There are degrees of ugliness.

There is, for example, what is rudely called "butt-ugly" -- essentially dysfunctional styling that is an affront to aesthetics and ergonomics; ugliness bordering on insult.

There is "boring" -- ugliness absent imagination and spirit, the kind of styling that tries neither to please nor offend. It is careless design.

And there is Scion xD ugliness, which is ugliness with a purpose. It demands notice. It dares you to object. It has the ambitious audacity of seduction.

In the end, you wind up loving or hating the Scion xD's styling. But you will neither ignore nor forget it. It makes an impression.

That's just fine with Toyota, purveyor of Scion automobiles, which are aimed at the putative "youth market."

Toyota believes young people want products that make a statement, vehicles that draw attention to themselves in much the manner of teenagers wearing purple hair or having physiognomies resembling vampires.

It is ugliness with swagger, in the case of the Scion xD hatchback sedan, manifested by headlamps that are at once bug-eyed and square, by side panels that have the nerve to flirt with muscularity, and by a rear end that squats while strutting its stuff.

It is a body that brings forth derision and appreciation. How dare Scion's designers present something like this? But they did, and did it so wonderfully well, with every odd-looking part perfectly fitted, every weird line in exact alignment.

Sit inside. Therein is paradise of molded composites, including a dashboard of one continuous piece. It is off-putting in its plainness and appealing in the genius of its execution -- nothing wasted and everything accessible.

A center console that flows from the top of the dashboard to the floor is loaded with electronic goodies, including a docking port for an iPod.

My associate, Ria Manglapus, and I drove the five-speed manual version of the xD in Virginia. I was tempted to put it on the road for the 300-mile journey to New York. But common sense trumped bravado. The xD is a good little urban runner, but it has all the handling ability of a Smart Fortwo micro car on high-speed, windswept highways -- which isn't much.

Still, shifting it in urban traffic was fun. The lever fell nicely to hand and moved with something approaching grace. In city driving, the front-wheel-drive xD felt zippy, confident and competent.

It would have been nice if Toyota's engineers had given the same attention to the clutch that they gave to the five-speed gearbox. The good feel and ease of movement in the shifter was absent in the clutch, which felt rubbery and uncertain. It was like dancing with someone who was all rhythm and fire on the right side of her body, but who was completely absent of passion and timing on the left.

I suspect that the available four-speed automatic version would remedy that problem but at the cost of a few more miles per gallon.

The verdict: I asked Ria if she loved or hated the xD. She offered an opinion worthy of a diplomat. She said the car was ugly, but so ugly that it verged on being cute. She loved its fuel economy and maneuverability in the city but dumped it the moment she had cause for a long highway drive with her mother and two sons.

Me? I love any car that makes me smile, as the xD did. In terms of design, it is whimsical bordering on silly but enjoyable nonetheless. It is indeed a good city driver. It has the personality of a goofy best friend and offers the service and reliability of a favorite pair of tennis shoes.

ON WHEELS WITH WARREN BROWN Listen from noon to 1 p.m. Tuesdays on WMET World Radio (1160 AM) or