When it comes to front wheel drive Japanese performance cars from the 1990s, Honda is typically seen as the champion, particularly thanks to cars like the legendary DC2 Integra Type R and EK9 Civic Type R.
However, other Japanese manufacturers were building performance-oriented FWD coupes and hatchbacks, using a similar formula of powerful, high-revving NA engine, relatively lightweight, and improved suspension.
For my sins, this “category” of car is actually one of my favourite. I’ve always had soft spot for these ‘everyman’ JDM performance cars from the 1990s that were fairly affordable when new, and which managed to combine performance, reliability, practicality and economy in terms of fuel and maintenance costs. Sure, an R34 GT-R would be epic, but if you had to pay out of your own pocket then a Nissan Pulsar GTI or Civic SiR is going to put plenty of smile on your dial for a whole lot less money. There’s a lot to be said for taking an everyday car, adding a more potent engine, and then leaving it at that.
One of the best examples of this type of car from the 1990s is the Toyota Levin BZ-G, and the later Levin BZ-R.
I was inspired to write this article after coming across this 1995 Toyota Levin BZ-G for sale (more on this particular example later) which reminded me of the existence of these great cars.
As time and mileage have whittled down the fleet – these used to be a fairly common sight on the roads here in New Zealand – I thought it would be appropriate to do another instalment of “Forgotten Heroes” and feature this superb piece of JDM engineering.
Who knows, this might inspire you to go and find one of your own – and you too could be “Levin the dream”.
Table of Contents
What Is The Levin BZ-G/BZ-R?
The Toyota Corolla Levin BZ-G, also sold as the Toyota Sprinter Trueno BZ-G was the “hot” version of the Corolla Levin/Sprinter Trueno of the the AE111 generation. The AE111 Levin/Sprinter was available with a few different engine options and in more basic spec, but it’s really the BZ-G or one of its variants that you want.
From what I can gather, the only differences between the Levin/Trueno are some minor visual differences – mechanically they are exactly the same cars, so feel free to cross-shop.
Fun fact (and one with relevance to Garage Dreams being a New Zealand-based website). The name “Levin” was apparently taken from the town of Levin in the North Island, which was one of the venues for the Tasman Series of motor racing. A bit odd, considering Toyota never actually took part in this form of racing.
The BZ-G was Toyota’s interpretation of the Japanese hot hatch/coupe formula du jour:
Take an existing car from your lineup – ideally one that doesn’t weigh much – and drop a more powerful engine in, ideally some kind of high-revving NA powerplant (more on that later). Add a couple of bits of bodykit and sportier trim, and you’ve got yourself an everyday performance car.
The Toyota Corolla Levin was sold in Toyota Corolla Store dealerships, and the Sprinter Trueno sold in Toyota Vista dealership. One day I need to put together an article on the interesting nature of Toyota dealerships in Japan, and how different models were historically exclusive to different chains and so on.
As far as I can tell, the Levin BZ-G was only ever sold new in Japan, making it a true JDM car (read our JDM meaning guide here). However, I’m happy to be corrected if this wasn’t the case and it was available new in export markets such as Australia and the United Kingdom – please do leave a comment below if you have a correction for me.
The AE111 generation was produced from 1995-2000, replacing the AE101 Levin (in which the predecessor of the BZ-G was the “GT Apex” – while the BZ-G is an improvement, I would also consider a GT Apex as an alternative and some prefer the earlier body shape).
So Where Does The BZ-R Come Into It?
In 1997 a facelift/revision was launched, and the new top-of-the-range performance Levin became the BZ-R. The BZ-R had the same engine, along with a six speed transmission and all the good bits such as LSD and Super Strut Suspension as standard.
However, I believe the BZ-G was also manufactured in parallel, and you could have specified your BZ-G with all the BZ-R components. To further confuse matters, some cars were also badged as BZ-V.
How confusing, right?
Levin BZ-G & BZ-R Versions & Variants
As with any 1990s JDM car worth its salt, there were a number of different versions and variants – of which finding accurate and reliable information isn’t particularly easy.
I don’t claim to be an expert on these cars, but in my research I found this handy guide from J-Spec Imports in Australia:
So basically if you see a Levin/Trueno BZ-V, it’s a higher-spec BZ-G. Therefore, consider searching for and cross-shopping BZ-G, BZ-V and BZ-R to find the right car for you.
For what it’s worth, I have never actually seen a post 1997 BZ-G on the road or for sale here in New Zealand; I’ve only ever seen pre-1997 BZ-Gs, or post-1997 BZ-Rs. I have also never seen a BZ-V in my life, but clearly they exist as you can search “Levin BZ-V” on Google and see sold examples and people asking questions in forums, such as this example that showed up on Cars and Bids.
