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

THE AE92 COROLLA AND SPRINTER

There were undoubtedly people who would have been happy for the Levin and Trueno to retain rear-wheel drive indefinitely, but we assume neither sales nor production logistics justified that once the rest of the Corolla and Sprinter lines had switched to FWD. Toyota already had sporty specialty cars; the Levin and Trueno only really made commercial sense as long as they retained their commonality with other Corolla and Sprinter models.

1988-1991 Toyota Soarer 2.0GT-Twin Turbo (GZ20) side © 2013 FotoSleuth (CC BY 2.0 Generic - modified by Aaron Severson)

The likely stylistic inspiration for the 1987–1991 AE92 Corolla and Sprinter coupes was the second-generation Toyota Soarer, a high-tech personal luxury coupe sharing the platform of the A70 Supra. The Z20 Soarer was never officially exported, but was very popular in Japan. The subsequent Z30 version was sold overseas as the 1991–2000 Lexus SC. (Photo: “Toyota Soarer GT” © 2013 FotoSleuth; resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson and used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license with modifications offered under the same license)

When the sixth-generation (E90) Corolla and Sprinter arrived in May 1987, the new Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno coupes switched to the same FF platform as their sedan and hatchback siblings. The three-door body style was dropped, leaving only a two-door notchback that bore a strong resemblance to Toyota’s popular Soarer luxury coupe. As before, the E90 Levin and Trueno versions were mechanically identical, with the Trueno distinguished primarily by its popup headlights and other slight styling differences.

1988-91 Toyota Corolla Sport GT-S (AE92) side © 2014 Aaron Severson

The North American AE92 Corolla Sport’s longer bumpers brought its overall length to 172.2 inches (4,375 mm), 5.1 inches (130 mm) longer than the JDM Sprinter Trueno. Curb weight of a well-equipped GT-S was about 2,500 lb (1,130 kg), roughly 110 lb (50 kg) more than a comparable Trueno GT APEX. (author photo)

All Levins and Truenos now had 16-valve, DOHC engines. The 4A-GE was retained for JDM 1600 models and the North American Corolla Sport GT-S (chassis code AE92), but JDM 1500s (chassis code AE91) traded the SOHC 3A-LU for the newer 1,498 cc (91 cu. in.) DOHC 5A-F and injected 5A-FE engines while some export models now used the 1,587 cc (97 cu. in.) 4A-F found in Corolla and Carina sedans.

These new “High Mecha Twincam” engines, whose 16-valve heads were based on that of the bigger 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) 3S-FE in the SV20 Toyota Camry, were designed for better fuel economy and lower emissions rather than outright performance, but they inevitably left the hot 4A-GE engine feeling a little less special. It didn’t help that the latter’s advertised output had fallen to 120 PS (88 kW), although that change simply reflected the adoption of JIS net ratings; the latest 4A-GE was actually more powerful than before.

1988-91 Toyota Corolla Sport GT-S (AE92) rear 3q © 2014 Aaron Severson

Aero body extensions and a rear spoiler were standard on the North American AE92 Corolla Sport GT-S, but in Japan were an extra-cost option on all grades but the GT-Z. (author photo)

In compensation, the JDM Levin and Trueno now offered a new GT-Z grade with an engine not available on other Corollas and Sprinters: the supercharged 4A-GZE, introduced about a year earlier on the Toyota MR2. The 4A-GZE was based on the 4A-GE, but deleted the T-VIS system and had a reinforced block, a stronger crankshaft and pistons, a lower (8.0:1) compression ratio, a knock sensor, and an air-to-air intercooler fed by a prominent hood scoop. The supercharger had a maximum boost of 10.7 psi (0.74 bar) and was electronically disengaged at light loads to reduce off-boost drag.

The supercharged engine produced 145 PS JIS (107 kW) and 137 lb-ft (186 N-m) of torque, making it the most powerful engine yet offered in a stock Corolla or Sprinter. It was also free of the boost lag that afflicted most contemporary turbocharged engines. However, the GT-Z weighed about 110 lb (50 kg) more than a normally aspirated AE92, which was itself around 130 lb (60 kg) heavier than the RWD coupe it replaced. The GT-Z also cost about 10% more than a GT APEX.

1987-91 Toyota Corolla Levin GT-Z (AE92) front 3q © 2011 dave_7 (CC BY 2.0 Generic)

The AE92 Corolla Levin looked very much like the contemporary Sprinter Trueno or North American Corolla Sport except for the grille and fixed headlights, which served to make the Levin look even more like the contemporary Toyota Soarer. This car’s oversize wheels are not stock; the AE92 GT-Z came with 195/60HR14 tires on 5.5JJx14 wheels. (Photo: “Toyota Levin” © 2011 dave_7; used under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license)

The previous GT, GTV, and GT APEX models carried over, again sharing the normally aspirated 4A-GE engine and a firmer suspension with front and rear anti-roll bars. All AE92 cars except the GT had four-wheel disc brakes and the GT APEX included power steering (also standard on the GT-Z) and dual-mode electronically controlled shock absorbers (called TEMS, for Toyota Electronically Modulated Suspension). There was also an assortment of milder AE91 models making 85 PS (JIS net; 63 kW) with the carbureted 5A-F engine or 94 PS (69 kW) with the fuel-injected 5A-FE.

