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

Z20 SOARER

Production of the first-generation Soarer ended in late 1985, but the success of the Z10 ensured that there would be a sequel, which debuted in January 1986 and went on sale in mid-February.

Given the popularity of the Z10, Toyota was understandably loath to tamper with the styling, so the new Z20 Soarer looked so similar to its predecessor that you could easily mistake one for the other at a casual glance. Nonetheless, the Z20 had all-new sheet metal over a sophisticated new rear-wheel-drive chassis. The Z10’s MacPherson struts were replaced with unequal-length control arms, the semi-trailing arms with double wishbones (upper control arms, trailing links, and dual lower transverse links, if you want to be technical). The front and rear suspensions were each carried on a sizable subframe with polymer bushings to reduce noise, vibration, and harshness. Most grades had coil springs and gas shocks, but the more expensive models added TEMS and the top-of-the-line 3.0GT-Limited could be ordered with electronically controlled air springs. Except for the air suspension, the new chassis was shared with the all-new A70 Supra that went on sale a week or so after the Soarer.

1986–87 Toyota Soarer 2.0GT-Twin Turbo (GZ20) front 3q © 2007 天然ガス Tennen-Gas (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

Early (1986–1987) Z20 Soarers had a grille reminiscent of the one used on early Z10s. That was swapped in 1988 for a slatted grille reminiscent of the late Z10’s. Both the 2.0GT and 2.0GT-Twin Turbo could be ordered with engine call-out decals on the doors; the decals were standard on Twin Turbos. A body kit and spoilers were optional on the 3.0GT and both 2.0GT grades. (Photo: “Toyota Soarer 20 001” © 2007 天然ガス (Tennen-Gas); resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

The Z20 Soarer offered four engines, also shared with the new Supra. The cheaper Soarer 2.0VZ and 2.0VX had the SOHC 1G-EU, now with a more realistic JIS net rating of 105 PS (77 kW). The 2.0GT retained the 24-valve DOHC 1G-GEU, now claiming 140 PS net (103 kW). The Soarer 2000 Turbo was replaced by a new 2.0GT-Twin Turbo powered by the 24-valve DOHC 1G-GTEU, which had two intercooled CT12 turbochargers and a net output of 185 PS (136 kW) and 177 lb-ft (240 N-m) of torque. All three 1,988 cc (121 cu. in.) engines could be ordered with either a five-speed manual or four-speed automatic. (All 2.0 grades shared the GZ20 chassis code.)

In the Japanese market, neither the Soarer nor the Supra was offered with the normally aspirated 2,954 cc (181 cu. in.) 7M-GE six offered on export Supras. Instead, the 3.0GT models (chassis code MZ20 with steel springs, MZ21 with air suspension) traded the MZ12’s normally aspirated 6M-GEU engine for the turbocharged 7M-GTEU used on the Supra Turbo. The 7M-GTEU had the same displacement as the 6M-GEU, but used a single intercooled CT26 turbocharger to produce 230 PS (JIS net; 169 kW) and 239 lb-ft (324 N-m) of torque on a modest 6.8 pounds (0.47 bars) of boost. While 230 PS doesn’t sound like much today, in 1986 it was enough to make the 7M-GTEU one of the most powerful production engines sold in Japan, tied with Nissan’s VG30ET V-6. In fact, the 7M-GTEU was initially offered only with automatic because it exceeded the torque capacity of any of Toyota’s available manual transmissions. (The stronger R154 five-speed gearbox became available on the Supra late in the year and on the Soarer in early 1987.)

All Soarers had power steering, 15-inch wheels, and four-wheel disc brakes, vented all around on turbocharged cars. A new three-channel antilock braking system was initially offered only on 3.0GTs, but the option was extended to the 2.0GT-Twin Turbo in early 1987 and cheaper models in 1989. All grades but the 2.0VZ could be ordered with a limited-slip differential and both 3.0GT models and the normally aspirated 2.0GT had TEMS. Tinted glass and power windows, locks, and mirrors were on the standard equipment list for all models and all but base 2.0VZ models had air conditioning and automatic climate control with an optional cabin air purifier. The 3.0GT-Limited added eight-way power seats, steering wheel controls, a memory tilt steering wheel, and suede or leather upholstery.

