Hot take: the 2020 Tacoma isn't better with the manual

I wandered over the direction of the Toyota dealership in town to poke around a 3rd gen Tacoma, as one does. I’ve spent plenty of time in 1st and 2nd gen Tacos, and I’ve always lusted after them if only my towing needs were a bit less. I’m not really in the market, and I’m still a happy camper with the F-150, but you all know how it is.

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It turns out the dealer had not one, but two TRD off road tacos with the 3.5 V6/6-speed manual/TRD off-road package. I couldn’t help it, I had take it for a drive. The results were... not what I expected. It was fine, but only just... fine. The clutch was light, but long (what I expected), and shifter was very well positioned and throws are certainly shorter than a 1st gen taco. What surprised me was that the truck felt under powered, and just generally like the gearbox, gear spacing and engine tuning were all done by different folks who never happened to talk to each other. The 3.5 isn’t under powered per se, and it made nice enough noises with enough revs, but with the manual it felt like driving a truck from the 90's or 00's unless really given the beans at the top of the rev range.

I also didn’t like the gear spacing. 1st was super short. Almost, but not quite, a granny gear. 2nd was too tall for moderate acceleration from parking lot speeds without shuddering (and forget starting in 2nd), and the gap between the gears felt too big for normal driving with the flow of traffic. Conversely, 4th, 5th,and 6th seemed too closely spaced together.

The under powered thing REALLY came in on the highway. At 70mph in 6th, the truck could only slowly gather speed when the pedal was planted to the floor. Pulling out the next lane to pass requires a downshift to 5th in a way that belied the fact the truck had 278hp. The whole experience just felt like the manual’s gearing just wasn’t well matched to the truck.

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Because there wasn’t much else happening there at nearly 5:00 on a Saturday, the salesman obliged my request to go back out in an auto truck for comparison. The difference was tremendous. Apparently a torque converted makes all the difference on these trucks. The 3.5/6-speed auto felt like driving an entirely different vehicle. The taco felt adequately powered, and maybe a bit more under some conditions, and the engine and auto box seemed to be on the same program at all times. It always seemed to do what it should be doing. At 70mph on the highway, the auto could pull out in the next lane and moderately accelerate without downshifting.

With an auto, it was a nice little truck to drive. They’re nothing like my reg cab/short bed/2.7tt/short gears 2017 F-150 that would drive circles around one of these under every acceleration scenario, but I could foresee a scenario where I own one of these small trucks. The ride was as soft as tacos of old, but handled better. This would be a killer truck on a washboarded-dirt road.

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Some final observations:

The low seating position in all seats is an interesting ergonomic choice on these trucks. I don’t mind it at 5'7”, but I’m not sure the less vertically challenged would find them as comfortable. I was also surprised by the amount of hard plastic on the interior. The 2nd truck was kitted out with leather, sunroof, good stereo and all the tech toys, yet is had far fewer soft-touch interior surfaces than my XL trim F-150 does. For the price, I expected better.

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All that said, do I want one of these trucks? Yes I do, but not with the manual. I’m all for save the manuals, but in the case of the current taco it isn’t the better choice. It felt like an after thought that wasn’t well integrated with the rest of the drivetrain. I would consider owning a TRD offroad package with the shortbed, and probably just the cloth seat and no sunroof package. I came away feeling the top of the line leather package stuff felt out of place given the rest of the interior.

I wanted to fall in love with a 4x4/TRD off-road package/6-speed manual Tacoma, but I left thinking anyone who bought the manual probably bought the wrong truck.

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