1988 JDM Formal coupé 3.0 Turbo ‘Test’: MZ21 Toyota Soarer vs F31 Nissan Leopard

Both of these extremely unusual cars are owned by Anthony Gerundini. These models are both normally just Japanese Domestic Market (JDM) bounded, although the Leopard was also known as the Infiniti M30 in the USA, where a total of 5000 were sold, some as factory convertibles. The Leopard model was also known suffixed as ‘X’ back in its earlier incarnations in its Datsun days e.g. 280X. My silver example (as all the pictures on the right) is very possibly the only one in the UK, and is only here as it used to belong to Nissan UK for use by their privately owned boss Octav Botnar, and was imported brand new in 1988. He was a self made millionaire and philanthropist, however, according to Wikipedia: “He fled to Switzerland in 1991 to avoid trouble with the police (according to the British authorities, he evaded more than £200 million in taxes).” As he left in somewhat of a hurry, his car got left behind, and was purchased by one of his ex-managers, who has cherished it until August 2005 when I acquired it, the day before the Kettering TEC National.


Being the boss, he obviously chose the most exciting Nissan model that they produced in 1988. ‘Ultima’ relates to the top trim level. Something as rare as this really tickled my fancy and I couldn’t resist it, especially as its a somewhat unusual companion for my equally rare 1988 Toyota Soarer MZ21 3.0 turbo, as pictures all on the left. In the JDM, these cars were both direct rivals. This car was also imported into the UK from brand new, but I do not know of it’s history as yet. It may well also have been the car of a Toyota boss too?


The engine 7MGTE setup will be very similar to the MA70 UK market Supra turbo’s we are familiar with, aside from any JDM regulation modifications, such as different emission controls etc. In fact the (similarly styled) Z10 and Z20 generation Soarers seem to mirror the production dates of around 1981 and 1985 of the Supra. Thus in my opinion they are in fact just the formal bodied versions of the Supra, otherwise with the same running gear.


The first Z10 Soarer was little different from this, with the same distinctive glass house styling, but just with sharper edges to the front and rear, as befits its time. It’s a testament to the styling that Toyota barely felt the need to change it, and I imagine it was something of a success in the JDM that they were able to do so. (Consider the contrasting huge difference in styling between MA61 and MA70 models!) I also consider the Soarer to be an effective successor to the Crown coupe, as the last JDM ‘MS112’ shape 2-door Crown disappeared in the very early eighties, as obviously the introduction of the Soarer replaced it as Toyota’s top formal coupe in the range. As a styling comparison between the F31 and Z20, there is little in it, it’s just a matter of personal taste. The Z20 Soarer is more bulky and dated due to it being an intrinsically earlier design of car than the sleeker but less distinctive Leopard. The weakest point of the Leopard styling is the very bland frontal treatment, a vital area on any luxury car. Personally I slightly prefer the more aggressive styling and stance of the Soarer. The ‘grille’ on the M30 Infiniti US-version is just as bad, so no easy swap there. The lack of styling to the rounded bumpers really let it down too, shame.


The Soarer is slightly! more run-in with around 140,000 miles, but still seems to pull really well. The Nissan is a 24V version of the VG30DET (I think) engine, broadly also used in the Z cars. A Nissan expert will no doubt be able to offer definitive advice on this. So which one is faster – Well I think the Leopard shades it. The Soarer also suffers from being quite a heavy beast, but at least has its cylinders in the ‘correct’ straight six arrangement unlike the V6 Nissan. (In fact Toyota have only just abandoned the straight six engine with the introduction of the new 2005 model Crown.)


Turning to the interior, the Nissan has very nice condition but sober dark grey leather (pic below). However there isn’t otherwise that cosseting luxury feel as in the more bespoke Soarer, which had also just been treated to a probably much-needed £470 ‘re-Connellisation’ of the leather. So the light tan leather was in good condition and not cracked like you see in so many tired MA70 Supras nowadays.


The trim level of this Soarer is called ‘Limited’ although it’s anything but. As a Crown enthusiast with late import models, I was surprised to find so little of the Soarer’s interior was familiar to me. All of the switchgear seems bespoke and top quality. The most unusual feature was the humble indicator stalks. These are electronic i.e. they do not mechanically move up and down, but rather just dip up or down, making a beep to signify their change in status. Sounds like a simple thing, nut it really takes some getting used to, as you are always trying to compensate for where you expect the stalk to be, until you get used to it. This feature is also on my bosses 2003 £50k BMW 7 series, and he found the same experience as my rather cheaper machine!


The dials also betray the Nissan’s quality. The analogue dials on a white background (pic above) would look more in place on a boy-racer Euro hatchback. Whereas the Soarer has the familiar digital screen set up (pic left), similar to the 130 series Crown. Both cars have non-touch black and white TV screens in them, which aren’t properly set up yet for UK stations, it’s a bit hit and miss. They otherwise indicate some of the interior functions etc. The Soarer also has an unusual LCD type proto-touch screen, for the majority of the heater and audio controls, but these are a bit of a gimmick. Both cars have handy duplicate control buttons on the steering wheel, although the Soarer’s are currently all non-operational… Although some of these features are increasingly commonplace on todays techno-fest cars, this was 1988 remember, and Toyota in particular did have a habit of developing some of the gizmo’s on the JDM Soarer before unleashing them on the rest of the world. Cruise works well on both cars, in an easy to use manner once you have sussed it. (I never understand why ANY of the switches on either cars are shown in English when they are for the home Japanese market. Most of the Soarer’s are in Japanese, more English on the Leopard.)


Some of the Leopard switchgear is sourced from cheaper models in the Nissan parts bin and the interior plastics are unfortunately of a cheaper variety. The Soarer has an unusual felt-style covering to the expanse of dashboard plastic.


The suspension is just a conventional set-up in the Nissan, whereas the Soarer has the full-on luxo-barge Air Suspension, with three settings. It can be manually set as standard or high, or will also go into firmest low position under heavy breaking or at high speeds. Both handle well enough, although the Leopard is probably nimbler. The three speed with overdrive automatic gearboxes have the usual faster reacting sport and lazier economy settings.

So which car wins the test? For me the Soarer. Am I biased towards Toyotas? Well probably else I wouldn’t be doing this site or have a shed full of Crowns, but I started off as a wee lad with Datsun Laurel sixes and Cedrics. In fact my very first car as a 19 year old set the template for my car ownership. It was a South African assembled import 1981 Laurel C230 ‘280L’ i.e. with the 2753cc (L28 280C) engine instead of the more usual 2.0 and 2.4 UK models. It was also 5 speed. My Cedric was a jolly rare even then ’72 K-plate 240C 230 series. But having then discovered the Crown MS112 and MS75, I soon then concentrated my efforts onto Toyota’s. The Z20 Soarer is far from the prettiest car on the planet, but its unusual styling and exclusivity has had me hankering for one for the last ten odd years. (And then two come along!) Regardless of this, the Z20 Soarer still has a noticeably distinctive all round quality to it, and just ‘feels’ special. The Leopard is still an incredibly nice and unusual car, with condition and history in it’s favour.

Coming next: 1988 Soarer GZ20 2.0 twin turbo test! Vs this MZ21, or alternatively if anyone with a similarly equipped Supra 2.0TT wants a race!

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