As we’ve previously discussed, the Z30 Soarer was designed by Erwin Lui and Dennis Campbell in Toyota’s California-based Calty Design Research subsidiary (which had also designed the A40 Celica on which the first Celica XX was based). Developed using three-dimensional plaster and clay forms, the Z30 was a far more curvaceous, organic design than its angular predecessors, which made it very challenging to “productionize.” However, thanks to strong support from Soarer chief engineer Seihachi Takahashi and the open-mindedness of product planning chief Toshihiro Okada (who had led development of the Z10 and the Z20 Soarers), Toyota engineers were able to make the machinery fit the shape rather than the other way around.
The new Soarer bowed in Japan in May 1991, about the same time the initial export version, the Lexus SC400, arrived in the U.S. A cheaper Lexus SC300, powered by the normally aspirated 2,997 cc (183 cu. in.) 2JZ-GE engine, bowed in the U.S. about three months later, although the SC300 initially had no Japanese-market equivalent.
Since the debut of the previous Soarer in 1986, there had been some significant changes in Japanese tax laws, including the elimination of the commodity tax on new cars in favor of a lower, VAT-style consumption tax. The automobile tax rules were also amended to make the rate jump between 2,000 and 2,001 cc less painful. As a result, engines with displacements between 2.0 and 3.0 liters (122 and 183 cu. in.) were now a more attainable proposition for many middle-class buyers than had previously been the case.
Those changes led Toyota to conclude that the Soarer no longer needed the smaller 1,988 cc (121 cu. in.) sixes. As a result, the “entry-level” Z30 Soarer was the 2.5GT-Twin Turbo (chassis code JZZ30), powered by the 2,491 cc (152 cu. in.) 1JZ-GTE engine. Introduced on other Toyota models in 1990, the 1JZ-GTE was considerably more powerful than the old 7M-GTEU, with a JIS net output of 280 PS (206 kW) and 268 lb-ft (363 N-m) of torque. The twin-turbo six was also somewhat more powerful than the pricier Soarer 4.0GT (chassis code UZZ30) and 4.0GT-Limited (chassis code UZZ31 or UZZ32), which were powered by the Soarer’s first V-8: the DOHC 1UZ-FE engine from the Lexus LS400 and Toyota Celsior and Crown, with JIS net ratings of 260 PS (191 kW) and 260 lb-ft (353 N-m) of torque.
The Z30 Soarer had all the bells and whistles offered on the Z20 and then some. The distinctive 3-D electroluminescent instrument panel was once again standard, still using a digital speedometer rather than the analog-style display of the Lexus. The 4.0GT-Limited offered the latest version of the Electro-Multivision system, which boasted a host of features not offered on U.S. models, including not only a television receiver and touchscreen controls for the climate control and audio systems, but also a GPS-based navigation system. There was even an optional digital backup camera whose view could be displayed on the Electro-Multivision screen. The technology for which the Soarer had long been celebrated was finally coming of age.
The technological onslaught was not limited to the Soarer’s interior. The basic chassis (which would be shared with the A80 Supra launched in May 1993) was sophisticated enough, with speed-variable power steering, big vented disc brakes, and four-wheel double wishbone suspension carried on subframes (aluminum in front, steel in back). To that could be added ABS (standard on all but the base 2.5GT-Twin Turbo, where it was optional); traction control (offered only with automatic transmission); and the buyer’s choice of conventional springs and shocks (2.5GT-Twin Turbo and 4.0GT), steel springs with “Piezo TEMS” (2.5GT-Twin Turbo L), air springs with TEMS (4.0GT-Limited with air suspension, chassis code UZZ31), or a computer-controlled hydropneumatic active suspension (4.0GT-Limited with Active Control Suspension, chassis code UZZ32).
