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

EXPORT COUPES

Export versions of the RWD AE85/AE86 were offered in considerably fewer variations than their JDM counterparts, but had some peculiar permutations of their own.

Australian-market coupes were based on the three-door Corolla Levin, but, confusingly, were marketed as Toyota Sprinters. Australia-bound cars offered neither the DOHC 4A-GE nor the 1.5-liter 3A engines, instead using the carbureted 1,587 cc (97 cu. in.) 4A-C with 59 kW (about 78 hp) in a chassis more closely resembling the Japanese AE85. List price was a bit under A$15,000.

Coupes bound for North America or certain Middle Eastern markets were offered in two- and three-door forms, badged Corolla Sport but based on the JDM Sprinter Trueno, presumably because the Trueno’s retractable headlights represented less of a regulatory headache than the Levin’s composite headlights, not yet legal in the U.S.

When the new Corolla Sport debuted for 1984, it was offered only in SR5 trim with the same carbureted SOHC 1,587 cc (97 cu. in.) 4A-C as the last U.S.-market E70 Corolla sedans, making a meager 70 hp SAE (52 kW). Like the Australian Sprinter, the Corolla Sport’s chassis was comparable to that of the Japanese AE85, although bigger U.S.-spec bumpers made the North American car significantly heavier.

1986 Toyota Corolla Sport SR5 two-door (AE86) side © 2014 Aaron Severson

Not all 1983–1987 Corolla and Sprinter coupes were performance cars; the AE85 1500 models and North American SR5s like this 1986 two-door were decidedly mild-mannered. Like the JDM AE85 cars, the Corolla Sport SR5 had black rather than body-colored bumpers, skinny 13-inch tires, rear drum brakes, and softer springs and shocks than the DOHC cars’. (author photo)

The DOHC 4A-GE engine belatedly arrived in North America for the 1985 model year. Dubbed Corolla Sport GT-S, the DOHC car was comparable to the JDM Sprinter Trueno GT APEX, with standard four-wheel disc brakes and GT suspension. Some of the GT APEX’s standard features were omitted or moved to the options list on the GT-S, but the U.S. car did get standard 185/60R14 tires, optional on JDM cars, and a rather improbable 150 mph (240 km/h) speedometer. The federalized twin-cam engine, offered only with a five-speed gearbox, had a different injection system than Japanese cars (using mass airflow metering rather than manifold air pressure) and had net ratings of 112 hp SAE (84 kW) and 97 lb-ft (132 N-m) of torque. List prices started at $9,298 for the two-door coupe and $9,538 for the three-door, $1,200 to $1,300 more than the SR5, which remained available for buyers on a budget or who wanted automatic transmission.

1986 Toyota Corolla Sport two-door SR5 (AE86) rear 3q © 2014 Aaron Severson

Two-door AE85/AE86 Corollas and Sprinters were less aerodynamic than the three-doors: Toyota claimed drag coefficients of 0.37 for the two-door coupe and 0.35 for the three-door body style. The three-door coupe’s rear hatch made for marginally greater utility, although both body styles suffer a high liftover height and neither has an abundance of passenger or cargo room. Note the center high-mounted stop light (CHMSL), added to all 1986–1987 U.S. cars to meet a new federal requirement. (author photo)

British and European buyers, meanwhile, were offered a single three-door Corolla GT coupe based on the JDM Corolla Levin three-door. Specifications were similar to those of the Japanese GTV grade, including stiff suspension, four-wheel disc brakes, and unassisted steering, but the European AE86 Corolla GT had 185/70HR13 tires on 13-inch alloy wheels instead of the GTV’s 185/60HR14s. The sole transmission was a five-speed manual gearbox and the sole engine was the 4A-GE, which in European form had a higher (10.0:1) compression ratio and lacked most of the emission-control equipment fitted to the Japanese 4A-GEU, including the catalytic converter. In uncatalyzed form, the twin-cam engine carried DIN ratings of 124 PS (91 kW) and 105 lb-ft (142 N-m) of torque.

1985 Toyota Corolla Sport GT-S two-door (AE86) front 3q © 2010 dave_7 (CC BY 2.0 Generic)

This is a North American AE86 Corolla Sport GT-S two-door, identifiable by its body-colored bumpers and the “GT-S Twin Cam 16” lettering on the door (not easily visible at this scale or angle). Remarkably, this car appears to have the correct 5.5Jx14 alloy wheels, a rarity for surviving AE86 cars outside museums. (Photo: “Toyota Corolla GTS” © 2010 dave_7; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

It’s important to emphasize here that despite its seemingly lower advertised output, the European 4A-GE engine was certainly more powerful than the catalyzed JDM version. The JIS ratings released by Japanese automakers prior to the late eighties were usually gross figures, roughly 15% higher than the more conservative net ratings adopted a few years later. The JDM 4A-GEU’s net output was probably fairly closer to that of the U.S. engine; Toyota now quotes a net rating of 111 PS (82 kW) for the transversely mounted 4A-GELU version offered in contemporary FWD cars.

