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

FINAL YEARS: THE AE100/AE101 AND AE110/AE111

The Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno coupes returned when the new E100 Corolla/Sprinter arrived in 1991, but the latest AE100/AE101 coupes were now limited mostly to Japan. The previous generation hadn’t sold particularly well overseas and the strength of the yen was making it increasingly difficult to hold the line on price, increasing the risk of internecine competition with the bigger Celica.

1992 Toyota Corolla Levin GT APEX (AE101) front 3q © 2007 Al/oversteerer (used with permission)

The AE101 Corolla Levin, seen here in GT APEX form (with a non-stock under-bumper lip), was 168.3 inches (4,275 mm) long on a 97-inch (2,465mm) wheelbase. Overall width was 66.7 inches (1,695 mm), just under the limit for the cheaper “5-number” road tax bracket in Japan. The contemporary Sprinter Trueno, which now also had exposed headlights, looked much like the Levin, but was 0.4 inches (10mm) longer and had a different hood, no grille, and a horizontal air intake slot in the front bumper. (Photo: “levinleft” © 2007 Al/oversteerer; used with permission)

Performance-minded Toyota fans in other markets had reason to be disappointed. The AE101 Levin and Trueno GT and GT APEX were powered by the latest version of the 4A-GE engine, which featured a new 20-valve cylinder head with three intake and two exhaust valves per cylinder, supplemented by variable valve timing on the intake cam and a higher 10.5:1 compression ratio. The result was 160 PS JIS (118 kW), nearly as much as the previous GT-Z. The latest GT-Z’s supercharged 16-valve engine now had 170 PS (125 kW) thanks to a new exhaust system. The cheaper AE100 coupes, meanwhile, had the 5A-FE engine with 105 PS (77 kW) while a new 1600 SJ grade had the 4A-FE with 115 PS (85 kW).

4A-GE TWINCAM20 engine in a 1992 Toyota Corolla Levin GT APEX (AE101) © 2007 oversteerer (used with permission)

Toyota’s early “silver-top” 4A-GE TWINCAM20 engine, seen here in an AE101 Levin GT APEX, had 160 PS JIS (118 kW) at 7,400 rpm and 119 lb-ft (162 N-m) of torque at 5,200 rpm. The 16-valve 4A-GZE in the GT-Z had only 10 PS (7 kW) more, but produced a more robust 152 lb-ft (206 N-m) of torque at 4,400 rpm. (Photo: “levinengine” © 2007 Al/oversteerer; used with permission)

The AE101 Levin and Trueno offered a number of novel chassis features. TEMS remained available for GT APEX models and antilock brakes were now available for both the GT APEX and GT. ABS was standard on the supercharged GT-Z, which also featured a viscous coupling limited-slip differential, V-rated tires, and Toyota’s unusual “Super Strut” front suspension.

Super Strut, optional on GT APEX models also offered on the contemporary Celica, Carina, and Corona, had two lower control arms and a curved upper arm mounted at the base of the shock absorber. The upper end of that arm connected the strut to the knuckle via a ball joint, allowing the knuckle to rotate relative to the strut (rather than causing the entire strut to rotate as the front wheels were steered). The lower end of the upper arm was connected via a short lever arm to the center of the rear lower control arm. The outer end of that arm was connected to a small connector plate on the steering knuckle. The connector plate also connected the knuckle to the outer end of the front lower arm, the inner end of which was attached to the front suspension crossmember; the plate allowed the two lower arms to pivot relative to one another as the front wheel turned. The front anti-roll bar was retained, but was now connected to the strut itself via a ball-jointed drop link.

We freely admit we may have missed a point or two of this geometrically complex system (discussed in more detail in our MacPherson strut article, but its purpose was to allow more camber gain than a conventional MacPherson strut suspension would allow while minimizing the scrub radius (the horizontal distance between the center of the tire’s contact patch and the point where the steering axis intersects the ground) to reduce torque steer. Super Strut was effective in improving front-end grip and limiting torque steer and bump steer, but the system was exceedingly complicated and its additional components — particularly the assortment of ball joints — could be troublesome and expensive to fix if they wore out. Since it was used only at the front, Super Strut also did little to alleviate the rear-end twitchiness the Corolla and Sprinter still suffered near the limits of adhesion.

