Kia engineers confirmed that a hybrid sedan will launch in the U.S. later this year. This will likely be the Kia Forte LPI Hybrid. When it launches, we estimate that Kia's hybrid will be the cheapest hybrid on the market by a significant margin, while delivering competitive gas milage to hybrids from U.S. and Japanese automakers.  (Source: Kia World)

We tested Kia's upcoming UVO system. The voice API, powered by Microsoft still isn't very good at taking commands, but hopefully will be refined by launch. The most promising features of UVO appear to be its capability to read and send text messages, it's touch screen, and it's reportedly low price.

The first Kia/Hyundai to get the UVO will be the 2011 Kia Sorento, seen here.
Hyundai Kia looks to offer an optimal mix of price, quality, and high tech capability

Hyundai Kia has gained much ground in the U.S., even while market leaders Toyota and Honda have faltered a bit.  Much of the South Korean conglomerate's gains have come thanks to a singular focus on improving the once lacking quality of its budget vehicles.  That focus has paid off with recent models earning high marks in quality and dramatically improving the images of the Hyundai and Kia brands.  DailyTech spoke with Kia employees at CES 2010 and got an inside look at both the company's upcoming UVO system, powered by Microsoft, and some tidbits on the incoming 2011 Kia hybrid.

Kia's Alex Fedorak stated to DailyTech that Kia would certainly be bringing a hybrid sedan to the market in 2010.  He said the biggest hold up has been being able to deliver the necessary quality, while maintaining a price that would resonate with budget buyers.  He said the hybrid would be a package option for one of Kia's current sedans.  Though Mr. Fedorak did not confirm this, early reports point to the Kia Forte LPI as the incoming Hybrid.  The hybrid reportedly will get at least 41 mpg and likely be the cheapest hybrid on the American market.

Overshadowing the hybrid news, perhaps, is Kia's infotainment push.  At CES 2010 in-car infotainment (powered by Microsoft Auto) is one of the hottest items.  Fiat has it (Blue & Me), Ford has it (MyFord Touch, MyLincoln Touch), and now Kia will become the latest to deploy a smart infotainment system.

According to Mr. Fedorak, the 2011 Kia Sorento, set to launch in June or July will be the first car to receive the new system.  He says it will be priced at under $20,000.  As to the exact price he says that it is unlikely to determined until the last minute.  He comments, "[Even] in June or July we will still be establishing pricing."

So what makes up the Kia's infotainment system?  One of the key components of the new system, dubbed UVO (for "your voice"), is the voice activated music system.  Kia won't let slip the exact memory, but the UVO vehicles will come with enough storage for "250 songs" -- likely about 1 GB.  You can add songs from an MP3 player (attached via USB), a Bluetooth capable phone (iPhone, Blackberry, etc.), or a CD.

Unlike MyFord Touch, Kia's UVO's voice commands are powered by a Microsoft Auto API (Ford uses a custom solution from Nuance).  We're intrigued to see how Microsoft's own solution pans out.  We're reserving judgment until we see the finished product, but currently we found it a bit disappointing.  We were only able to get one (!) voice command working out of numerous attempts.  Commands to play artist and play track did not work, but a command to switch to a radio station did eventually succeed.  We were told that the system is still in its very early stages in terms of tuning and that these issues should be mostly ironed out in the next six months (remember SYNC was a bit rough around its edges when first released).

One interesting feature that UVO has which Ford's system won't (at first) have is the ability to send custom text messages when parked.  While not designed as a full texting solution, this feature can serve as one in a pinch; when parked you will have access to a full QWERTY keyboard and have have the ability to create and send a custom message, which will replace one of the twelve canned messages.  Like MyFord Touch, the system also comes with canned messages that can be sent.  Also, like MyFord Touch, the system will have the ability to read texts you receive.  Again, all the text-driven capability relies on Bluetooth pairing to your cell phone (pairing is achieved via a button in the center stack).

The system features a 4-in. touch screen.  It will also support streaming audio from capable Bluetooth-ready phones, including the iPhone and RIM Blackberries. 

Kia representatives said that the Kia Soul is the next most likely target for the system after the Sonata, but that keeping an UVO-sporting Soul under $15,000 (the current car starts at under $14k) is proving challenging.

One thing's for sure with UVO, Hyundai Kia is determined not to let the infotainment system significantly impact the price of its vehicles.  States Greg Baribault, Director of Microsoft Auto Product Management and Marketing, "Kia is a value car maker.  It's critical to them to create high technical value in a car at a lower price."

While their primary focus is getting the current UVO iteration production-ready, we spoke a bit to Kia engineers about what's coming down the pipeline.  Kia's Patrick Newland and Mr. Fedorak commented that upcoming features include navigation (turn by turn) and climate control support.  They were not aware of any efforts to add a browser into UVO, add a smart phone API, or offer an in-car Wi-Fi hotspot, key features which Ford will be soon offering with the competitive MyFord Touch.  Nonetheless, given Kia's aggressive pricing, UVO may be an ideal blend of value and functionality for many consumers.

"This week I got an iPhone. This weekend I got four chargers so I can keep it charged everywhere I go and a land line so I can actually make phone calls." -- Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

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