Thunder and Lightning, Part 2: The AE86 Toyota Corolla Levin/Sprinter Trueno

THE AE85/AE86 COROLLA LEVIN AND SPRINTER TRUENO

In previous generations, Toyota had reserved the Levin and Trueno nameplates for DOHC Corolla and Sprinter coupes, but those badges were now applied to all AE85 and AE86 models regardless of engine or body style, presumably to further distinguish the RWD cars from the FF models.

The new AE85 and AE86 Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno coupes were mechanically identical to one another with nearly identical dimensions, although the Sprinter was slightly longer overall. The main difference between the two versions was styling; Levins had exposed flush headlights while the Sprinter Trueno had popup lights.

1983-85 Toyota Corolla Levin (AE86) grille and grille badge © 2010 Toshihiro Oimatsu/OiMax (CC BY 2.0 Generic)

Detail of an early-production (Zenki) AE86 Corolla Levin, showing the original marker lights and turn signal design. (Photo: “AE86 Levin” © 2010 OiMax (Toshihiro Oimatsu); used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

Earlier Corollas and Sprinters owed much of their home market success to the fact that they were available in a huge assortment of engine and trim combinations. The AE85 and AE86 were no different. In the Japanese domestic market, the Levin and Trueno were each offered in eight different grades: three AE85 notchbacks (GL, LIME, and SE for the Levin; XL, XL-Lissé, and SE for the Trueno), one AE85 three-door (SR), and four AE86 models (two-door GT, three-door GTV, and the better-equipped two- and three-door GT APEX).

1983–85 Toyota Corolla Levin two-door (AE86) front 3q © 2010 Mark van Seeters (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified by Aaron Severson)

Both body styles of the early (1983–1985) AE85 and AE86 Corolla Levin were 164.6 inches (4,180 mm) long on a 94.5-inch (2,400mm) wheelbase with an overall width of 64 inches (1,625 mm) and an overall height of 52.6 inches (1,335 mm). The front spoiler and fog lamps of this Zenki Levin two-door (probably a GT APEX) are not stock, nor are the wheels. (Photo: “IMG_0510” © 2010 Mark van Seeters; resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

Like the E70 Corolla and Sprinter, the AE85 and AE86 had MacPherson struts and an anti-roll bar in front and a live axle in back, located by four trailing links and a Panhard rod. The suspension was offered in three levels of firmness: the softest grade for AE85 two-doors; a firmer “GT” suspension with a rear anti-roll bar for SR, GT, and GT APEX models; and a stiff “super-tuned” suspension for the three-door GTV. All AE86 models had vented front disc brakes and GTV and GT APEX models also had rear discs and an optional limited-slip differential.

In Japan, the rear-drive coupes now offered only two engines. AE85s had the carbureted 1,452 cc (87 cu. in.) SOHC 3A-U II, essentially a longitudinally mounted version of the engine from the FWD AE81 Corolla and Sprinter, with 83 PS JIS (61 kW) and a choice of five-speed manual or four-speed automatic transmissions. AE86 cars had the new DOHC 1,587 cc (97 cu. in.) 4A-GEU engine, the 16-valve successor to the now-departed 2T-GEU twin-cam. The 4A-GEU was rated at 130 PS JIS (96 kW) and initially mated only to a five-speed gearbox.

1985-87 Toyota Sprinter Trueno GT APEX two-door (AE86) front 3q © 2009 Mike Roberts (CC BY-SA 2.0 Generic)

The AE85/AE86 Sprinter Trueno had the same wheelbase, width, and height as the Corolla Levin, but was 165.6 inches (4,205 mm) overall, about an inch (25 mm) longer than a Zenki Levin. Wraparound marker lights in the front bumper were added with the mid-life refresh in 1985; earlier Truenos of this generation have smaller non-wraparound lights in the front bumper. (Photo: “IMG_4677” © 2009 Mike Roberts; used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license)

As you can probably gather, JDM Levin and Trueno buyers could tailor their cars to taste. AE85 cars were essentially mild-mannered commuters offering varying levels of features. The GTV was the hardcore, minimalist performance version while the GT APEX combined most of the GTV’s performance equipment with more toys, including digital instruments (standard on three-doors, optional on two-doors) and optional automatic air conditioning. About the only combination not offered was an AE86 automatic, although that would arrive later.

