2004 Toyota Tacoma - Weird third gear

My 2004 Tacoma (standard, 208,000 miles) is having a weird issue with third gear:
2 weeks ago: randomly started popping out of third. It would not stay in gear, even if I held the stick in place. I took it to my mechanic that I trust, and they diagnosed it as “90% sure” it needed a bushing replaced. They ordered the bushing, replaced it, and then apologized because according to them, it didn’t solve the problem. I picked it up (no charge for the bushing) and said I would bring it back next week to have the transmission looked at. BUT I noticed as I was driving it afterwards that I could shift into third and drive in third now, without an issue, about 90% of the time. 5% of the time I have to shift it kind of gingerly with careful clutch play (is that a term?) and the other 5% it just won’t shift into third and will grind. Here’s my question: can I drive it like this? Also, what’s the deal? Do I need to get the transmission looked at?

Do you rest your hand on the shift lever while driving ?

Or do you let go of the shift lever between gears ?

I do leave my hand on the shift lever and noticed that in neutral I wiggle it back and forth - unless I’m on the highway, then I let go. I’ve tried to stop wiggling it - should I let go completely?

Resting your hand on the gear shift lever can cause excessive wear to the shift fork and synchronizer sleeve. That is what usually causes a transmission to jump out of gear.
A much rarer cause is if the crankshaft has excessive end play or the trans mainshaft has excessive play. My gut feeling is the fork and sleeve as that is where pressure is applied with your hand on the lever.

I have no idea what bushing they are talking about unless it’a gear shift lever bushing but that’s generally barking up the wrong tree so to speak… Surely this did not involve disassembly of the transmission? There’s no way I would ever do a piece meal repair on a transmission of any sort with over 200k miles on it.

Okay, this is very helpful, I REALLY appreciate your time and input!

They did not disassemble the transmission but that was the “next step” they wanted to do. I picked it up instead. Driving it over the last few days I’ve noticed that if I shift into third very gingerly or at lower RPMs that I might normally shift in it usually engages and stays in third, however, under other circumstances it either pops out or grinds.

It sounds like I need to go to a different mechanic . . . mine didn’t charge me for the bushing, which I thought was because it didn’t work, but maybe it is really because they messed up? If it is the fork and sleeve is that something I should get repaired? I just put in a new clutch, spark plugs, etc. etc. this last year and I really don’t want a new vehicle but I also don’t want to keep dumbing money into a lost cause. From everything I hear about Tacomas, though, especially this generation, I feel like I should have more time with it!

Do you hear any whining noises that are louder in lower gears but diminish as you upshift and virtually disappear in 4th then reappear in 5th? (I’m guessing it’s a 5 speed) If so it’s likely that the input bearing and/or center idler bearings are becoming worn. Replacing those bearings doesn’t require a complete tear down of the transmission but these days few shops want to open transmissions at all due to the special tools needed.
My guess is the shift ball bushing was replaced which would improve the hold detent ball’s hold on the rail. That bushing only requires removing the boot and cap from the transmission and can be done sitting in the drivers seat and is a very common repair on many manual transmissions these days.

Update: the poor truck broke down on the highway - it started with a whirling (or maybe whining?) noise while I was cruising in 5th (yes, it’s a 5 speed). As I was going to pull over and tried to downshift the truck wouldn’t engage into any gear. (I’m not sure if 4th responded any differently to be honest, I wish I had looked at my email before I drove it so I would have read your thoughts before this all happened!) The whining noise persisted, even when I was in neutral unless I depressed the clutch pedal. I ended up sitting there for about 2 hours waiting for roadside (I was in a rural area) and had to run the truck because it was 95 out and I had my dog with me. Sometimes the truck would whirl unless I had the clutch lever pressed and other times the noise would go away. I did drive a few miles on the shoulder but if I went above 1000 rpms at all the whirling would intensify.

I got towed to a transmission shop and that’s where it’s sitting right now awaiting a diagnosis. I really hope the repair is doable! Your post gives me hope! I guess I will keep updating in case this is helpful to anyone else!

p.s., thinking more about what happened yesterday, excluding 4th gear specifically because I can’t remember, once it started whirling it was much louder in lower gears than in 5th.

When the idler bearing is failing the whining will be loudest in reverse and 1st and often disappear in direct drive which is 4th on your 5 speed and the noise in 5th(OD) would be similar to 3d gear.

Your current situation might be the result of the input shaft totally trashing the idler needle bearings but it could also be a much simpler problem of the shift lever pulling out of its socket in the possibly new bushing. If nothing cataclysmic occurred the front bearings and shifter ball socket might be all that is required to get you going if your shop is up to opening the transmission.

BTW, at 208,000 miles you can’t really fault the transmission for failing. I have repaired and replaced dozens of Ford 3 speeds that failed at the idler bearing before reaching 200,000 miles on rural parcel routes.