OH, WOW! The 1991 Alfa Romeo Spider was flawed. It had so many little goofs. Some big ones, too -- like gasoline vapors that wafted into the passenger cabin when the tank was full.

But, oooohhh, on the open road, it was beautiful. Petite red body. Sexy. And fast. With the top down at highway speeds, it rocked my soul. In a way, it showed what love is all about -- beauty, imperfection, conflict, passion, all blended into a splendiferously confusing whole.

Background: The Alfa Romeo Spider has been around since 1966, when it was introduced as the Spider Duetto. The two-door, two-seat, front-engine, rear-drive convertible remained practically unchanged until the 1991-model year, which began Oct. 1.

The new base Spider, which I tested, and the more costly Spider Veloce have a redesigned front bumper and grille and an extensively reworked back end. Key changes in the rear include full-length tail lights and a sassy, slightly upturned deck lid. Power steering is now standard equipment on both cars, which also have driver's-side air bags.

Complaints: Those vapors. With the top up and windows closed, gasoline vapors somehow found their way into the passenger cabin. The gassy odor, more disturbing than overwhelming, disappeared whenever the fuel level fell below three-fourths of a tank.

Praise: In terms of performance and overall feel, the Spider lives up to its manufacturer's billing as "the last of the classical open roadsters." Its problems succumb to its overpowering spirit and personality.

Head-turning quotient: Astounding, especially with the top down on a bright fall day.

Ride, acceleration and handling: The Spider has some typical convertible-body quivers, which means that it shakes and flexes a bit on bad roads. But the car is mostly tight, and its four-wheel-independent suspension system helps to reduce the harshness of much of the rough stuff.

Acceleration is excellent after peace is made with first gear in the standard five-speed, manual-transmission Spider. The car is equipped with a two-liter, four-cylinder, fuel-injected, double-overhead-camshaft engine rated 120 horsepower at 5,800 rpm.

Sound system: Four-speaker AM/FM stereo radio and cassette installed by Alfa Romeo. Excellent.

Mileage: About 31 miles per gallon. But hold the applause. The Spider requires premium unleaded, which is nosing $1.60 a gallon in many parts of the United States. Fuel capacity is 12.2 gallons, allowing an estimated 368-mile highway cruising range on usable volume.

Price: Base price for the tested 1991 Spider is $20,950. Dealer's invoice price is $17,388. Price as tested is $22,830, including $350 for optional cast-alloy wheels, $995 for air conditioner, $375 for destination charge and an extra $160 for "mechanical preparation and delivery."

Purse-strings note: Shoppers looking for cute predictability with touches of excitement should buy a Mazda Miata convertible, now being sold in many places without silly dealer markups. Those willing to risk heartbreak for moments of unforgettable passion should put their money on the Alfa Romeo Spider.

Warren Brown covers the automotive industry for The Washington Post.