Modified 1985-87 Toyota Corolla Levin GT APEX three-door (AE86) front © 2014 Tokumeigakarinoaoshima (PD CC0 1.0)

Many surviving AE86 Corollas and Sprinters have been modified in various ways. This Corolla Levin GT APEX three-door sports the grille of the Zenki cars, but the wraparound marker lights in the front bumper and the black trim around the turn signal/running lamp suggest that this is actually a Kouki (1985–1987) car. (Photo: “Toyota COROLLA LEVIN GT APEX (AE86) front” © 2014 Tokumeigakarinoaoshima; dedicated to the public domain by the photographer under a Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

Such variety made for a wide price spread. Corolla Levin list prices ranged from ¥1,060,000 (equivalent to around $4,500) for an AE85 GL to ¥1,548,000 (about $6,500) for a three-door AE86 in GT APEX trim. The equivalent Sprinter Trueno ran ¥15,000 to ¥32,000 ($60 to $135) more. None of these prices was extravagant — a Toyota Celica or Honda Prelude cost a fair bit more — but the top AE86 Levin and Trueno were still the most expensive of their respective lines. For comparison, an AE80 Corolla 1300 DX sedan started at as little as ¥832,000 (about $3,500).

SIDEBAR: THE 4A-GE ENGINE

Although it shared the same basic iron block as the rest of Toyota’s four-cylinder A-system engines — fortified with a forged steel crankshaft and an external oil cooler — the AE86’s sporty 4A-GEU had a new aluminum head featuring not only belt-driven dual overhead camshafts and pentroof combustion chambers, but also four valves per cylinder, operated (as on the 2T-G) via inverted bucket-type tappets.

Engines with four valves per cylinder were by no means a new idea in 1983, but they were still not common for mass-production models; even many contemporary DOHC engines still had only two valves per cylinder. Toyota initially considered going that route for the 4A-GEU, but eventually settled on the four-valve layout. The 4A-GEU was Toyota’s second four-valve-per-cylinder production engine, following the introduction in mid-1982 of the six-cylinder 1G-GEU, a 1,988 cc (121 cu. in.) inline six offered on the JDM Celica XX (a.k.a. Supra) and Soarer.

(It isn’t entirely clear to what extent Yamaha was involved in the development of these four-valve heads. Toyota is vague on this point, although they acknowledge Yamaha’s role in developing Toyota’s earlier DOHC engines and confirm that Yamaha was involved in the manufacture of the heads for the 4A-GEU, whose block was made on the same lines as the SOHC 3A and 4A engines.)

Like the previous 2T-GEU, the 16-valve 4A-GEU was conceived specifically as a performance engine. It again had electronic fuel injection, although JDM cars’ EFI-D system used a manifold air pressure sensor for metering rather than the mass airflow sensor of the 2T-GEU’s Bosch/Denso L-Jetronic system. Injection and ignition timing were controlled by a proprietary TCCS digital engine management system, which also controlled the Toyota Variable Induction System (T-VIS).

T-VIS, previously introduced on the 24-valve 1G-GEU engine, provided two intake runners for each cylinder. At lower speeds, half of those runners were closed via butterfly valves, which then snapped open at 4,650 rpm. The idea was to keep the four-valve head’s greater total valve area from compromising the engine’s flexibility at low speeds by increasing low-rpm intake velocity and inducing some swirl through the intake valves.

4A-GEU engine in a 1983-87 Toyota Corolla Levin (AE86) © 2004 Tennen-Gas (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

JDM versions of the early 4A-GE were known as 4A-GEU in longitudinal applications, 4A-GELU in transverse applications. The “L” and “U” suffixes, which respectively signified transverse mounting and Japanese emissions compliance, were phased out in the late eighties, by which time Toyota had dropped the longitudinal versions of this engine and compliance with Japan’s national emissions standards was assumed. (Photo: “Toyota Corolla Levin 001” © 2004 Tennen-Gas; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

Even with T-VIS, the 4A-GEU had only fractionally more peak torque than the eight-valve 2T-GEU — 110 lb-ft (149 N-m) versus 109 lb-ft (147 N-m) — although a fair amount was available at midrange engine speeds. The bigger gains were on top; the 4A-GEU now boasted a gross output of 130 PS JIS (96 kW) at 6,600 rpm, 13% more than the 2T-GEU. The new engine stood almost an inch (23 mm) higher, but was 1.9 inches (48 mm) shorter overall and 0.7 inches (18 mm) narrower than its predecessor engine and weighed about 50 lb (23 kg) less. The 4A-GEU was also marginally more fuel efficient, at least according to Japan’s official 10-mode figures.

Toyota used the 4A-GEU engine much more extensively than the earlier 2T-G. The new engine went first into the AE86 Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno, followed later in the year by the AT160 Carina 1600GT and Celica 1600GT. A transversely mounted version, the 4A-GELU, was introduced in the new MR2 the following June and added later that year to the AE82 Corolla FX GT and Corolla/Sprinter 1600 GT sedans. All had basically the same specifications, but net ratings varied a little from application to application, probably due to differences in exhaust packaging.

