC was too big to be a nimble slalom-carver like a Volkswagen GTI, but it had impressive grip. Both Car and Driver and Road & Track felt that the SC’s brakes were somewhat over-matched by its weight, however, and wondered if the ride might be a little too stiff for its well-heeled customers. The air suspension and active suspension systems offered in Japan had no such failings, combining crisp handling with superb ride quality, but they were heavy, complex, and expensive, which is probably why they were not officially exported.
Lexus customers at least had no reason to kvetch about the price. When the Lexus SC400 went on sale, its starting price was $37,500, actually cheaper than a 1992 LS400. The 1993 SC300 started at only $31,100, which was a veritable bargain in this rarefied class. Despite the stiffer ride, the coupes were just as solid and well assembled as the sedan, which made them among the highest-quality automobiles in the world.
BURSTING THE BALLOON
The Lexus SC sold well at first, although it was not a runaway hit. First-year U.S. sales were 12,695 SC400s and almost 8,000 SC300s, which was not bad by coupe standards, but well short of the new Cadillac Eldorado, which was comparably priced but less polished and considerably less powerful. Worse, sales of the Lexus coupe sank almost every year. Combined production fell to a little over 16,000 in 1993 and just under 12,000 in 1994, dropping to around 5,000 units a year by 1996. A modest but unappealing facelift in 1997 didn’t help, nor did the addition of a more powerful V8 engine and five-speed automatic in 1998. In 2000, its final year, the SC sold only 631 units in the U.S.
Why didn’t the Lexus SC sell better? Rapid price escalation probably played a role. Like the LS400, the highly competitive initial price swelled rapidly, driven partly by the strength of the yen relative to the dollar. By 1996, the SC300′s price had climbed to more $44,000, while the SC400 started at more than $52,000. That represented 40% increase from their debut, tough to swallow for basically unchanged cars. We suspect that Lexus SC’s sleek lines also left it in a difficult position in the marketplace. The SC400 was much racier than a big Benz or Jaguar coupe, perhaps a little too racy for conservative customers, but it was a little too big and too luxurious for sports car fans and the Lexus brand didn’t have the sporting cachet of Porsche or even Corvette.
The JDM Toyota Soarer faced similar issues. The previous Soarers had been quite popular in the home market, but the Z30 represented a significant escalation in price, particularly in V8 form, and the previously booming Japanese economy was no longer so robust by the mid-nineties. Price was the likely downfall of the air suspension and active suspension variants, which were thoroughly impressive, but hideously expensive; a 4.0GT Limited with active suspension and 4WS cost twice as much as 2.5GT Twin Turbo and considerably more than a top-of-the-line Toyota Celsior, the JDM version of the LS400. Slow sales led to the demise of those models and the standard 4.0GT in August 1997, leaving the cheaper 3.0GT and 2.5GT Turbo. In partial compensation, the latter had been updated a year earlier with a single turbocharger and variable valve timing, yielding the same (probably underrated) 280 PS JIS (206 kW) as before, but significantly more torque. Sales remained poor.
Both the U.S. and Japanese markets were facing a similar issue: The market for all coupes was shrinking dramatically as buyers became infatuated with trucks and sport utility vehicles. High-end Japanese sports cars were dropping like flies — annual sales of the Z30′s Toyota Supra platform-mate dipped below 10,000 units in 1995 and never recovered — and big luxury coupes were doing little better, leading to the demise (at least temporarily) of venerable nameplates like the Ford Thunderbird.
THE SECOND GENERATION
The first-generation Lexus SC and Z30 Soarer expired in July 2000, replaced that fall by a new Z40 model. Unlike its predecessor, the Z40 model was the work of Toyota’s Brussels design center rather than Calty and the new was no longer a two-door coupe, but rather Lexus’s first retractable hardtop. Dubbed Lexus SC430 in the U.S., it was smoothly styled but awkwardly proportioned and far less sleek than its bullet-like predecessor.
Like its predecessor, the SC430 sold relatively well at first — about 14,000 units per year in both 2001 and 2002 — and then dropped off quickly. By 2008, U.S. sales had fallen to fewer 2,000 per year. It expired in July 2010 without a direct replacement.
Although the Calty studio was not involved in the design of the SC430, the California studio has not been idle. Wayne Lui, the original Lexus SC’s lead designer, went on to develop the edgy 2000–2006 Toyota Celica as well as the familiar space shuttle shape of the second-generation Toyota Prius.
The Lexus SC had far less impact than the LS400 and failed to set the standard for its class the way Mercedes’ SL roadsters have defined theirs. Still, the first-generation Lexus coupe is on our short list of Japanese cars likely to become future classics. We must admit to being biased, for we consider the original SC400 to be the best-looking car the Japanese industry has yet produced and one of the finest automotive designs of the past two decades. Unlike a great many modern cars, it’s neither derivative nor self conscious — it just looks good.
Both the Lexus SC and Z30 Toyota Soarer have already developed a certain cult following. They were very solidly built and they are quite reliable considering their complexity. The electroluminescent instruments can be problematic and the V8 requires a new timing belt and water pump every 90,000 miles (145,000 km), but all of the available engines are nearly bulletproof. The Lexus SC/Soarer is far less troublesome than a contemporary BMW 8-Series or Jaguar XJ-S, which can easily become money pits. Furthermore, six-cylinder SC300s and 3.0GT Soarers can use nearly all of the performance parts available for the Supra, offering the foundation for a formidable luxury hot rod.
In January 2004, Toyota global design chief Simon Humphries admitted to Autoweek that the first SC400′s design pushed the envelope in ways that Toyota had not matched since. That isn’t surprising, but it’s unfortunate that Toyota no longer produces anything half as attractive as the original SC400. For our money, neither does anyone else.
NOTES ON SOURCES
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