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

A NEW KIND OF JAPANESE LUXURY CAR

Those technical details, most of which would also apply to the new A61 Celica XX that debuted that summer, explain what the Soarer was, but they don’t really capture its raison d’être or its place in the Japanese marketplace.

High-end European cars were not unknown in Japan in that era, but they were far too expensive to have much share of the luxury market. For most well-heeled Japanese buyers, buying a luxury car usually meant a big domestic sedan like the Toyota Crown, Nissan Cedric/Gloria, or Mazda Luce (a.k.a. 929). Other than sheer size, which was limited by Japan’s tax rules and crowded roads, such cars were not unlike a big Ford LTD or Chevrolet Caprice of the time, with rather rococo styling, a soft ride, plush interior trim, and a determined lack of excitement. A real bon vivant might choose a two-door hardtop instead of a four-door, but either way, these were conservative cars aimed at conservative buyers.

1982–83 Toyota Crown 2000 Super Saloon (GS110) four-door hardtop front 3q © 2009 Ypy31 (PD)

Prior to the introduction of the Soarer, Toyota’s most prestigious model (discounting the Century, which wasn’t marketed to mere mortals) was the big Crown, seen here in four-door hardtop form. Until 1983, there was also a two-door hardtop (and of course plainer sedans and wagons, many of which went for taxi and livery duty), but affluent buyers preferred the four-door hardtop. (Photo: “S110Crownsupersaloon” © 2009 Ypy31; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

The Toyota Soarer was another matter. For one, its styling was actually quite restrained by contemporary Japanese standards. Seen today, its angular shape marks it as a product of the early eighties and some of its detailing — such as the Mercedes C107-like rear window louvers or the (mercifully optional) vinyl landau roof covering — is clearly of its time, but on the whole, a Z10 Soarer would not look out of place parked next to a BMW E24 6-Series.

The Soarer’s road manners were more capable than the domestic norm, too. Unsurprisingly, the Z10 Soarer drove much like a slightly heavier Celica XX, with a firm but not punishing ride and modest understeer in most conditions. The Z10 was a little under-damped for rough roads and, like the contemporary Supra, could break its tail loose unexpectedly if mishandled. Nonetheless, the Soarer could be driven with verve, something that couldn’t be said of many big Japanese cars of that era. The 2000-series cars were somewhat more agile and stopped better, since they could be ordered with the same tires and brakes as the MZ11 and had significantly less weight on the nose.

1981 Toyota Soarer 2800GT (MZ11) interior © 2009 Ypy31 (PD)

Digital instruments were always strongly associated with the Soarer, but they weren’t standard on the Z10; the cheaper 2000VI and 2000VII grades had conventional gauges. The Z10 Soarer didn’t share the dashboard of the Celica or Carina, but those cars did offer essentially the same “electronic display meter” instrument panel, which also showed up on some export versions of the A60 Supra. Comparable though not identical digital displays would be offered on nearly every Toyota model at some point in the eighties and on quite a few models offered by other Japanese makes. (Photo: “ToyotaSoarer1stinterior.jpg” © 2009 Ypy31; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

Straight-line performance was also decent at least with the larger engine. A five-speed Soarer 2800GT was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in 9 seconds or so and the 0-400 meter (about a quarter mile) sprint in a claimed 16.1 seconds. A legally mandated fuel cut-off limited top speed to 112 mph (180 km/h), but there was enough power for an unrestricted maximum of almost 124 mph (200 km/h), not bad for 1981. The automatic sapped the 5M-GEU’s power considerably, adding more than a second to 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times and making the speed limiter more or less superfluous. The 2000-series Soarers were even sleepier. Toyota claimed that a manually shifted GZ10 could do the 0-400 meter (quarter mile) sprint in 18.1 seconds and reach a top speed of 112 mph (180 km/h), but independent testers like Japan’s Motor Magazine found even those modest figures optimistic. Nonetheless, the Soarer was undoubtedly more spry than a Crown hardtop, which had no more power and was about 400 lb (180 kg) heavier model for model.

