ON THE WINGS OF A GT CAR IT WAS only a small prod on the throttle, just to get an impression of what 170 Toyota horses — 127 kW — really feel like when you dig the spurs in. The big Michelin on the inside rear wheel squealed in protest almost immediately. Yes, there is some power down there, I thought, as I headed the Toyota Soarer, the Japanese giant’s first real attempt at a full blooded GT car, through the Tokyo traffic. On the right road — and I had plenty of those coming up in the next few days —Toyota's answer to the Datsun 280ZX and Mazda RX7 would lack nothing in sheer get up and go... Toyota claims the Soarer is a five-seat gran turismo. It shares some components with the new Cressida and is a large car by Japanese standards: a wheelbase of 2660 mm and overall length of 4655 mm make the Soarer about the same size as a BMW 633 coupe or Rover 3500. But the Japanese car is the lightest of these at 1300 kg. There is the choice of a two-litre single ohc six-cylinder or 2.8 litre twin one six (the 127 kW engine of the test car), with five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmission. Strut suspension features at the front and there are semi-trailing links at the rear. Ventilated discs all round and power-assisted rack and pinion steering are fitted. The Soarer is a two-door coupe with hotchback rear end. All the pillars are slim, the central ones being a little wider than those at the rear. The windows are mounted flush with the pillars to reduce wind noise. So that rear passengers do not feel overexposed Toyota has copied the Mercedes-Benz SLC and installed louvered panels inside just in front of the rear pillars. At the rear there is a vestigial spoiler, which gives a hint of GT pretensions, but otherwise the Soarer looks rather bland and inoffensive, in contrast to Nissan's Leopard which is designed to look striking and does. The Soarer makes up for it inside with a dashboard that is certainly striking. First indications are that the digital speedometer is easy to read, but the tachometer, a strip shaped like an inverted hockey stick, is not so legible. As revs rise more of the strip becomes illuminated. It takes some getting used to. The air conditioning control panel is just as different. The system itself is computer-controlled and all the driver has to do is play tunes on a battery of touch switches, housed with a digital display to indicate temperature on a panel in the centre of the dash. You press the up or down square to alter the temperature, in increments of 0.5 deg C. There are separate switches for fan, whether the air conditioning is on or not, and direction of air flow. The system works well, but the switches are not ideal since you have to look hard to find the right square to press. Incidentally the audio controls, a mass of tiny buttons, are hidden by the gearlever. Definitely not ergonomic. But the Soarer is all about fundamentals — ride, handling, and raw performance. Or it should be. To find out I took a Soarer out of Tokyo, heading west on the motorway towards the hills — and the demanding roads which I knew would test the Japanese newcomer to the limit. The steering felt good from the start: it is not too light and has the right amount of self-centering thanks to the generous 4 ½ degrees of castor. It does, however, fall down on its responsiveness, which can be sloppy. The engine responds well to the throttle in the low gears, reaching 7000 rpm with ease. It is equally at home at low engine speeds, and is really quiet when cruising. In town the power plant is virtually inaudible, and even when accelerating hard it rarely becomes at all obtrusive. Perhaps that's to be expected. Toyota's latest engine is a twin ohc unit, with toothed belt drive to the camshafts. It has electronically controlled fuel injection and finned covers that conceal the camshafts and the neat finger rocker actuators. These pivot on pedestals that act as hydraulic tappets. To get hydraulic tappets into a twin ohc head — and to get them to operate smoothly at 7000 rpm — is good going. Peak power of 127 kW is delivered at 5600 rpm, but the engine will happily rev past that. On the westward motorway, a lot of which is slightly uphill, I found the Soarer could reach 150 km/h in third, though in the tall fifth gear the car did not seem keen to go much faster unless you put your foot down and waited or grabbed fourth. Gearing is 40 km/h per 1000 rpm in fifth which gives relaxed cruising, but the Soarer is no ball of fire in this gear. The Soarer takes motorway ridges without the usual Japanese-car thumps coming through to the body though on really rough patches the car shakes as if the suspension has been caught completely out of phase. The ride here is definitely not good. The seats, despite insufficient lumbar and lateral support, do their best to minimise road shocks and are on their way to being very good indeed. In the mountains and plains in the middle of Japan I speared the Soarer along some superb roads, some twisty with hairpin after hairpin, and others with long fast sweepers. Despite being thrown around a bit, owing to the seat's poor side bolstering, the car felt very surefooted on its fat Michelin XVS195/70HR14 tyre’s. The Soarer understeers normally, but as you approach the limit the semi-trailing links jack up a little, arid then the tail starts to