The first generation Toyota Soarer (1981-85) was a true milestone in Toyota’s history. It was the first step towards Lexus and the Japanese assault on the higher end of the market – a crucial component in Toyota’s ascension to becoming the top global carmaker. The whole plan took decades to unfold, but Toyota were playing the long game.
The most important ingredient factoring in Toyota’s success has been, more than anything, a sense of timing. This may be coming to a halt now, given how they bet against EVs, but for a solid fifty years, Toyota hardly put a foot wrong.
We have to start the story back in the ‘60s, when Toyota were already much doing it all: city cars (Publica), popular compacts (Corolla, Corona), “large” family cars (Mark II, Crown), executive cars (Crown V8, Century), 4x4s (Land Cruiser) and sports cars (S800, 2000GT). As far as executive cars and sports cars went, the world wasn’t ready, though. Toyota knew it and kept the Century for domestic consumption only and did not push the 2000GT too hard. It was always going to be a trial balloon, a placeholder. Everyone admired it at the time, but virtually nobody bought one, because that was not the point.
The point was to use the unreachable 2000GT’s halo to ensnare the well-heeled customer into something far more vanilla. In the ‘70s, the role of lofty and luxurious 6-cyl. two-door Toyota was entrusted to the Crown. But that took all the sporting element out of the equation, given the Crown’s rather pedestrian underpinnings.
That is because the home market wasn’t yet ready for a proper Toyota GT. But Toyota knew it soon would be. It was no big secret, by the way: Nissan had come to the same conclusion and aced Toyota by launching their F30 Leopard in late 1980, a few months before the new Toyota coupé.
Toyota showed their hand in October 1980 by exhibiting a mysterious “EX-8” car at the Osaka Motor Show, just to give the faithful a reason not to rush and buy a Nissan Leopard. In February 1981, the Soarer hit the showrooms, along with a massive PR campaign highlighting the top-of-the-line DOHC 2800GT (an interesting mix of 2000GT and S800, in some ways) by using the tagline “Super Gran Turismo,” just to make the Soarer appear more exotic and exciting. It worked.
It worked because the super sophisticated (and 2800GT was a the top of the range, but underneath it, there were a lot of lesser Soarers using a pair of more modest 2-litre straight-6 – the new G-series engine, eventually joined by an identically-sized turbocharged M-series – that were affordable and looked almost identical to the genuinely big Soarer.
That’s what today’s feature car is, actually – a Soarer VX, i.e. the higher trim of the smaller-engined models. Power from the 1988cc G-series 6-cyl. was only a modest 125hp to haul a 1300kg’s worth of gadgetry and velour, so this Soarer was definitely not a Supra, despite their similar underpinnings – hence why the two models existed separately.
This might also explain why Toyota kept this one for the JDM only, as few markets outside Japan would have welcomed a Toyota with Mercedes-Benz pretensions like this. The world just wasn’t ready yet. It would take another decade (and a clever marketing ploy) to conquer that summit.
But let’s not pretend like the Soarer’s proportions and certain styling traits, particularly this rear window treatment, isn’t taken straight from the C107. It’s pretty blatant. The main difference is that Toyota didn’t have a mass-production V8 engine to pair with their version of the SL. But they did have other things.
They had a weird but very distinctive griffin logo, chrome in the right places, a 5-speed manual or 4-speed auto and a very fine all-independent suspension (Macpherson up front, trailing arms in the back) for the whole range. Depending on trim levels, one could get all or some of the following: digital dash display, touchscreen electronic HVAC controls, cruise control, ABS, ventilated discs all around, voice warnings (in Japanese), TEMS electronic suspension, speed-sensitive power steering, miniature TV set… Toyota turned the Soarer into a rolling display of their most advanced technological prowess.
You could even get leather seats, though of course very few people did. And cramped rear seats, but that’s par for the course. Nobody ever bought a car like this to sit in the back.
The key thing was timing. While Oil Shocks 1 and 2 had terrible effects on the economies of North America and Europe from 1973 onwards, Japan still had massive growth throughout the ‘70s, which only accelerated over the next decade. Toyota could have produced something pretty similar to the Soarer ten years prior, but the domestic customer base would have been too small. By 1980, Toyota could count on selling thousands of these per year, if they designed and made them well enough.
As far as the design was concerned, industry observers agreed that Toyota hit it out of the park. A group of 37 automotive media organizations known as the Japan Car of the Year Committee awarded that prize to the Soarer in 1981. And when time came to unveil the second generation cars in January 1986, the overall design had been tweaked a bit, but no big changes were envisaged. The design ended up lasting a full decade, just like the SL or the BMW 6-Series that were its inspiration.
What the early Soarers lacked was actual “Gran Turismo” performance. The DOHC 2.8 litre engine was dropped in 1985 in favour of a SOHC 190hp 3-litre – the first generation’s absolute peak, displacement and power-wise. But the second generation, a year later, put a DOHC head on that motor and coaxed 230hp out of it, keeping the Soarer in the game, at least as far as its JDM rivals were concerned.
The sales performance was what made the Soarer into one of Toyota’s greatest hits. The first gen didn’t quite make it to 90,000 units, but that was still an unqualified success. Nissan sold about 15,000 fewer of their Leopards, but the two cars are not were not 100% comparable: base models Leopards had a 4-cyl. 1.8 and were available as 4-door hardtops, not just coupés. The second generation Soarer positively buried its Leopard equivalent, which this time was strictly a two-door car.
Toyota played their hand very well with the Soarer. They started carving out a niche at the top of their domestic range between the Crown and the Century that eventually grew to include the Celsior, the Windom, the Majesta and the Aristo – all very lucrative and (nearly all) exportable, as the Soarer eventually was with its third generation, under the Lexus marque. That kept Toyota firmly in the black in the ‘90s, even as domestic demand slowed down and Nissan, Mitsubishi and Mazda struggled to stay alive. And ultimately, it lead to Toyota’s ascension to the global top spot in the 2010s. Soarer indeed!