My first glimpse of the car that became the Chrysler Crossfire was 29 months ago when the concept version debuted at the Detroit Auto Show.

I loved it.

Now the real thing is here and some of the fancy bits are gone — touches that worked on a hand-made concept but can't be translated into mass-produced sheet metal.

No matter. The boat-tailed Crossfire — the rear end narrows to a blunt point, like the stern of a rowboat or canoe — will be one of the most striking vehicles on the road when it starts rolling out of Chrysler dealers' showrooms this summer. Its rear end evokes the classic Auburn boat-tail speedster of the 1930s as well as the fast-back muscle cars of the 1970s.

After a day of trying to find the 2004 Crossfire's flaws while driving it in the hills and valleys of inland San Diego County earlier this year, I still loved the car.

It is the first DaimlerChrysler vehicle to be assembled after the merger. So it's been created from parts bins from Mercedes and Detroit — and the car benefits from the mix.

Crossfire isn't a true sports car, although it will attract some of the same shoppers who will ogle the Nissan Z 350, the Porsche Boxster and even the Honda S2000. The Crossfire suspension is a little too soft, the horsepower a little too lean to make the 3,060-pound coupe perform in sports car territory.

But it is a world-class sports coupe: a two-seater comfortable enough for a cross-country drive or a daily commute on L.A.'s crumbling freeway system; nimble enough for a weekend of "S" curves along that wonderful stretch of Highway 1 from Cambria to Half Moon Bay and powerful enough to climb effortlessly through the Sierra on a winter ski jaunt or summer camping trip.

As a bonus, it gets decent gas mileage, albeit on 91 octane premium. Chrysler estimates 18 miles per gallon in city driving for the 6-speed manual transmission model, 21 mpg in the city for the automatic and 27 mpg on the highway for both versions.

It isn't a race car, and because of the Crossfire's limited capacity for people and cargo, it is best considered as a second or even third vehicle rather than as primary transportation. But it is fun to drive, sure-footed and relatively powerful, and it does double duty as a beautiful sculpture that will keep you peering into the garage at odd hours — just to look at it again.

Granted, this isn't a car for everyone: Chrysler plans to build only about 20,000 a year for worldwide consumption, with about 11,000 of the first year's production numbers slated for the U.S. market.

It's a halo car, intended to help polish Chrysler's image and pull shoppers into its dealers' showrooms, where most will admire the Crossfire, then turn their attention to Concordes, Sebrings, Town & Country vans, PT Cruisers and the new Pacifica luxury van-sport utility cross.

Those who do plunk down the Crossfire's $34,495 purchase price — $35,570 for the model with an automatic transmission — will be getting a two-seat hatchback that not only will make them the center of attention wherever they drive, but will make driving there a blast.

Of course, Chrysler dealers may try to gouge a few thousand dollars more out of those who'll pay extra to be first on the block to own one.

Chrysler, which was taken over by Germany's Daimler-Benz in 1998 and now is known as Chrysler Group, boasts that the Crossfire is the perfect blend of German engineering and American design: "Route 66 meets the autobahn."

Privately, Chrysler executives say the Crossfire and the just-released Pacifica are crucial to the company's effort to reestablish itself as a premium brand in the minds of American consumers.

It is fortunate, then, that the Crossfire benefits from the mix.

Crossfire — the name comes from the two sharply creased character lines on the coupe's flanks t at cross just under the side mirrors — shares a lot of its platform with the current generation Mercedes-Benz SLK, although most everything has been beefed up to increase stiffness. Chrysler vehicle development manager Tim LaBoda says the Crossfire is stiffer than a Porsche 911.

It uses the same front and rear suspension set-up and the same power-assisted, recirculating-ball steering as the SLK, and the engine is the same 215 horsepower, 3.2-liter V-6 that Mercedes stuffs into many of its vehicles, including the M-Class SUV, the C-Class coupes and sedans and everything else with a 320 in its moniker.

The transmissions come from the Benz bin as well, and the choice of six-speed manual or five-speed automatic with "auto stick" manual mode is one of only two options available. The other is tire selection: Michelin Pilot 2 or Continental All-Season.

Using tried-and-true Mercedes-engineered designs make it likely that the Crossfire will be a first-year car that will hold up well.

And calling on the Chrysler design team, whose wonderful concepts have been the highlights of most major U.S. auto shows over the last decade, helped ensure that it would be a car whose looks would hold up as well as its go parts.

Walk around most any other car that sells for less than the national debt and doesn't have an Italian pedigree and no matter how good it looks from angles A, B and C, there's inevitably an angle D — or E or F — that makes you wince. That doesn't happen with the Crossfire.

It is a beauty that makes modern the classic Art Deco teardrop designs that French coach makers such as Delage, Delahaye and Talbot Lago turned out in the 1930s.

Now let's get the bad things out of the way, although there weren't many apparent in the short time Chrysler let me play with the car:

The radio face is unreadable and the odometer and trip meter are hard to read when the sun shines onto the instrument panel.

The side mirrors are a tad small.

Side and rear vision is a bit limited by the roof pillars, and the pop-up rear spoiler that automatically deploys at 60 mph blocks rear vision even more.

The passenger side of the cockpit could use an overhead hand grip.

The cruise control is mounted on a separate stalk that gets in the way of the turn signal at times.

The six "speed lines" stamped into the hood are a little too busy.

There's not much room for cargo — just 7.6 cubic feet — and to make even that much space Chrysler opted to go without a spare tire, substituting an aerosol can of tire sealant to patch nail holes and other small leaks and an on-board compressor to make it easy to refill the repaired flat.

That's it, unless there are quality issues that won't start showing up until the cars have a few thousand miles on them.

Neat touches include the raised central spine that bisects the hood, roof and tail and is repeated in the interior; side vents that, even though fake, fit perfectly on the sheet metal behind the Crossfire's front wheels, and comfortable power-adjustable seats. There's plenty of cabin room for all but the tallest or widest of us, and there's a 240-watt stereo with a single-disc, in-dash CD player.

The car leans forward on 18-inch front wheels and 19-inch rears, like a runner in the blocks. Its fat, low-profile Michelin Pilot 2s, 220/40ZRs in front and 255/35s in back, are among the widest on the road, and the same-sized optional Continental tires are the first all-season tires with the high-speed Z rating.

That's a little bit of overkill as the Crossfire won't qualify for the world speed championships. The engine's 229 pound-feet of torque at 3,000 rpm does help get it up to cruising speed with dispatch, though. Chrysler figures the Crossfire will do zero to 60 in 6.5 seconds.

But the big tires do help the 3,060-pound car stick to the road with little body roll even on the tightest curves.

Braking is by discs on all four wheels, with big 11.8-inch vented rotors up front, making it easy to bring the Crossfire to a quick stop.

Handling is assisted electronically with stability and traction controls, a first for a Chrysler product and borrowed from Mercedes. So in most normal driving situations it is hard to get into trouble with the Crossfire.

Final words: Chrysler's first modern two-seater is a Mercedes wearing designed-in-Michigan sheet metal. The combo makes beautiful music.

It's well worth a look if the dealers aren't gouging and you don't mind a two-seater with a solid roof.