MALIBU, Calif. -- Rocking and rolling along a twisted twine of asphalt in the Santa Monica Mountains above Los Angeles, we're playing all of the curves in crinkled canyons like Encinal and Zuma through a connection to the Pacific Coast Highway at Malibu.
These narrow strands of blacktop -- rumpled in serial switchbacks carved into steep palisades -- rank among the most contorted and exacting driving routes on the planet.
Malibu's canyon roads serve as our makeshift automotive laboratory to experience the curve-hugging agility and sample the playful spirit of an eensy-weensy wagon laced with gear for comfort and safety.
It's badged as the xD, which is a new moniker for the Scion brand spinning out of Toyota, although this cute car functions as a souped-up, stretched and restyled Generation 2.0 version of xA, the subcompact five-door hatch which led the line at Scion's inception in 2004.
New xD measures notably larger than the Gen-1 xA, with a wheelbase over three inches longer and more cargo room in the five-seat cabin, plus a new engine on tap to produce 20 more points of horsepower.
It appears muscular too, despite wee proportions in the form of a cubistic four-door wagon with big glass up front and the tail square for a hatchback rear door, a broad stance across the face with brief overhangs fore and aft and bulging rings around wheelwells.
xD's beltline on flanks seems rather tall and the roof slinks toward the rear, squeezing aft window glass to narrow -- and quite interesting -- proportions.
Another striking aspect is this car's chrome-free face: It's monochromatic and entirely smooth with the fat lip of fascia set low and tinted to the body color and a narrow horizontal slit for a center grille filled with black mesh, as unusual shapes for the multi-lens headlamp clusters wrap around front corners.
Climb inside to discover that the cabin feels airy and rather roomy, despite overall dimensions which tie the xD to the smallest category of all cars.
The cockpit floor dips low so you can step aboard easily, and the ceiling bows high up front to fit tall chair-like seats on the front row. Passengers in the two front buckets sit upright, with their heads positioned high for better visibility though the ring of windows.
A simple design for the instrument cluster, positioned directly in front of the driver, employs a large circular gauge which combines the functions of a speedometer and a tachometer.
A bench in back squeezes space for three plus seatbacks which split and fold to expand the aft cargo bay.
The storage area is generous with rear seatbacks folded, tallying to 35.7 cubic feet.
And xD offers so many different accessories which invite a custom treatment.
Understand, acquiring a Scion is akin to joining a cult - it brings a lingo of its own and comes with planned events, linked web-based communications and loads of after-market gear on tap to personalize every vehicle.
What's it like to drive?
Well, the xD feels direct and frisky and fun, and it's particularly suited to an urban environment on city streets.
It hops to speed with a quick run through the lower gears, while handling seems acute with responsive steering conducive to quick-cut maneuvers.
xD stocks a larger powertrain than the xA, along with high-tech electronic controls like electric power steering (EPS) and standard safety gear such as an anti-lock brake system (ABS) with electronic brakeforce distribution (EBD), which measures differences in speed for front and rear wheels, then doles out proper braking force to all wheels.
Brakes utilize front ventilated discs and rear drums.
Other on-board safety equipment includes dual frontal air bags and front seat-mounted side air bags, plus curtain-style air bags concealed in headliners for front and rear seats.
Optional safety equipment adds vehicle stability control (VSC) with traction control (TRAC).
xD's motivation flows from a thrifty yet strong 1.8-liter four-in-line 2ZR-FE engine with dual cams on top and Toyota's valve wizardry under the label of VVT-i for dual variable valve timing with intelligent control.
The plant produces 128 hp at 6000 rpm and torque of 125 lb-ft at 4900 rpm through the standard manual five-speed or an optional electronically controlled four-speed automatic transaxle.
xD qualifies for LEV-II (Low Emission Vehicle II) status and delivers fuel economy numbers up to 33 mpg.
And xD contains a lot of stock content, like air conditioning, a remote keyless entry fob, cruise control, power buttons for running windows and door locks and mirrors, and a sliding rear bench with 60/40-split folding and reclining seatbacks.
Out of the box there's one sweet audio kit aboard.
The Pioneer 160-watt unit brings a maximum output AM/FM/CD head unit (MP3/WMA and satellite-tuner capable) with a connection for iPod, Scion Sound Processing, a welcome screen with customizing, and Sound Retouch digital equalization plus six speakers -- a tweeter, a speaker for both front door panels, plus two full-range rear speakers.
Upgrading audio gear brings xD's premium audio system with the ability to download 'skins' to play on the organic electroluminescent (OEL) screen.
You can download images, four-second video clips and eight-second movies from the Pioneer website. Further, the faceplate light also changes its hue at the tap of a button, sliding from deep orange to blue.
Another option to xD's accessory line is a navigation system with a 160-watt audio/video/navigation unit and a seven-inch LCD touch screen for the center dash.
xD scores six cool body paints: Super White, Silver Streak Mica, Black Sand Pearl, Magnetic Gray Metallic, Barcelona Red Metallic and Nautical Blue Metallic.
Think small: New xD with lots of standard equipment tallies to only $14,550 with the manual shifter.
For the four speed electronic automatic, the figure rises to $15,350.