The American market can be cruel. The French are gone. The British, Koreans and Japanese are struggling. The Germans and Swedish are slowly recovering. And the Italians, led by Alfa Romeo, are just barely hanging on. But should it be that way for Alfa? If only import-oriented car buyers could leave some baggage on the curb and approach an Alfa Romeo 164 with no prejudices, chances are the Italian automaker might be in better shape. Admittedly, Alfa Romeo does not have a good reputation here. There is the perception that Alfas are cranky and finicky. And once upon a time that was true. Some of the cars Alfa built in the 1970s and '80s had many quirks and quality problems. But this week's test car, the 164 luxury/sports sedan, does not deserve to inherit that reputation, said Alfa spokesman Craig Morningstar. ''We don't have to make any excuses for the way this car is put together. The 164 is as dependable, and it possesses the same build quality as any European car, ''said Morningstar from Alfa's U.S. headquarters in Orlando Central Park. ''We back the car with a three-year, 36,000-mile service program that covers everything but normal service items and tires,'' he said. Still, reputations are hard to change, and that is partially why Alfa is struggling through a severe sales slump here. Another reason Alfa is struggling is because there has been speculation in Italy that Fiat, Alfa Romeo's parent company, may withdraw the 164 from the United States and end Alfa's more than 30-year presence in the market. But no decision has been made and none is pending, Morningstar said. ''We are doing business as a small marketer of niche cars.'' If it turns out that the 164 is the last Alfa Romeo sold in the United States, Alfa can leave with its head held high. The 164 LS I drove for a week is a tremendous sports sedan. It is designed to appeal to driving enthusiasts who crave the sounds of camshafts spinning at high speeds and the expensive smell of Italian leather. PERFORMANCE The 164 LS has a 3.0-liter, 24-valve V-6 that develops a neck-snapping 210-horsepower. Many - in fact most - V-8s today aren't that powerful. What makes the164 LS really special is the way that power is delivered. Torque steer can be a problem in high-powered front-wheel drive cars. But in the 164, there is no torque steer - a slight pulling to the left of right upon acceleration. In fact, the Alfa does not even feel very much like a front-wheel-drive car. Our light brown 164 came outfitted with a five-speed manual transmission. Those who want to extract the maximum amount of performance from Alfa's spirited V-6 will want this gearbox instead of the optional four-speed automatic. You can reach 65 mph in second gear in the 164 LS. The engine, fed gas and spark by an advanced Bosch computerized fuel and ignition system, does not seem to have any peaks or valleys of power. No matt er where the tachometer needle is on the dial, the engine delivers the power smoothly. And it sounds great too. One minor gripe: There is no safety switch on the clutch pedal, and the car can be started when in gear, which could allow the car to jump forward unexpectedly. HANDLING The 164's drivetrain is not the only thing about the car that is superb. So is its suspension system. Alfa engineers always have taken great pride in the way they tune their cars' suspension systems. Can you name one Alfa that handled poorly? Most drivers are likely to find that they will not have to compromise when driving the 164 LS. It will go where you point it at almost any speed you deem appropriate. The 164, one of the best-selling big sedans in Italy, was engineered for European roads, where cars have to perform safely at speeds in excess of 100 mph. The 164's four-wheel independent suspension system, power-assisted four-wheel, anti-lock disc brakes and sp ed sensitive power rack-and-pinion steering all work in concert to provide a firm, athletic and unusually stable ride. The 164 offers sports car handling. Fast cornering in the car is almost sure to provoke a grin - and surprise any passengers you might have aboard. FIT AND FINISH From a design point of view, perhaps Alfa's biggest problem is that the company made little effort to make the 164's dash, buttons and switches appeal to American tastes. I have no gripes with the firm, leather bucket seats, the generously thick, luxurious carpets or any of the materials used to assemble the car. Generally, the 164 uses first-rate items. But the car's air-conditioner controls and accessories are so poorly designed that they could tax the patience of a saint. In many cars, two knobs control the air-conditioning and heating system. In the 164, the air conditioner is operated by using numerous look-alike buttons stacked row upon row. While driving, there's no way to make a quick adjustment without diverting your attention from the road. Same problem with the radio. The buttons that change the stations are so small that you have to look at them for a long time in order to make the desired change. When you first sit in a car, you want to feel at ease with the controls. But in the 164, you feel confused because too many similar-looking buttons and switches compete for your attention. That said, visibility is good, front, rear and side to side. Front and rear head- and leg-room are excellent. The 164 LS comes with a generous amount of standard equipment, including power windows, locks, mirrors and sunroof, and cruise control. A driver's side air bag is standard. From the outside, the 164 is a beautiful, highly styled car. Under the hood, the engine and transmission deliver exceptional performance. The 164's handling prowess places it at the front of the pack. Inside, however, you can't help but feel that Alfa could have - andshould have - done better. Truett's tip: The 164 LS is powerful and graceful and it makes the most wonderful symphony of mechanical noises this side of a $200,000 Ferrari.