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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.