The most breathless talk about the Dodge Challenger tends to center around the letters S, R, and T and the number 8. The high-po-est form of Dodge's muscle car was the only choice offered for the initial 2008 run, and although still fun, it made do with a five-speed slushbox. Things have changed for 2009 with the addition of a 5.7-liter Hemi R/T model and a manual-transmission option for both V-8 cars. After testing an R/T, we'd be happy to sacrifice the S and 8 from the badge, especially since the R/T comes with a price that's roughly 11 grand less.

I'm So Happy, I Could Shift

Big news for the Challenger is that it's the first (modern) Hemi-powered Chrysler car with an optional manual transmission. We're already fans of the tried-and-true Tremec TR-6060 six-speed gearbox, which is used in the Viper and many of GM's high performers. The Challenger's pistol-grip shifter is canted toward the driver and allows for quick shifts via relatively short throws. Clutch-pedal travel, however, is longish, with an engagement point near the top of its movement. We were also annoyed by the one-to-four skip shift that forces a two-gear upshift under light acceleration at low speed in the name of fuel economy. (Aftermarket kits are thankfully available to bypass this bothersome "feature," but no one has yet figured out how to relocate the foot-operated parking brake.)

The gearing is nice and short, although that necessitates two shifts to get to 60 mph, which takes 5.1 seconds. That time nearly matches the SRT8 automatic's 4.8-second sprint; not too shabby considering the SRT's 6.1-liter Hemi has 49 more horses and 10 more lb-ft than the 376 hp and 410 lb-ft of the R/T manual. (Did we mention that eleven grand saving?)

Unlike in the old days of the "standard" manual transmission, this one's an option and is included as part of a $995 package that also nets a limited-slip differential and hill start assist. Opt for the manual, and you also get a slightly altered version of the 5.7-liter Hemi, one without the cylinder deactivation and midgrade unleaded recommendation of automatic-equipped R/Ts. The plus side of the manual R/T's appetite for premium is an additional 4 hp and 9 lb-ft of torque. Both transmissions are rated at the same 16 mpg in the city and 25 mpg on the highway. We managed an average of 15 mpg overall with our collective right foot planted through the fire wall.

Drives Big, Is Big

The steering is heavier than a Charger's -- the sedan with which the Challenger shares its platform -- and the suspension is tuned more toward ride comfort than sport, neither of which does the car any weight-masking favor. The Challenger's prodigious weight is possibly its biggest weakness. At 4164 pounds, the R/T outweighs a Charger R/T we tested by about 20 pounds, although it is 20 pounds lighter than the Challenger SRT8. Considering the beef, the 5.1-second 0-to-60 time is even more impressive.

The R/T's stoppers are solid with decent pedal feel and able to haul the Challenger's not-inconsiderable heft down from 70 mph in 173 feet -- a negligible difference when compared with the 170-foot distance afforded by the SRT8's larger Brembos.

The deep exhaust note beats the Charger R/T's by a mile and is more in line with Chrysler's SRT products. The internal sound system is upgraded for 2009, now bundling true iPod integration and a 30-gig hard drive with the optional navigation system.

So why would someone go for the SRT8? After all, it's costlier and not that much quicker than the R/T. Sure, it offers more standard features and horsepower bragging rights, and some might prefer the SRT's flat-black stripes to the R/T's blank hood or optional fender hash marks. But from a performance-per-buck standpoint, we believe the R/T provides an uncommon replacement for extra displacement.

VEHICLE TYPE: front-engine, rear-wheel-drive, 4-passenger, 2-door coupe

PRICE AS TESTED: $39,420 (base price: $31,540)

ENGINE TYPE: pushrod 16-valve V-8, iron block and aluminum heads, port fuel injection

Displacement: 345 cu in, 5654cc

Power (SAE net): 376 bhp @ 5150 rpm

Torque (SAE net): 410 lb-ft @ 4300 rpm

TRANSMISSION: 6-speed manual

DIMENSIONS:

Wheelbase: 116.0 in Length: 197.7 in Width: 75.7 in Height: 57.1 in

Curb weight: 4164 lb

C/D TEST RESULTS:

Zero to 60 mph: 5.1 sec

Zero to 100 mph: 12.2 sec

Zero to 130 mph: 22.4 sec

Street start, 5-60 mph: 5.5 sec

Standing ¼-mile: 13.6 sec @ 106 mph

Braking, 70-0 mph: 173 ft

FUEL ECONOMY:

EPA city/highway driving: 16/25 mpg

C/D observed: 15 mpg

Read More Stories at AOL Autos:

- Ten Hot Small Cars

- 6 Upcoming Cars Worth Waiting For

- Ten Tips To Save on Car Expenses