High-Tech High Roller: 1981–2001 Toyota Soarer Z10, Z20, and Z30

Before it became a Lexus in 1991, the Toyota Soarer enjoyed a decade of success in Japan through two successive generations, becoming the favored choice of Japanese yuppies. A cousin of the Toyota Supra, the Soarer was a sporty, sophisticated personal luxury coupe boasting an array of high-tech features that have only recently become commonplace on high-end cars. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we look at the complete history of the Soarer including the 1981–1985 Z10, 1986–1991 Z20, and 1992–2000 Z30, with a brief look at the final 2001–2005 Z40.

1983 Toyota Soarer 2800GT-Limited (MZ11) decklid badge © 2011 Aaron Severson

CELICA XX

In the late seventies, the Japanese economy was beginning to stir after several moribund years, showing the first signs of the rapid ascent to come. The domestic auto market was booming, bringing with it a greater demand for luxury and performance despite strong political pressure to focus on reducing emissions and fuel consumption. Well-trimmed two- and four-door hardtops were popping up everywhere and engine power was again inching upward as automakers came to grips with tighter emissions standards.

Japan already had a thriving market for sporty specialty cars like the Toyota Celica, Nissan Silvia, and the rotary-engined Mazda Savanna (RX-3 and RX-7). Recognizing the larger trend, Toyota introduced a fancier six-cylinder version of the second-generation Celica Liftback, known in Japan as Celica XX (pronounced “Double X”) and sold in the U.S. as the Toyota Celica Supra.

1979 Toyota Celica XX 2000G (MA45) front 3q © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0)

The original Toyota Celica XX (a.k.a. Celica Supra) was based on the A40 Celica Liftback, but was 7.5 inches (190 mm) longer than a JDM Celica 2000GT and rode a 103.5-inch (2,630mm) wheelbase, a little over 5 inches (130 mm) longer than the Celica’s. The longer nose was necessary to accommodate Toyota’s M-series inline six-cylinder engines. This 1979 Celica XX 2000G has the smaller 1,988 cc (121 cu. in.) M-EU six, which was substantially cheaper to buy and own than the 2,563 cc (156 cu. in.) and 2,759 cc (168 cu. in.) 4M-EU and 5M-EU engines used in pricier grades and export cars. (Photo: “1979 Toyota Celica XX 2000G” © 2013 TTTNIS; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

In the Japanese market, the boy racer set was already well served by Toyota’s four-cylinder Celica 1600/2000GT and GTV, so Toyota instead positioned the Celica XX/Supra as a luxurious boulevard cruiser. Its big selling points were not handling or performance, but their smooth inline six-cylinder engines (a prestige choice for Japanese buyers) and options like power steering, Connolly leather upholstery, and automatic air conditioning.

Anyone hoping for a Toyota rival for the likes of the Datsun 280ZX or Mazda RX-7 instead found a slick but rather lazy personal luxury coupe like the contemporary Mazda Cosmo or, in the U.S., the Buick Regal, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and Pontiac Grand Prix. Most U.S. critics reacted with a pronounced yawn. Nonetheless, the six-cylinder Celica was a respectable commercial success both in the U.S. and at home, where the XX helped to pep up lagging domestic Celica sales.

1979 Toyota Celica XX 2000G (MA45) rear © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0)

Like the contemporary four-cylinder Celica, the 1978–80 Celica XX had a live rear axle located with four trailing arms and a Panhard rod, but all 1981 Celica XX grades except the cheapest 2000L gained a new independent rear suspension with semi-trailing arms, substantially similar to the suspension of the subsequent A60 Supra and Z10 Soarer. That suspension wasn’t offered on export Supras of this generation. (Photo: “1979 Toyota Celica XX 2000G rear” © 2013 TTTNIS; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

Those results left Toyota at a crossroads. For the Supra to be taken seriously as a 280ZX/Fairlady Z or RX-7 fighter, it would need to be sportier. However, Japanese buyers had also responded favorably to the idea of a upscale six-cylinder luxury coupe. Either avenue was potentially very profitable, so rather than sacrifice one for the other, Toyota opted to go both directions with two related but distinct products: a more muscular Celica XX/Supra and a new 2+2 luxury coupe called the Toyota Soarer.

