Alfa Romeo cars have always been considered the antipasto of real motoring–somewhat underpowered, certainly undersized, definitely underpriced and totally unappreciated.

The 1991 Alfa Romeo 164 should reverse the worst of that.

And, given a little luck and some consumer forgiveness, here is the Alfa anointed to ease the company away from a clientele of loving, limited and low-profitAlficionados and toward the main course of high-performance sedan motoring in America.

POWER: The Alfa 164 in base and luxury models offers pure dolce vite from the kicky V-6 that powered last season’s Milano (the chunky one that looked like it was styled around a broken tail bone) and produces 183 horsepower. A hotter cam and a higher compression ratio adds an additional 17 horsepower to the more sporting and more expensive 164S.

SIZE: This four-door with room for five adults is the largest car ever built by Alfa. It’s certainly a far and final hurrah from the little red graduation gift Dustin Hoffman found almost as appealing as Mrs. Robinson’s legs.

PRICE: About 33 million lire. Or $24,500 for the base 164, and $27,500 for the 164L (for Luxury) and $29,500 for the 164S (for Sport). That’s enormous value for such high comfort, high speed motoring–especially with the serious trinkets (automatic climate control, power windows and seats, cruise control, six-speaker sound system, driver’s air bag, rear seat reading lamps) as standard equipment on all 164s.

Also, we drive in an epoch where far too many automotive interiors come from the same parts bin and the exterior styling of most sedans ricochets off Osaka on a cue from Mercedes. So 33 million lire really is nothing for an automobile with difference and personality. Particularly when that difference is the soft passione and timeless eleganza that stamps most things Italian.

Eight decades of automotive history are stuffed into every Alfa Romeo. It wears a racing heritage that began with Tazio Nuvolari in the 1920s and hasn’t ended with the March-Alfas at this year’s Indianapolis 500.

The company’s early racing manager was a kid called Enzo Ferrari who, if he hadn’t got the job, might have diverted his building talents into condo construction.

Giulietta. Duetto. Alfetta. Spyder. Even the names of Alfa’s street cars carry the romance of Florence and the impudence of Rome and always that suggestion of a small-production car with touches of hand crafting.

And despite their annoying mechanical temperament, soggy resale values and indolent American marketing, Alfa Romeo somehow has survived into this decade as a vehicle for discriminating albeit slightly daft drivers, much as the Morgan–still formed from hickory and hand-hammered aluminum–has become the only car for caring eccentrics.

Of prime interest now, of course, are Alfa’s chances for repairing its mechanical and marketing reputation for movement through the ’90s.

They’re good.

The 164 has been sold in Europe for the past two years, which is time enough to knock out every bug but the Medfly. Mechanical reliability–or at least prompt fixing of anything unreliable–has been further protected through the Alfa Romeo Assurance Plan.

It’s a bumper-to-bumper, parts-and-labor warranty good for 36 months or 36,000 miles. It includes free maintenance down to oil and wiper blade changes, and 24-hour roadside assistance. Owners are still expected to pump their own gas.

Alfa marketing also is on the advance.

It is now handled by Alfa Romeo Distributors of North America in Orlando, Fla., a new, enlarged and better disciplined sales and service organization formed as a 50-50 joint venture between Fiat, Alfa’s parent, and Chrysler, an Alfa shareholder.

Styling of the Alfa Romeo 164 is a flowing wedge and by Carrozzeria Pininfarina, naturally. Alfa’s triangular grille has been retained, but loped and softened to preserve tradition without creating anachronism.

The car is more handsome than beautiful, serious without being scholarly and a parcel of planes converging to imply high energy at rest. Almost a Volvo that moves.

There are no orange peel ripples in the paint (which, incredibly, you will find on some cars costing twice as much), and doors fit as though they were tailored by Chubb. Fog lamps are integrated into a front dam that pouts, and overall there’s a glint of the feral to make the 164 . . . well, so bloody Italian.

The interior design is just as distinctive. One observer who stumbled and groped in admiration finally said the correct word: Architecture.

