THE 1988 ALFA ROMEO Spider Veloce convertible is more romance thancar. Therein lies the fantasy — and the frailty.

It’s exciting and exhilarating, and ridiculously flawed. Some of itsshortcomings would make a comparable American auto unacceptable.

Take the Spider Veloce’s cloth top: It comes down easily, but it’shard as heck to latch back into place. By comparison, convertible topson the Chevrolet Cavalier and Ford Mustang are a cinch to operate.

The Spider Veloce’s top also wimps out in heavy rains. Some watergets in — not a flood, mind you, but enough to make you wanna run forcover.

There are a few more problems, too, but I’m calling time out for adeclaration of affection:

I love this Italian two-seater.

When it comes to charm and allure, no convertible beats the SpiderVeloce. Much of its appeal is in its body, a classic work styled morethan 20 years ago — with several minor interim changes — byBattista Pininfarina. And what a body! People stared at it, slaveredover it. Talk about automotive seduction! Puhleeez, Mrs. Robinson. Noapologies. I understand.

Complaints: Alfa Romeo should get rid of those cumbersome togglelatches used to secure the convertible top to the windshield assembly.Simpler, more precise attachments are needed. Alfa Romeo officials canscrap the cloth top, too. A more water-resistant fabric is called for.Cloth is appealing, but damp is appalling.

Also, there’s the Spider Veloce’s fuel-gauge needle, which jumpsabout madly. The test model’s gauge was so jittery, I was tempted tocheck the fuel tank for caffeine.

Praise: The Spider Veloce has what too many cars nowadays lack:personality. This rear-wheel-drive roadster literally beckons driversand riders. Once in it, most folks don’t want to get out, particularlyif the weather is nice enough to lower the top.

Even with its faults, I found it difficult to part with the testmodel. I can’t say that about too many other cars I’ve driven, includingsome that were flawless in execution.

Head-turning quotient: Terrific!

Ride, acceleration, handling and braking: Like many convertibles, theSpider Veloce’s body twists and shimmies over bad roads. That excessivemotion creates some discomfort, but never a crisis; with anti-roll barsin its front and rear suspensions, the Veloce stays on track. Onwell-maintained roads, wet or dry, the Veloce moves like a racer,hugging close to curves and steering with admirable precision.

Acceleration and braking are excellent. The engine is a 2-liter,4-cylinder, fuel-injected, front-mounted job rated 115 hp at 5,500 rpm.That’s enough to rocket this 2,548-pound car to nearly 140 mph, forthose foolish enough to try it. All four wheels have power-assisted discbrakes.

Sound system: Alfa Romeo two-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette.Good, but not “very good” because the speakers do a poor job of handlingbass registers. There’s no such thing as an “excellent” two- speaker caraudio system, anyway.

Mileage: About 25 to the gallon (12.2-gallon tank, estimated 295-milerange on usable volume), combined city-highway, running mostly driveronly with top down. Fuel economy here is helped by a fully synchronized,five-speed manual transmission.

Price: Base price is $19,380. Dealer’s invoice price on base model is$16,017. Price as tested is $20,885, including $995 for optional airconditioner, $160 for dealer preparation, and a $350 delivery charge.California folks must add $48 for the state’s emission test fee.

Purse-strings note: A more affordable Alfa Romeo Spider convertibleis “The Graduate,” which sells for about $15,400. The Chevrolet Cavalierand Ford Mustang convertibles are in the $16,000 arena, too. But if it’sromance you want, go Alfa.