Close your eyes but for a moment and imagine a time in the automotive kingdom, say almost three decades ago, when almost every American and Japanese manufacturer offered a basic, no frills, small pickup truck. They made no pretenses about refinement, passenger comfort, a smooth quiet ride, power, or any of the things modern car buyers take for granted nowadays.
These were pickup trucks, focused on utility, hauling, dependability, and in some cases rugged off-road capability first and… well, there were no seconds or thirds. The roads of the early to middle 1990s were filled with small pickup trucks like the Chevrolet S10, Ford Ranger/Mazda B series twins, Nissan Hardbody, (yes, that was literally the model name – Hardbody), Isuzu Pup, Mitsubishi Mighty Max, and Toyota Tacoma.
The vast majority of those small pickup trucks were made and purchased in a single/regular cab configuration; think of the interior space of a new Mazda Miata with a bench seat and you’re not too far off. Most offered an extended cab of some sort with jump seats that were only suitable for small children to face each other from separate ends of the cab or a few brown paper grocery bags from the local Piggly Wiggly. All were offered with and usually purchased with a proper manual transmission. That was then, this is now.
Half of the namesakes I just mentioned were Thanos’ed out of existence in favor of larger, more powerful, and more comfortable trucks. Given the American consumers’ steady appetite for CUVs, this change was understandable. The current generation Toyota Tacoma truck (2016 – present) is a lightly refreshed and restyled second generation Tacoma (2005 – 2015) and is one of only two choices a buyer has when mandating a good ole’ fashioned stick shift and clutch pedal; the other is a Jeep Gladiator, which for all of the stereotypical reasons and some pretty unbiased ones, I was not interested in one at all. Coming from a decade long stream of Japanese and European sport sedans I was looking for something completely different, and with two dogs and an interest in camping, a Tacoma with a manual transmission was now set to be my next purchase.
I joined a well known Tacoma forum and began absorbing all of the knowledge I could as it was a new world to me. Within a few days I had decided what color I wanted – Barcelona Red – and what options I wanted to add (all of them from the factory and just a warrantied hard tri-fold bed cover from the port). The manual transmission Tacoma is offered in a few trim levels – TRD (Toyota Racing Development) Sport, TRD Off Road, and TRD Pro, all only in combination with the 3.5L V6 engine. Truly gone are the days of the small truck with a small, albeit bomb proof, 4 cylinder and manual transmission.
The TRD Sport comes with a (non-functional) hood scoop that, in my opinion, is only useful for further obstructing your vision over the already tall hood and body color painted fender flares. It also comes with a slightly stiffer “street oriented” suspension that didn’t interest me. Despite my future truck spending almost all of its time on well paved roads, a stiff suspension in a pickup truck seemed like a bad idea for some of the neglected pothole-riddled city streets in metro Atlanta. So my choices were narrowed down to the TRD Off Road and TRD Pro. While the TRD Pro was not necessarily outside of my budget, the real world availability of it in a color I wanted was. The TRD Off Road trades the TRD Sport’s body-colored fender flares and lower center front bumper for black plastic. In addition, the TRD Off Road (OR) has a much more softly sprung suspension with Billstein shocks, meatier all-terrain tires, and most importantly – a manual locking rear differential.
So I knew what I wanted – a Double Cab Short Bed TRD Off Road in Barcelona Red with all of the options (push button start and the JBL Sound System are not available on the manual transmission) meaning the Premium Package (leather Seats, navigation with 8” touchscreen, moonroof, heated seats, dual zone auto climate control), Technology Package (blind spot warning and rear cross traffic alert), and LED headlights and foglights. I began by looking at the online inventory of two dealers near me. They showed several trucks in stock and even one that I assumed was close to what I wanted given it’s “MSRP” of $44,000. I put MSRP in air quotes as most of these trucks had none of the packages I wanted and were more basic TRD Off Road trucks but did have $5-6K worth of dealer add-ons that I had no interest in. When I called and spoke to a sales person I was told that everything they had on the lot and coming in was “pre-sold” so none of these were feasible even if the price/options were right.
