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

THE FINAL TOYOTA SOARER

The Z40 Soarer that debuted in April 2001 was a dramatic change of pace from previous models. Styled by Toyota’s European design center, the fourth-generation Soarer was no longer a coupe, but a retractable hardtop convertible. (Toyota had seriously contemplated offering a convertible version of the Z30, but eventually abandoned the project, perhaps concerned about the loss of rigidity that would accompany the removal of the coupe’s steel roof. The A80 Supra, which used a shorter version of the Z30 platform, became noticeably willowier with the optional lift-off roof panel removed, and the Supra had the advantages of a shorter wheelbase and fixed C-pillars.)

Sold overseas as the Lexus SC430, the Z40 Soarer was now offered only in a single lavishly equipped 430SCV grade (UZZ40) with the 4,292 cc (262 cu. in.) 3UZ-FE V-8 from the latest Celsior and LS430. The digital instruments were gone, but there was a lengthy list of standard equipment, including a five-speed automatic transmission and the Electro-Multivision system with GPS, DVD navigation, and limited wireless Internet connectivity. Other than an assortment of dealer-installed dress-up options, the only items not on the standard equipment list were run-flat tires and a rear spoiler. List price was an eye-opening ¥6,000,000 (equivalent to almost $50,000), a good deal more than the last Z30.

2006–09 Lexus SC430 rear 3q © 2009 Aaron Severson

Stretching 177.8 inches (4,515 mm) overall, the Z40 Soarer and Lexus SC430 were substantially shorter than the last Z30, although with an overall width of 71.9 inches (1,825 mm), the Z40 was 0.8 inches (20 mm) wider. Wheelbase was also shortened to 103.1 inches (2,620 mm), but the folding top mechanism brought factory curb weight to a hefty 3,815 lb (1,730 kg), almost as much as the departed UZZ32 with active suspension. (author photo)

It appears that the Z40 was aimed primarily at export markets, with the Toyota-badged Soarer version added almost as an afterthought. Toyota’s initial JDM sales projection was only 2,400 units a year, a far cry from the volume of the old Z20. In any case, the Z40 Soarer would be short-lived. When Toyota introduced the Japanese-market Lexus channel in the fall of 2005, the Soarer traded in its badges for Lexus insignia. In that form, the Z40 survived through mid-2010.

Toyota may yet offer another big Lexus coupe to combat rivals from Audi, BMW, and Mercedes-Benz, and we wouldn’t be surprised to see a four-door variant akin to the BMW 6-Series Gran Coupe or Mercedes CLS-Class. However, we don’t foresee a revival of the Soarer name. Customers in this class are buying the premium brand as much as the car, and since Toyota now has Lexus stores in Japan, any new luxury coupe would almost certainly be sold as a Lexus even in the home market.

Beyond that, the original Soarer evolved to fit a specific niche in its marketplace and that market has moved on. The combination of luxury and performance that made the early Soarers such a success is now taken for granted in this class, as is the technology that was once the Soarer’s stock in trade. Digital instrument panels never quite seem to catch on or completely go away, but they’re no longer novel, while navigation systems, electronic climate control, and multifunction touchscreens are becoming ubiquitous even on medium-priced cars. As is often the case with high-end cars, what was once exciting and groundbreaking has a way of becoming familiar and even old hat.

It’s too bad because we freely admit that the Soarer is our kind of car. We’ve been fond of the Z30 since before we had any idea it had a JDM counterpart and the Z10 and Z20 are intriguing in their own right, even divorced from their original role as yuppie status symbols. They’re sharp-looking cars that were quite stylistically influential in Japan and still look good today. For those of use who find the average luxury sedan too big or too bland, but who consider the typical sports car a little too extroverted, they have a definite appeal.

# # #

SIDEBAR: SUPRA HISTORY
In 2013, Spork Marketing hired the author to do a four-part history of the Toyota Supra for Olathe Toyota’s Toyota History blog series. You can read that story here:

  1. 1978 Celica XX: The First Supra
  2. Double-X Take Two: The 1982–1985 Celica XX, a.k.a. 2nd-Gen Supra
  3. The Third Shall Be First: 1986–1993 Toyota Supra
  4. The Most and the Least: Toyota’s Fourth Gen Supra (1993–2002)

(Neither Spork nor Olathe Toyota had any connection with the Soarer article or our recent Corolla/Sprinter history; the Supra story was an outside project.)


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The author would like to thank William Bevan, Foden Alpha, Derek Ip, and Joji Luz for the use of their photos.


NOTES ON SOURCES

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The online dictionary Jisho (jisho.org) was also a big help in deciphering Japanese-language information.

Some historical exchange rate data for the dollar and the yen came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2011, MeasuringWorth, http://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission). Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate dollar equivalent of prices in non-U.S. currencies, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all equivalencies cited herein are approximate and are provided solely for the reader’s general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!


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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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