Before it became a Lexus in 1991, the Toyota Soarer enjoyed a decade of success in Japan through two successive generations, becoming the favored choice of Japanese yuppies. A cousin of the Toyota Supra, the Soarer was a sporty, sophisticated personal luxury coupe boasting an array of high-tech features that have only recently become commonplace on high-end cars. In this installment of Ate Up With Motor, we look at the complete history of the Soarer, including the 1981–1985 Z10, 1986–1991 Z20, and 1992–2000 Z30, with a brief look at the final 2001–2005 Z40.
In the late seventies, the Japanese economy was beginning to stir after several moribund years, showing the first signs of the rapid ascent to come. The domestic auto market was booming, bringing with it a greater demand for luxury and performance despite strong political pressure to focus on reducing emissions and fuel consumption. Well-trimmed two- and four-door hardtops were popping up everywhere and engine power was again inching upward as automakers came to grips with tighter emissions standards.
Japan already had a thriving market for sporty specialty cars like the Toyota Celica, Nissan Silvia, and the rotary-engined Mazda Savanna (RX-3 and RX-7). Recognizing the larger trend, Toyota introduced a fancier six-cylinder version of the second-generation Celica Liftback, known in Japan as Celica XX (pronounced “Double X”) and sold in the U.S. as the Toyota Celica Supra.
In the Japanese market, the boy racer set was already well served by Toyota’s four-cylinder Celica 1600/2000GT and GTV, so Toyota instead positioned the Celica XX/Supra as a luxurious boulevard cruiser. Its big selling points were not handling or performance, but rather its array of smooth inline six-cylinder engines (a prestige choice for Japanese buyers) and options like power steering, Connolly leather upholstery, and automatic air conditioning.
Anyone hoping for a Toyota rival for the likes of the Datsun 280ZX or Mazda RX-7 instead found a slick but rather lazy personal luxury coupe like the contemporary Mazda Cosmo or, in the U.S., the Buick Regal, Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and Pontiac Grand Prix. Most U.S. critics reacted with a pronounced yawn. Nonetheless, the six-cylinder Celica was a respectable commercial success both in the U.S. and at home, where the XX helped to pep up lagging domestic Celica sales.
Those results left Toyota at a crossroads. For the Supra to be taken seriously as a 280ZX/Fairlady Z or RX-7 fighter, it would need to be sportier. However, Japanese buyers had also responded favorably to the idea of a upscale six-cylinder luxury coupe. Either avenue was potentially very profitable, so rather than sacrifice one for the other, Toyota opted to go both directions with two related but distinct products: a more muscular Celica XX/Supra and a new 2+2 luxury coupe called the Toyota Soarer.
THE TOYOTA SOARER Z10
The Soarer, known internally by the project code 359B, was shown in prototype form at the Osaka Motor Show in November 1980. At the time, company officials claimed that the prototype, exhibited as the Toyota EX-8, was strictly a concept car that had yet to receive production approval. That insistence appears to have been a political gesture; the production Soarer debuted in late February 1981, barely three months after the Osaka show.
Even if Toyota hadn’t already committed to building the Soarer, the debut of the new Nissan Leopard in September 1980 would undoubtedly have forced the issue. Based on the popular 910 Datsun Bluebird, the Leopard was another posh luxury hardtop of approximately the same size, price, and market position as the Soarer, although the first Leopard offered a choice of two- or four-door body styles, which the Soarer would not.
The Soarer shared its rear-wheel-drive powertrains and some components with the new Celica XX that debuted in the summer of 1981 and the two were even assembled in the same plant. However, the Soarer was not simply another spin-off of the third-generation Celica/Carina platform; Toyota considered the luxury coupe distinct enough to merit its own Z10 chassis code. (The Celica, Celica XX, and Carina all had A60 chassis codes.) Nonetheless, the Soarer and Celica XX/Supra were very similar in size, although the Soarer rode a 1.4-inch (35mm) longer wheelbase, was 0.2 inches (5 mm) shorter overall, stood 1.8 inches (45 mm) taller, and had a wider rear track.
The dimensions of both cars were dictated by Toyota’s desire to keep at least the cheaper models in the “small car” class defined by Japanese tax rules. At the time, a hefty commodity tax was levied on all new cars sold in Japan, with bigger “ordinary” and “large” cars taxed at significantly higher rates than small cars. Owners of cars with engines larger than 2.0 liters (122 cu. in.) also paid a much higher annual automobile tax.