The Soarer’s other claim to fame was technology. Microprocessors were a big deal in 1981 and the Soarer could be ordered with a cartload of them, including computer-controlled air conditioning, cruise control, and audio system; an electronic speed alarm; and an electronic instrument panel with a digital speedometer and LED tachometer. The auto air conditioning system even featured futuristic flat switches like the ones now common on microwave ovens. The only item in Toyota’s technological arsenal that wasn’t offered was Navicom, the rudimentary in-car navigation system available on the new Celica XX, although Soarer buyers could have a trip computer. Naturally, not all of these features were standard on all models; low-line GZ10 Soarers had analog instruments and (optional) manual air conditioning.

Much of the Soarer’s electronic equipment seems laughably primitive today and even at the time, some critics found it needlessly gimmicky. However, buyers of the time found it impressive and, like the old four-seat Ford Thunderbird, the Soarer offered plenty of toys to show off to friends or keep a bored owner entertained in traffic. The Z10 also a full array of more orthodox automotive convenience features ranging from power windows to lighted exterior door locks and a curious inflatable driver’s side lumbar support, essentially the same mechanism offered on the Celica XX and Supra.

1983 Toyota Soarer 2800GT-Limited (MZ11) front 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

Early Z10 Soarers had eggcrate grilles, but a minor model change in February 1983 brought the new grille seen here and added 0.8 inches (20 mm) to the Soarer’s overall length. All early Z10s had remotely controlled fender-mounted mirrors, but door mirrors became standard in early 1984. (author photo)

Naturally, none of this was cheap. The Soarer’s price spread was very similar to that of the S110 Crown, making the Soarer one of Toyota’s most expensive models. A basic 2000VI started at ¥1,662,000 (about $8,300 at the contemporary exchange rate), only a little bit more than a base Celica XX, but that price didn’t even include power steering. (The 2000VI was short-lived, disappearing in the spring of 1982.) An automatic 2000VX, the top 2-liter grade, started at ¥2,360,000 (about $11,800) — enough to buy two Carina 1500s. The Soarer 2800GT ranged from ¥2,667,000 (about $13,300) to ¥2,830,000 (a little over $14,000), within a few thousand yen of Toyota’s top-spec Crown 2800 Royal Saloon two-door hardtop and a hefty ¥507,000 (about $2,800) more than a Celica XX 2800GT. (We should note that the Soarer and the Celica XX were not sold side-by-side. Soarers were sold alongside the Crown and Mark II at Toyota and Toyopet dealers while the JDM Celica line was sold through Corolla Stores.)

From all this, a profile begins to emerge of the prototypical Soarer buyer: well-off but not fabulously wealthy, impressed by technology, and attracted to symbols of conspicuous affluence, but keen to demonstrate a little more individuality and verve than the average middle-aged salaryman. The Soarer was a car for the customer who could afford a Crown, but considered it too stodgy; the sort of buyer who might aspire to but didn’t quite have the means for an imported European luxury coupe. In short, the Soarer was a car for yuppies.

1983 Toyota Soarer 2800GT-Limited (MZ11) rear 3q © 2011 Aaron Severson

The Z10 Soarer’s 1983 minor model change brought new taillights as well as the new grille. The two-tone color scheme, popular on Japanese cars of the eighties, was a standard feature of the 2800GT-Limited, as were leather upholstery and, from 1983, Toyota Electronically Modulated Suspension (TEMS) — three-position, dual-mode adjustable shock absorbers. (author photo)

Released just as the Japanese economic boom was really taking off, the Soarer proved to be the right car at the right time. It won Car Graphic magazine’s Car of the Year award for 1981–1982 and quickly became a status symbol for Japan’s affluent and ambitious. We don’t have complete sales breakdowns, but the Soarer surpassed all of its direct rivals, which included the Nissan Leopard, Mazda’s HB Cosmo, and arguably the Nissan Fairlady Z. Some of those cars were cheaper, faster, and/or offered a broader model range, but they couldn’t match the Soarer for image. The Toyota became the car to beat in this segment.

To the disappointment of the Soarer development team, the Z10 was never officially exported, but the Soarer typically moved a respectable 30,000 to 36,000 units a year in Japan. Of course, Toyota sold that many Mark IIs every quarter, but the Soarer was a profitable prestige item.

