As we pulled into the driveway, the garage door suddenly opened and the wife stood at the threshold with toolbox in hand.

“Saw you brought an Italian car home,“ she smirked. “Figured you`d be needing this in order to get back to work in the morning.“

“Oh, ye of little faith,“ we responded. “You can put those tools right back on the shelf next to the pet rocks. This is an Alfa Romeo 164 sedan.“

“Sorry,“ she replied. “Thought you were driving the TC by Maserati.“

“Hardly, my Chia Pet. This is a $28,000 motor car. This is a machine that dispels the misconception that Italian cars are treasures on the outside yet trash on the inside,“ we scolded.

Proven once again too quick to judge, the woman placed the toolbox on the concrete apron and slipped through the door into the kitchen. When we heard her push the button on the microwave to begin nuking dinner, we opened the box and grabbed the needle-nose pliers to remove the tape cartridge the Alfa had eaten and the Philips screwdriver to fasten the unidentified hunk of leather- covered wood lying on the floor mat.

Sometimes reputations are hard to live down. We have to admit some anxiety over test-driving the `91 Alfa Romeo 164 sedan, now in its second year on the market. Chrysler entered into a venture in which it now distributes the high-performance Alfa line, produced by Fiat Lancia of Italy, in the U.S.

The last time Chrysler and an Italian automaker got together on anything was the ill-fated TC by Maserati, a joint design-develop build pact in which the car lasted about three years in prototype form, about three months once it made it into production. The Chrysler-Fiat agreement calls for Chrysler to only market Alfas here, there`s no joint design or develop or build proviso.

The 164 isn`t the first car we`ve driven that ate a cassette tape or the first in which a part fell off. Yet the Alfa redeemed itself and proved to be a pleasant surprise.

The 3-liter, fuel-injected V-6 develops 200 horsepower. This is one sedan that steps rather lively from the light and doesn`t need a turbo or supercharged boost to swing quickly into and out of the passing lane, even when teamed with the optional ($650) automatic transmission.

Power steering, 15-inch radial tires and the fully independent suspension with front and rear stabilizer bars provided a good road-holding package. There was some excessive body roll in sharp turns and corners, however. Even the smartly designed wide bucket seats with hold-you-in-your-place side bolsters couldn`t totally offset the roll.

What impressed us most was how quiet the powertrain was. We anticipated commotion in motion, but instead were treated to minimal decible distractions. We were able to judge any annoying sound levels rather easily because the semi-digested cassette tape rendered the radio inoperable. The car was especially quiet whe n traveling through Lake Forest, though we suspect the Alfa acted that way because it was trying to slip through town and not stay to join its fellow cars of European descent there.

The 164 is built on a 104.7-inch wheelbase and is 179.4 inches long. Despite compact dimensions, there`s ample front-seat room and good trunk carrying capacity. But two adults in the rear seat will have to put up with cramped quarters.

Standard equipment includes antilock brakes, a driver`s-side air bag, air conditioning, heated front and rear seats, power brakes and steering, power windows/door locks/dual heated mirrors, AM/FM stereo with a cassette with a case of the munchies, rear-window defroster, rear-window sunshades, front and rear fog lamps, intermittent wipers, cast alloy wheels and metallic paint.

Though antilock brakes are the best safety system on the road to ensure stopping on slick or wet surfaces, we found that under normal braking conditions on dry roadst ere was too much play in the brake pedal for our lik ing. There should be no doubt when braking in a performance sedan.

Perhaps with so much to offer Alfa decided to get a bit too cute with the radio/temperature controls in the dash. Several rows of silver metallic buttons activate all systems. All the buttons, however, look alike and you have to take your eyes from the road at times to press the right button. Too much needless confusion in the interest of stylish controls.

The 164 sedan starts at $27,500. Our test car added a power sunroof for $850, headlight washer for $150, theft alarm for $250 and automatic transmission for $650. With a $375 freight charge (Why is it cheaper to ship a car from Italy than from Detroit?) the sticker read $29,775.

The Alfa isn`t for everyone. It`s for the well-heeled person who accepts going in that this is a low-volume sedan (1,594 sales in `90) that not all mechanics have the skills or the parts to work on without your having to go back to the dealer for service. That could mean long waits for repairs.

The 164 sedan is a toy for the person who likes to try everything at least once before moving on to the next trinket. It`s also a car that offers a change of pace from those locked into the BMW mentality or those who consider Saab, Volvo, Audi or perhaps even the Mercedes-Benz 190.