If you have one of these unicorn post-1997 BZ-Gs – or a BZ-V – I’d love to see it … send in your photos to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have definitive information about the differences between the models (apart from the basic BZ-R being facelift with all the options from factory) then that would be massively appreciated too.
Toyota Levin/Trueno BZ-G & BZ-R Specifications
The beating heart of the BZ-G is Toyota’s venerable 4A-GE engine.
In particular, this car came fitted with the “Blacktop” 20V 4A-GE. When you pop the bonnet/hood and see the Toyota logo and lettering saying “Twin Cam 20” on that black cam cover staring back at you, then you’re in for a good time.
The Blacktop was an improvement over the Silvertop 20V from the previous generation, with a higher compression ratio, wider throttle bodies, improved intake ports and more.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t go into all the tech specs and differences, but if you’d like to learn more about the differences between the Blacktop and Silvertop engines, this is a superb resource: https://www.sq-engineering.com/tech-articles/difference-between-silver-and-blacktop-20v-4age-engines/
The Blacktop 4A-GE produces 165hp, and came with Toyota’s “Variable Valve Timing” system (similar to Honda’s VTEC). This means that much like the VTEC-equipped Hondas of old, in order to get maximum pace from your Levin you need to keep the RPMs higher up in the rev range. There is a noticeable kick – just like VTEC – and the fun begins.
One of the great things about the BZ-G is that its combination of light weight (~1050kg) and the 4A-GE engine make for an economical car when driven sensibly. You can expect around 30 mpg / 8L/100km, which is not bad at all. By way of comparison, my Swift Sport achieves around 7.5L, and I would consider that to be a frugal petrol car.
In researching for this article, I saw several discussions around the fact that the stated horsepower figures for the 4A-GE were achieved using high octane petrol -typically 100 RON – and if you buy one of these cars and fill it with a lower RON petrol you might not get such good power. Where I live, this is not too much of a concern as it’s easy to get 98 and even 100 octane petrol – at least in cities.
However, if you are importing a Levin into a country like the United States (which might be possible now that earlier examples are more than 25 years old – learn more about the 25 year rule in our article on why the Nissan Skyline is illegal in the United States)
The following transmission options were available:
- 5 speed manual (series 1/pre-facelift)
- 6 speed manual (series 2/post-facelift)
- 4 speed automatic
No prizes for guessing which is the most desirable – the manual transmission options.
Note that the Levin BZ-R (which came along in 1997 as a facelift/refresh – although the BZ-G still remained available as well) featured a 6 speed manual transmission.
Like most Japanese cars of the era (especially ones based on “economy” car platforms) the BZ-G features a very basic interior. A sea of dark plastic awaits, although everything is very functional and durable and unlikely to cause you any headaches.
One option the original owner did have was to specify upgraded front seats. Both the BZ-G and the later BZ-R had standard cloth trim seats, or you could have upgraded to Recaros.
The earlier cars had fishnet Recaros as an option, whereas the later BZ-Rs had the more conventional racing bucket Recaros (as per the grainy brochure photo from earlier in this article).
Safety features are minimal – the example linked for sale in this article doesn’t have any airbags – although all the post-facelift cars I have seen have driver and passenger airbags.
As mentioned above re: versions, cars could be optioned with an LSD and Super Strut suspension as well, although on the post-97 facelift BZ-Rs this was standard equipment.
There is a lot of conflicting and inconsistent information out there about these cars (which tends to be the case with JDM vehicles) but from what I can gather, Super Strut-equipped cars – at least for the second series/facelift – also featured larger twin pot front brakes, for extra stopping power.
Levin BZ-G & BZ-R 0-100 Time & Performance
With a relatively light weight of ~1050kg and 165hp on tap from the 4A-GE engine, the Levin/Trueno BZ-G was no slouch in its day, and remains an impressive performer.
With a manual transmission car, you can realistically expect a 0-100 time of 7-7.5 seconds. More than adequate to have fun, and still solid by today’s standards (considering it was hardly a high end car when new).
With a car like the BZ-G, it’s not just the hard numbers that count. It’s the way cars like this make you feel, providing an experience that isn’t really attainable any more. Accelerating hard in a high-revving NA is different (and more enjoyable IMO) than with modern turbocharged engines. For example, my 2021 Suzuki Swift Sport is a similar performer in terms of 0-100 acceleration, but it achieves this in a gruff, modern turbo manner that isn’t as pleasing or thrilling as ringing the life out of an NA engine.
