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

Z30 SOARER

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.

Toyota Soarer/Lexus SC Z30 design study © 2011 Moto "Club 4AG" Miwa (CC BY 2.0 Generic)

The center model appears to be a full-size clay of Erwin Lui’s original concept for the Z30 Soarer and Lexus SC. The resemblance to the production car is apparent, but the model lacks the production Z30’s distinctive inset high beam headlights, which were added during development because the sloping nose didn’t allow enough room for outboard mounting of both the high and low beams. (Photo: “Lexus SC/ Toyota Soarer Concept Z30” © 2011 Moto “Club 4AG” Miwa; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

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.

1996 Toyota Soarer 3.0GT (JZZ31) front © 2007 Masayuki Kawagishi (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified by Aaron Severson)

Except the badges, there were few external cues to distinguish a Z30 Soarer from its Lexus SC counterpart (and indeed some Lexus coupes now sport Soarer insignia). Exterior dimensions were largely identical, although for some reason the specifications for the 1992–96 Lexus SC list its overall length as 191.1 inches (4,855 mm), 0.2 inches (5 mm) shorter than the contemporary Soarer. Mid-nineties Z30s, like this JZZ31 Soarer 3.0GT, deleted the early car’s black under-bumper lip spoiler and substituted fog lights for the original cornering lamps in the lower front fascia. (Photo: “Toyota Soarer” © 2007 Masayuki (Yuki) Kawagishi; 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)

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.

1JZ-GTE engine in a 1991–93 Toyota Soarer 2.5GT-Twin Turbo (JZZ30) © 2010 Mark van Seeters (CC BY 2.0 Generic)

Never sold in the U.S., the twin-turbo 2,491 cc (152 cu. in.) 1JZ-GTE engine replaced the older single-turbo 2,954 cc (180 cu. in.) 7M-GTEU in Japanese-market A70 Supras in August 1990 and subsequently replaced the twin-turbo 1G-GEU in the Japanese-market Mark II, Chaser, and Cresta. (There was also a normally aspirated 1JZ-GE version.) The 1JZ engine still had an iron cylinder block, but was significantly more oversquare than the older G-series and M-series sixes. Although its two small turbochargers were supposed to reduce turbo lag, the 1JZ-GTE’s torque peak was at a rather high 4,800 rpm and low-end torque was notably weaker than that of the bigger 2JZ-GTE engine in the A80 Supra, which had sequential turbochargers and 506 cc (31 cu. in.) more displacement. (Photo: “IMG_0530” © 2010 Mark van Seeters; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

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).

1992 Toyota Soarer 4.0GT-Limited (UZZ31) Electro Multivision © 2005 Vince Lockyer (used with permission)

The Z30 Soarer again offered the Electro Multivision system, seen here in an early-production Soarer 4.0GT-Limited (UZZ31). In many respects, Toyota’s EMV system presaged the multifunction touchscreen systems that have since become common on medium- and high-priced cars, although the cassette player now seems an anachronistic touch! (Photo: “Rough Soarer interior” © 2005 Vincent Lockyer; used with permission)

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.

1996 Toyota Soarer 3.0GT (JZZ31) interior © 2007 Masayuki Kawagishi (CC BY 2.0 Generic)

Since the JZZ31 Soarer was not available with the Electro-Multivision system (although some cars — and a few export Lexus models — have been retrofitted with it), the main things distinguishing the cabin of this JDM 3.0GT from an automatic Lexus SC300 are right-hand drive and the Soarer emblem on the steering wheel bus. Unlike the SC300, the Soarer 3.0GT was available only with the four-speed ECT-i automatic transmission. (Photo: “Toyota Soarer” © 2007 Masayuki (Yuki) Kawagishi; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

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.

1996 Toyota Soarer 3.0GT (JZZ31) instrument panel © 2007 Masayuki Kawagishi (CC BY 2.0 Generic)

All Z30 Soarers had “Space Vision” digital instruments; the display’s 3-D effect is hard to capture in photos. We don’t find the horizontal tachometer particularly easy to read — perhaps an academic point with automatic transmission, but probably an annoyance in a manually shifted 2.5GT-Twin Turbo or 2.5GT-T. (Photo: “Toyota Soarer” © 2007 Masayuki (Yuki) Kawagishi; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

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.)

SOARER STALLS

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.

1996 Toyota Soarer 3.0GT (JZZ31) front 3q © 2007 Masayuki Kawagishi (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified by Aaron Severson)

With an overall length of 191.3 inches (4,860 mm) and a width of 70.5 inches (1,790 mm), the Z30 Soarer fell into the “ordinary car” tax class in Japan, although the 1989 tax changes meant that was no longer as cost-prohibitive as it had previously been. Wheelbase was now 105.9 inches (2,690 mm), 0.8 inches (20 mm) longer than the Z20’s. Factory curb weight of a Soarer 3.0GT was 3,415 lb (1,550 kg). Note the 15-inch wheels, which were standard on the 3.0GT, 4.0GT, and 4.0GT-Limited with air suspension; turbocharged and active suspension models had more aggressive 225/55VR16 tires on 16-inch wheels. (Photo: “Toyota Soarer” © 2007 Masayuki (Yuki) Kawagishi; resized and modified 2014 Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

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.

2JZ-GE engine in a 1996 Toyota Soarer 3.0GT (JZZ31) © 2007 Masayuki Kawagishi (CC BY 2.0 Generic)

Toyota’s 2,997 cc (183 cu. in.) 2JZ-GE engine was related to the 2,491 cc (152 cu. in.) 1JZ-GE, but had a significantly longer stroke: 3.39 inches (86 mm) versus 2.82 inches (71.5 mm). The 2JZ-GE was available on the export Lexus SC300 from the start, but wasn’t offered in Japan until 1994. (Photo: “Toyota Soarer” © 2007 Masayuki (Yuki) Kawagishi; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

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.

1997 Toyota Soarer 4.0GT-Limited (UZZ31) front 3q © 2010 OSX (PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

The new front clip added in August 1996 brought the Z30 Soarer’s overall length to 192.9 inches (4,900 mm) and overall width to 71.1 inches (1,805 mm). The facelifted Soarer 4.0GT-Limited (UZZ31) is a rare sight since it was built for only a year. The cancellation of the 4.0GT grades meant the Z30 Soarer never got the more powerful VVT-i V-8 used in late (1998–2000) Lexus SC400s, although that engine was used in the JDM Toyota Celsior and Crown Majesta. (Photo: “1991 Toyota Soarer (UZZ31) Limited coupe (2010-09-23)” © 2010 OSX; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

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.

1997–2001 Toyota Soarer rear © 2013 Tokumeigakarinoaoshima (PD CC0 1.0 - modified by Aaron Severson)

A late Z30 Soarer shows off the post-facelift taillights (the Z30’s third taillight design) and the redesigned wing-type rear spoiler. A rear spoiler was optional on all Z30 Soarers as part of a package that also included the rear wiper, a handy feature not offered on the Lexus versions of these cars. This is probably a late 3.0GT (chassis code JZZ31); although the photographer identified it as a UZZ30, the only V-8 Soarer to receive the facelift was the 4.0GT-Limited (UZZ31) and this car lacks the “Limited” badges that would normally appear on the front fenders of that model. (Photo: “Toyota SOARER (UZZ30) rear” © 2013 Tokumeigakarinoaoshima; 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)

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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