I'D JUST returned from tromping around Michigan, in no mood for another test drive.

But there it sat, white paint begrimed by an early November snow, but still seductively beautiful: the 1988 Pontiac Bonneville SSE.

I threw down my bags, grabbed a bucket, filled it with hot water and liquid soap, grabbed a sponge and started washing the car, gently.

I knew this was manic behavior, childish actually. But I couldn't help myself. Beautiful cars have that effect on me; and the SSE is a knockout.

Anyway, all of that touching, rubbing and patting the car's wonderfully contoured body was bound to lead to something else. I found the ignition key, cranked the engine and took off.

Some family and friends pray that I recover from my madness for cars; and I've often entertained the notion of joining something like Car Nuts Anonymous. But I'm a recalcitrant backslider. What can I say? It's hard to be virtuous when they keep making cars like this.

Complaints: I wish that the SSE's "A" pillars, those front pillars framing the left and right sides of the windshield, were thinner. They're kind of bulky, which means they sometimes obstruct peripheral vision.

Also, the driver's power seat controls should be put someplace else, maybe on the floor-mounted center console. The buttons now perch on the left-front portion of the seat. Short legs can move the controls inadvertently.

Praise: Such a splendid freshening of General Motors' front-wheel-drive Bonneville, originally introduced as a 1987 model. All GM doubters should drive this sporty sedan, which accommodates four adults.

GM's competitors, in America and abroad, should worry. If the SSE is indicative of how the sometimes unbelievably clumsy automotive giant intends to fight back, I'm putting my money on the big guy.

The SSE has world-class everything: electronics (including a very useful, dashboard-mounted video compass), fit and finish, comfort, ride, handling, braking (anti-lock) and looks.

The exterior is monochromatic -- body paint matching wheel-cover paint matching aerodynamic ground effects cladding, a theme enhanced by subtle gold stripes and some tastefully applied black accents on the test car.

The SSE embraces Euro-design without giving everything American away. This car has soul.

Head-turning quotient: So stunning, people were lining up for autographs.

Ride, acceleration, handling: Triple excellence. The engine is an improved 3.8-liter, fuel-injected V-6, rated at 165 hp at 5,200 rpm. Enough to move the car with grace and authority.

Sound system: Electronic AM/FM stereo radio and cassette (auto reverse), mated with a five-band graphic equalizer and excellent speaker package, by GM/Delco. Top marks.

Mileage: about 20 to the gallon (18-gallon tank, estimated 350-mile range on usable volume), mostly driver only, using heater; mostly highways and back roads in the Great State of Virginia.

Price: $22,359, including $1,279 in options and a $480 destination charge. Base price is $20,600. Estimated dealer's invoice price on the tested model is $19,472.

Warren Brown covers the auto industry for The Washington Post.