1982 Nissan Leopard TR-X Turbo ZGX (F30) four-door front 3q © 2013 Ozizo (PD CC0 1.0 - modified by Aaron Severson)

Like the Toyota Soarer, the F30 Nissan Leopard offered a variety of luxury features and high-tech touches, including what Nissan claimed was the world’s first digital instrument panel. Base Leopards had a 1,770 cc (108 cu. in.) four, but most F30s had Nissan’s L-series six in either 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) L20 or 2,753 cc (168 cu. in.) L28 form. This is a 1982 Leopard Turbo ZGX, which has Nissan’s turbocharged L20ET six with 145 PS (107 kW). (Photo: “Nissan Leopard TR-X Front” © 2013 Ozizo; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

SOARER EVOLUTION

Toyota gradually expanded the Soarer line throughout the Z10’s five-year lifespan. Much of the attention was focused on bolstering the more affordable 2000 series, which we presume accounted for much of the Soarer’s total sales volume. The 2800GT was faster, but the higher tax rates made it much more expensive to own than the 2-liter cars.

By the early eighties, the need to reconcile those tax rules with the buying public’s growing appetite for power incited a sort of technological arms race, with each major automaker exploring different ways of increasing the power of its under-2-liter engines. Toyota had offered DOHC fours since 1967; between 1980 and 1990, the company would also introduce a whole litany of high-tech variations on its 1,988 cc (121 cu. in.) inline six, many of which would eventually find their way into the Soarer.

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

A rear wiper was standard on both the MZ11 Soarer 2800GT-Limited and the MZ12 3.0GT-Limited and optional on most other grades. A rear spoiler was also optional. (author photo)

Toyota introduced its first turbocharged production car, the MS110 Crown 2000 Turbo, in the fall of 1980. The Turbo was powered by the M-TEU engine, a turbocharged version of the SOHC M-EU six with a gross output of 145 PS (107 kW) and 156 lb-ft (211 N-m) of torque at only 3,000 rpm. The turbo engine was added to the Soarer line in late June 1981, narrowly beating to market the similarly powerful Nissan Leopard Turbo. The turbo was initially offered on both the VII and VR grades (both sharing the MZ10 chassis code) and was available only with automatic transmission. Neither turbo model was fast, but the M-TEU engine trimmed a useful second or so off the normally aspirated car’s 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) time in exchange for a price premium of around 15%.

In mid-1982, Toyota introduced the 1G-GEU, a DOHC, 24-valve version of the normally aspirated 1,988 cc (121 cu. in.) 1G-EU engine. Developed in collaboration with and built by Yamaha, the 1G-GEU was the first production Toyota engine with four valves per cylinder. It also featured new digital engine controls (TCCS) and the Toyota Variable Induction System (T-VIS), a computer-controlled dual-runner intake manifold designed to improve low-end torque. The 24-valve six had a gross output of 160 PS JIS (118 kW), although even with T-VIS, peak torque was only 134 lb-ft (181 N-m) at a lofty 5,200 rpm.

That engine was introduced to the Soarer line when the Soarer received a mid-cycle refresh in early 1983. The DOHC Soarer 2000GT, which could be ordered with either manual or automatic transmission, was the most expensive GZ10, listing for ¥2,708,000 (around $11,300) with manual transmission. The 2000GT was arguably the sportiest Soarer grade, with a slightly better power-to-weight ratio than the 2800GT and about 100 lb (45 kg) less weight on the front wheels. Toyota claimed a 0-400 meter (quarter mile) time of 16.5 seconds for a 2000GT five-speed, suggesting a 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) time of around 9.5 seconds — only slightly slower than the 2800GT.

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

The 2800GT-Limited was added in March 1982 as the top-of-the-line Soarer grade. The existing 2800GT-Extra continued for another year, but was dropped with the 1983 minor change. A 1983 2800GT-Limited like this one had a base price of ¥3,422,000 (about $14,300), which made the Limited one of the most expensive Japanese cars of its time, topped only by senior grades of the Toyota Crown and Nissan Cedric/Gloria and the rare Toyota Century and Nissan President. (author photo)

At the same time, the VII and VR Turbo were replaced by a single 2000 Turbo grade, positioned between the 2000VX and 2000GT in price. The new Turbo’s M-TEU engine got a new air-to-water intercooler and a higher compression ratio, bringing gross output to the same 160 PS (118 kW) as the 2000GT. Flat out, the Turbo and the 2000GT were about evenly matched in performance, but the Turbo’s substantial torque advantage (peak torque was now 170 lb-ft (230 N-m) at 3,000 rpm) made it the quicker of the two in normal driving even with the still-mandatory automatic.