break away. But it does so gradually and is easy to hold. At high speeds, the Soarer runs through sweeping bends with first class stability. There is some feedback from the car too: kickback through the steering wheel when you go over a bump and some indication of road resistance, although the car doesn't "talk" to you like the best handling machines. Still, it's an achievement for Toyota and shows some understanding. Although the engine is more than able to provide sufficient power for this sort of fast cross country work the gearbox limits the car's performance to some extent. The shift is as good as you could wish for, the lever slipping into any slot effortlessly and with precision. And the fact that you can heel-and-toe easily makes motoring on difficult roads easier than it would otherwise be. Where the box falls down is in the wide ratios. The first four gears run out at 60,100,150 and 190 km/h, which sound all right but it is too easy to find yourself between gears: coming out of a hairpin at 50 km/h for example, when there are too many revs for first and too few for second. The reason for this is that the engine lacks good old-fashioned punch. It's smooth, quiet and quite potent at the top end, but you have to use all the revs to get the most out of the performance. On main roads the situation is saved by that excellent shift. I found myself tooling along in fifth when in traffic — it will take engine speeds of less than 1000 rpm — and then shifting down to second to overtake. Thanks to that good gearchange such a maneuver is carried out easily and quickly. Second gear, which goes all the way to 100 km/h, is ideal for overtaking. The Soarer tackled some very difficult roads with enthusiasm, and yet was extremely quiet, even at cruising speeds of 170-175 km/h. Not in the Jaguar class, certainly, but on a par with many more expensive cars. On bumpy, twisty sections it sometimes showed a lack of suspension refinement but it rarely put a foot badly wrong, and the handling, always/was drama-free. One of the toys on the Soarer is a "cruise computer", which sounds fun but is not very easy to operate. You have to enter everything through a few keys, and it is easy to cancel everything. After some fiddling I managed to make it indicate how much fuel was being used. Overall fuel consumption averaged 8 km/Lt (22.5 mpg), which is good for a car of this size and power. The worst figure, 7.1 km/Lt (20 mpg), was recorded in the mountains and is probably typical of city driving as well. Fast motorway work gave 9.5 km/LT (26.7 mpg) while more sedate cruising, at 80-100 km/h, resulted in an astonishing 12.4 km/Lt (35 mpg). So how does the Soarer measure up? Well, those 170 Japanese horses do give good overall performance, with a 0-100 km/h acceleration time of nine seconds and a maximum speed of around 200 km/h. The worst aspect of the performance is top gear acceleration around 50-100 km/h — it's on a par with a 1.6 litre coupe, I would guess. Steering, handling and braking are up to scratch in most respects, and the ride is generally acceptable. However, the Soarer needs better damping control over undulations or a series of bumps, while some single sharp bumps cause the driver almost to aviate at high speed. This is clearly not ideal on a car with this sort of performance. Cabin room is acceptable if it's better than that of the Datsun 280ZX is but the car is hardly a five-seater. I, and I suspect many potential owners, would prefer a conventional instrument panel. The digital speedometer is continually changing, and the brightness can be tiring. Also, a conventional tachometer is easier to read. As it is the electronics display makes the conventional odometer almost illegible. Overall, however, Toyota's first foray into the world of muscle cars is a success. The fact that it is as pleasant to drive in traffic as when hustling around mountain roads seems certain to gain the Soarer some converts from exotica in Japan. They may not queue up to trade in their SLCs and BMWs, but it is hard to see the Soarer not affecting 280ZX sales... Toyota insists that there are no plans for export, but it seems certain that the Soarer will find its way to the USA and Europe. It is one of the most expensive Japanese cars built, which means it should cost slightly more than the top Datsun 280ZX. Even if it doesn't have a chance of proving itself in Australia, you can be sure this isn't the last we'll hear of a proper Toyota sports car.
MAKE TOYOTA MODEL Soarer 2.8 litre BODY TYPE Two-door coupe ENGINE: Cylinders Six Valve Twin ohc Aspiration Electronic fuel injection Bore /stroke 83 X 85 mm Capacity 2.759.litres Max Power 127kW at 5600rpm Max Torque 235 Nm at 4400rpm TRANSMISSION: Type Five-speed manual Ratios: Gearbox Overall First 3.28:1 12.23:1 Second 1.89:1 7.05:1 Third 1.27:1 4.74:1 Fourth 1.00:1 3.73:1 Fifth 0.77:1 2.87:1 Final drive 3.73:1 CHASSIS: Construction Unitary SUSPENSION: Front Struts, coil springs, anti–roll bar Rear Live axle, semi-trailing links, coil springs, anti-roll bar Dampers Hydraulic STEERING: Type Power assisted rack and pinion BRAKES: Type Servo-assisted ventilated discs front and rear DIMENSIONS: Wheelbase 2660 mm Track, front 1440 mm Track, rear 1450 mm Length 4655 mm Width 1695 mm Height 1360mm Kerb mass (weight) 1300kg FUEL TANK: 61 litres TYRES: Michelin XVS 195/70