Toyota’s Active Control Suspension, first seen (in somewhat simpler form) on the limited-production Toyota Celica Active Sports a year or so earlier, was undoubtedly the Soarer’s most technically ambitious feature. Like Nissan’s Full-Active Suspension, offered on the contemporary Infiniti Q45a, the Active Control Suspension traded conventional shock absorbers for a hydropneumatic strut at each wheel that continually adjusted itself based on data from a series of wheel and body sensors. However, while the Q45a and Celica Active Sports retained conventional coil springs in addition to their hydraulic accumulators, the Soarer system completely dispensed with steel springs. On the UZZ32, the active suspension was paired with electronically controlled four-wheel steering, a feature not offered on any other Soarer, as well as traction control, ABS, and a hydraulic rather than vacuum brake booster.
The Z30 was longer and wider than the Z20 and heavier than ever. Even the lightest 2.5GT-Twin Turbo weighed some 3,420 lb (1,550 kg), about as much as the heaviest MZ21, and a fully loaded UZZ32 tipped the scales at almost 3,900 lb (1,760 kg). Nonetheless, there was more than enough power to make up for the extra mass in performance if not in fuel economy. Handling was also excellent, although at the end of the day, the Soarer was still a luxury sports coupe, not a sports car, and its reflexes were necessarily less taut than those of an RX-7 or Fairlady Z.
The 2.5GT-Twin Turbo was positioned as the sportiest Soarer grade, offering more aggressive tires (on 16-inch wheels rather than the 15-inch wheels used on the UZZ30 and UZZ31), manual transmission, and (on five-speed cars) a Torsen limited-slip differential. The JZZ30 was indeed fast, capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 6 seconds with the five-speed (about 7 seconds with automatic) and a top speed of almost 150 mph (240 km/h) with the speed limiter disabled. On the street, however, the short-stroke 1JZ-GTE engine struggled with the Soarer’s substantial weight at lower engine speeds. A 4.0GT was almost as quick (the UZZ30 was capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 7 seconds, about the same as a U.S.-market Lexus SC400), more flexible, and much less fussy to drive. The 1UZ-FE engine was also significantly smoother than the turbocharged six. Nonetheless, some Japanese prefectures adopted the 2.5GT-TT as a police interceptor.
Either 4.0GT-Limited also rode better than Soarers with steel springs, which as on the SC400 were rather stiff for a luxury car, particularly a Japanese one. The UZZ31’s air springs and narrower tires allowed more comfortable cruising without significantly compromising the Soarer’s grip and fine body control. The UZZ32’s Active Control Suspension, meanwhile, enhanced both ride and handling, providing excellent compliance while minimizing pitch, body lean, and brake dive. The Active 4WS system also provided sharper turn-in and trimmed the Soarer’s turning radius by about 10%. The UZZ32’s road manners were impressive, although the electronics couldn’t completely disguise the car’s size and considerable mass. (The Z30 was 13.4 inches (340 mm) longer and 420 lb (190 kg) heavier than a turbocharged A80 Supra.)
The Z30 Soarer was a magnificent automobile, and with the addition of the Lexus SC version for export, Toyota expected it to be the most successful generation yet. Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.
We don’t know how well the Z30’s avant-garde shape went over in Japan, but Japanese buyers had obviously liked the angular shape of the previous generations. By 1991, those themes had become ubiquitous; Toyota itself had borrowed the Soarer’s styling cues for the AE91/AE92 Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno coupes and you can see Soarer overtones in various other models, notably the 1988 X80 Mark II/Chaser/Cresta/Cressida. A new direction was probably in order, but so radical a change was obviously risky. We don’t doubt some Z10 and Z20 fanciers were put off by the new look.
A greater concern was price. With base prices ranging from ¥3,950,000 to ¥4,810,000 (equivalent to roughly $29,000 to $35,000 in 1991), the 4.0GT and 4.0GT-Limited with air suspension weren’t dramatically more expensive than the previous MZ20 and MZ21, particularly considering the addition of the V-8, but the loss of the 2-liter models made the Soarer far less attainable than before. The cheapest 2.5GT-Twin Turbo now started at ¥3,269,000 (around $24,000), which represented a jump of more than 30% from the outgoing 2.0VZ. There was no longer a Soarer for the aspirational buyer; to afford the price of entry, you needed to have already arrived.
