What this Country May not Need right now is a hulking new body-on-frame SUV, not with consumers leaving the vehicle segment as fast as speakeasy patrons fleeing a raid.

Yet Kia Motors America Inc., mindful its timing might be questioned, debuts its biggest and most-upscale vehicle yet, the '09 Borrego. It joins the smaller Sorento and smaller-still Sportage in the South Korean auto maker's SUV stable.

“How are we going to sell a midsize SUV with gas prices past $4 a gallon, plus the SUV segment dropping?” says Tom Loveless, Kia America's vice president-sales. “It's not an equation that necessarily adds up.”

The middle SUV segment has been declining for years, from a high of 1.8 million units in 2000 to less than 932,000 in 2007, according to Ward's data.

Through June of this year, segment sales were off 38.6% compared with year-ago. Since last year, five models have left the segment. Now a new one bravely, or brazenly, enters it.

“I'm sure you might have a question or two about our timing for this vehicle,” Kia spokesman Alex Fedorak tells journalists attending a Borrego preview in a mountainous region near Cle Elum, WA, where legendary highjacker D.B. Cooper bailed from an airliner with ransom money in 1971, never to be found.

If Kia with the Borrego goes where others fear to tread these days, the bold move is not without potential redemption.

The Borrego is value-priced, yet well-equipped, making it an attractive proposition, especially when price is an object for budget-minded consumers.

Base price for a LX trim line with a V-6 engine is $26,995, including a $750 destination charge. An EX with a V-8 and 4-wheel-drive carries a $31,745 sticker. A loaded model with the bigger engine and 4-wheel drive pushes the price needle past $40,000 and into premium territory.

Another possible upside for the Borrego is that the middle SUV market might reverse the trend and post sales increases in 2009 and 2010, Loveless predicts.

Some of those additional sales could be transfers from the fullsize market, as many SUV owners downsize but stick with that type of vehicle, he says.

Kia hopes to boost its image with the Borrego. Since entering the U.S. market 14 years ago with a single vehicle, the Sephia econobox, Kia never has been able to fully shake off a public perception — by now a misperception — that it only makes cheap compacts, even though its lineup today is a wide range of nine vehicles.

Borrego's long-standing competitors include the Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee and Toyota 4Runner.

The Kia Sorento also is in that middle SUV grouping but, unlike the Borrego, lacks third-row seating and so “was losing the (sales) brochure wars,” automotive analyst George Peterson of AutoPacific Inc. says.

Kia expects most Borrego purchases will come from repeat SUV buyers, particularly those switching from domestic SUVs, Chaney says.

If Kia knew at the start of Borrego's development several years ago what it knows now about the current market, the OEM might have considered making the Borrego a CUV, Peterson says.

Still, the Borrego is impressive and well-appointed. Features include six airbags, 10 cupholders, electronic stability control, rear-camera back-up assist, voice-controlled navigation, push-button start and 10-speaker Infinity audio system.

To smooth the ride, Borrego has a front double-wishbone suspension, rear multi-link system and hydroformed frame.

Kia's first-ever DOHC 4.6L V-8 puts out 337 hp at 6,000 rpm with 323 lb.-ft. (437 Nm) of torque at 3,500 rpm. Its fuel economy is 15/22 mpg city/highway (15.7-10.7 L/100 km) in 2-wheel drive. Kia says that's best in class.

The 3.8L V-6 hits 276 hp at 6,000 rpm with 267 lb.-ft. (362 Nm) of torque at 4,400 rpm and with 95% of its torque available at 2,000 rpm.

A limited edition due out this fall will include heated second-row seats, power-adjusted pedals and chrome accents.

The Borrego's ride is refined and handling responsive during a drive on paved roads amid the Cascade mountain range. The route does not include off-roading.

On rough roads, the Borrego seems jumpy. And although the engines, especially the V-8, offer ample power, the 6-speed transmission takes a quick breath before downshifting.

The Borrego is named for a desert in Southern California. It also is a spot where certain wildflowers thrive, despite the harsh climate. Kia hopes the analogy applies to its new SUV attempting to take root in an inhospitable market.

[+] PROS/CONS [-]
Value priced Questionable timing
Lots of features Jumpy on bad roads
Boosts Kia's brand Why not a CUV?

Kia Borrego EX

Vehicle: Front-engine, 7-passenger, 4-door SUV

Engine: 4.6L DOHC V-8; aluminum block/aluminum heads

Power: 337 hp @ 6,000 rpm

Torque: 323 lb.-ft. (437 Nm) @ 3,500 rpm

Transmission: 6-speed automatic; 4WD optional

Wheelbase: 114 ins. (289 cm)

Overall length: 192.3 ins. (488.4 cm)

Overall width: 75.4 ins. (191.5 cm)

Curb weight: 4,405 lbs. (1,998 kg)

Base price: $30,995

Fuel economy: 15/22 mpg (15.7-10.7 L/100 km)

Competition: Ford Explorer, Jeep Grand Cherokee, Toyota 4Runner, Honda Pilot