It’s an old show-business trope that a band or artist’s the debut LP would put them on the map and, hopefully, would be followed by a hit record. The tricky part was to then come up with a third album that managed to keep the second one’s momentum – or even improve upon it. This was achieved by acts such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones or Stevie Wonder in the ‘70s. In the JDM corner of the automotive world, one could point to the Civic, the Celica or the Bluebird as similar examples of successful hat tricks. But not the Toyota Soarer.
The idea behind the Soarer, when it first appeared back in 1981, was essentially to turn the Crown and Mark II coupés into something even more premium and exclusive, as well as slightly sportier thanks to the use of the Supra’s platform. Giving the big RWD two-door its own name and look, essentially turning it into the PLC it needed to be, was a smart move. The Z10 Soarer was successful, but the Z20 that followed it from 1986 to 1991 was an unmitigated hit: over 300,000 units sold in five and a half years.
The Z10 and the Z20 were almost the same car: the Z20 just sanded down the edges of its predecessor’s body and added edginess to the selection of 6-cyl. engines on offer, while going crazy with the technological sophistication. However successful the Z20 was though, its successor would necessarily be quite different – the ‘90s were calling for more curves, more sophistication and more power.
But the whole scope of the car was also about to change drastically. Whereas prior Soarers were only meant for domestic consumption, now the big Toyota coupé also had to double up as a Lexus for foreign markets. The design was therefore farmed out to Toyota’s Calty studio in California and the car was engineered to accommodate both a 3-litre straight-6 and a 4-litre V8.
This meant that the usual JDM foibles, be they stylistic or technical, would have to be toned down, though there was still some room to make a somewhat different Japanese version. The white Soarer in this post is a good example of an early model JDM car. I have no idea what engine is in this particular one, but the V8 version is quite rare here, unlike the Lexus models. The car is wider than its predecessor and thus in a higher tax bracket, so many buyers would have tried to limit their tax bill by picking the 6-cyl. engine.
The main issue was that V8 model’s cost kept creeping up even as the economy kept going down. Base-trim V8 Soarers only lasted for the first couple of model years, but the swankier Limited versions, with their fancy air suspension, touch-screen TV and satnav and four-wheel steering, were so exclusive that they ended up priced out of existence. The top-of-the-line Soarer 4.0 GT-L cost a whopping ¥8m by 1995, so Toyota ended up nixing the V8 Soarer in 1997, though Lexus-banded models were kept in production.
But in Japan, going below 3 litres meant tax was pretty significantly lower, so the Soarer had a JDM-only turbocharged 2.5 litre 6-cyl. version, which is what we have in the plum-coloured Series 3 car I found. The smaller turbo engine actually has more beans than any other, V8 included. So from a bang-for-your-yen perspective, the 2.5GT-T makes a lot of sense.
The Soarer 2.5 GT was also the only one available with a 5-speed manual transmission. Not that any of the cars I found actually had one – by the ‘90s, in that class of vehicles, manuals were already a real rarity.
Same deal inside the early model white car. There is a touchscreen in here, but that’s a retrofit – the original touchscreen on the 4.0 GT Limited was smaller and surrounded by a bunch of buttons. The leather upholstery is also somewhat suspect, but at least it’s there – a rare feature to be found on an older JDM car.
Rear seats are predictably symbolic, though for such a substantial car, a little rear legroom would have been nice. But hey, if you want to haul more than two average-sized adults who have all their limbs, a PLC is probably not going to be on your shopping list.
The Z30 Soarer went through a longer production life than most high-end Toyotas. As a consequence, there were two facelifts: Series 1 cars arrived in April 1991 and lasted until December 1993; in January 1994, the Series 2 replaced it – changes were modest, including extra fog lights out front and updated taillights.
In August 1996, the Series 3 came on the scene. Taillights were changed again – more extensively than previously – and a thin horizontal grill appeared between the headlamps, among many other small changes. Sales in Japan ended in April 2001 with a disappointing tally of under 65,000 units for the entire decade-long run.
Compared to many other cars, especially Japanese ones, the Toyota Soarer / Lexus SC traversed the ‘90s with few substantial changes. However, if one sees it as Toyota’s answer to the Benz SL or the Jaguar XJS, which also lasted for eons, this ten-year lifespan is more comprehensible. What is less obvious is how its predecessor sold five times as many cars in half the time.
The simple answer is that the Soarer went upscale just as dark economic clouds gathered upon Japan, turning the luxury car market into a shadow of its former self. The Eunos Cosmo, Mazda’s wild triple-rotary super coupé, famously bombed for that reason as well.
But beyond that, the Z30 Soarer was more in step with American / global luxury tastes than the more conservative Japanese. The car was not designed to meet Japanese tax bracket size limitations, so it was perhaps more expensive than it otherwise would have been. But that was the price to pay for a workable Lexus version which necessarily had to overlap with the Soarer, lest it render both cars completely uneconomical to manufacture.
The subsequent Toyota / Lexus Z40, launched in late 2001, changed tack yet again. The tin-top convertible design was now entrusted to a European and Japanese team who aimed the Soarer / SC 430 much more squarely at the Mercedes SL. The 6-cyl. engine was done away with and the winged creature sat on the JDM cars’ front end was dispensed with when the Lexus marque made its debut in Japan in 2005.
The Soarer name disappeared, and though the car remained available under the new (for the JDM) Lexus brand for another five years, ultimately the SC 430 also died out without a real replacement. The Soarer almost made it to its 30th birthday (in spirit, though not in name), not a bad feat for a nameplate, especially a strict two-door one.
Despite not have set any sales records, the Z30 Soarer has a sizable following in Japan. Many have fallen victim to the drifter crowd, though because of their weight and complexity, they are apparently chiefly culled for their drivetrain rather than as a whole. Finding one is decent condition is getting harder now that they’re hitting the 20-30-year mark, so I thought I’d document a couple before they become too scarce.
Besides, I have a soft spot for these. For a design from an automotive era I tend to dislike, this big Toyota is both remarkably restrained, yet still has enough stylistic quirks to be entertaining to behold. Add that twin-turbo JZ25 straight-6, and it makes for a really convincing package, provided you don’t like having passengers, which these days you definitely don’t. You know what PLC should stand for in the age of COVID? Pandemic Limitation Coupé. This Soarer might be the car of the moment again.
CC Capsule: 1993 Lexus SC 300 – The Poor Man’s Personal Luxury Lexus, by Brendan Saur
Excellence In Motion: The 1992 Lexus SC400, by Steven Lang