For reference, here’s a 1997 Levin BZ-R (which was effectively the facelift upgrade of the BZ-G, although most agree not as quick to 100km/h due to the six speed transmission requiring an extra gear change) clearly beating a Civic SiR off the mark. The SiR was around a 7.5 second to 100km/h car, so the Levin BZ-G is no slouch in comparison:
Of course there’s more to performance than straight line speed. What about handling?
The news is good here too!
Thanks to a tight chassis and low weight, even the base model BZ-G (without LSD or Super Strut suspension) is competent and capable in the handling department.
Step up to one of the upgraded models with Super Strut suspension, and the handling is even sharper and more impressive – these cars can really hustle.
However, one thing to note here is that – from what I’ve been told and can research online – parts availability for Super Strut suspension components isn’t fantastic these days, and you may encounter difficulties or higher-than-anticipated costs if/when repairs are required.
If you’re looking to buy a Super Strut-equipped Levin (or any other Toyota from this era with the same suspension) I would strongly advise a thorough inspection of the suspension setup before purchasing, particularly if you want to keep your car factory standard. If I were buying, this is the sort of inspection I would rather pay a professional to do, in order to get a gauge on how much life is likely left in the system.
Is The Levin BZ-G Reliable?
For the most part, yes.
After all, you are buying into “peak Toyota” reliability – the company was churning out very well built cars in this era. The Levin/Trueno is also not a particularly complex car, lacking any forced induction (although there was a GT-Z supercharged Levin from earlier generations, which I’ll cover in another article at some stage) no AWD/4WD, and little in the way of complex electrics.
The biggest issues with buying one of these cars are likely to be parts availability and the fact that many have lived a hard life.
Parts availability is the primary issue, in particular getting replacement Super Strut suspension components. I would strongly advise you to check with your local Toyota dealer or parts specialist before buying a Super Strut-equipped car to see what you would need to pay to get replacement bits, if they are even available. Some trim and body pieces may be challenging to find now as well. The 4A-GE engine was fairly ubiquitous in Toyota’s 1990s lineup, so getting spares and repairs shouldn’t be too tricky there.
Because these cars have typically been affordable since finding their way out of Japan and into the used market, many have suffered tough lives – typically being thrashed by a succession of owners who haven’t necessarily kept up with preventative maintenance. Anecdotally, when I was a young warthog back in the mid 2000s, 4A-GE powered Toyotas like the Levin were the “go to” for any aspiring boy racer wanting a fast car that wouldn’t break the bank in terms of fuel, repair bills or maintenance … and it’s fair to say that many of these younger owners didn’t necessarily have the skills or wherewithal to care particularly well for the long-term survival of their cars (a sweeping generalisation I’m aware, but at the end of the day as soon as you buy the car its previous history becomes your problem).
I would look for an example with solid post-import history, like the one linked for sale in this article. Higher mileage wouldn’t necessarily put me off, as these cars tend to wear their miles well – although I would be on the lookout for service history.
Unusually for 1990s Toyota, the 4A-GE Blacktop is an interference engine, so check for evidence of timing belt replacement or factor in getting this done if you cannot see proper evidence within manufacturer specifications (I believe every 100,000km)
Levin BZ-R vs BZ-G – Which Is Better?
Firstly, it’s probably better to think of the BZ-R as an evolution of the BZ-G, rather than a totally different car.
In terms of which is better:
- The post-1997 BZ-R cars have all the options like LSD, Super Strut suspension, six speed manual gearbox (when optioned) and even a couple of airbags to slightly improve your chances of survival if you wind up overcooking it on a midnight run. The BZ-R/revised shape also looks a lot more modern. If you want “the works” then find a BZ-R for sale, or a highly-specced BZ-G.
- Because Super Strut suspension can be hard to find replacement parts for, there is an argument for buying the base BZ-G that doesn’t come with this potentially troublesome upgrade. The base car still handles well, and you get the same engine with less risk of expensive maintenance or repairs. The 5 speed manual is also meant to be slightly quicker to 100 km/h, if that’s something you care about.
Personally, I would buy the best example of either that I could find for my money. For example, I’d take a nice condition base 1995 BZ-G over a tatty 2000 BZ-R any day of the week (although being very picky, I think it would be fun to have a post-facelift BZ-G with the optional LSD and Super Strut suspension … basically a BZ-R badged differently).
Because of the different specifications and options that were available, if you are buying a BZ-G/BZ-V I would look closely at the VIN/info plate for information on whether your potential buy has an LSD or not, as well as verify that the Super Strut suspension is actually installed. Buying a BZ-R is easier as you get all the goodies from the outset.