For 1985, the base 1G-EU engine got TCCS and Toyota’s latest EFI-D injection system (using mass air pressure metering rather than the EFI-L system’s mass airflow sensor), bringing gross output to 130 PS (96 kW) and 127 lb-ft (172 N-m) of torque. (Toyota sometimes described this version of the engine as the 1G-II, although the specifications usually list the 1G-EU designation.) At the same time, manually shifted Soarers got revised gearing for better acceleration, although base cars were still quite slow.

The bigger engines were not forgotten either. In August 1983, the MZ11’s 5M-GEU engine received a higher compression ratio and other minor revisions that brought gross output to 175 PS (129 kW) and 177 lb-ft (240 N-m) of torque. (The similar engine in 1984–85 U.S.-market Supras claimed 160 hp SAE (119 kW) and 163 lb-ft (221 N-m) of torque, which was probably a close approximation of the JDM engine’s net output.) In January 1985, that engine was replaced by the 2,954 cc (181 cu. in.) 6M-GEU introduced a few months earlier on the Crown. The 6M-GEU was essentially a long-stroke version of the 5M-GEU with a more efficient intake manifold, EFI-D, and knock sensors, yielding a gross output of 190 PS (140 kW) and 192 lb-ft (260 N-m) of torque. (This was the only first-generation Soarer engine change not reflected in the Celica XX/Supra line.)

1983 Toyota Soarer 2800GT-Limited (MZ11) alloy wheel © 2011 Aaron Severson

Early Z10 Soarers all had 14-inch wheels, but 1983–85 2000GT, Turbo, 2800GT, and 3.0GT grades got 15-inch wheels with 205/60HR15 tires. This car’s alloy wheels appear to be essentially the same ones offered on the contemporary Celica XX/Supra, albeit with a different center cap. The design is one of several catalogued for the Z10 Soarer. (author photo)

The bigger engine went into the new Soarer 3.0GT and 3.0GT-Limited (chassis code MZ12). At least with manual transmission, these were the quickest Z10 Soarers: The new engine trimmed 0.3 seconds off the outgoing 2800GT’s claimed 0-400 meter (quarter mile) times and reduced 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times to the mid-8s. With the limiter disabled, top speed was now around 127 mph (205 km/h). Both MZ12s had TEMS as standard equipment; ESC was standard on the Limited and optional on the plain 3.0GT.

The MZ12’s most noteworthy new feature was Toyota’s “Electro-Multivision” system. A ¥200,000 (~$800) option on the automatic 3.0GT-Limited, Electro-Multivision was a 6-inch (152mm) cathode ray tube (CRT) monitor mounted in the instrument panel. The monitor could display various data, including real-time fuel consumption, TEMS and cruise control settings, transmission mode, and upcoming maintenance requirements. It could also function as a color television, receiving Japanese broadcast signals from auxiliary antennas in the rear fenders, although the TV mode could only be used with the parking brake engaged and the shifter in Park or Neutral. There was even an optional adaptor for a video cassette player. At this stage, the practical utility of this system was limited, but in 1985, it was a dazzling technological showpiece.

1985 Toyota Soarer 3.0GT-Limited (MZ12) Electro-Multivision screen © 2014 William Bevan (used with permission)

On the MZ12 Soarer, the Electro-Multivision system’s CRT screen was mounted in the dash, necessitating a new digital instrument panel for cars so equipped. The CRT itself incorporates a digital tachometer whose readings are still displayed at the top of the screen as you toggle through the other displays. The display mode is set using the buttons to the left of the steering wheel, which say DRIVE (the screen currently displayed), FUEL CONSUMPTION, MAINTENANCE, and SET. The TV mode is controlled via a separate corded remote, not shown here. (Photo © 2014 William Bevan; used with permission)

6 Comments

Add a Comment
  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)

  3. The Z20 still takes the cake for me.. Such a beast looking car..!!

    1. I also think it’s very handsome. It was perhaps diluted somewhat by Toyota making the E80 Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno look so much like it, but I can’t really blame Toyota for that!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click here to read our comment policy. You must be at least 18 to comment. PLEASE DON'T POST COPYRIGHTED CONTENT YOU AREN'T AUTHORIZED TO USE!
Except as otherwise noted, all text and images are copyright © Aaron Severson dba Ate Up With Motor. (Terms of Use – Reprint/Reuse Policy) Trademarks referenced herein are the property of their respective owners and are used here for informational/nominative purposes.