The most dramatic new feature, standard on all Z20 Soarers, was the “Space Vision Meter,” an electroluminescent digital instrument panel. Unlike the system used in later Lexus models, the Soarer’s display didn’t mimic analog instruments, but had a similar three-dimensional “floating” effect, created by reflecting the actual display off a mirror.

On 3.0GT-Limited models, this could be supplemented by a mobile phone, an multifunction electronic control panel for the audio and climate control systems, and the latest version of the Electro-Multivision system. Relocated from the instrument panel to the center stack, the system could (among other things) display maps or other information from ROM cassettes loaded into the tape deck. It was all very showy, although it was still more expensive toy than useful tool. The television could be used only for brief periods when parked lest it drain the battery, the mapping system could not yet show the car’s position or suggest routes, and the data cassettes were so slow that it was easier to just use a paper map.

GRAND TOURER

The new chassis and added equipment made the Z20 Soarer substantially heavier than its predecessor. Even the lightest 2.0VZ weighed about 300 lb (135 kg) more than a comparable Z10 and a 3.0GT-Limited with automatic and air suspension was an additional 485 lb (220 kg) heavier. Still, the Z20 didn’t weigh significantly more than a comparable Supra, and in any case, the Soarer was a personal luxury car, not a sports coupe. The sense of mass that could make the contemporary Supra seem cumbersome was wholly in character for the Soarer.

The same went for the chassis. The A70 Supra was quite capable in an objective sense, but was much criticized in its time for lacking the quick reflexes expected of a sport car. Unburdened by those expectations, the Z20 Soarer was simply a fine grand tourer. It still wasn’t nimble, but it was more polished than the Supra with little sacrifice in ultimate ability.

1988–91 Toyota Soarer 3.0GT-Limited (MZ20/MZ21) front © 2011 Derek Ip (used with permission)

All GZ20 Soarers were 66.7 inches (1,695 mm) wide; MZ20 and MZ21 cars like this late 3.0GT-Limited had wider wheel arch moldings that brought overall width to 67.9 inches (1,725 mm). Power door mirrors were standard on Z20 Soarers, although fender mirrors were still theoretically optional. (Photo: “IMG_5315” © 2010 Derek Ip; used with permission)

The air suspension, basically similar to the one later offered on the Lexus LS400 and Toyota Celsior, added an additional dimension to that ability. The suspension was self-leveling and provided both manual and automatic ride height adjustment. The car lowered itself automatically at speeds over 56 mph (90 km/h), raised itself to ‘step’ over low-speed bumps, and was integrated with TEMS to automatically adjust spring and damping rates for different road conditions. Overall, the system worked well, but testers complained that the air springs’ sometimes peculiar ride motions could provoke mal de mer. Cars with the standard suspension (with or without TEMS) rode and handled nearly as well without the added cost, weight, and complexity of the air suspension.

The Z20 Soarer’s straight-line performance naturally depended on engine. Given the Z20’s weight gain, we expect that cars with the base engine were sluggish indeed, particularly with automatic, and that the 2.0GT wasn’t much better unless really pressed; the 1G-GEU engine had only 119 lb-ft (162 N-m) of torque to move a car weighing more than 2,900 lb (1,330 kg). We unfortunately have no test data for the 2.0GT-Twin Turbo, but we suspect its performance was similar to that of the normally aspirated export Supra, which had a comparable power-to-weight ratio. That would imply 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) times in the low 8-second range and an unrestricted top speed in the neighborhood of 130 mph (210 km/h).

