Times are tough for diesel truck owners. New emissions hardware and advanced automatic transmissions have pushed diesel powertrain prices to their highest levels ever. Diesel fuel costs a record $5 a gallon or more in many places ($4.80 a gallon is the national average), making filling up a 35-gallon heavy-duty pickup a $175 wallet shredding experience.

You can't control diesel prices, but you still can manage hardware costs and how your truck burns its valuable fuel, if you're willing to get hands-on.

I recently drove a three-quarter-ton two-wheel-drive 2008 Ford F-250 XLT Super Duty with a 350-horsepower, Power Stroke 6.4-liter V-8 diesel (650 pound-feet of torque) and six-speed ZF manual transmission. For hard-core diesel enthusiasts, nothing says, "I'm in control" like an oil burner with a 22-inch-tall, floor-mounted hand-shaker to swap gears.

Though there are six forward gears, the transmission's true first gear is an extra-low 5.79:1 cog to get heavy loads moving when you've maxed out towing or payload capacity. When the truck is unloaded, you can skip low and use the truck's standard 3.30:1 first gear. Sixth gear (fifth, if you're skipping low) is an overdrive that works best on the highway, so what you're using most of the time are the F-250's four middle gears.

The truck's clutch is stiff (like five times stiffer than the clutch in my 1.9-L Jetta TDI commuter car, which I nearly pushed through the floor shifting the first time after driving the F-250 for five days) but not overly heavy, which is surprising considering how much mass is being moved as you shift gears. It's the throws that beat you up if you're driving in stop and go traffic. They feel as long as the truck's 137-inch wheelbase, but you're rewarded with a satisfying "shoonk" when the shifter finds its notch and you release the clutch. During some of the shifts I heard extra clacking from the gears, usually in the lower numbers.

It took shifting through the entire tree several times before I was comfortable with the transmission's feel and pattern. Twice I accidentally started rolling unloaded from a dead stop in 3rd gear. I immediately noticed the truck bog down, but there was so much torque from the Power Stroke that by the time the F-250 hit 1,100 rpm it was moving without lugging. Not recommended but doable without stalling.

The engine's sweet spot is between 1,500-2,100 rpm. It's a rocket ship in that range and I think it responds noticeably faster than the five-speed automatic when you accelerate. The 6.4-liter V-8's dual sequential turbos barely lag if you upshift through the gears just right.

I also like the extra control the manual transmission provided during braking in the F-250. The engine and transmission work extremely well together to slow the truck. If you want to crawl up to a stoplight, you can leave it in first gear and the truck will inch its way forward without needing the accelerator and without stalling until you shift the transmission to neutral and apply the brakes.

It's spooky how smart automatic transmissions have become in heavy-duty pickups during the past five years. Automatics use tow/haul mode to hold rpms and downshift on steep grades when you're moving big loads, but there's something infinitely more rewarding about controlling those same mechanisms manually with all four limbs working in sync to drive the truck.

But it seems it's only a matter of time before this last bit of control is lost in heavy-duty pickups.

General Motors has stopped offering manual transmissions in its heavy-duty pickups and, according to our friends at Four Wheeler magazine, there are rumors that Ford could soon follow. Only Dodge would be left with a hand shaker, which could also disappear when the new 2010 Ram HD pickups arrive next year.

While Ford hasn't entirely pulled the plug on manuals, it seems Ford is trying to discourage their purchase. You can't order a manual shifter for trims above Lariat, so if you want a King Ranch or Harley-Davidson version you'll have to order those trucks with an automatic. Captain's chairs and adjustable pedals aren't available as well.

The F-250 was an old school heavy-duty pickup. In addition to its manual transmission, it was a regular cab with an eight-foot-long cargo box and a cloth bench seat. The only luxuries were an upgraded six-CD stereo ($300), reverse sensors ($245) to help back the truck up and Ford's slick integrated trailer brake controller ($230). It also included the auxiliary switch kit option ($85) that adds four extra switches to control accessories like a winch or snow plow. What's puzzling is our sample unit was missing Ford's excellent tow mirrors to complement the trailer brake controller.

By opting for the manual transmission diesel over the automatic, you'll save $1,490 when buying the truck - that's about nine fill-ups, which is depressing. But this F-250's fuel economy blew away the heavier automatic transmission Super Duty's I've driven recently. In crew and extended cab configurations, I've not been able to get over 12 mpg unloaded. The relatively lightweight regular cab F-250 averaged 15.9 mpg.

The question we're left to ask is, is the 6.4-L V-8 Power Stroke diesel worth its $6,895 premium over the standard 5.4-L gas V-8 or $6,295 premium over the optional 6.8-L gas V-10? As with all pickups, it all depends on how you're going to use the truck.

If you're towing with the Power Stroke, you'll gain up to an extra 3,400 pounds pulling a conventional trailer and 7,000 pounds pulling a 5th wheel trailer over the 5.4-L gas V-8 with the same 3.73 rear axle our tester had, plus we'd expect significantly better pulling performance and fuel economy over the lower horsepower and torque 5.4-L motor. The Power Stroke diesel is definitely worth the extra cost, in our opinion, over the standard 300 horsepower / 365 pounds-feet 5.4-L V-8 gas engine.

Compared to the 362 horsepower / 457 pounds-feet 6.8-L V-10, the decision is much more difficult. A regular cab 4x2 V-10 F-250 with a shorter 4.10 rear axle can pull the same maximum 12,500 pound conventional trailer load as our 3.73 F-250. The V-10 is only 200 pounds less capable pulling a 5th wheel when it's equipped with a 4.30 rear axle. You'll pay a penalty in fuel economy compared to the diesel -- say you'll average 5 mpg less with the gas V-10 than the V-8 diesel -- but with the current average cost of gas at $4.11 and diesel at $4.80, if you drive 12,000 miles per year it would take only 4.6 years to break even on the Power Stroke. We'd pay the extra $6,295 premium to select the Power Stroke V-8 in the F-250 we drove because it's an excellent powertrain for this configuration.

TEST VEHICLE SPECIFICATIONS:

2008 Ford F-250 Super Duty XLT 4x2 Single Rear Wheel Regular Cab

Engine Size and Type: 6.4-liter V8 Power Stroke Diesel

Horsepower (hp): 325-hp

Torque (ft-lbs): 600 lb-ft

Transmission: 6-speed manual

Rear Axle: 3.73 Limited Slip

Base Price: $26,580

6.4-L V-8 Power Stroke Diesel: $6,895

6-Speed Manual Transmission: $0

Traction Control: $130

Reverse Sensors: $245

Integrated Trailer Brake Controller: $230

Auxiliary Switches: $85

Premium AM/FM Stereo and 6-CD Player: $300

Price as Tested: $35,320

Destination & Delivery: $950

Total MSRP: $36,270