About This Toyota Levin BZ-G For Sale
As mentioned in the introduction to this article, my inspiration for writing this came from seeing this listing of a Toyota Levin BZ-G for sale on TradeMe; more accurately that I haven’t seen a nice, clean example for sale for a long time.
- 1995 Toyota Levin BZ-G
- Series one/pre-facelift
- For sale in Christchurch, New Zealand
- 139,000 kms
- Black paint with metallic flake
- 5 speed manual transmission
- Limited slip differential – not advertised in the listing, but the factory info tag shows a “trans/axle” code of C56-04C, which is 5 speed manual with LSD in Toyota speak (from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Toyota_C_transmission and backed up by plenty of evidence if you Google C56-04C)
- Factory fishnet Recaro seats – very cool, I’ve never actually seen one in person or for sale online with this option before.
- Factory Levin floor mats
- Two NZ owners – Carjam report shows consistent mileage addition
- Factory standard condition – the only modification I can see is an aftermarket headunit
- View the full listing here
Although it’s hard to judge from the photos, this car looks to be in excellent condition. At a buy now price of $13,500 NZD, I would say it represents reasonable value for money – considering that high mileage, tatty and poorly modified examples are getting up towards five figures now anyway. If you want to get into Golden Era 1990s JDM performance motoring, you could do much worse than buying this. It will be a shame if this example winds up going to a bad home where it is abused and tastelessly modified, as there can’t be many left in proper factory condition.
The black paint with metallic flake effect looks lovely as well … most of the time you se AE111 Levins/Sprinters in boring shades of silver or white:
What does confuse me a little bit about this example is that the listing claims the car has Super Strut suspension but it doesn’t have the usual Super Strut badging on the rear panels.
Compare to this example taken from a GooNet listing for a 1995 BZ-G, where you can clearly see the Super Strut suspension badging:
However, it’s possible the badges have been removed, and as these cars had a few different options/specs available when sold new perhaps it was possible to have optioned it with Super Strut suspension but without the badging. If I were buying this for myself, I would get an independent inspection to verify the suspension setup is what it claims to be.
Conclusion – Remembering The Levin/Trueno BZ-G & BZ-R
I apologise for the slightly “clickbaity” title … unfortunately that’s the only way to get anyone to read your content these days.
Honda’s Integra & Civic Type R from the same era are the superior performance cars, and more desirable (with current prices reflecting this).
However, there is no doubt that the Levin BZ-G was an impressive performer for its time, and remains a great choice these days if you are interested in a 1990s Japanese FWD performance car and don’t want to break the bank.
Contemporaneous Type Rs are getting very pricey indeed, whereas even the seemingly-mint condition (and factory standard) example linked in this article is more reasonable buying.
The understated nature of the BZ-G is also very appealing; in fact, it means that some owners/sellers may not even be aware of the unique nature of their vehicle and you could score yourself a bargain. When I was back at high school and first getting into cars, these were very affordable and was the sort of car that your parents might have bought for you and your siblings to learn to drive on (not realising the power lurking underneath the bonnet). They were also purchased by people wanting affordable, economical and reliable transport, in the 1990s Toyota vein.
The BZ-G is a car you could buy and daily drive (if you don’t mind sacrificing on modern safety features) and enjoy stellar fuel economy, 1990s Toyota reliability, and still have an enormous amount of fun with when pushing on.
I know that it’s the likes of the Nissan Skyline GT-R and Mazda RX-7 that get all the glory from this era of Japanese performance motoring, but in my view it’s cars like the Levin BZ-G, Honda Civic SiR and Nissan Pulsar GTI that are the real heroes – cars that were affordable to buy, affordable to run (and typically very reliable) and yet still had enough added punch and performance to be genuinely exciting to drive.
You just don’t see cars like this any more – ordinary, everyday, affordable cars that have been “warmed up” to strike a great balance between everyday economy and usability versus having fun when pushing on. I wouldn’t count vehicles like the Yaris or Corolla GR or new Civic Type R – while they are amazing feats of engineering, when adjusted for inflation the pricing is much higher (and that’s before you add dealer markups owing to excessive demand and restricted supply).
Resources & References
- J-Spec Imports – I borrowed the information on the different versions of the BZ-G/BZ-R from J Spec Auto’s page on the AE111 Levin. J-Spec Imports is a treasure trove of information on proper JDM cars, and if you’re based in Australia I would go here in the first instance if looking for a fresh import.
- Japan Classic – This site has a massive catalogue of scanned JDM car brochures. The quality often isn’t fantastic, but it’s better than nothing.