1988–91 Toyota Soarer 2.0GT-Twin Turbo L (GZ20) rear 3q © 2014 Foden Alpha (used with permission)

This GZ20 Soarer is a 2.0GT-Twin Turbo L, a new grade added with the 1988 mid-cycle change. The L had TEMS, not previously available on turbocharged cars, and the speed-variable power steering previously restricted to the 3.0GT grades. You could also order the steering wheel control switches that were standard on the MZ20 and MZ21. The three-tier taillight design seen here was a feature of the mild facelift the Z20 received at the same time; earlier cars had different taillights and a different grille. We have no explanation for this car’s mismatched alloy wheels. (Photo: “’88-’91 Toyota Soarer GT Twin Turbo l” © 2014 Foden Alpha; used with permission)

The 3.0GT was decidedly quicker. Even with automatic, Toyota claimed the 3.0GT could run from 0 to 62 mph (100 km/h) in 6.8 seconds and complete the 0-400 meter (quarter mile) sprint in less than 15 seconds, which if anything was slightly conservative. Top speed was again limited to 112 mph (180 km/h), but with the limiter disabled, a Soarer 3.0GT with automatic transmission was capable of 140 mph (225 km/h) or more. Fuel economy was on the heavy side, although even a loaded MZ21 wasn’t as profligate as a BMW M635CSi/M6.

More important to many buyers was that the Soarer was superbly built with high-quality materials. If the results weren’t necessarily always to American or European tastes, it was clear that Toyota had sweated the details, including a lot of unique switchgear and expensive touches like complex four-link door hinges. Of course, the Soarer was an expensive car — the 2.0VZ started at ¥2,325,000 (around $13,000), a 3.0GT-Limited listed for ¥4,479,000 (around $25,000), and the air suspension added an additional ¥356,000 (almost $2,000) — but even on a straight exchange-rate basis, it was vastly cheaper than a BMW 635CSi or Mercedes 380SEC.

JDM SUCCESS STORY

Although it still wasn’t officially exported, the Z20 Soarer was just as successful as its predecessor in the Japanese market, administering a sound thrashing to all of its major rivals. The Z20 outsold the new F31 Nissan Leopard by more than five to one in 1986; even the top-spec Leopard Ultima couldn’t match the Soarer’s chassis or high-tech features and had only 185 PS (136 kW). (Nissan added a more powerful 255 PS (188 kW) engine to the Leopard line in August 1988, but by then the damage was done and sales did not improve.) The aging Mazda Cosmo didn’t do much better, nor did Honda’s V-6 Legend coupe (introduced in early 1987), which was aimed primarily at the export market.

1988–91 Toyota Soarer 2.0GT-Twin Turbo (GZ20) side © 2013 FotoSleuth (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified by Aaron Severson)

The Z20 Soarer was 184 inches (4,675 mm) long and rode a 105.1-inch (2,670mm) wheelbase, 0.4 inches longer than the Z10’s. A late GZ20 2.0GT-Twin Turbo like this one had a factory curb weight of about 3,150 lb (1,430 kg) with manual transmission. (Photo: “Toyota Soarer GT” © 2013 FotoSleuth; resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

Interestingly, the Soarer also outsold the Japanese-market Supra by a significant margin. However, the Supra sold well abroad while the Soarer was limited to the home market. Between them, they accounted for almost 100,000 units in 1986, a healthy total for cars this expensive. Such numbers undoubtedly went a long way toward justifying the cost of the new chassis and the decision to divorce the Supra from the now-FWD Celica/Carina platform.

The Z20 remained in production through early 1991, receiving a variety of changes throughout its life. A minor model change in January 1988 brought a few cosmetic alterations, upgraded brakes, and additional equipment. The 2.0GT’s DOHC 1G-GEU engine got a higher compression ratio that brought net output to 150 PS (110 kW) and 135 lb-ft (182 N-m) of torque, while both turbocharged engines received minor revisions and more boost, taking the 2.0GT-Twin Turbo to 210 PS (155 kW) and 203 lb-ft (275 N-m) of torque, the 3.0GT to 240 PS (177 kW) and 253 lb-ft (343 N-m). There was also a new 2.0GT-Twin Turbo L grade with some of the 3.0GT’s luxury features.