I expanded my search out a bit and kept getting the same story – nothing they showed on their website was really for sale but instead inbound and already spoken for. I reached out to a dealership at a neighboring state that I had done business with and spent close to an hour on the phone with the sales manager as he searched several states away and could not come up with anything he could get for me in exchange for some of his inventory. I held fast to what I set my sights on, and we determined that the best course of action for me was to option one the way I wanted on their upcoming allocation. With Toyota, and several other manufacturers, you simply can’t order a truck from the factory via the dealership and they start building it just for you in a few days. Each dealership receives periodic allocations for a certain number of models they will receive during the next shipment.
For example, a dealership could get an allocation of 5 Tacoma Double Cabs and 2 Tacoma Access Cabs which they could then select colors and options for. There are some guidelines they must follow as the more rare combos such as what I wanted – a fully loaded truck with a manual transmission – could only be one spec of your entire allocation. TRD Pros with a manual transmission are even more rare. At the end of the call I left a $1000 deposit for the truck I wanted down to the OEM all season floor mats and was told I would be called when it was allocated.
Three weeks later, the sales manager called and told me that my allocation was submitted and approved! Prior to this we didn’t even discuss price. The sales manager validated my research: there was no discount on this truck since it was being built to my exact specs and this was during the early-middle days of the “Chip Shortage” so the dealers’ allocations were being cut drastically. While everyone likes to get a deal of some sort, I fully realized that my deal was being able to get exactly what I wanted without unwanted extras added onto it. The only thing I did choose to add as the truck made its way from production to the port was a Baklip tri-fold hard bed cover. The total MSRP was $42,813 which I deducted my trade-in from and added the obligatory sales tax on the remainder. In a way, this was one of the easier negotiations I’ve had when buying a vehicle since all parties knew there wasn’t anything to really negotiate.
Almost three months after I made the initial call about this truck, the sales manager called and told me that mine had literally just arrived that morning! I packed an overnight bag and headed to the city of the dealership which was just under 4 hours away. I arrived past the business hours of the dealership as I expected and checked into my hotel after a brief dinner and went to sleep. The next day I made my way to the dealership so I could be there before they got terribly busy, as it was a Saturday and I didn’t want to tie my salesperson up anymore than necessary. I was anxious to sign the remaining paperwork and start driving home. The truck was pulled around the front where I was able to see it in its pure unwashed condition.
Yes, I specifically told the dealership not to wash it as washing and detailing vehicles is my moment of zen and I know that almost every dealership out there chooses speed and low cost over quality when washing the new cars. My first drive in the truck was maybe 100 feet to the Parts Department so I could pick up the cool accessories that I ordered – bed mat, LED bed lights, mud guards, black badge overlays, and the TRD wheels in matte black that first caught my eye when owning this truck was just a “I’m only looking” thing. My next action surely puzzled almost every onlooker as I spent 45 minutes meticulously taping off all of the painted portions of the front bumper and side mirrors so they would remain pristine during my drive home until I could get the truck detailed and those areas wrapped in clear paint protection film. Hey, it may be a truck, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want it to still look brand new and perfect down the road.
My first real drive, the one off the lot and in the direction of home elicited a silent reaction out of me within a mile, “hmmmmm, did I make a mistake?” The seating position was quite awkward and hard to adjust to; the brakes had decent bite and feel but anything more than subtle braking caused jarring nose dive; the clutch finally engaged at the top inch or so of its long and heavy travel; the sound system was “not great” at best; and the initial throttle response and lack of power during the first 1/3rd of accelerator travel in first gear made me wonder if maybe something was wrong.
