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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
THE AE86 LEGEND
Ironically, as the final Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno coupes were fading away, their AE86 predecessors were becoming more popular than ever. The AE86’s racing and tōge career did not end when the rear-drive Levin and Trueno went out of production and, starting in 1995, those exploits were further glamorized by Shuichi Shigeno’s manga series Initial D, whose young protagonist drove a white-over-black three-door AE86 Sprinter Trueno. The manga later spawned a popular anime series, which served to introduce the AE86 to a new generation of fans who weren’t old enough to drive (or weren’t born) when the cars were originally on sale. Drifting, meanwhile, eventually inspired an American feature film, 2006’s Fast and the Furious 3: Tokyo Drift, which included a cameo by Keiichi Tsuchiya.
Some Toyota engineers and executives hadn’t forgotten about the AE86 either, despite Toyota’s comparative dearth of sporty models in the first decade of the new century. After Toyota signed an agreement with Fuji Heavy Industries (parent company of Subaru) to jointly develop a new sports coupe, the AE86 became one of the points of reference for that project, which was intended as a lightweight, straightforward, eminently driftable rear-drive coupe. Toyota and Subaru even hired Tsuchiya as a consultant on the development of that car, which new Toyota president Akio Toyoda decided in 2009 would be called “Toyota 86” in honor of its AE86 forebears.
As worthy as the modern 86/GT86/FR-S is — and if we were in the market, we would be tempted — we think its connection with the AE86 is rather tenuous. With its 1,998 cc (122 cu. in.) engine, bespoke chassis, and independent rear suspension, the 86 seems closer to the original Toyota 2000GT or the last rear-drive RA63 Celica 2000GT than the live-axle Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno. The AE85 and AE86 were never intended as pure, purpose-built rear-drive sports coupes; their existence was first and foremost a matter of production and accounting expedience, much like making dinner out of one or two new ingredients and an assortment of leftovers in order to put off really going grocery shopping.
As with the Fox-body Ford Mustang, another cheap, lightweight RWD car with a cult following and vast tuning potential, the appeal of the rear-drive Corolla Levin and Sprinter Trueno was not so much that they were brilliant cars right out of the box (although they did very well in showroom stock competition), but that they constituted a solid, affordable foundation for any number of automotive impulses. Much of the reason for that was that at the end of the day, the Levin and Trueno were still Corollas at heart: cheap to buy, straightforward to maintain, and inexpensive to run.
Beyond that, they stand today as relics of an earlier automotive age. Today, conventional sedans and coupes without a prestigious European badge are becoming a tough sell in many parts of the world, superseded by an assortment of more specialized models. The Levin and Trueno recall an era before the reign of the specialty car, when achieving mass-market success still meant that each automotive line, however humble, had to offer a little something for everyone.
The author would like to thank Frank Dupre, Ingvar Hallström, John Howell, and ‘oversteerer’ for their assistance with background and images for this article.
NOTES ON SOURCES
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May 1967; Toyota Wiki, “Toyota A engine,” 5 February 2009, www.toyota-wiki. com/ wiki/ Toyota_A_engines, “Toyota Corolla E90,” 6 February 2009, www.toyota-wiki. com/ wiki/ Toyota_Corolla_E90, accessed 18 March 2014, and “Toyota T engine,” 5 February 2009, www.toyota-wiki. com/ wiki/ Toyota_T_engine, accessed 19 March 2014; Tunny77, “Toyota TE27.GG42,” The Roaring Season, 29 January 2013, www.theroaringseason. com/ showthread.php?958-Toyota-Levin-TE27-GG42, accessed 20 March 2014; Jeremy Walton, Escort Mk 1, 2, 3 & 4: The Development & Competition History (Sparkford, England: Haynes Publishing Group, 1990); Mark Wan, “Toyota Celica,” AutoZine, n.d., www.autozine. org/ Archive/ Toyota/ classic/ Celica.html, 9 August 2013, “Toyota Corolla Levin AE86 (1983),” AutoZine, n.d., www.autozine. org/ Archive/ Toyota/ classic/ AE86.html, accessed 23 October 2013, “Toyota Corolla Mk8,” AutoZine, 22 April 2000, www.autozine. org/ Archive/ Toyota/ old/ Corolla_Mk8.html, accessed 8 February 2014, “Toyota Corolla Mk9,” AutoZine, 7 June 2002, www.autozine. org/ Archive/ Toyota/ old/ Corolla_Mk9.html, accessed 8 February 2014, “Toyota Corolla [Mk11],” AutoZine, 12 September 2013, www.autozine. org / Archive/ Toyota /new/Corolla_Mk11.html, accessed 2 March 2014, “Toyota 86 and Subaru BRZ,” AutoZine, 30 May 2012, www.autozine. org/ Archive/ Subaru/ new/ BRZ_86.html, accessed 8 February 2014, and “Toyota Auris/Blade,” AutoZine, 10 February 2007, www.autozine. org/ Archive/ Toyota/ old/ Auris.html, accessed 8 February 2014; “What’s New for ’92,” Motor Trend Vol. 43, No. 10 (October 1991): 27–42; “Wild Bunch (Group Test: Ford Fiesta XR2, MG Metro Turbo, Peugeot 205 GTi),” What Car? August 1984: 40–44; “Why is Toyota successful? (The Toyota Production System),” Toyoland, n.d., www.toyoland. com/ toyota/ production-system.html, accessed 17 January 2014; James P. Womack, Daniel T. Jones, and Daniel Roos, The Machine That Changed the World (New York: Free Press, 2007); and Jack Yamaguchi, “Toyota Corolla dons a new kimono,” Road & Track Vol. 46, No. 12 (August 1995): 49–50.
The online dictionary Jisho (jisho.org) was also a big help in deciphering Japanese-language information.
Some historical exchange rate data for the dollar and the yen came from Lawrence H. Officer, “Exchange Rates Between the United States Dollar and Forty-one Currencies” (2011, MeasuringWorth, http://www.measuringworth.org/exchangeglobal/, used with permission). Exchange rate values cited in the text represent the approximate dollar equivalent of prices in non-U.S. currencies, not contemporary U.S. suggested retail prices, which are cited separately. Please note that all equivalencies cited herein are approximate and are provided solely for the reader’s general reference — this is an automotive history, not a treatise on currency trading or the value of money, and nothing in this article should be taken as financial advice of any kind!
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