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 2014 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 (recropped, obscured numberplate) 2014 by Aaron Severson and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, with this modified version 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).

17 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.

  8. On the subject of the Toyota A engine, aside from Toyota reputedly drawing inspiration from the Cosworth BSA (some go as far as to say it is a reliable copy), does any relation exist between the Toyota A and Daihatsu C-Series engines?

    Preexisting ties between Toyota and Daihatsu notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore the fact both engines appeared roughly at the same time in 1977-1978, feature cast-iron blocks with alloy-heads and belt-drives, the 1-litre Daihatsu CB and 1.3-litre Toyota 2A virtually share the same 76mm bore with Daihatsu even making use of Toyota’s lean-burn design system.

    1. I’m not familiar with the Daihatsu engine, but Toyota owned a big chunk of Daihatsu by then, so it’s not unlikely. It should be noted that the lean-burn system Toyota used in the late seventies (in the JDM 12T engine and others) was actually a Honda design used under license, so while that in no way contradicts your theory, it’s not probative either. Also, as I understand it, the early Toyota A-system engines (of which I think the first was the 1.5-liter 1A in the late seventies Tercel) ended up being somewhat troublesome and requiring some further design changes (details of which I do not know) to yield the later 3A and 4A engines of the eighties, so if the Daihatsu CB is related, I don’t know where it falls in that development sequence.

      As for the Cosworth comparisons, I’m leery of those. That engineers at Toyota (and/or Yamaha) were familiar with the Cosworth twin-cam engines is not unlikely, but Cosworth did not invent belt-driven OHCs (as discussed in the Pontiac OHC six article), and a great many of Toyota’s seventies engines were SOHC or DOHC with aluminum heads on iron blocks, so there was a lot of prior Toyota experience in many of those areas. Likewise at Yamaha, which had designed the heads for many of Toyota’s DOHC engines; Toyota’s official information on the 4A-GE is somewhat vague about Yamaha’s involvement with that engine, but Yamaha had done the heads for the 2T-GE, 18R-GE, and the later 1G-GE six, inter alia.

      I’ve noticed that British sources tend to be particularly insistent that any Japanese invention or design of any merit must necessarily be a copy of some (implicitly superior) prior British or European design, which I find frustrating, to say the least. It isn’t a strictly yea-or-nay question, since of course some Japanese automakers of the fifties and early sixties did use British technology, and at times hired European designers or consultants, but Toyota, in particular, was and is an enormous company which by the seventies had tremendous depth of engineering and manufacturing resources. While they were by no means adverse to licensing outside technology — the aforementioned Honda lean-burn system for one, Bosch D-Jetronic and L-Jetronic electronic injection for another — doing so was a matter of expedience rather than competency. So, I tend to take the instance that “the 2T-G was a copy of the Lotus Twin-Cam” or “the 4A-GE was a copy of the Cosworth BDA” with a grain of salt.

      If I were an engineer, I might be able to provide a more detailed comparison between the Cosworth and Toyota engines in combustion chamber design and so forth. Lacking that skill, I will say instead that the development brief for the A-system engine was to replace the existing K- and T-system engines with an engine family better-suited to eighties emissions standards, which by 1980 were as strict in Japan as in the U.S. There were twin-cam performance versions of the A-system, but on a numerical basis, its primary applications were in mildly tuned, frequently carbureted SOHC form, for which the high-strung Cosworth was probably not the most useful of models.

      1. The Daihatsu C-Series is largely associated with the Daihatsu Charade including potent 1-litre turbocharged engines from the 68 hp Charade Turbo and 101+ hp Charade GTti.

        Given the ties it is difficult to imagine Daihatsu going with a completely clean-sheet design for the Charade as both the car and engine appeared in late-1977, followed in 1978 by the Toyota A powered Toyota Tercel.

        1. It’s possible; as I said, I don’t know. FWIW, the 1987 Jikayousha buyer’s guide I have identifies the four-cylinder engines in the (later-generation) Charade as the 2A-U and 3A-U, which are Toyota engine codes (1.3 and 1.5-liters respectively) and presumably just Toyota engines.

      2. Belt driven DOHC engines were built concurrently by Fiat/Lancia, Cosworth, and apparently by several Japanese companies. I don’t doubt for a minute that I have missed many other makers from other countries who also utilised belt drive for DOHC engines.
        Who built the first one, and the first offered in mainstream cars I have no idea.
        But I think it was convergent evolution that brought them about. It was no secret that DOHC was a tremendous help in building an efficient engine. The problem designers and engineers faced was reliability and cost for production engines. The appearance of toothed belts was a useful tool in addressing both concerns.
        It seems technology has now caught up with the problems enclosed chains had, more cars are appearing with chain driven valve gear, improvements in lubrication and probably the metals used mean that the timing chain on a well maintained modern engine will probably last the life of the car.

        Roger.

        1. The Pontiac OHC 6 article talks at some length about the history of belt-driven OHC engines, of which Glas was the first series production manufacturer. Pontiac did a great deal of work on developing timing belts suitable for more powerful engines, culminating in the 1966–69 Pontiac 215/230 cu. in. SOHC six and a variety of experimental V-8 engines. The belt was quieter than a chain or gears as well as being cheaper, which added to its appeal.

          The eventual limitation, of course, is that with transverse engine/FWD layouts, or even longitudinal RWD ones where the engine bay is cluttered with plumbing and accessories, changing the belt is a bear of a job, and with some valvegear layouts, a broken or slipping belt can mean serious engine damage. As expectations have increased regarding what “the life of the car” ought to mean, that’s become harder to accept, to the point that even Honda (long a proponent of belt-driven cams) has switched to chains in the past decade or so.

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