11 Comments

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  1. Wow! What a great and detailed history you have written. Thanks.

  2. This was truly well worth the wait! Very comprehensive article – the AE101 Levin and Trueno shared a dashboard with a 4 door hardtop called either the Sprinter Marino or the Corolla Ceres, some of which also carried the 20V engine. A friend of mine ran a few of these cars, and the early manual ones definitely needed a 6-speed gearbox – you also had to be a skilled driver to rein in some of the torque steer. The boy racers graduated from the Suzuki Swift GTi to these in the late 1990s when they became available as foreign used cars in the Barbados market. There are still a lot of them around in varying stages of tune – it’s become increasingly difficult to find one that’s completely standard.

    1. Thanks, Dave. It hadn’t occurred to me that the Levin and Trueno dash was the same as the Ceres/Marino, but I looked it up and you’re quite right.

      I don’t think a lot of my U.S. or European readers will probably have heard of the Ceres and Marino, so I added a photo. Four-door “hardtops” like these were very popular in Japan for a number of years, going back to the late seventies. Most were not actually pillarless hardtops in the traditional sense, but they approximated that look by concealing the B-pillars (designing them to be thin in profile, painting them black, and putting them behind the door windows rather than between them), using frameless door glass, and sometimes adopting a more coupe-like roofline. A couple of examples with which readers may be more familiar include the ’90s Integra four-doors, the Lexus ES250 (which I believe was based on the JDM Camry Prominent hardtop), and the last U.S.-market Mazda 929.

      The Corolla Ceres and Sprinter Marino were offered in three grades (F Type, X Type, and G Type) that approximated the AE100/AE101 Levin/Trueno S, SJ, and GT grades in engines and equipment. There wasn’t an equivalent to the GT APEX or GT-Z, so as far as I know you couldn’t get a Ceres or Marino with Super Strut or the 4A-GZE engine, but as you mention, the G Type did have four-wheel discs and the 4A-GE TWINCAM20 engine. You could also order a sports package that included the coupes’ spoilers and other cosmetic bits, so a properly equipped Ceres G looked and performed a lot like an AE101 Levin GT.

  3. It looks to me that the Super Strut suspension worked by simply divorcing the strut from the steering, as with Ford’s RevoKnuckle on the Focus ST and GM’s HiPer strut on the Regal GS/Insignia and that the extra lower arms allow better steering geometry and reduced offset, a la BMW’s double pivot and the lower-half of Audi’s four link design. It probably also induces camber gain, as you speculate.

    1. You’re right — I hadn’t previously looked closely at the layouts of the RevoKnuckle or HiPerStrut (or whatever Renault calls theirs), but the basic principles look to be very similar, just executed a little differently in each case.

      1. I’ve been studying these systems more closely and Super Strut was actually somewhat more complex than the current HiPer Strut, RevoKnuckle, and PerfoHub. The newer setups have the relocated steering axis and reduced spindle height, but Toyota also did something very complex with the way the strut extension is pivoted to the rear lower arm to allow more camber gain. The GM, Ford, and Renault setups give a little more camber gain, but looking at the way they’re set up, I’m reasonably confident that it’s not as much as Super Strut provided. The tradeoff is that they’re also not as complex or as expensive and will hopefully be more reliable.

  4. Love this site! I love the Levins from start to finish. I own an AE111 Levin with the 20 valve blacktop and man isn’t it fun to drive!

  5. A great article.

    Several of the AE86 Levins that competed in the Australian Touring Car Championship in the mid to late 80’s are now racing in historic touring car racing – they are great little cars!

  6. My mostly stock 4A-C powered USDM AE86 with the manual transmission (slightly modified intake/vaccum setup and rear muffler delete ,keeping catalytic converter) has hit GPS Verified 101mph on flat ground, I’m sure if it was a little fresher (mine has 230k miles) it might hit 105. That’s getting close to 5,000rpm in 5th which is right when peak power starts to fall off, so anything beyond that would be stretching it.

  7. Thanks, I enjoyed the article… I’ve had my AE86 Trueno for 23 years now… Handling in stock form was pretty scary. Not sure how they got the factory JDM model to 2090lbs. Mine fully stripped for racing with no interior and sweating every gram is still 2030lbs.

    1. I’m a little puzzled by the JDM curb weights myself; I’m not sure what Japanese vehicle regulations require in terms of fuel and fluids in those calculations, but the quoted figures seem consistently lower than what I’d expect from a fully equipped and fueled car. (That’s a frequent issue with manufacturer curb weights regardless of country of origin.) Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done about it short of putting the car on a scale or finding some reasonably neutral third party who has. For that reason, I tend to find factory weight figures of most use for comparison purposes — for instance, the weight difference between trim levels.

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