1992 Toyota Corolla Levin GT APEX (AE101) rear 3q © 2007 oversteerer (used with permission)

This 1992 AE101 Corolla Levin GT APEX has Super Strut, which on AE101 Levins and Truenos included ABS, bigger brakes, linear rather than variable-assist power steering, and 195/55VR15 tires on 15x6JJ alloy wheels. The spoiler and aero body kit were standard on all AE101 cars except the 16-valve SJ and most models had a rear wiper. Thus equipped, this JDM car has a curb weight of around 2,450 lb (1,110 kg). (Photo: “levinright” © 2007 Al/oversteerer; used with permission)

Unfortunately, all this equipment (which also included standard power steering and an optional driver’s side airbag) made the latest Levin and Trueno substantially heavier than their predecessors. The coupes were still lighter than a Nissan Silvia or Honda Prelude, but an AE101 GT-Z now weighed some 420 lb (190 kg) more than even the heaviest rear-drive AE86 and a well-equipped GT APEX with Super Strut wasn’t much lighter.

1992 Toyota Corolla Levin GT APEX (AE101) interior © 2007 oversteerer (used with permission)

The AE101 Corolla Levin had a different dash than E100 Corolla sedans (although it was shared with the subsequent Corolla Ceres and Sprinter Marino hardtops), adding a voltmeter and a 9,000-rpm tachometer (redlined at 8,000 rpm on 20-valve cars). The interior is no less plasticky than on E100 sedans, although cars with Super Strut had a leather-wrapped MOMO three-spoke steering wheel (not fitted here) and shift knob and all but the cheapest AE100 1500 S coupe now had standard automatic air conditioning. (Photo: “levininterior” © 2007 Al/oversteerer; used with permission)

1994-98 Toyota Corolla Ceres (AE101) front 3q © 2007 Mytho88 (CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported)

The AE100/AE101 Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno had four-door cousins of sorts in the form of the 1992–1998 Corolla Ceres and Sprinter Marino hardtops. The Ceres and Marino were not pillarless hardtops, but featured a lower roofline, concealed B-pillars, and frameless door glass, a very popular styling theme in Japan in the late eighties and early nineties. The hardtops shared the same dash design as the coupes and the top G Type models featured four-wheel disc brakes and the 4A-GE TWINCAM20 engine, although the hardtops didn’t offer the Levin and Trueno’s supercharged engine, Super Strut suspension, or TEMS. (Photo: “1994 Toyota Corolla-Ceres 01” © 2007 Mytho88; resized and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license)

The availability of the normally aspirated 20-valve engine made the GT-Z somewhat redundant. The supercharged car no longer provided a clear performance advantage for its substantial price premium; a Levin or Trueno GT-Z now cost about 15% more than a manually shifted GT APEX. Unsurprisingly, the supercharged engine was dropped when the next-generation E110 Corolla and Sprinter bowed in May 1995.

1995-00 Toyota Sprinter Trueno BZ-G (AE111) front © 2014 Tokumeigakarinoaoshima (PD CC0 1.0)

The final AE110/AE111 Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno were hard to distinguish at a glance. The Trueno, seen here, had differently shaped driving lamps, a different “grille” treatment and taillights, and a slightly more pointed front bumper that added 0.6 inches (15 mm) to overall length. Wheelbase, height, and width were identical to the Levin’s — and unchanged from the AE100/AE101. (Photo: “Toyota SPRINTER TRUENO BZ-G (AE111) 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)

The final AE110/AE111 Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno were consolidated into only four grades: the mild-mannered 1500 FZ and 1600 XZ, with 100 and 115 PS JIS (74 or 85 kW) respectively, and the hotter BZ-G and BZ-V, both sharing the 20-valve 4A-GE, which now had 165 PS (121 kW). The new cars were lighter than before and the performance-oriented grades had some minor suspension revisions aimed at eliminating the previous models’ ragged at-the-limit responses. TEMS was no longer available, but Super Strut was still optional on BZ-G models and manual-shift BZ-G and BZ-V had a new helical limited-slip differential. ABS was optional across the board and 4A-GE cars had four-wheel discs. ABS and a driver’s airbag became standard in May 1996.

