SOMETIMES, LOVING something is not enough, even when that something is as good as the 1991 Alfa Romeo 164 L.
The trouble is the "why factor," as in: "Why should I pay so much money 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 a person or thing, exposing the object of inquiry to scrutiny that surely will reveal flaws, however small.
That about sums up my week in and my feelings about the 164 L, Alfa Romeo's latest and best attempt to appeal to American car buyers who are not Alfisti -- fanatical Alfa Romeo patrons.
I loved the car until I suffered a "why" attack, which began with an attempt to push the correct climate-control button while driving along a dark Virginia road. The buttons in the 164 L are stacked like the floors of a high-rise apartment building, and they all look and feel alike. You must look away from the road and study the symbols above the buttons to push the right one. Why is that?
Other whys concerned the advertising hype surrounding the Alfa Romeo 164. "The idea of building an automobile that tries to be all things to all people is not a very good one," one of the 164-series advertisements says.
I agree with the sentiment, but am troubled by the reality. The truth is 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 car with sports-car handling and feel. It also wants to be a practical front-wheel-drive, five-passenger family sedan capable of carrying nearly 18 cubic feet of cargo.
The 164 L does a very good job of being most of those things, but it's not spectacularly successful in any one area. Why buy this car over myriad others in its category, particularly at its over-$25,000 asking price? I can't think of a sensible answer.
Background: Italy's Alfa Romeo, now owned by Italy's Fiat, has always been a boutique auto maker producing small volumes of cars for a specialized clientele -- mostly high-performance auto buffs. With the mainstream-designed 164 L, which replaces the quaintly styled Milano, Alfa Romeo is trying to broaden its reach without losing its soul. It's a 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 L smacks of being too little too late. The sales lane in which it is trying to compete in the United States is congested with worthy rivals.
Praise: The 164 L is an excellent car. It is well-made and generally well-thought out. That it does not stand out above its many competitors simply confirms what numerous auto industry analysts have already reported: The quality gap between competitive automobiles has narrowed considerably over the last decade.
Head-turning quotient: Mixed. Some people raved over it. Many others asked if it was a new Acura Legend, or Sterling, or Lexus, or Honda Accord or, to quote one questioner, if it was "one of those foreign-made GM cars that we've been hearing about."
Ride, acceleration and handling: The ride is a tad stiff and bumpy for American luxury tastes. Handling is terrific, easily in league with the best sports cars from Germany, America and Japan. The 164 L is powered 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 horsepower at 6,000 rpm.)
Sound system: Six-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette, by Chrysler's Acustar divison. Excellent.
Mileage: About 23 to the gallon (17.2-gallon tank, estimated 380 miles on usable volume), running with one to five occupants, combined city-highway, air conditioner in use part time. Test car was equipped with a five-speed manual transmission.
Price: Base price on the tested 164 L is $27,500. Dealer's invoice price is $22,550. Price as tested is $28,885, including $850 in options and $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 190 series and BMW 318i.
Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.