1G-GTEU engine in a 1988–91 Toyota Soarer 2.0GT-Twin Turbo (GZ20) © 2013 TTTNIS (PD CC0 1.0)

The 2.0-GT Twin Turbo’s 1,988 cc (121 cu. in.) 1G-GTEU engine had an air-to-air intercooler and two Toyota-designed CT12 ceramic turbochargers. Unlike the turbos used in the later A80 Supra, these were not sequential; each turbocharger was fed by the exhaust from three cylinders. Like the 7M-GTEU, the 1G-GTEU had an external oil cooler and direct ignition with no distributor. The engine also had knock sensors and a lower, 8.5:1 compression ratio (compared to 9.5:1 for the normally aspirated 1G-GEU) to avoid detonation under boost. There was a fuel selector to allow the use of regular unleaded fuel in a pinch. (Photo: “Toyota 1G-GTEU engine” © 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 early 1989, the anemic SOHC base engine was replaced by the new 24-valve, DOHC 1G-FE that had recently been added to base Supras and the Mark II/Chaser/Cresta line. The 1G-FE was more mildly tuned than the still-available 1G-GEU, with a net output of only 135 PS (99 kW) and 130 lb-ft (177 N-m) of torque, but provided more respectable performance than the old 1G-EU.

There wouldn’t be a true Soarer convertible until 2001, but in April 1989, there was a limited run of 500 Soarer “Aerocabin” cars. They retained the standard MZ20’s sail panels and side windows, but the upper roof panel and glass backlight could be automatically retracted, landau-style. Unfortunately, making enough room for the top mechanism (and the roof and backlight in their retracted positions) required the deletion of the rear seat. With a price tag of around ¥4.3 million (about $31,000), the Soarer Aerocabin was also quite expensive.

1989 Toyota Soarer Aerocabin (MZ20) rear © 2011 Ypy31 (PD CC0 1.0)

The limited-edition 1989 Soarer Aerocabin was available only in a single trim level, basically a 3.0GT-Limited with automatic transmission and no air suspension. It was powered by the 7M-GTEU engine with 240 PS (176 kW), although since the retractable roof mechanism added about 175 lb (80 kg) to the Soarer’s curb weight, performance naturally suffered. (Photo: “Toyota-SoarerAerocabin” © 2011 Ypy31; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

Around that time, the tuning firm TOM’S also produced the limited-edition Soarer C5, essentially an MZ20 with stiffer suspension and engine modifications that yielded about 300 PS (221 kW). We don’t know how many C5s were built, but over the years, quite a few Soarer owners have modified their own cars in comparable ways.

Toyota considered bringing the Z20 Soarer to the U.S. as a Lexus, but ultimately decided that the currently model was too close to the end of its life cycle. Judging by the unenthusiastic reviews and poor sales of the Americanized Nissan Leopard, sold from 1990 to 1992 as the Infiniti M30, that was probably the right decision. A U.S.-market Soarer would have to wait until the next generation.

1990–92 Infiniti M30 front 3q © 2009 Aaron Severson

Sold in the U.S. only from 1990 to 1992, the Infiniti M30 was an Americanized version of the F31 Nissan Leopard, one of the Z20 Soarer’s nominal rivals in the Japanese market. The F31 Leopard had fewer features and a less sophisticated chassis than the contemporary Soarer and was an also-ran in JDM sales. The Infiniti version (loosely comparable in specifications to the Leopard Ultima V30, but with the older 12-valve VG30E V-6) did no better, dismissed by American critics as dated and bland compared to the Infiniti Q45 the M30 was intended to complement. (author photo)

6 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)

  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!

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