THE TOYOTA SOARER Z10

The Soarer, known internally by the project code 359B, was shown in prototype form at the Osaka Motor Show in November 1980. At the time, company officials claimed that the prototype, exhibited as the Toyota EX-8, was strictly a concept car that had yet to receive production approval. That insistence appears to have been a political gesture; the production Soarer debuted in late February 1981, barely three months after the Osaka show.

1982 Toyota Soarer 2800GT (MZ11) © 2005 Joji Luz (used with permission)

The early GZ10 Toyota Soarer was 183.3 inches (4,655 mm) long and 66.5 inches (1,690 mm wide), keeping it within the limits of Japan’s small car (“5-number”) tax class, which specified a maximum length of 185 inches (4,700 mm), a maximum width of 66.9 inches (1,700 mm), and a maximum engine displacement of 2,000 cc (122 cu. in.). The MZ11 2800GT, whose engine put it in the pricier ordinary car (“3-number”) class, was a nominal 0.2 inches (5 mm) wider thanks to its more pronounced wheel arch moldings. Toyota claimed the Z10’s drag coefficient was 0.36, a decent but not exceptional figure for the time. (Photo: “Toygarage Toyota Soarer” © 2005 Joji Luz; used with permission)

Even if Toyota hadn’t already committed to building the Soarer, the debut of the new Nissan Leopard in September 1980 would undoubtedly have forced the issue. Based on the popular 910 Datsun Bluebird, the Leopard was another posh luxury hardtop of approximately the same size, price, and market position as the Soarer, although the first Leopard offered a choice of two- or four-door body styles, which the Soarer would not.

The Soarer shared its rear-wheel-drive powertrains and some components with the new Celica XX that debuted in the summer of 1981 and the two were even assembled in the same plant. However, the Soarer was not simply another spin-off of the third-generation Celica/Carina platform; Toyota considered the luxury coupe distinct enough to merit its own Z10 chassis code. (The Celica, Celica XX, and Carina all had A60 chassis codes.) Nonetheless, the Soarer and Celica XX/Supra were very similar in size, although the Soarer rode a 1.4-inch (35mm) longer wheelbase, but was 0.2 inches (5 mm) shorter overall, stood 1.8 inches (45 mm) taller, and had a wider rear track.

1981–83 Toyota Celica XX 2800GT (MA61) front 3q © 2013 Ypy31 (CC0PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

A familiar shape, though not necessarily a similar name: the second-generation Celica XX, known outside Japan as the Celica Supra. The A60 Celica XX was mechanically similar to the Z10 Soarer — the two shared the same suspension, drivetrain, and most of the same engines — but was more aggressively styled and was now pitched as a sporty car rather than a posh personal luxury coupe. This is an early MA61 Celica XX 2800GT, which was substantially similar, though not identical, to the Supras sold in the U.S. and Europe. (Australian buyers also received this generation, but had to make do with the milder SOHC 5M-E engine from the Mark II rather than the MA61’s DOHC 5M-GEU.) (Photo: “Toyota-CelicaXX2800GT” © 2013 Ypy31; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

The dimensions of both cars were dictated by Toyota’s desire to keep at least the cheaper models within the bounds of the “small car” class defined by Japanese tax rules. At the time, a hefty commodity tax was levied on all new cars sold in Japan, with bigger “ordinary” and “large” cars taxed at significantly higher rates than small cars. Owners of cars with engines larger than 2.0 liters (122 cu. in.) also paid a much higher annual automobile tax.