For those reasons, four of the six Soarer grades available at launch had engines with displacements of less than 2,000 cc. The cheaper 2000-series Soarers (2000VI, 2000VII, 2000VR and 2000VX, chassis code GZ10) used Toyota’s SOHC 1G-EU six, essentially a modernized version of the familiar 1,988 cc (121 cu. in.) M-EU engine, with JIS gross ratings of 125 PS (92 kW) and 123 lb-ft (172 N-m) of torque. The pricier 2800-series cars (2800GT and 2800GT-Extra, chassis code MZ11) used the new 2,759 cc (168 cu. in.) 5M-GEU, the first DOHC six Toyota had offered since the demise of the 2000GT sports car in 1970. The twin-cam six had a JIS gross output of 170 PS (125 kW) and 174 lb-ft (236 N-m) of torque, although net output was probably closer to the 145 hp SAE (108 kW) and 155 lb-ft (210 N-m) quoted for the U.S.-spec Celica Supra. Both the 1G-EU and 5M-GEU used Bosch-Nippon Denso L-Jetronic electronic fuel injection and could be ordered with either a five-speed manual or a four-speed automatic.
All Z10 Soarers had MacPherson struts in front and semi-trailing arms in back with anti-roll bars at both ends, a layout that would be shared with the Celica XX and the more powerful four-cylinder Celicas and Carinas. (That suspension had actually been fitted to most grades of the JDM Celica XX for the 1981 model year, although 1981 U.S. Supras retained the previous live axle.) Steering was rack-and-pinion, with power assistance standard on all but the cheapest 2000VI, and all grades had four-wheel disc brakes. A limited-slip differential and Toyota’s “Electronic Skid Control” system — rear ABS — were optional on MZ11s.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 adapter 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 have accompanied 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 a lofty ¥6,000,000 (equivalent to almost $50,000), a good deal more than the last Z30.
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. 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.
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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April 2001; “Super Gran Turismo Soarer” [Japanese brochure 111396-5602], February 1981; “Super Gran Turismo Soarer” [Japanese brochure], January 1985; “Supra” [Japanese brochure 141052-6102], February 1986; “The Quality Car: New=Mark II” [Japanese brochure 021102-5112], December 1976; “The Sports of Toyota: Supra” [Japanese brochure CC0019-9305], May 1993; Toyota Motor Sales, Lexus Division, 1992 Lexus SC400 dealer introduction video, RaySC400, YouTube, posted 29 September 2006, https://youtu.be/-a4-odN2oIU, accessed 19 June 2009; “Toyota Soarer,” www.allcarwiki. com/wiki/ Toyota_Soarer, accessed 18 May 2014; Toyota Soarer (Japanese Vintage Series 01), (Tokyo: Motor Magazine Ltd., 2010); “Toyota Supra,” Road & Track Vol. 38, No. 9 (May 1986), reprinted in Toyota Supra Performance Portfolio 1982–1998: 37–42; Gary S. Vasilash, “Inside CALTY,” n.d., Automotive Design and Production, www.autofieldguide. com, accessed 19 June 2009; Bill Visnic, “Toyota Supra Turbo,” Car and Driver Vol. 34, No. 10 (April 1989), reprinted in ibid, pp. 56–57; “Viva! 200 km/h Cars!” Motor Magazine [Japan] May 1981; Mark Walton, “The End of Grey Imports?” CAR July 1999, pp. 106–110; Mark Wan, “AutoZine Technical School: Cam-phasing VVT,” AutoZine, n.d., www.autozine. org/ technical_school/ engine/ vvt_3.htm, accessed 29 April 2014; Brian Woodward, “Supra fun-truck (Test: Toyota Celica Supra 2.8i),” Modern Motor December 1983, reprinted in Toyota Supra Performance Portfolio 1982–1998: 18–23; Jack Yamaguchi, “Supra Superseded,” Autocar 5 March 1986, reprinted in Toyota Supra Performance Portfolio 1982–1998: 31–33, and “Toyota EX-8 2+2,” Road & Track Vol. 32, No. 8 (April 1981): 64; and Hattori Yoshi, “On the Wings of a GT Car” and “Taking the Clinical Approach,” Wheels May (?) 1981; “Lepoard [sic] Has Teeth Too,” and “Toyota Aim for GT Glory,” CAR May 1981.
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, https://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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