CC Capsule: 1996 Toyota Corolla Levin (AE110) BZ-G – Turning Into Levinegar

Toyota’s Corolla Levin / Sprinter Trueno coupés shone brightly, but not for all that long. Today, let’s look at the last generation of this family of sporty, affordable two-doors – a type of car that is barely made any more, be it in Japan or anywhere else. Why did Toyota’s cheap coupés die out, merely a few years after their heyday?

Back in 1971, the Corolla Sprinter, hitherto a sporty Corolla-based coupé, became a full range in itself. The Corolla / Sprinter duo (same car, different dealer network, minor trim differences) was born, spawning their own two-door variants in the Levin and Trueno, respectively. The cheap and cheerful twosome grew in the ‘70s, triumphed in the ‘80s and died out in the ‘90s — just like most low-end saloon-based coupés around the world, really.

The Corolla is still with us today, as strong as ever, but when looking at Toyota’s current range, the only sporty two-door available are higher-end propositions, most with a Lexus badge. Sporty Corollas still exist, and as a matter of fact the Levin name is still used for them (albeit only for the Chinese market), but they are all hatchback saloons, not distinctive-looking coupés.

Japanese sources claim that the buying public fell out of love for the Levin / Trueno in the ‘90s due to the AE100/101 (i.e. the 6th generation, 1991-95) being too heavy and big for its own good, and this AE110/111 generation being too tame and cheap, especially inside. The AE110/111 was designed at a time when the full brunt of the economic downturn had been internalized by Toyota product planners, so the car was built to a price. This was acceptable (even an asset) for Corolla saloons and wagons, but less so for the Levin, which was supposed to inject a bit of glamour into the range. This BZ-G trim is supposed to be the high end / deluxe version of the model, and it does look pretty uninspiring…

After the legendary AE86 (1983-87), the Corolla / Sprinter coupés followed the platform’s general direction and switched to FWD. But this did not adversely impact sales, as long as the hot versions were still available. However, the disappearance of supercharged engines for this AE110/111 generation, along with the cheapening of the interior, meant that sales were lackluster. Base models (AE110) got a 100hp DOHC 16-valve 1.5; higher-end cars like our CC (AE111) got the DOHC 20-valve 1.6 litre “black top” good for 165hp – close, but not quite equal to the supercharged previous generation’s 170hp.

But the death of the cheap coupé was a broader global trend that affected other cars than just the Levin / Trueno. A healthy chunk of sales for these cars used to be female buyers, but the advent of the CUV made much of that demographic switch to taller vehicles. At the turn of the Millennium, the only escape route for lower-end sedan-derived coupés were gimmicks like retractable tops (e.g. Peugeot), but many carmakers just didn’t want to bother anymore and just axed the whole concept from their range.

That’s exactly what happened 20 to 25 years ago to the Corona coupé and its sort-of Curren follow-up, to the Honda Prelude, the Nissan Silvia, the Mitsubishi Lancer and many others, including the Corolla Levin / Sprinter Trueno. After those died out in 2000, Toyota tried to consolidate all their coupé-loving clientele into the Celica, but that failed rather miserably and that nameplate was retired in 2006. Some carmakers have tried to reverse this process (e.g. VW Scirocco), but globally and with few exceptions, the cheap and cheerful coupé is no more.