A minor model change in April 1997 deleted the BZ-V model in favor of a new BZ-R grade with standard Super Strut suspension. All 4A-GE cars now had a new six-speed manual gearbox, but about half of all Levins and Truenos were sold with automatic, which was optional on all models.

1997-00 Toyota Corolla Levin BZ-R (AE111) front 3q © 2009 OSX (PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

This AE111 Corolla Levin is a BZ-R, which makes it a late (1997 to 2000) model. A minor facelift in April 1997 increased the overall length of late-model Levins by 0.8 inches (20 mm), from 168.7 to 169.5 inches (4,285 to 4,305 mm). Factory curb weight for a manual-shift BZ-R was 2,380 lb (1,080 kg). (Photo: “Toyota Corolla Levin (AE111) BZ-R coupe 01” © 2009 OSX; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

We’ve found no instrumented English-language road tests of the AE111 Levin and Trueno, but based on their specifications, the 4A-GE models were likely the fastest and nimblest of all stock Corolla and Sprinter coupes. However, the Levin and Trueno were still no match for the contemporary Honda Civic Type R or Nissan Pulsar VZ-R, which boasted 185 PS and 200 PS (136 and 147 kW) respectively, had even sharper handling, and possessed an aggressive boy-racer vibe that made the Toyota entries look and feel bland. Even options like an aero body kit, oversize rear wing, and gaudy interior trim didn’t do much to enliven the Toyota coupes’ tidy but anonymous shape. Although they were ostensibly aimed at a younger audience than other Corollas, the latest Levin and Trueno seemed to have been tailored for buyers with more conservative tastes.

1997-00 Toyota Corolla Levin BZ-R (AE111) rear 3q © 2009 OSX (PD - modified by Aaron Severson)

The lettering on the rear fender of this AE111 Corolla Levin BZ-R indicates the presence of Super Strut suspension, which again included 15-inch wheels and bigger brakes with two-piston front calipers. BZ-Rs were available in standard and V-Spec versions, the latter sacrificing alloy wheels and some convenience items to lower the list price by ¥109,000 (around $850). Either way, the BZ-R was cheaper than a Honda Civic Type R and substantially less expensive than a Honda Prelude or Nissan Silvia coupe. (Photo: “1997-2000 Toyota Corolla Levin (AE111) BZ-R coupe 02” © 2009 OSX; released to the public domain by the photographer, resized and modified 2014 by Aaron Severson)

Unfortunately, by the mid-nineties, such buyers were turning their backs on sporty coupes in favor of MPVs and sport utility vehicles. In Japan, the Toyota Harrier (sold abroad as the Lexus RX300) outsold the Levin and Trueno coupes by a significant margin despite much higher prices, as did the new RAV4. Toyota’s sales projections for the AE110/AE111 coupes were only half those of the previous generation, but the Levin and Trueno still fell short of those modest goals. Even the contemporary Corolla and Sprinter station wagons, which in the Japanese market could be ordered with the same powertrains as the coupes, sold better than the Levin or Trueno.

When planning for the ninth-generation E120 Corolla began in 1997, the focus was not on performance or excitement, but on rationalizing production and reducing costs, including economy measures like substituting a twist beam axle for the previous independent rear suspension. There would be sporty version of the new Corolla, most of them based on the hatchback — the T-Sport for the European market, the five-door RunX for Japan — but with Levin and Trueno sales on the decline, the development team concluded that the money it would take to develop new coupes could be better spent elsewhere. The Levin name would reappear later, but the two-door Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno coupes expired without replacement in July 2000. With them died the Sprinter line, which had finally outlived its usefulness.

The Toyota Auto channel, which was renamed Netz in 1998, survived the Sprinter’s demise and still exists today, although it was consolidated in 2004 with the 1980-vintage Vista channel. That leaves Toyota with five current JDM sales channels: Toyota, Toyopet, Corolla, Netz, and Lexus, which was belatedly introduced to the Japanese market in 2005. Today, certain models are still specific to particular channels, but other products, like the very popular Prius hybrid, are sold in identical form through most of these networks.

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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