The Supra may have caught the imagination of some latter-day JDM sports coupé idolaters, but back in the ‘80s, Toyota’s range had many other choices on offer. The bottom rung was occupied by the Corolla Levin / Sprinter Trueno, followed by the Celica and the mid-engined MR2 and the aformentioned Supra. But just at the apex, the ultimate two-door Toyota, which coupled sports car speed with high-end luxury, was the Soarer.
The lofty Toyota’s first majestic flight into the stratospheric heights of JDM luxury occurred in 1981. In essence, it was there to take the Crown coupé’s place, but was soon provided with a more performance-oriented mission statement. It was the ‘80s, after all – a time when fuel injection and turbochargers were affixed to anything that moved, kei cars included. By the time the Soarer reached its second generation, in January 1986, the big coupé had reached its cruising altitude, high above the fray.
It’s fair to say that, in terms of styling, the Z20 was a mere evolution of its predecessor. The edges were toned down a tad and the angles were softened a smidgen, but the overall shape was quite similar from generation one to two. That’s a reflection of the success the Z10 had enjoyed: Toyota didn’t feel the need to drastically change a winning formula.
As per JDM tradition, the Z20 Soarer came in multiple trim levels. The base model was called the VZ, then (for some reason) the next one up was VX. After that came the 2.0 GT, the 2.0 GT Twin Turbo, the 3.0 GT and 3.0 GT Limited. Ours is a mid-level Soarer, then, powered by a 2-litre 24-valve DOHC straight-6 – the ubiquitous G engine. This 185 PS twin turbo version, the most potent G engine ever let loose in the streets, was also used in the Supra and certain Mark II/Cresta/Chaser saloons. The lower-spec VZ and VX versions came with a SOHC variant of the G engine that only pumped out 105 PS. The range-topping 3-litre models were in a different league – and indeed in a different tax bracket. Our feature car is something of a Goldilocks variant, it seems.
Incidentally, the same day I caught our feature car, I also managed a single photograph of another white early model Z20, sitting in a garage a few blocks away from the other one. It’s identical in every way, except that this is the holiest of holies “3.0 GT Limited,” with the electronic air suspension and all that. But I didn’t have the nerve to trespass into that particular place, so that’s all I can provide on this presumably rare sighting.
The only Soarers that are even more uncommon are the 3.0 GT Aerocabin versions. Toyota made 500 of these ultra-gimmicky power-operated retractable tin-tops in the spring of 1989. Those and the other 3.0 Soarers have a 230 PS 3-litre straight-6 – about as big and powerful as any “normal” Japanese car could get in those days. The price difference between the top-level Soarer and the base one is substantial: a Limited cost just about twice the price of the VZ.
The Z20 Soarers that were not Limiteds made do with the A70 Supra’s all-round double wishbone and coil suspension. That made the Soarer (and the Supra) a sort of spiritual successor to the 2000GT of the ‘60s. What kind of lets the Soarer down, in my view, is the styling. The 2000GT at least dared to be different – and was a very impressive machine visually.
The Soarer, by contrast, just looks like a flattened Mark II that’s missing its rear doors. The massive rear lights and twin exhaust pipes try to signal that this is no ordinary Toyota, but that just makes it look more desperate to stand out from among the Camrys and Crowns.
The mid-life facelift that took place in 1988 changed little, aside from the grille and the taillights. It didn’t matter much anyway: this was the heart of the Japanese bubble economy, when high-end cars were selling like hotcakes. The Z20 consequently tallied up over 300,000 sales in five years, which is quite an impressive score for this type of car. Unlike the Supra, whose platform and drivetrain it shared, the Soarer was marketed as a grand tourer, not a sports car. Just the thing for the yuppie in a hurry.
And you can see the appeal, or rather what’s left of it, when you look inside this thing. It’s the very essence of the ‘80s Nippon-style personal luxury coupé. Electronic gauges, power-everything, 5-speed manual, corduroy everywhere and doilies galore. If you were a well-heeled Japanese salary-man 35 years ago, this was your dream come true. Sure looks like a pleasant enough place to sit for a few hours even today, if you can fit in it and can handle a stickshift.
It was normal for all Toyotas to have their own model logo or emblem, back in the ‘80s. Actually, that tradition is still alive and well today (at least for the JDM), but few Toyota nameplates got something as strangely remarkable as the Soarer’s winged lion. Maybe Toyota were not sure that would have flown abroad: The Z30 Soarer, when it reached the global market in 1991, became the Lexus SC, complete with boring “L” badge. Ah, well. It was doubtless a good move on Toyota’s part to Lexusify the Soarer – so much so that in the end, even the JDM version became a Lexus. But the winged lion was lost in the process, and that’s a shame.
As to the Z20 as a whole, I cannot say I dislike it. It is a substantial piece of machinery, probably very comfortable and pleasant to take long journeys in, though a bit more character could have been built into the styling. In that respect, I prefer the Z10 original to the sequel. Nevertheless, should I happen to find that 3.0 Limited parked outside one day, I’ll be sure to make a post of it.