ATLANTA – Kia Motors America is pre-launching its new Sorento cross/utility vehicle with what brand officials call the auto maker’s most-expensive advertising campaign.

“It will be from a marketing standpoint the largest investment we’ve made,” says Michael Sprague, vice president-marketing for KMA during a Sorento media event here.

Sprague does not specify how much KMA is spending to launch the new CUV, which goes on sale in January, but says not only is the ad campaign the biggest cash outlay for KMA but also its largest in scope.

Unlike previous recent Kia launches this year, including the Soul CUV, Forte sedan and Forte Koup 2-door compacts, the auto maker has an aggressive plan to keep the Sorento in front of consumers. With the previous three, “It was basically launch and jump to the next vehicle,” Sprague says.

The Sorento’s ad campaign includes pre-launch activities for November and December that are tied into Kia’s sponsorship of the National Basketball Assn., whose regular season games began this week.

A commercial that will run in theaters during the upcoming Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays focuses on the company’s new West Point, GA, plant, its first U.S. manufacturing facility and the home of the ’11 Sorento, and also is part of the pre-launch marketing.

“Our research shows by us manufacturing here that raises a level of trust (among consumers),” Sprague says in explaining why the plant is being highlighted. “People understand we are committed to this marketplace. We anticipate we’ll hit over 70 million movie goers.”

The official push for the Sorento begins in January, with five months of network and cable television commercials and one year of print ads, compared with the typical four to six months, Sprague says.

Sorento’s tagline will be “A Departure From The Expected,” and as with the Soul and Forte, Kia will emphasize value, safety and technology in Sorento ads, as well as the vehicle’s optional third-row seating and Kia’s 10-year, 100,000-mile (161,000-km) warranty.

As with Kia’s other recent vehicle launches, social media promotion is important as well, from posting on Facebook to making sure the vehicle’s website fits smart-phone screens and possibly using a new technology never before employed by an auto maker.

“We’re looking at a new technology – I can’t tell you what it is because we would be the first (auto maker) to sign off with this company,” Sprague tells Ward’s. “We’ll know more in the next couple of weeks. It will launch in January, if we decide to make it work.”

Sprague offers a hint, however, saying a “format” of the technology currently exists for books.

Kia also plans to take the Sorento to 48 auto shows around the country, conducting consumer ride-and-drives at many of these.

Each Kia dealer will receive one pre-production Sorento in early December for showroom display that will be available for sale after Jan. 1, spokesman Alex Fedorak says.

The auto maker will do “specialized” advertising for the CUV in Georgia, including during halftime of the Georgia/Georgia Tech football game Nov. 28.

Kia is one of the few auto makers in the U.S. that is in the black for 2009, with sales through September up 4.6%, compared with year-ago, to 238,570.

Tom Loveless, KMA vice president-sales, tells Ward’s because of the ongoing market volatility, he can’t predict whether Kia will be able to climb back to a 300,000-unit level for the calendar year.

KMA delivered 273,397 vehicles last year, down from 305,473 in 2007, Ward’s data shows. With a predicted seasonally adjusted annual rate of 10 million units for the U.S. new-vehicle market, and Kia’s 3.1% market share through September, “it’s going to be close,” Loveless says.

Kia will keep up its pace of new model launches in 2010, with the next-generation Optima midsize sedan among these.

Loveless says the models Kia has introduced in 2009 will account for more than a third of the brand’s U.S. volume in 2010. By the end of 2011, he says “65%-75% of what we sell will be brand new.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com