AE86 ON THE ROAD

We have no independent test data for either the JDM AE85 Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno or the carbureted 1.6-liter export models, which were largely ignored by the English-language press. Toyota claimed a top speed of 105 mph (170 km/h) for the AE85, which strikes us as optimistic. The heavier 1.6-liter carbureted cars were probably in the same realm as the previous-generation Corolla 1600, which would mean 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in around 13 seconds and a top speed of perhaps 96 mph (155 km/h) — not impressive for even an inexpensive coupe in the mid-eighties.

We unfortunately also lack road test data for the JDM AE86, but we assume Japanese reviewers were as impressed as the English-language press was with the 4A-GE engine. It was noisy but eager, reasonably smooth, and a good deal more flexible than the high torque peak would suggest, although extracting maximum performance required full use of the engine’s 7,500-rpm redline. Fuel economy was also good despite very short gearing and the slick close-ratio gearbox made it easy to keep the engine on the boil.

1985-86 Toyota Corolla Sport GT-S three-door (AE86) side view © 2009 Motohide "Club 4AG" Miwa (CC BY-20 Generic)

In profile, the bigger bumpers of the U.S.-spec AE86 Corolla Sport GT-S Liftback are readily apparent. The bumpers brought overall length to 168.7 inches (4,285 mm), 3.3 inches (85 mm) longer than the JDM Sprinter Trueno. Curb weight was around 2,350 lb (1,065 kg) compared to a factory curb weight of 2,070 lb (940 kg) for a Trueno GT APEX. (Photo: untitled © 2009 Moto “Club 4AG” Miwa; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

How much forward progress that process yielded was another matter. By all indications, the European AE86 Corolla coupe was the fastest of the lot: British tests found the RWD Corolla GT capable of 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in the high 8-second range with a claimed top speed of 122 mph (196 km/h), which was competitive but not class-leading for the time. With less power and about 280 lb (125 kg) more weight, the U.S.-spec Corolla GT-S needed to be caned to reach 60 mph (97 km/h) in less than 10 seconds and claimed top speed was only 115 mph (185 km/h). We assume the lighter JDM AE86 split the difference between the U.S. and European models in acceleration, although the Japanese cars were limited to a top speed of 112 mph (180 km/h).

Most American critics were impressed with the handling of the Corolla GT-S. While the ride was stiff, the steering was sharp, dry-roads grip was excellent, and the brakes were strong. British reviewers generally echoed those sentiments, but complained of a nervous feeling from the rear axle near the limits of adhesion, which sounds like deflection steer from the rear trailing arm bushings, track changes caused by the Panhard rod, or a combination of the two. Since American and European cars had different tires and suspension tuning, it’s hard to say to what extent those complaints reflected minor mechanical variations, different test conditions, or just British critics’ generally harsher attitude toward most Japanese cars.

Modified 1985-87 Toyota Corolla Levin GT APEX three-door (AE86) rear 3q © 2014 Tokumeigakarinoaoshima (PD CC 1.0)

The oversize exhaust pipe and diminutive muffler of this early AE86 Corolla Levin GT APEX are not stock, nor are the wheels. Standard fit for all AE86 GT APEX models was 185/70HR13 tires on 5×13 wheels, although GT APEX three-doors could be ordered with the 185/60HR14 rubber and 5.5Jx14 wheels that were standard on the GTV. The rear wiper was standard on all three-doors of this generation. (Photo: “Toyota COROLLA LEVIN GT APEX (AE86) rear” © 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)

In any case, the AE86 Corolla and Sprinter’s defining attribute was their old-school rear-drive road manners. Unlike many contemporary FWD rivals, there was no torque steer, nor would you spin the inside front wheel coming out of a tight turn. The AE86’s chassis was set up for mild understeer, which, provided you were in the proper gear, could be neutralized with the throttle. Some FF hot hatches of this era (including the Corolla FX GT) were quite willing to oversteer on a trailing throttle, but adding more power would just cause the nose to wash out. By contrast, the RWD AE86 would let you hang out the tail and hold it there with throttle and opposite lock. Not all critics considered that a good thing — it demanded caution in the wet — but it would become the cornerstone of the AE86’s appeal.

