DETROIT – Kia Motors America will have a new Spectra at U.S. dealerships beginning in March. But despite its status as an all-new model, sales of the small car still could trail year-ago.

That’s because supply remains tight for Kia, which has been going like gangbusters in Europe and the U.S., says Kia America President and CEO Peter Butterfield.

“It’s the physical limits of the plants, (as well as) the labor unions,” Butterfield says, referring in part to labor unrest in South Korea that limited vehicle availability in the fourth quarter and caused its overall U.S. sales to decline.

Overall Kia deliveries in the U.S. remained flat last year at 237,471 units, but sales in Europe were up some 60%, executives say.

Spectra hits U.S. market in March.

Kia delivered about 63,000 Spectras in 2003, “but sales may be less than (that in 2004),” Butterfield says. The new car will be built at Kia’s Hwasung, South Korea, plant and be sold in Asian and European markets as the Cerato.

Kia ran into a similar situation of tight supply with its Sorento SUV in 2003. “We sold all we could get,” says Butterfield. “We sold 40,000. We could have sold 60,000.” He says there will be “plenty” availability this year.

The all-new Spectra is powered by a 138-hp 2L 4-cyl. with continuously variable valve timing that delivers 133 lb.-ft. (180 Nm) of torque at 4,500 rpm. It is mated to either a 5-speed manual or 4-speed automatic transaxle.

The new 4-door Spectra comes with a long list of standard equipment, including six airbags (front, front side and front and rear side curtain) and 4-wheel disc brakes.

Interior volume will be the best in its segment, Kia says, with more passenger room than is offered in bigger cars such as the Mazda6. Two trim levels will be available.

Prices have not been set, but Butterfield says the car will remain based close to the outgoing model. Competition includes the Toyota Corolla, Honda Civic, Ford Focus and Chevrolet Cavalier. Buyers should range in age from 25 to 34, with median incomes of more than $45,000 annually. About half will be women, Kia says.

A 5-door version of the Spectra, which will be unveiled next month at the Chicago auto show, will follow the 4-door to market by a couple of months. Both are based on the Hyundai Elantra platform, but Butterfield says few buyers will notice a family resemblance.

“If you look at the car – especially the 5-door, it is not a Hyundai,” Butterfield says.

The sportier 5-door is expected to take an increasing percentage of sales, officials say. The hatchback accounted for about 5%-10% of Spectra deliveries last year, but penetration should rise to 20% with the new version, Kia says.

Despite holding the price line, Kia forecasts margins on the new model to rise, thanks to an anticipated easing of sales incentives in the coming year.

Overall, transaction prices at Kia have risen dramatically over the past few years, from less than $12,000 to close to $19,000 today. That will increase to close to $20,000 this year, thanks to the recent introduction of the new Amanti flagship, Butterfield says.

Kia also unveils a concept sports car here, called the KCV III. Designed at Kia’s Namyang, South Korea, research and development center, it features active headrests, smart airbags and electronic stability control.

The car is not slated for production, Kia says, but the auto maker hasn’t ruled out bringing a sport coupe to market. Plans are to introduce 17 new models by 2007.

dzoia@primediabusiness.com