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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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“).
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.