DETROIT – Kia goes code red thematically in unveiling its all-new ’18 Stinger sports sedan at the North American International Auto Show here.

“Red is dynamic, hot and can take your breath away,” says Michael Sprague, chief operating officer of the South Korean automaker’s U.S. unit. “Red is the color of fire. Red is Kia.”

Cue the red Stinger. Amid flashing red lights, it takes the stage. (Then, so do blue and gray models.) Developed in Germany, the car goes on sale this fall.

“It is a Kia like nothing else before it,” Sprague says, heralding the car during a colorful intro.

The stylish Stinger is in marked contrast to the econoboxes Kia sold when it first entered the U.S. market in 1994, starting with four dealerships in Portland, OR.  Last year, Kia sold 647,598 vehicles in America, according to WardsAuto data.

On the auto show sidelines after the debut, Sprague speaks with WardsAuto about Kia’s venture into the sport sedan market.

WardsAuto:  What do you expect this car to do for Kia?

Sprague: It will change the image of the brand. We’ve been talking so much about design over the last 10 years. It’s been at the forefront of all of our messaging.

Now, we’re showing a car that not only has great design, but also great driving performance. It really raises the bar. When people see it, they’re going to say, “Wow, a fastback sports sedan from Kia? If they can do that, what else can they do?”

WardsAuto: What had been the perception of Kia, in your own words?

Sprague: For early buyers in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Kia was a new-car alternative to used cars. They weren’t the most dynamic vehicles. People remember that, especially if they haven’t been in the market for the last five or 10 years. They haven’t seen the transformation of our brand. So perception has been an issue.

WardsAuto: Will this be a halo car?

Sprague: Very much so. We’ll see the impact it will have on the brand.

WardsAuto: Demographically, who will buy it?

Sprague: We’re still looking at all of that, but it will be targeted towards the luxury sports sedans from BMW, Infiniti and Audi. We see an opportunity in that space.

WardsAuto: Is this an extension of Kia getting into the luxury market with the K900 fullsize sedan?

Sprague: Exactly. The (midsize) Cadenza as well, which is all-new this year.  We have aspirations to continue to grow in the U.S. so we’re constantly looking at new segments to get into. This is one where we thought we could have an impact.

WardsAuto: This is a car in a hot CUV market. Is this going in the opposite direction of that trend?

Sprague: No, no. We see an opportunity not just in this segment, but in others as well. We’ve got the new Niro coming out in January, so we are coming to the market with another great CUV. That’s in addition to the Soul and Sportage and the Sorento people mover. We’ve got the right products for the marketplace.

WardsAuto: You talked a lot on stage about the color red. Until the blue and gray models drove out, I thought you were going to say the Stinger will be available in any color as long as it’s red.

Sprague: Oh no. Red is limited. There are people who want colors such as silver, white and black. Those will be available, but red is more true to the heart of the Kia brand.

WardsAuto: Why?

Sprague: It’s our corporate color. It’s in our logo and exudes boldness and excitement.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com