DETROIT – Kia Motors America will determine in the next three to four months the second model for production at its still under-construction West Point, GA, plant, a company official tells Ward’s.

One of the factors complicating the decision is Kia’s objective to export a portion of the Georgia plant’s output, specifically to Latin America, says Ian Beavis, vice president-sales and marketing.

“What we’re trying to do is make sure we make the right decision,” he says, adding the vehicles to be built at West Point, set to commence production in 2009, will be next-generation models.

Kia has announced just one vehicle for the 300,000-unit plant so far, the next-generation Sorento midsize SUV.

A Kia Motors Corp. spokesman earlier told Ward’s the upcoming Soul cross/utility vehicle is one possibility for the plant, but Beavis says projected volume for that model is too low.

Asked why Georgia won’t build one of Kia’s U.S. best sellers, either the Spectra compact car or Sportage small CUV, Beavis replies, “There’s reasons for Sorento that will become clearer as time goes on.”

The auto maker currently is focusing efforts on SUVs, showing off to the media this week the new Borrego, which is a size larger than the Sorento. It will make its public debut at the 2008 Detroit auto show next month.

The vehicle is based on a new platform and will compete in the shrinking midsize SUV segment in the U.S. when it goes on sale here in late spring or early summer 2008.

Ward’s segmentation data shows sales in the sector were down 21.7% through November vs. year-ago. Ward’s Middle CUV category rose 18.4% in the same period.

Despite the contraction, Beavis says the midsize SUV sector remains a worthwhile battleground.

“It’s still a very big segment, and there are still a lot of people in this country that need rear-wheel drive and capacity for towing,” he says.

Some of the slowdown in demand for body-on-frame SUVs can be traced to models that “are older than I am,” Beavis adds.

Two years ago, Kia had to decide whether it wanted a large, front-wheel-drive unibody CUV, the direction sister brand Hyundai went with its Veracruz, or a truck-based vehicle, the Kia executive says. “What you’re trying to find is white space – and when we (have) an opportunity to differentiate ourselves from our sister brand we do.”

Beavis boasts of the Borrego’s light weight and says to attain sufficient towing capability out of a CUV requires body structure reinforcements that make the vehicle heavier and less fuel efficient.

The Borrego will be able to tow 7,500 lbs. (3,402 kg), Beavis says. It will be powered by parent Hyundai Motor Co. Ltd.’s 3.8L V-6 or new 4.6L V-8 Tau engine, also in the new RWD Hyundai Genesis sedan.

Kia will not get a version of the Genesis sedan (also to be shown in Detroit) or coupe, Beavis says, noting Kia will go in “a different direction” in the coupe market from the Genesis and next-generation Hyundai Tiburon.

The Borrego will be Kia’s first application of push-button start, which the auto maker hopes to carry throughout its lineup, although the current strength of the South Korean won may make this difficult, Beavis says.

Meanwhile, Kia likely will end 2007 with about 310,000 units sold in the U.S., he says. While its goal earlier in the year was a bit higher, with talk even of a 350,000-unit year, the market downturn brought on by the sub-prime-mortgage crisis has negatively affected results.

Despite this, the projected total represents the first time Kia will surpass 300,000 units in the U.S., having reached 294,301 in 2006.

cschweinsberg@wardsauto.com