The Kia Sportage sport/utility vehicle points to all the reasons why the Korean automakers' U.S. sales figures recently hit a 12-year high. It holds appeal to price-conscious consumers who want point A-to- point-B transportation in a decent, compact package.

Though the Koreanautomakers currently hold a paltry 1.7% of the U.S. market combined, they're hardly going away.

The Korean Big Three is placing its collective bet on the SUV. Hyundai next year will introduce its first SUV, the Santa Fe, while Kia plans to debut its Sedona minivan. Daewoo is adding a small, two-door SUV, the Korando, to its '00 offerings, while the four-door Musso will debut by early 2001.

If they want a bigger slice, product mix is just one worry. They also must divert skeptical American buyers from adding "Korean" to "inexpensive" and coming up with "cheap."

Kia, which almost met bankruptcy before a Hyundai bailout, helped put itself on the map by tacking on 190 dealers this year and upping its advertising budget by 40%.

On the other hand, Hyundai, the first to dive into U.S. waters in 1985, has failed to generate many waves, despite aggressively expanding its dealer network and doubling its ad budget. Look to see Hyundai leverage Kia's charm and go for a more integrated approach in future efforts.

Daewoo brought its wares to North America last year, falling dramatically short of target sales, partially due to a major marketing misjudgment. The automaker targeted college kids as its primary buyers, and, even worse, hired other college kids to do on-campus selling. An unmitigated flop, Daewoo is regrouping and pursuing the tried-and-true dealership method and ultimately would like to see annual sales of 150,000.

One look at Daewoo's situation back in Korea shows the company will be lucky to have any future sales whatsoever. Like Kia before it, Daewoo courted bankruptcy this summer and is now chatting with General Motors Corp. A GM buyout may be Daewoo's only chance for limited success.