NEW YORK – Kia Motors America is in an expansion phase, and Chief Operating Officer Len Hunt forecasts the auto maker will increase its portfolio from seven models currently, to 12 offerings in the next five to seven years.

“We have room to expand,” Hunt says at the New York auto show, where the all-new Sorento SUV made its North American debut.

“We have great potential with our Optima sedan and crossovers,” Hunt says, and Kia also is considering other segments. “We want to keep our customers in the brand.”

Hunt, who has been in his job for six months, says what convinced him to join Kia was sitting in the Sportage for the first time. “It is a really good car,” he says. “Every one of our cars is genuine in terms of quality, fit and finish.”

Kia also has a 10-year warranty that Hunt says he wants to retain. “We have great quality and the 10-year warranty shows our confidence in the cars.”

The South Koreans have overcome the stigma of building cheap and shoddy vehicles, he claims. “Our interiors are like German interiors,” says the man who formerly was chief of Volkswagen of America Inc. and Audi of America Inc.

“I can offer brand-building skills, which is what I did at Audi,” Hunt says. “Now we want to move the brand in an exciting way.”

He also says there is little cooperation between Kia and sibling Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd., both part of Hyundai Motor Group.

“The architecture we use is capable of being tuned for different brands,” Hunt says. “We’re going to be more sporty, while Hyundai is going to feature refinement and comfort.”

Kia’s new California design studio, which will turn out designs for the brand’s exclusive use, will help achieve this. “We’re going to invent our own design language,” Hunt promises.

A new Kia plant in West Point, GA, is scheduled to open in 2009. “We haven’t determined what the vehicles will be yet,” Hunt says.

Meanwhile, the refreshed Sorento, which had its global debut in Geneva, is set for a September introduction. The price of the midsize SUV is expected to remain in the $18,000-$24,000 range where it is now. The SUV is the third of six new or refreshed models Kia will introduce this year, Hunt says.

The Sorento has a new 3.8L 262-hp V-6 engine with an all-aluminum block and head. It generates 36% more horsepower than the predecessor engine. Higher horsepower gives the Sorento a 5,000-lb. (2,268-kg) towing capability.

The 5-passenger vehicle will be available in LX and EX trim lines, while offering an LX sport package and an EX luxury package.

The SUV will be available in rear- or 4-wheel-drive versions.