TOP DOWN, rolling through the dawn, with singer Whitney Houston's sweet voice flowing from the stereo -- maybe it does get better than this. But at the moment, it doesn't seem possible.

I'm in a romance machine, the 1986 Ford Mustang GT convertible. It's a beauty -- and a beast.

Bright red body with an interior of oxford white. Soft leather sports seats. This car is hard to ignore.

Turn down Houston's voice a bit and listen to that motor growl. Beastly, big, 5-liter, V-8 thing. But it's sophisticated, too.

The engine comes with sequential, multiport fuel injection, which does a fantastically accurate job of mixing fuel with air. The result is maximum power, minimum waste.

Outstanding complaints: Not so outstanding, really. Just my perennial gripe about the disconcerting lack of rhythm found in many domestically produced manual transmissions. Domestic manuals tend to be notchy and grumblesome in shifting. The five-speed manual gearbox in this test car is no different.

I know that Ford Motor Co. produces better stick shifts. Anyone who has driven the five-speed Lincoln-Mercury Merkur, made by Ford of Germany, knows that.

And this: There was some minor difficulty in latching the convertible's top to its front-right connector. 'Twas an easily correctable alignment problem.

Outstanding praise: Overall quality. For years now the people at Ford have been saying, "Quality is Job One." The Mustang GT lives up to that slogan.

The rigidity of the convertible's body is an example. Convertibles, regardless of make, tend to shake and shimmy at highway speeds. That's partly the result of doing away with the hardtop and certain structural supports.

But the Mustang GT is pleasantly firm -- no shakes, rattles or other unpleasant vibrations. Credit the extra structural adhesives that Ford used in putting this one together.

Another thing. With the windows and convertible top up, and with the top latched firmly in place, the car was leakproof and reasonably quiet. That is the highest praise you can give a convertible.

And another: The rear seats in the Mustang GT are for real. Two adult bodies can actually fit back there. Three children can sit comfortably in the rear, too.

Ride, acceleration and handling: Superior acceleration, excellent ride and handling, which is enhanced by 15-inch, Goodyear Eagle "Gatorback" radials. I'll put my money on Goodyear's Gatorbacks anytime. They really hold the car to the road.

Head-turning-quotient: High in the ranks of classic American beauties.

Sound system: Electronic AM/FM stereo cassette, Ford's "Premium Sound." Did I fall in love with Houston, or with this grand system? How will I know?

Mileage: A surprising 20 miles per gallon (15.4-gallon tank), combined city-highway. Surprising, because this car's engine is so big and powerful. I ran with mixed loads -- one to five people -- and with the air conditioner operating part of the time.

Price-as-tested: $17,294, including $2,684 in options, such as power locks and windows and leather sports seats.

Warren Brown writes for the Business section of The Washington Post.