Our test car–a 164L–came with embossed leather upholstery and door panels. Dash plastics were of sufficient quality to suggest they too might be leather. But there’s true elegance in the rear pews–power adjustable with a center arm rest and headphone jacks. With these, the kids can bop in silence to Guns N’ Roses while mom and dad can still hear themselves whistling Simon and Garfunkle.

Yet being Italian–especially when considering the Tower of Pisa–isn’t always synonymous with construction excellence.

While in search of appearance, Alfa’s stylists apparently became a little absent-minded about function. As a result, radio controls are identical to heating/cooling controls, and that adds up to 22 lozenges defying instinctive selection.

The steering wheel tilts and is telescopic–but it doesn’t tilt or telescope quite far enough to prevent the top of the wheel obscuring a critical portion of the speedometer and tachometer.

But we found no objection to the various angles of the steering wheel, despite an optimum slant borrowed from a Neopolitan school bus. A point of explanation: It is not that Italians are built any stringier or more bulbous than Americans, but they do like to emulate their heroes of the MilleMiglia race, and that calls for a seating position with arms straight and torso tipping toward the supine.

The sensible have suggested this isn’t even a comfortable way to carry groceries. Italians have countered by asking for the name of any grocery boy who won the Italian Grand Prix.

But there can be no argument about the location of the release catch to adjust the Alfa’s steering wheel. It’s an aberration buried way under the dash and a blind fumble for anyone. Even when located, it would be wise to tug the catch slowly. You could still be yanking on a handful of electrical wiring.

Yet on the 164, such flaws will be excused, even laughed off as part of Alfa’s curious persona because the rest and the best of the car is so personable. Especially when it is outrunning and sweeping easily around BMW 535s and mid-size Mercedes, and having Sterlings and Lexus 250s for lunch.

The 164 is based on the same front-drive platform as the Saab 9000, which al so is used by Fiat and Lancia. It is sturdy, rigid and of proven, impeccable pedigree.

Alfa’s three-liter power plant and five-speed manual transmission (a four-speed automatic is available on all models except the 164S) has equal stamina born of seniority.

There are power disc brakes (with an anti-lock braking system standard on L and S models), independent suspension front and rear, and a daddy-longlegs of a first gear that runs clear up to 40 m.p.h. None of which is particularly unusual.

But as an amalgam, the mechanicals form a superb smoothie for polite company with the family aboard–with a definite snarl and a snap for those happy highway moments when nobody is looking.

It is a very easy car to drive thanks to a bottomless clutch and a slick gear box that shifts with neither snag nor mushy set. And the corollary of that is a seamless progression of power in all gears.

The steering was a smidge heavy in parking-lot maneuvers but lighte ed considerably and perfectly as power was applied–and that’s exactly the way it should be.

Torque steer in straight acceleration was nonexistent.

But in tight corners when pushing hard for a fast exit, there was a noticeable slap and skitter of the front wheels until tires caught up with driver demands and common sense was restored.

The joys of Alfa are the small but significant things. The exhaust has been tuned to an aluminum snore that’s more fun to hear than the radio. Like all thoroughbreds, it is a car that lives to run and plays not for you, but with you.

It is fun to drive, a distinction to own, and like Italian suits and movies, it has no patience for norms and doldrums.

Henry Ford once said he tipped his hat whenever an Alfa Romeo drove by.

He would genuflect at the Alfa 164L.

1991 Alfa Romeo 164

The Good In styling and design, interior and exterior, Italian verve and distinction. Capriccioso performance. Highest value of car in its class. Loyal handling. Factory warranty including routine maintenance.

The Bad Instruments obscured by steering wheel. Similarity of radio and climate controls. Footwell fumble for tilt steering release.

The Ugly Still looking.

Cost Base: $24,500. As tested: $27,500(164L with driver’s air bag, cruise control, anti-lock braking system, power windows and seats, leather seats as standard equipment).

Engine 3-liter, V-6 engine developing 183 horsepower.

Type Front-wheel drive, four-door, five-passenger, high-performance luxury sedan.

Performance 0-60 (as tested) 9 seconds. Estimated top speed, 130 m.p.h. Fuel economy (city-highway average) 24 m.p.g.

Curb Weight 3,325 pounds.