In the eighties, the Toyota Corolla and its Japanese-market Toyota Sprinter sibling switched to FWD, but not without one last fling for the sporty rear-drive coupes. In the second part of our story, we look at the origins and history of the final RWD Corolla — the 1983–1987 AE86 Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno — and consider the later history and fate of the Levin and Trueno coupes.
RECAP: COROLLA LEVIN AND SPRINTER TRUENO
As we explained in the first installment of our Corolla/Sprinter history, the first (E10) Toyota Corolla was launched in 1966, followed in 1968 by the Sprinter coupe, which in Japan subsequently became a distinct (albeit still Corolla-based) model line sold through a separate Toyota Auto dealer network rather than through Corolla Stores.
In 1972, Toyota added sportier versions of the second-generation (E20) Corolla and Sprinter coupes, dubbed Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno, powered by the Yamaha-developed DOHC 2T-G engine. The TE27 Levin and Trueno were not widely exported, but proved successful enough (both in sales and on the racetrack) to continue through the third generation (the 1974–1979 E30/E40/E50/E60 Corolla and Sprinter) and into the all-new fourth generation (E70), launched in Japan in March 1979.
The 1979–1983 TE71 Corolla and Sprinter DOHC models (now available in most Corolla/Sprinter body styles, not just coupes) represented something of a departure from the decidedly non-athletic specifications of other Corollas. The twin-cam TE71 models were still RWD cars with live axles and recirculating ball steering, but featured a faster steering ratio, a stiffened suspension with front and rear anti-roll bars, four-wheel disc brakes, a five-speed gearbox with a shorter axle ratio, and the 1,588 cc (97 cu. in.) DOHC 2T-GEU engine with electronic fuel injection — still a novelty in that class.
The DOHC Corollas and Sprinters sold in only modest numbers in Japan, were not officially exported to the U.S., and appeared in only a few European markets (and then generally using carburetors rather than fuel injection). However, the twin-cam cars were quite successful in sedan racing and other forms of motorsport, spicing up a popular but bland subcompact known more for sensible, reliable transportation than sporty flair.
THE FRONT-WHEEL-DRIVE DILEMMA
Work on the fifth-generation E80 Corolla and Sprinter began in the spring of 1979, soon after the launch of the fourth-generation cars.
At that time, the future of the Corolla was the center of a heated internal debate. The issue was not whether the Corolla and Sprinter should continue — by that time, their combined sales were around a million units a year worldwide — but whether they should remain RWD or switch to front-wheel drive. By then, front-engine, front-wheel-drive (FF) layouts predominated for smaller B-segment cars, but there was as yet no clear consensus in the C-segment. The Nissan Sunny (a.k.a. Datsun 210), the Corolla’s chief rival in the Japanese market, had for the moment retained rear-wheel drive, but the Honda Civic was FF, as were many of the French, German, and Italian C-segment cars with which the Corolla now competed in Europe.
Toyota approached the FWD question cautiously. The company’s first FF production cars, the AL10 Tercel and its Corsa twin, had bowed only about six months earlier, supplementing but not replacing the similarly priced RWD Starlet. While front-wheel drive offered clear packaging advantages as well as the prospect of better ride quality (thanks to the elimination of the heavy live axle), the Corolla design team was understandably wary of making such a dramatic switch with the company’s bestselling car.
It’s easy to criticize such conservatism, but there’s no denying that cars that sell as well as the Corolla did in the late seventies put their makers in a tricky position: If subsequent generations evolve too little, customers may desert you for newer, more modern products, but changing too much may leave the golden goose with a nasty cough. Compounding the dilemma was the fact that the Corolla and Sprinter enjoyed a quite startling level of customer loyalty. Not only did a lot of people buy Corollas, many of those customers — in Japan, some three out of four — came back for seconds, which made it particularly crucial to avoid alienating existing customers.
Even if buyers proved amenable to idea of a FWD Corolla, making that switch with such a high-volume product promised to be very expensive. The retooling costs alone were estimated at more than ¥120 billion, roughly $600 million at 1979 exchange rates and a good deal more than Toyota had originally paid to build the Takaoka plant where most Corollas and Sprinters were assembled. That was a daunting amount of money even for a company as large as Toyota and did not include the actual development costs of the new model.
By the end of the year, Toyota’s leadership had conceded that an FF Corolla would shortly become a commercial necessity, but that still didn’t address the tooling cost problem. The eventual compromise was to make the transition in stages. Sedans and hatchbacks were given first priority, since they appealed to family buyers who put a premium on interior space and comfort. The coupes, for which packaging efficiency wasn’t a major selling point, would remain RWD for another model cycle, as would the comparatively low-volume station wagons and vans. We don’t imagine this was really any cheaper in the long run, especially accounting for inflation, but it did obviate the need to swallow the whole expense in one gulp. Toyota would take a similar approach with the larger Carina/Corona/Celica platform, retaining rear-wheel drive for certain models for several years after the rest switched to front-wheel drive.
THE FIFTH-GENERATION COROLLA AND SPRINTER
The bifurcated fifth-generation Corolla and Sprinter lines debuted in Japan in May 1983 and went on sale in major export markets later that year as 1984 models, although the E70 sedans continued in some export markets for at least another year.
Although all the new cars were still called Corollas and Sprinters, those badges now encompassed several distinct chassis:
- Four-door sedans and five-door hatchbacks rode the new FF E80 platform, which featured transverse engines, rack-and-pinion steering, and fully independent suspension with MacPherson struts front and rear. All FF Corollas and Sprinters except the diesel now used variations of the OHC A-system engine previously introduced on the Tercel, offered in 1300 (1,295 cc/79 cu. in.), 1500 (1,452 cc/89 cu. in.), and 1600 (1,587 cc/97 cu. in.) forms. FF cars carried the chassis codes AE80 (for 1300s), AE81 (for 1500s), AE82 (for 1600s), or CE80 (for diesels).
- Coupes, offered in two-door notchback and three-door Liftback body styles, retained rear-wheel drive and rode an updated version of the previous live axle chassis, but shared the FF cars’ rack-and-pinion steering and A-system engines. The RWD coupes carried the chassis codes AE85 (for 1500s) and AE86 (for 1600s).
- Corolla station wagons and vans got a mild update later in 1983, but retained the E70 body and chassis with RWD and Hotchkiss drive rear suspension. In many markets, the wagon and van also retained the older pushrod K- and T-system engines, which were not offered on the E80 cars.
- The Sprinter Carib station wagon actually rode the platform of the smaller AL20 Tercel/Corsa/Corolla II, whose longitudinal engine layout better lent itself to 4WD.
- In late 1984, Toyota added an additional FF line with three- and five-door hatchback body styles. Those cars, dubbed Corolla FX in Japan and North America, were based on the FF sedan platform and shared the same chassis codes, but had sportier styling.