SAN FRANCISCO — Ten years ago, the Kia Sportage compact SUV debuted in the U.S. It was the Korean auto maker's second vehicle here. It enhanced Kia's brand recognition and set company sales records before ending its run two years ago.

Now the Sportage is back, more stylish and technically advanced than its predecessor. It's the sister to the new Hyundai Tucson.

The Korean auto maker would have preferred no gap between ending the old model and introducing the new. Such re-entries present marketing challenges. But it was unavoidable, says Randy Maurstad, product planning director for Kia Motors America (KMA).

“The previous-generation Sportage got old,” he said. “It needed to be discontinued. It was a great vehicle but outdated, technically and otherwise. The new one wasn't ready for introduction. There had to be a gap.”

KMA CEO Peter Butterfield says the '05 Sportage is “an important vehicle for Kia,” one expected to spark some action as it goes on sale this month.

“At one point we were selling about 60,000 Sportages a year,” he says. “In its absence, we've been trying to make up for that with other vehicles.”

KMA sold 270,000 vehicles last year, an 11% increase. Its goal this year is to deliver 290,000 units through its 650-store dealership network. Of those points, 360 are fully exclusive, the result of KMA's efforts and financial incentives to persuade retailers to build separate facilities.

“Seven of 10 Kias are sold through the exclusive dealerships,” says Butterfield. “It's quite a different situation from before.”

Dealers were ecstatic when they got a first look at the new Sportage late last year, says Phil Kelley KMA's vice president of sales. “They can't wait to get back to selling an entry-level SUV.”

It's bigger than its predecessor. It's also more powerful, with an optional V-6 engine. But it is $1,200 less expensive at the base level. Prices range from $15,900 for a 4×2 LX model with a 2.0L in-line engine to $21,400 for a 4×4 EX model with the 2.7L V-6.

Meanwhile, Butterfield says one of his goals this year is to enhance customer satisfaction at dealerships.

“It's at the top of my agenda,” he says. “We will again double our training budget to raise the professionalism of sales people. I'm hell-bent on doing that.”