SEATTLE – Kia Motors America is getting ready for next year’s rollout of Microsoft Corp.’s in-car entertainment and information system in its models.

Until now, Kia and its sister brand Hyundai, have been on the sidelines of in-vehicle technology proliferation. Many of their models even lack optional factory navigation systems.

But with a Microsoft-developed in-vehicle communication system similar Ford Motor Co’s Sync feature, a Kia official feels the brand will be able to go head-to-head with its competitors.

“Sync has been a phenomenal success in the marketplace,” Michael Sprague, vice president-marketing for KMA tells Ward’s here recently. “There’s data that shows those vehicles turn twice as fast as vehicles that don’t have it.”

Ford says its take-rate for Sync, which debuted in the ’08 Ford Focus in the U.S. and now is available in almost every Ford, Lincoln and Mercury model in the U.S., is between 70% and 80%, depending on the model.

The auto maker recently installed Sync in its 1-millionth vehicle and now is rolling out the multi-media system in global markets.

Sprague believes the timing is perfect for Kia to launch its unnamed Microsoft-based system because many local municipalities and state governments are coming down hard on cell phone usage while driving. A key feature of Sync is the ability for a driver to dial his cell phone hands-free using speech.

“It’s becoming clear that from a safety standpoint (systems such as Sync are) more and more important,” Sprague says.

Ford had exclusive rights to Sync but those rights expired last November. However, it retains rights to the Sync name, a registered Ford trademark.

Kia’s version of Sync will inevitably share some similarities with Ford’s, Sprague says, without providing details.

A top Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group official told Ward’s last year that its version of Sync would be “totally different” than Ford’s.

Hyundai-Kia’s research-and-development chief Hyun-Soon Lee said two differentiating features would be the ability to recognize 11 different languages, record songs from the radio and store up to 4,000 songs on a vehicle’s hard drive.

However, an upgraded version of Sync, launching in Ford models overseas next year, includes the ability to recognize 15 different languages.

Kia has not detailed which of its models will feature the multi-media system. But the auto maker has announced a next-generation Sportage cross/utility vehicle will go on sale next year. The Sportage will be produced at Kia’s first U.S. plant in West Point, GA.

For Hyundai, the system will be standard equipment on higher-end models and optional on less-expensive models, said Hyundai-Kia’s Lee.

Ford offers Sync as standard on Lincoln models in the U.S., while the system is a stand-alone, $395 option on Ford and Mercury models.

Meanwhile, with the coming launch of Toyota Motor Corp.’s proprietary in-vehicle concierge service in the U.S., and the continued offering of General Motors Corp.’s similar OnStar, Sprague says Kia is weighing such a service for itself.

“A big question that we deal with is do consumers really want to connect to the outside world once they’re in their vehicle?” Sprague says.

“How often do people really want stock quotes or (to) access their e-mail or check the weather?” he asks, referring to features of Toyota’s new Lexus Enform and OnStar.

Sprague thinks the Safety Connect portion of Lexus Enform, optional on select Toyotas this fall and which includes an emergency button for roadside assistance, has value. But the question becomes how much will the consumer shell out for safety.

“If you don’t have navigation, where you can push a button and say I’m lost, I need directions? How much are people willing to pay for that?”

OnStar’s reluctance to disclose subscription rates gives Kia pause about developing its own concierge system, Sprague says, especially as such in-vehicle amenities are not cheap to manufacturers.

“Technology is changing so quickly,” he says. “We spend a lot of investment to put the hardware in the vehicle. We need to make sure we can figure out how to upgrade that hardware with software.”