For those reasons, four of the six Soarer grades available at launch had engines with displacements of less than 2,000 cc. The cheaper 2000-series Soarers (2000VI, 2000VII, 2000VR and 2000VX, chassis code GZ10) used Toyota’s SOHC 1G-EU six, essentially a modernized version of the familiar 1,988 cc (121 cu. in.) M-EU engine, with JIS gross ratings of 125 PS (92 kW) and 123 lb-ft (172 N-m) of torque. The pricier 2800-series cars (2800GT and 2800GT-Extra, chassis code MZ11) used the new 2,759 cc (168 cu. in.) 5M-GEU, the first DOHC six Toyota had offered since the demise of the 2000GT sports car in 1970. The twin-cam six had a JIS gross output of 170 PS (125 kW) and 174 lb-ft (236 N-m) of torque, although net output was probably closer to the 145 hp SAE (108 kW) and 155 lb-ft (210 N-m) quoted for the U.S.-spec Celica Supra. Both the 1G-EU and 5M-GEU used Bosch-Nippon Denso L-Jetronic electronic fuel injection and could be ordered with either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic.

Toyota Soarer 2800GT (MZ11) rear 3q © 2013 Motohide "Club 4AG" Miwa (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified 2013 by Mr.choppers)

The Z10 Soarer rode a 104.7-inch (2,660mm) wheelbase, 1.4 inches (35 mm) longer than that of the contemporary Celica XX, providing distinct proportions and a bit more legroom for passengers. The rear window louvers were included only on 2000VX and 2800GT grades, which also came with the electronic instrument panel, computer-controlled air conditioning, Auto Drive (cruise control), and “Cruise Computer” (trip computer). (Photo: “1982 Toyota Soarer from the Toygarage”, a modified version (created 2013 by Mr.choppers) of the photo “The Luz collection” © 2013 Moto “Club 4AG” Miwa; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

All Z10 Soarers had MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms in back with anti-roll bars at both ends, a layout that would be shared with the Celica XX and the more powerful four-cylinder Celicas and Carinas. (That suspension had actually been fitted to most grades of the JDM Celica XX for the 1981 model year, although 1981 U.S. Supras retained the previous live axle.) Steering was rack-and-pinion, with power assistance standard on all but the cheapest 2000VI, and all grades had four-wheel disc brakes. A limited-slip differential and Toyota’s “Electronic Skid Control” system — rear ABS — were optional on MZ11s.

4 Comments

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  1. Great overview. I rate the first Z30 highly as a piece of styling. Almost takes the the nickname ‘cuttlefish’ from the Alfa 105 Spider. I used to work with a guy who had a Z30 with the inevitable cracked aftermarket front air dam. He mentioned that his (can’t remember if it was Toyota or Lexus) was only available in a very limited range of colours. IIRC white red green and blue.

  2. Fascinating story. Why do you reckon Toyota chose the Lexus moniker for the North American market? I would’ve thought that the Toyota Soarer would’ve sold if it were sold as a Toyota Soarer, rather than a Lexus SC400.

    1. The Z30 was still a very expensive car even in its cheaper JDM forms, so selling it here as a Toyota would have been a stretch. Toyota’s market research had previously indicated that the U.S. buyers they wanted would not be caught dead in a Toyota dealership except maybe to buy a car as a gift for a college-bound kid. (This fact was painfully verified a few years later by the A80 Supra, which essentially priced itself out of its market.)

      Beyond that, Toyota definitely needed other models for Lexus. The ES250 had been an obvious stopgap and its credibility was not high (which I’m sure somebody at Toyota must have anticipated, given that the V20 Camry platform was already almost four years old). So, adding Toyota’s second most sophisticated car to the Lexus mix was a useful antidote to any skepticism about whether Lexus could offer anything else as impressive as the LS400.

      The downside was that the Z30 was pretty far removed from the LS400 (and the ES300) in character except insofar as both were thoroughly and expensively engineered. The ES300 had the same basic values as the LS400 — painless comfort and quiet, VIP treatment, digestible price — but the SC was more like a modernized Japanese version of the BMW 6-Series. It was certainly impressive, but it was an odd fit for Lexus.

    2. Funnily enough Lexus is an abbreviation which stands for (L)uxury (Ex)ports to (US)

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