The Breakdown

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LA Auto Show: German performance and Italian style in Porsche Cayman and Fiat 500e

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Porsche usually gets a room at the L.A. Auto Show. Seriously. Rather than joining the rest of the automotive world in the big exhibition halls, Porsche does its "there is no substitute thing" in a smaller hall. It's the Chamber of Porsche. It's Porscheworld and it has been for a while. 

Fiat, on the other hand, is in the process of returning to the U.S. market for the first time in decades. Why? Because Fiat and Chrysler are joined, a consequence of the bailout and bankruptcy of the smallest of the Detroit Big Three automakers in 2009. Fiat is currently selling one car, the stylish 500, an update of an iconic postwar set of Italian wheels. Initial sales were  slow, but the car has been doing much better of late.

So why not roll out some new versions? That's exactly what Fiat has done Wednesday at the L.A. Auto Show, with an electric model, the 500e. The company claims it'll deliver 80 miles per charge. That's about where other EVs in the market are, so the 500e can join the tussle with the likes of the Nissan Leaf and the Honda Fit EV.

If you've ever seen an original Cinquecento, you'll know that it was utterly rinkydink. To modern eyes, it looks like a go-kart or like something two strong men could parallel park. The updated 500 isn't exactly a big boy. The MINI Cooper makes it seem undernourished. Fiat has responded to this perception with the 500L, with the "L" standing for "large." It's a four-door version of the 500 (Does that make it a 1000?), aimed to compete with the MINI Countryman — the "big" MINI that resembles a shrunken, or perhaps compressed, SUV.

And why not throw in a convertible — sorry, cabrio — version of the performance-oriented 500 Abarth? Fiat did just that.

Many people consider Porsche to be the world's best car company. Its utterly beloved sports cars routinely best the competition in on-track comparison tests of performance. The Cayenne SUV quieted the naysayers who insisted that Porsche would dilute its purity by making a hulking family mover. Porsche didn't. The Cayenne is simply the finest SUV ever built by humans on planet Earth. The Panamera sedan is...well, even calling it a sedan kind of insults its suave grandeur, its four-doored impeccability.

At the 2012 L.A. Auto Show, Porsche has pulled the cover off a redesigned Cayman, a hardtop partner in the Porsche stable to the Boxster convertible. I guess you could consider the Cayman a gateway drive to the 911, pretty much inarguably the best sports car in the world. That's what Porsche was thinking at its introduction, and once that was done, the company was committed to periodic updates. The Cayman gets knocked as being somehow not quite as, um...manly as the more expensive 911, but then it goes out and performs just about as well and the purists have to stop with that loose talk.

The second-generation Cayman isn't updated that much. Radical styling changes aren't really Porsche's thing. The new Cayman is bigger, with a very slightly updated exterior design. Otherwise...well, it's a Porsche. And by now you should know what that means.

Two very different car companies, but at the 2012 L.A. Auto Show, both offer some extremely appealing debuts and redesigns.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter. And ask Matt questions at Quora.

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