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.
Thanks; very interesting. I’m sure I won’t be the only one to point out that the rear looked much more Honda Accord than Toyota.
I’m a sucker for a nice gt. Especially, anything with a stick, a straight six, rwd and a sunroof. These are cheap on the jdm import sites. I real nice way to get a sleeper supra but i’m in no position to fulfill that dream.
By far and away more than a sum of parts. Supra platform (before it became the next and “first” unique Supra), all neatly wrapped in a best-man’s wedding suit. This car by far and away was a magical sales success for Toyota, and nearly every 2 door that followed was trying to mimic Soarer styling; Corolla Levin, Sprinter Trueno, Carina Coupe, Corona coupe, Celica with a real trunk, you name it. By ‘91 it got old, but damn straight this triangular crisp shape was all the rage in the 1980’s. That said I refuse to admit to owning glass “furniture” either then or ever. We all make mistakes…
Love these things, and this era of Toyota in general. Some of the most thoroughly engineered and best built mass-market cars, ever, IMO.
As cjiguy alluded to above, this shape is so “familiar” even though it was never available here in this exact form, so much of the rest of the range was directly influenced by it. The way the rest of the world did PLC’s as more of a Grand Tourer format is the correct (to me) way, with only a few notable American takes on it (90’s Thunderbird etc). An excellent couple of finds there, the mid to late 80’s really were magical for the new awakening of cars and performance.
At first since these models were introduced in 1981, I thought that their chassis were identical to those of the 1981-84 Mark II/Cressida because of their larger exterior dimensions than the Supra. As it turned out to my surprise, it was based on the Supra therefore this generation Soarer would not be considered a “two door coupe” version of the Mark II/Cressida even though the 1977-80 Mark II/Cressida had a two door hardtop version.
It’s like a Chevrolet Beretta with a Cadillac trim.
Great find. As you mention, these first and second generation models were THE car to have in Japan in the ’80’s, if you preferred JDM to high-end European sport coupes.
This was one of the first platforms Toyota tried to achieve “Lexus-level” build quality and interior appointments.
I really like the “origami” crisply folded styling over the subsequent model’s more rounded look.
I read about this car in Car and Driver back then. I wonder how its driving dynamic is when comparing with Supra, SC, 6 series, E class coupe, Volvo coupe, Allente or XJS. With my untrained eyes, I do notice it has long overhangs despite it’s long wheel base.
I own one of these, a 89 with the 1g twin turbo engine with automatic, with kyb tems shocks, and RSR lowered springs, which are 35% harder than stock.
The 210hp 200lbft torque 1g gte Version lacks low end torque for a car this heavy (3200lb).The 7M GTE version is better suited for this chassis. You need to rev it up to keep up with lighter modern small cars. Because the 4 speed auto has to space out the ratios, you need to rev it out to get the best from the engine, normally 3000 rpm in lower gears is enough to keep up with other cars. It really shines on the highway. At 60kmh and over, with the auto in power mode, its easy to pick up speed when the transmission kicks down to 2, and revs go up to 3000+ and boost kicks in. It feels effortless to climb inclines at 100kmh in 3rd gear with the boost kicking in. When it goes to OD, you can gently add throttle and it will just pick up smoothly with some shove right up to the 180kmh JDM speed cut.
Steering is well weighted. There is some body roll but not as much as it was with stock springs and shocks. The double wishbone suspension cambers in to generate more grip as it rolls. There is a nice plush feel to the interior. The aftermarket shocks are damped a little hard so its not as comfortable as originals, but overall still nicer than my old 1980s econobox. The overhangs is no where near as long as the celica supra. Its a little hard to make some U turns as steering lock is limited, but with careful planning it can be done (go a little outwards initially). Toyota moved the front wheel a little further forward than the cressida to give it better weight distribution and handling (54:46) . The engine has a very 1980s MB/BMW-ish inline 6 sound, a bit loud(most sound comes from clutch fan at lower speeds), but very smooth.
I used to see these cars in a Car Yard in Melbourne many moons ago. The car yard specialised in JDM Imports and their Parent Company in Japan was one
Big Japan’s biggest Car dismantlers. I often wondered how it would be to own one and what it would be like to drive. They were expensive then and I had a young Family so I kept dreaming. Through 1993 to 1999 I was lured to the new model Soarers, I looked at hundreds all over Eastern Australia looking for that perfect example to own. In 2000 my dream came true, I bought a Soarer, UZZ32 V8 Limited, the top of the range Soarer and to this day I still own it.
A 1980s Toyota I like, and think I could live with. You don’t here me say that very often.
Barry – from your pic, looks like your car is the active suspension model? How are these? Do they handle as well as I’ve heard? How about ride quality?
I think it looks great and toyota tried very hard to make it stand out, the slim low headlights and grille, the gundam vent front bumper, the hood near the front windscreen is lifted and rounded to hide the wipers. I feel though that toyota should have slanted the headlights more, that would have it look more sporty, just look at the R30 skyline headlights.
What a great write up. I have the Aerocabin version of this car and absolutely love it.
I always see the 300,000 units sold as quoted repeatedly when the z20 is mentioned, but this is wrong. 300,000 units were sold but they were tallying up Suoras and Soarers. The total ampunt of Z20 sold was 142,000.