Naturally, that appeal was particularly strong for racers, who were also attracted by the AE86’s light weight and high-revving engine. As soon as the AE86 was homologated, it continued the TE71 Corolla’s impressive competition record, including class triumphs in the All-Japan Grand Touring Car Championship, Australian Touring Car Championship, the British Open Rally Championship, and the British Touring Car Championship series. AE86 Corollas even tackled the 1986 Paris-Dakar Rally.

The AE86’s most lasting fame, however, came from its popularity in Japanese tōge (or touge) racing: exciting but illegal contests on twisting mountain roads. The AE86 Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno lent themselves to road racing, legal or otherwise, because their RWD chassis facilitated power-on four-wheel drifts. “Drifting” was not new (it was familiar to a generation of American dirt-track racers long before the Corolla was ever conceived), but it was popularized in Japan by a young Fuji Freshman series driver named Keiichi Tsuchiya — who raced an AE86 Sprinter Trueno — and later became something of a sport unto itself.

1986 Toyota Corolla Levin GT APEX two-door (AE86) cabin © 2005 Eric Kisela (used with permission)

Like most Toyotas, AE86 Levins and Truenos had good ergonomics and an assortment of minor conveniences, particularly in GT APEX form. This 1986 Corolla Levin GT APEX has air conditioning, but not power windows or the electronic instrument cluster, which were optional. (Electronic instruments were standard on Zenki GT APEX three-doors, but that feature moved to the options list with the mid-life update.) The three-spoke steering wheel is not stock. (Photo: “Eric 86 int2” © 2005 Eric Kisela; used with permission)

ZENKI AND KOUKI

In July 1985, the JDM Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno got a mid-life update featuring various minor cosmetic tweaks and touched-up switchgear. The engines of AE85 cars got a higher compression ratio, increasing their output to 85 PS JIS (63 kW), while the AE86 got a slightly stronger manual gearbox and the option of automatic transmission for the GT and GT APEX (although for some reason the automatic was never offered on 4A-GE export cars). The GT APEX now had speed-variable power steering and wider wheels were newly optional on the GT APEX and GTV. Fans of these cars refer to early, pre-facelift models as “Zenki” and the late-production cars as “Kouki” (or “Kōki“).

1985-87 Toyota Corolla Levin GT APEX three-door (AE86) front © 2013 Tokumeigakarinoaoshima (PD CC0 1.0)

The new grille fitted to late AE85/AE86 Corolla Levins actually looked a great deal like the one fitted to FWD Sprinter sedans and hatchbacks, which also had fixed headlights rather than the Sprinter Trueno’s popup lights. The Kouki Levin was 165.4 inches (4,200 mm) overall, 0.8 inches (20 mm) longer than the Zenki cars. (Photo: “Toyota Corolla Levin 3dr (AE86) front” © 2013 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)

Other than a few special editions late in the run, the JDM offerings were otherwise little changed. The considerably simpler export lineup changed even less, although for 1986, the output of U.S. SR5 models was increased to a whopping 74 hp SAE (55 kW). The three-door Corolla Sport was discontinued in the U.S. market the following year, although that body style remained available elsewhere.

If the AE86 cars hadn’t changed much, the market around them had. When the AE85 and AE86 debuted in 1983, there was nothing very noteworthy about a rear-wheel-drive coupe; indeed, reviewers initially dismissed the RWD Corollas as yesterday’s news. A few years later, however, cheap RWD cars were disappearing fast, either switching to front-wheel drive or simply fading away. There were a few holdouts, like the American pony cars and the Nissan Silvia (180SX/200SX), but most surviving RWD sporty cars were now expensive GTs like the Toyota Supra or Nissan Fairlady Z. The AE86 Levin and Trueno would be among the last of their kind.

1985–87 Toyota Corolla Levin GTV (AE86) front 3q © 2013 DY5W-sport (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

Available only in three-door form and only with a five-speed gearbox, the GTV version of the AE86 Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno was aimed at the boy racer set, offering the sport seats and four-wheel discs of the pricier GT APEX, but omitting some of the convenience items and adding a stiffer “super-tuned” suspension and 14-inch wheels. A GTV cost around 10% less than a three-door GT APEX. (Photo: “Toyota Corolla Levin Hach-Back 1.6GTV AE86 1” © 2013 DY5W-sport; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

1985–87 Toyota Corolla Levin GTV (AE86) rear 3q  © 2013 DY5W-sport (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

The AE86 Corolla Levin GTV’s standard wheels and tires were 185/60HR14 on 5.5Jx14 wheels, but 195/60HR14 tires on 6.0JJx14 alloys became optional from mid-1985. Two-tone paint was optional on the GTV, but appears to have been very common. (Photo: “Toyota Corolla Levin Hach-Back 1.6GTV AE86 Rear” © 2013 DY5W-sport; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

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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