1987 Toyota Sprinter Trueno GT-Z (AE92) front 3q © 2008 Mytho88 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

All AE92 Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno GT-Zs had a functional hood scoop to feed outside air to the intercooler. Two-tone paint was optional on JDM cars, but the GT-Z could not be ordered with TEMS or with automatic transmission, which was available on all other models. (Photo: “1987 Toyota Sprinter-Trueno 01” © 2008 Mytho88; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

The AE91/AE92 coupes were not widely exported. As far as we know, they were not officially offered in Australia or most European markets, which generally received the sporty version of latest three-door Corolla FX instead. However, the sixth-generation coupe was sold in North America. As with the AE86, the North American AE92 was based on the JDM Sprinter Trueno, but was badged Corolla Sport. It was offered in SR5 trim with the 1,587 cc (97 cu. in.) DOHC 4A-F, now with 90 hp SAE (67 kW), and in GT-S form with the 4A-GE engine and 115 hp SAE (86 kW). U.S. buyers still couldn’t order the GT-S with automatic nor were they offered the supercharged engine, the adjustable shock absorbers, or digital instruments optional on the JDM GT APEX.

1989 Toyota MR2 Supercharged (AW11) side © 2009 Aaron Severson

The supercharged 4A-GZE was never offered on a North American Corolla, but Toyota did federalize the engine for the short-lived MR2 Supercharged. Offered only in 1988–1989, the engine in the supercharged MR2 actually had a slightly higher rated output than did its Japanese counterpart: 145 hp SAE (108 kW) and 140 lb-ft (190 N-m) of torque compared to 145 PS (107 kW) and 137 lb-ft (186 N-m) for the JDM engine. (author photo)

We don’t have independent test results for the AE92 GT-Z, but based on reviews of the normally aspirated U.S. cars, the 4A-GE Levin and Trueno were incrementally faster than the last AE86 cars: 0-60 mph (0-97 km/h) in the mid-8-second range with an unrestricted top speed of around 120 mph (193 km/h). With front-wheel drive, power-on oversteer was no longer on the menu, although testers found that they could still hang out the tail by lifting off the throttle in mid-corner. Reviewers’ major complaint, as with performance versions of the earlier FX hatchback, was that the AE92 felt nervous in abrupt transitions, lacking the confidence-inspiring fluidity of hot hatch and FF coupe rivals like Honda’s Integra or Prelude. The stiffer performance suspension also yielded a rather jittery ride.

1988-91 Toyota Corolla Sport GT-S (AE92) alloy wheel © 2014 Aaron Severson

North American AE92 Corolla Sport GT-S coupes had four-wheel disc brakes and could be ordered with alloy wheels, but this car’s 15-inch wheels are aftermarket additions. Stock AE92s had 5.5JJx14 wheels and the largest OEM tire size was 195/60HR14. (author photo)

In May 1989, two years after launch, the E90 cars received a mid-life update that included extensive engine revisions. The T-VIS system was deleted from normally aspirated 4A-GE cars, which also got smaller ports and the milder cam from the supercharged 4A-GZE. While that sounds like a recipe for reduced output, the normally aspirated 4A-GE now had a higher compression ratio (10.3:1 rather than 9.4:1) and the supercharged engine’s knock sensor, allowing greater ignition advance. The result was a net output of 140 PS JIS (103 kW) for JDM cars, 130 hp SAE (97 kW) for the North American Corolla Sport GT-S. The supercharged 4A-GZE was up to 165 PS (121 kW) and fuel injection was now standard on all JDM AE91 cars and the North American Corolla Sport SR5. The latter now had 102 hp SAE (76 kW), providing much more respectable performance than before.

Interestingly, while the Corolla Sport GT-S was the only U.S.-market E90 Corolla to offer the 4A-GE engine (it was also offered on sedans and hatchbacks in other markets), Chevrolet buyers could order that engine and its associated equipment in the 1988–1989 Chevrolet Nova Twin-Cam sedan. For 1990, the Nova was replaced by the NUMMI-built Geo Prizm, which could be ordered in four- and five-door GSi form with the small-port 4A-GE engine (with 130 hp/97 kW), sport suspension, and four-wheel disc brakes. While the Geo Prizm sedan was a commercial success, the same could not be said of the five-door body style, which vanished after only two years, nor of the GSi sedan, which did not return for the subsequent E100 Prizm.

1990-91 Geo Prizm GSi five-door rear 3q © 2012 IFCAR (PD)

The rare Geo Prizm five-door, seen here in GSi form, was built in California, but was based on the JDM Sprinter Cielo (which was also available with the 4A-GE engine). The Cielo was sold as a Corolla in some export markets, but in Japan, the only five-door Corolla of this generation was in the FX line. (Photo: “Geo Prizm GSi hatchback — 02-23-2012 rear” © 2012 IFCAR; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized 2014 by Aaron Severson)

The U.S.-market Corolla Sport didn’t last even that long; sales were lackluster and the coupe was dropped after the 1991 model year. The unavailability of automatic transmission on the hotter GT-S undoubtedly didn’t help sales, nor did list prices. Even the SR5 started at more than $11,000, nearly 20% more than a basic Corolla sedan, and a loaded Corolla Sport GT-S could top $16,000, which was edging into the realm of the turbocharged Mitsubishi Eclipse or Ford Probe GT (to say nothing of the V-8 Mustang).

Ultimately, though, the issue was probably one of image. Although the Corolla was popular in the U.S., selling close to 200,000 units a year by the early nineties, the Corolla name wasn’t exactly a siren song to enthusiast buyers, while compact sedan buyers were likely to be put off by the GT-S coupe’s stiff ride, vocal engine, and cramped rear seat. Toyota’s U.S. organization took the hint; future U.S.-market Corollas would be offered only in four-door and wagon forms.

1988-91 Toyota Corolla Sport GT-S (AE92) front © 2014 Aaron Severson

The North American AE92 Corolla Sport coupes were similar but not identical to the JDM Sprinter Trueno, sharing the Trueno’s popup headlights, but had slightly different front and rear styling to incorporate the larger U.S.-spec bumpers. This car’s fog lamps are an aftermarket addition. (author photo)

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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