It was not. I was driving a truck. A pickup truck to be exact. While Toyota has added some niceties over the years (2020 was the first year of a power driver’s seat and Apple CarPlay if that tells you anything), this was still a vehicle that was all about utility and function over form or niceties. Shifting the gear lever through the gears accelerating on the interstate on-ramp brings out a chorus of whines, whistles, and clanks that would make any non-truck driver pull over immediately and call roadside assistance. But this was a Tacoma at its most new with less than 10 miles on the odometer; this is the way it was supposed to feel and sound. I did pull over about 25 miles into my drive home to spend ten minutes adjusting the seat and mirrors to my liking. After quite a bit of adjustment, I found a setting to my liking. I purposely took the backroads home so I could spend time rowing through the gears and committing the clutch engagement point to muscle memory, and I’m glad I did. By the time I arrived home several hours and almost 200 miles later I had realized that no, I didn’t make a mistake. Not at all.
One of the best parts of Tacoma ownership is the almost unparalleled aftermarket support. Find any part of this truck and you’ll find a dozen or more companies that offer a higher performance or otherwise modified version of it. Your wallet and sanity is the only thing providing you with any form of ceiling. Even Toyota itself got into the game; only a few months prior to buying this truck Toyota came out with a TRD (factory) Lift Kit. It provides a 2” front and 1” rear lift to the truck, giving it a perfectly level look. The original Billstein shocks are replaced by a specific TRD tuned set which eliminates some of the slack in the suspension, but in a good way. The best part (for me) is that it’s under the manufacturer’s warranty and “just works” with no issues.
That was my second mod after installing the TRD wheels and new tires I bought. Next was the paint protection film on the front bumper and side mirrors (goodbye goofy looking blue tape for protection) and a proper detail and ceramic coating. The black badge overlays are one of those things that are the cheapest thing you can do but also provide one of the biggest visual results. Add on a set of Toyota 5” tube steps for easier access to the cab (my soon-to-be wife is 5’3” with shorter legs so this was a necessity). To address the infuriating lack of throttle response I had a local forum member tune the truck with the “KDMax” tune. While only good for 5-10 hp in certain conditions it totally changes the throttle mapping for the better. While this truck is DEFINITELY not what anyone would consider fast, it is now at least responsive.
I would be somewhat embarrassed to share what the dollar amount in my spreadsheet is that I have itemized every modification or accessory I’ve bought for this truck that will turn two months old in a week, but for me, that’s part of the fun. There is SO much you can do to these trucks that you rarely see the exact same one on the road even if the differences are as small as different types of side steps or bed cover than I have. Oh yeah, the one thing you will want to save for no matter what – fuel. There’s no way around this… the fuel mileage in this truck is TERRIBLE.
The manual transmission is geared lower than the automatic which does help the so-so power, but wow, if you are accustomed to respectable fuel economy on the highway, be prepared to be shocked. The best I’ve averaged on a highway trip of 10 miles or more at a set cruise control speed of 65mph on a totally level road with no climate control running is 20mpg. My more realistic highway driving of 70-75 drops that number down to the low 18s. City driving… I haven’t even looked as I prefer not to have my day ruined. Almost every full-size truck without the largest engine offering can beat the Tacoma in fuel economy. My advice: skip even looking at that screen in the trip computer as everytime I do I can’t help but scratch my head.
Would I buy this truck again? Yes, there’s no question. I can’t tell you how long I will keep it as my tastes in vehicles change as often as the weather and I want to experience as many different cars, trucks, and SUVs as I can before I’m in a spot in life where I have to drive a certain type. I have plans to take my truck legit off-roading with a good friend of mine that will serve as experienced driver/instructor with his decades of off road truck driving experience. Our dogs love riding in it with the side windows down and back glass slid open. When taking them to the river it is a great relief to throw some muddy and sandy towels along with the rest of our gear in the bed. Speaking of which, this truck will be worth its weight in gold in a few short weeks as we move several states away and have the bed loaded with our belongings and a trailer weighing 5,000lbs or so hooked up to the hitch. If you see a deep frown on my face as you pass me, know that I love this truck, but I must have briefly looked at the fuel economy screen while towing our belongings.