Let’s get this out of the way first: An EPA-rated 13 miles per gallon in the city, 18 on the highway, an optimistic 15 mpg overall.

Yes, that’s on premium gasoline, not regular.

Yes, there’s a federal “gas guzzler” tax: $2,100.

The EPA’s consumer Web site, Fuel economy.gov, breaks it all down for us: At $3.73 a gallon, it says filling the 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8’s 19-gallon tank costs $63.78. That it costs $6.22 to drive 25 miles. That it costs $3,732 a year to drive a national-average 15,000 miles.

Which would cost $1,143 in a Toyota Prius, Fueleconomy.gov gently lectures, noting that the Prius would use 7.4 barrels of oil a year, compared to the Challenger’s 22.8.

And don’t even get Fueleconomy .gov started on the Dodge Challenger SRT8’s “carbon footprint,” which measures “a vehicle’s impact on climate change in tons of carbon dioxide emitted annually.” The Challenger’s carbon footprint is a size-18 clodhopper, at 12.2 tons of carbon dioxide a year. The Prius’ dainty footprint: Four tons. So consider us suitably chastised over how much we like the 2008 Dodge Challenger SRT8, and not all of that appreciation is directed at the sinful 6.1-liter, 425-horsepower Hemi V-8, though a lot of it is.

No, that appreciation is based largely on how this is a far, far better car than many of us were expecting, with killer styling that looks marvelous on the street and an interior that is very un-Chrysler-like, and we mean that in the best possible way. Taken as an overall package, this car works.

And what may be the most important part of this: Lots of what appeals with this flagship Challenger SRT8 should also apply to the lesser models, which hit the market later this year as 2009s.

The fact that Dodge is launching only the ultimate SRT8 model as a 2008 is smart marketing: When the V-6 and less-powerful V-8 models arrive this fall, the public perception of the Challenger will be based only on the fire-breathing SRT8, which lists for $37,995, including shipping but not the guzzler tax. This should only benefit the $23,000 base V-6 Challenger, which should still be basking in the glow of the SRT8. That’s the idea, anyway: Go look at the SRT8 now, and if you can’t afford it, come back in five or six months for its less-sinister sibling.

The Challenger — all Challengers — are, as you would suspect, styled in homage to the original, which lasted only from 1970 to 1974, and was never that big of a hit even then. Until the Challenger arrived, Chrysler relied on Plymouth to carry the pony-car banner with the Barracuda: The Challenger was, pretty much, a rebadged ‘Cuda, but bringing back a Plymouth now would mean reviving the entire brand.

Easier, then, to take the proven rear-wheel-drive platform found under the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and Dodge Magnum — a platform developed when Mercedes-Benz was involved in the design — and tweak it to fit under a Challenger body.

As that platform would suggest, the Challenger SRT8 is a big car, weighing in at a porky 4,140 pounds. With this engine, that weight is a factor only when cramming the car into a tight turn, where inertia can’t be overcome even by massive 20-inch tires and alloy wheels. But when we finally get to test the V-6-powered Challenger in a few months, we have to wonder whether that weight will make this pony car feel a little more like a plow horse.

That size does, at least, translate into a roomy interior and big trunk, though the rear seat is pretty tight. The front bucket seats, though, are near perfect, and the driving position is pleasantly European. While instruments and controls maintain a mildly retro theme, they are very much up-to-date.

On the road, the monster V-8 and its five-speed automatic transmission — no manual is offered right now — are ideally matched. With some performance cars utilizing six, seven and even eight-speed transmissions, we thought we might be disappointed in the five-speed, but this engine has so much pulling power that an old three-speed Torqueflite would probably feel fine.

The Challenger handles like a smaller car, nimble in corners but surprisingly supple on rough pavement, but when pressed hard enough, it does remind you that you’re in the middle of more than two tons. The steering feels too light and a bit disconnected, but that’s the only real complaint. Brakes are linear and fade-free, even when used hard and repeatedly. Even with some options — a power sunroof, an upgraded stereo with a navigation system and premium Goodyear Supercar F1 radials — that boost the Challenger SRT8’s price to $39,885 (again, including shipping but not the guzzler tax), it qualifies as a genuine performance-car bargain.

Fueleconomy.gov would disagree, of course.

Orlando Sentinel Automotive Editor Steven Cole Smithcan be reached at scsmith@orlandosentinel.com.