Even that wasn’t necessarily enough for the top Soarer grades. A 4.0GT-Limited with air suspension and Electro-Multivision started at an eye-opening ¥5,450,000 (about $40,000); a UZZ32 with Active Control Suspension cost an additional ¥3,000,000 (around $22,000), enough to buy you a well-equipped Crown station wagon to haul your luggage and servants. In fact, a UZZ32 Soarer was in the same price range as expensive European imports like the Mercedes C280 AMG or Porsche 968.
Had the mid-eighties boom continued for a few more years, that might not have been a problem, but by 1991, the Japanese economy was cooling rapidly, eventually leading to a protracted recession. The climate in which the Z30 emerged was as wrong for it as the eighties had been right for the Z10 and Z20. The affluent buyers who could still afford to spend this much for a car were turning their backs on coupes in favor of SUVs and minivans. Since much the same was happening in the U.S. market, total Z30 sales were disappointing. Nissan had already retreated from this segment (from 1992 on, the Leopard was offered only as a four-door, sold in the U.S. as the Infiniti J30). The Honda Legend and Eunos Cosmo coupes were doing no better; both would be gone by 1996.
Paradoxically, that ensured the Z30 a longer lifespan than it might otherwise have had. The third-generation Soarer survived for almost 10 years, twice as long as either of its predecessors, receiving only minor changes along the way.
An early casualty was the 4.0GT with conventional springs and shocks (UZZ30). Although the similar Lexus SC400 would survive till the end of production, we assume that Japanese buyers who could afford the V-8’s dramatically higher ownership costs preferred the plusher ride of the UZZ31’s air suspension. Consequently, the UZZ30 was dropped in January 1994, replaced by a new 3.0GT grade (chassis code JZZ31) with standard automatic transmission and the normally aspirated 2,997 cc (183 cu. in.) 2JZ-GE engine from the Supra SZ, making 225 PS (166 kW) and 210 lb-ft (284 N-m) of torque. The 3.0GT was cheaper to run than the 4.0GT, but performance was comparatively leisurely; slightly shorter gearing and a weight reduction of about 90 lb (40 kg) couldn’t make up for the loss of 50 lb-ft (69 N-m) of torque.
In August 1996, the 2.5GT-Twin Turbo became the 2.5GT-T, trading its twin turbochargers for a larger single turbo and Toyota’s VVT-i system, which used cam phasing to continuously adjust the valve timing. On paper, the results were undramatic: The single-turbo 1JZ-GTE claimed the same 280 PS (206 kW) as before and maximum torque output rose only from 268 lb-ft (363 N-m) to 278 lb-ft (378 N-m). However, the torque peak fell to 2,400 rpm and the lower end of the torque curve was fattened considerably, which made the single-turbo JZZ30 substantially more flexible and much quicker than the twin-turbo car even with automatic.
At the same time, the Z30 received the closest thing it would get to a facelift (discounting the new fog lamps and taillights added in 1994). The changes included a new front clip with a small, slot-like grille; new sill extensions; and rather gaudy new taillights with chrome trim inside the lenses. The revisions weren’t necessarily an improvement, but they did make it easier to distinguish a new Soarer from a four-year-old one.
The stronger turbo engine made the V-8 more or less redundant, so the UZZ31 was dropped in August 1997. The UZZ32 and its Active Control Suspension were already gone by then, having sold in tiny numbers. That left the 2.5GT-T L Package as the top-of-the-line Soarer, with a base price of ¥4,130,000 (around $34,000). Below that were the standard 2.5GT-T (the only grade offered with a manual gearbox) and the 3.0GT in three states of trim. The 3.0GT’s 2JZ-GE engine now had VVT-i, increasing output to 230 PS (169 kW) and 224 lb-ft (304 N-m) of torque and putting more spring in the JZZ31’s step.
The Z30 Soarer ceased production in mid-2000, although leftovers remained on sale on sale until the arrival of the Z40.