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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.