Kia Motors America Inc. is taking air bags to a lower level this month by introducing the industry's first "knee air bag" on its 1996 sports utility vehicle, called the Sportage.
The new air bag inflates nearly 5 inches from a panel below the steering column, exploding simultaneously with chest air bags in the steering wheel on impact.
While the bag does protect the knees and lower legs, the primary role of the device is to keep the driver in an upright position so the chest bag can work at its optimum level.
"It's just another way to keep the driver in the safest position possible," said Geno Effler, a spokesman for the Irvine import and distribution company.
The new Sportages will go on sale at 170 dealerships that market the Korean-made cars in 20 states throughout the West, Southwest and South.
Kia doesn't plan to make the knee air bags a prime focus of television commercials, but every other marketing device will detail the new technology developed by air-bag manufacturer Morton International in Detroit.
"Consumers have an interest in anything that is safety-related," Effler said. "Over the past 10 years, the question of air bag safety has climbed up the priority list of consumers."
Automotive safety groups have also been monitoring the onset of the new knee bags, which Morton officials said are being considered by other automotive manufacturers as well.
"The knee air bag certainly looks like it will be the next big wave in safety in terms of passive restraints," said Layna Browdy, a spokeswoman for the Automobile Club of Southern California.
The auto club's research shows that while shoulder belts and air bags in the steering wheels have decreased fatalities on the road, lower-limb injuries are still a problem in crashes.
Air bags have grown so much in popularity with consumers and government agencies that a recent federal law requires the equipment to be installed in all passenger cars by 1998 and in all trucks by 1999, said Tim Hurd of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
"Air bags have saved 1,500 lives since they were introduced in the late 1980s," he said.
Effler said Kia is keeping the base price of a four-wheel Sportage unchanged, but is raising the standard model about $300. The company sold about 8,000 Sportages last year and sold more than 1,800 in the first four months of this year, Effler said.
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Meet the Knee Bag
The knee air bag Kia Motor Corp. will install in its sport utility vehicle is the first on the market. Developed by Morton International, it operates simultaneously with a conventional air bag to protect drivers' knees and legs. How it works:
1. Knee bag located behind dashboard panel under the steering column.
2. Crashes in excess of 12 mph deploy knee and regular air bags.
3. Knee bag pushes panel, made of foam-backed vinyl against driver's knees and legs while air bag protects head and chest.
* Helps keep driver in upright position to receive greater protection from air bag
* Prevents injury to knees and legs
Source: Morton International, Kia Motors Inc.; Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times