ORLANDO, FL – Kia’s sponsorship of the National Basketball Assn. and its involvement in motorsports have been just the ticket to raise the brand’s profile, company officials say.

“The NBA has enabled us to be big, someplace,” Adam Perlow, Kia Motors America director-retail sales operations, says at a Sportage SX media backgrounder here.

Although still thought of as a small brand in some circles, Kia is bigger than ever, having sold a record 356,268 units in the U.S. last year, Ward’s data shows. That’s a higher 2010 tally than any luxury brand and tops volumes posted by Mazda, Volkswagen and Subaru.

Still, Kia’s sales and consumer awareness levels lag behind other mass-market marques, including sister-brand Hyundai and the Japanese and Detroit Three.

Low awareness is one reason Kia became the official automotive partner of the NBA in 2008.

“It’s turned out to be larger than originally anticipated,” Perlow says, “in particular, because viewership of the NBA continued to go up in the last 24 months. And now with all the (player) trades, there’s even more attention to (the NBA).”

Kia saw its buyer-consideration numbers soar as a result of its presence at last month’s All-Star game festivities, particularly the slam-dunk contest.

When Los Angeles Clippers forward Blake Griffin decided he would perform his dunk by leaping over a car, Kia suggested he use the new Optima sedan.

Griffin ended up winning the contest, and Kia says it won, too, by drawing more attention to the ’11 Optima.

“This particular moment for us is something that has resonated on so many levels,” Perlow says. “(Griffin’s dunk) has generated so much traffic, not only to Kia.com but to our dealerships.

“There are customers coming in saying they saw it, (and) consideration for Optima went through the roof right after this.”

Kia is using footage of Griffin’s dunk in a commercial for the Optima, with the taglines: “Not your average dunk. Not your average midsize sedan.”

Kia’s sponsorship extends to NBA arenas, including the new Amway Center here in Orlando, where a “Kia terrace” can be found.

A red-and-white, Kia-themed area, the terrace is located in the Amway Center’s middle-level bowl and can be used by Kia dealers to entertain customers during events. An ’11 Optima is on display, having been lifted to its perch by crane.

Kia’s participation in motorsports with racing firm Kinetic also is termed a success.

Since the Forte Koup’s 2009 debut midseason in the Grand-Am Challenge Series in the Street Tuner class, Perlow says Kia has been connecting with consumers it might otherwise have missed.

“This year, our second year, we placed a podium finish, which was even more success than we had anticipated early on,” Perlow says of the Kia/Kinetic team’s second-place finish in late January at the Grand-Am 200 in Daytona Beach, FL.

Kia sees further upside to its motorsports activities, as it now has “technology to meet the credibility of what motorsports is about” thanks to the introduction of direct-injected turbocharged engines in some of its models.

The Optima and Sportage cross/utility vehicle now offer a turbocharged DI 2.0L 4-cyl. as standard in SX trim levels.

Output for the engine, already in use in Hyundai’s Sonata sedan, varies with each model, making 256 hp in the Sportage and 274 hp in the Optima. Torque is rated at 269 lb.-ft. (365 Nm) in the Optima and 264 lb.-ft. (358 Nm) in the Sportage.

Kia/Kinetic team members would love to have the 2.0T engine in the Koup or have the opportunity to race the Optima, they tell media last weekend before a race in Homestead, FL.

“Yes, please,” driver Michael Galati says of the possibility of the team getting the engine.

Kia officials say they are considering the Optima for the racing circuit.

The Forte Koup race car uses the naturally aspirated, iron block/aluminum head, 173-hp, 2.4L I-4 engine from the production Koup SX.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com