SOUTHFIELD, MI – Kia is being cross-shopped against Japanese new-car brands more often these days, one of the Korean auto maker’s top U.S. executives says.

Kia’s sister-brand, Hyundai, is not part of the equation, “because it’s natural (for the two) to be shopped together,” Michael Sprague, vice president-marketing for Kia Motors America, tells Ward’s in a recent interview here.

That consumers are considering Kia alongside the Japanese brands isn’t surprising, he says, even though the Korean auto maker typically has attracted car buyers with more domestic marques on their shopping lists.

But as Kia has undergone a rebuilding in the last two years – launching more stylish, well-appointed models such as the boxy Soul compact and new-generation Sportage and Sorento cross/utility vehicles – it has attracted both industry praise and shoppers who up to now only considered Japanese makes.

Auto makers in the U.S. consider Japanese car buyers a desirable demographic because they generally are better-educated and have higher household incomes.

Sprague believes Kia’s new vehicle styling is beginning to win over a more discerning consumer.

“Design is the thing I think is starting to attract people,” he says. “I can get a Honda with safety, technology, value and fuel efficiency. But I can get the same thing in a Kia and get a really good-looking car.”

The Korean brand’s suite of in-vehicle technologies, such as standard Bluetooth, USB ports/auxiliary jacks, as well as Sirius Satellite Radio and the new UVO infotainment system, also give Kia a fresh edge.

Kia contends Honda over the last year has become its No.2 most cross-shopped competitor (Hyundai is a perennial No.1), based on amalgamated data from a variety of third-party sources, Sprague says.

However, data provided to Ward’s from Boston-based Compete, the industry leader in cross-shop data, shows Honda as No.2 only during the first four months of 2010. Toyota and Nissan placed higher in comparative shopping with Kia in the first four months of this year.

Compete’s Dennis Bulgarelli, director-automotive, says another trend revealed by the company’s date is a reversal of fortune by Ford and Chevrolet that, like Kia, are stepping up the competition.

“I think it’s largely because of what the domestics are doing in small cars,” he says. “There’s more of a mix between domestics and imports now,” thanks to Ford’s restyled Fiesta and Focus.

“(The) Chevy Cruze is working really well for Chevrolet right now,” he adds. “It’s in the compact-car segment and that’s getting a lot of attention from import people, too.”

Bulgarelli says Compete data also supports Kia’s assertion that the Sportage midsize CUV has been shopped by a lot of Honda CR-V lookers.

Says Kia spokesman Jay Joyer: “(The) Sportage has brought a lot of people from (the) CR-V to the Kia brand that weren’t Kia shoppers before.” The same could be said for the new Optima midsize sedan, which he says is pulling Toyota Camry buyers “in our direction.”

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com