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Our favorite cars at the 2015 L.A. Auto Show

What separates a good car from a great one?

Almost all cars are decent these days. So in judging the new models on offer at the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show, we look for the potential to lift the automaker's fortunes, push the industry forward — and, of course, for the ultimate value to the consumer.

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Here are the four cars from this year's show that we think best meet that criteria.

Check them out at the L.A. Convention Center starting on Friday, when the show opens to the public.

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Fiat 124 Spider at the L.A. Auto Show.

The "Fiata." It's actually called the Fiat 124 Spider, but everybody here is calling this little roadster the Fiata because it has a Fiat body on top of Mazda Miata guts. We didn't think we'd like it — Italian/Japanese fusion just seemed too weird — but today's global auto industry is shot through with these kind of Frankenstein partnerships. And this one seems smart, combining Italian design flair with Japanese reliability. There's a reason the Mazda Miata is the bestselling roadster in history: It doesn't break down like all of its Italian and British forbears. It also has beautifully balanced handling and a cockpit that fits like an Italian suit; and now, with the 124, exterior sheet metal to match.

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Mazda CX-9 at the L.A. Auto Show.
Mazda CX-9 at the L.A. Auto Show. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Mazda CX-9. This is essentially a full-sized version of the already brilliant mid-sized CX-5 and compact CX-3 crossovers, giving one of our favorite automakers a full complement of offerings in the hottest and most competitive segment of the industry. On a broader note, the family resemblence across the entire Mazda lineup — a wonderfully nuanced design language of both curves and sharper angles — has come into sharp focus with a series of impressive model introductions. If the CX-9 proves as good as the rest of the lineup, it should be a terrifically competent family hauler with a sports car spirit.

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Jaguar XE. This landscape of sport sedans trying to compete with BMW's brilliant 3 series, the inventor of the segment, is littered with failures, and Jaguar has little chance of toppling the champ. But the brand is on a roll with a new infusion capital from India's Tata Motors, and the XE gives it a shot at breaking through as a mainstream luxury brand. The XE sedan is sharp, and expected to start at about $35,000. That's more evidence that Jaguar may be emerging from its bad old days of overpriced, boring and unreliable cars. Both the body and the interior are eye-catching without being garish, and performance, based on other recent Jaguar offerings, should be strong.

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Lincoln MKZ at the L.A. Auto Show.
Lincoln MKZ at the L.A. Auto Show. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Lincoln MKZ. Ford's luxury brand has been trying, and mostly failing, to find an elegent blend of its storied past and a more innovative future. That's led to odd styling that, for instance, produced a grille on most of its models that looks like the stretched mouth of a whale. But Lincoln seems to have found a much better balance with the new MKZ, its bread-and-butter mid-sized luxury sedan. The overhauled sheet metal — and grille — finally look classic and modern at the same time, instead of a mishmash of both. We'd love to see Lincoln recapture its former glory, and this is a start.

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