SOMETIMES, LOVING something is not enough, even when that somethingis as good as the 1991 Alfa Romeo 164 L.

The trouble is the “why factor,” as in: “Why should I pay so muchmoney for this, when I can get something just as good, perhaps better,for a lower price?”

“Why” has a way of destroying romance, mostly because one “why”begets another and another, until it becomes full-scale doubt about aperson or thing, exposing the object of inquiry to scrutiny that surelywill reveal flaws, however small.

That about sums up my week in and my feelings about the 164 L, AlfaRomeo’s latest and best attempt to appeal to American car buyers who arenot Alfisti — fanatical Alfa Romeo patrons.

I loved the car until I suffered a “why” attack, which began with anattempt to push the correct climate-control button while driving along adark Virginia road. The buttons in the 164 L are stacked like the floorsof a high-rise apartment building, and they all look and feel alike. Youmust look away from the road and study the symbols above the buttons topush the right one. Why is that?

Other whys concerned the advertising hype surrounding the Alfa Romeo164. “The idea of building an automobile that tries to be all things toall people is not a very good one,” one of the 164-series advertisementssays.

I agree with the sentiment, but am troubled by the reality. The truthis that the tested 164 L tries mightily to be all things to all people– or, at least, most things to most people. It wants to be a luxury carwith sports-car handling and feel. It also wants to be a practicalfront-wheel-drive, five-passenger family sedan capable of carryingnearly 18 cubic feet of cargo.

The 164 L does a very good job of being most of those things, butit’s not spectacularly successful in any one area. Why buy this car overmyriad others in its category, particularly at its over-$25,000 askingprice? I can’t think of a sensible answer.

Background: Italy’s Alfa Romeo, now owned by Italy’s Fiat, has alwaysbeen a boutique auto maker producing small volumes of cars for aspecialized clientele — mostly high-performance auto buffs. With themainstream-designed 164 L, which replaces the quaintly styled Milano,Alfa Romeo is trying to broaden its reach without losing its soul. It’sa gamble. The chips in this case include the base 164, the luxury 164 L,and the sports-luxury 164 S.

Complaints: In terms of its market-expansion mission, the 164 Lsmacks of being too little too late. The sales lane in which it istrying to compete in the United States is congested with worthy rivals.

Praise: The 164 L is an excellent car. It is well-made and generallywell-thought out. That it does not stand out above its many competitorssimply confirms what numerous auto industry analysts have alreadyreported: The quality gap between competitive automobiles has narrowedconsiderably over the last decade.

Head-turning quotient: Mixed. Some people raved over i t. Many othersasked if it was a new Acura Legend, or Sterling, or Lexus, or HondaAccord or, to quote one questioner, if it was “one of those foreign-madeGM cars that we’ve been hearing about.”

Ride, acceleration and handling: The ride is a tad stiff and bumpyfor American luxury tastes. Handling is terrific, easily in league withthe best sports cars from Germany, America and Japan. The 164 L ispowered by a three-liter V-6 engine rated 183 horsepower at 5,800 rpm.(A reworked version of that engine in the 164 S is rated 200 horsepowerat 6,000 rpm.)

Sound system: Six-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, byChrysler’s Acustar divison. Excellent.

Mileage: About 23 to the gallon (17.2-gallon tank, estimated 380miles on usable volume), running with one to five occupants, combinedcity-highway, air conditioner in use part time. Test car was equippedwith a five-speed manual transmission.

Price: Base price on the tested 164 L is $27,500. Dealer’s invoiceprice is $22 ,550. Price as tested is $28,885, including $850 in optionsand $535 in destination and “mechanical preparation” charges.

Purse-strings note: Comparison-shop with Acura Legend, Lexus ES 250,Lincoln Mark VII, Cadillac Eldorado Touring Coupe and STS Sedan DeVille,Nissan Maxima, Chrysler LeBaron, Mitsubishi Galant, Mercedes-Benz 190series and BMW 318i.

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