SEOUL -- When Lee Soon-nam joined Kia Motors Corp. three decades ago, his job was buying engines for Kia's vehicles from Japanese rivals such as Hino Motors Ltd. and Daihatsu Motor Co.
At international motor shows, Kia's executives spent their time scrutinizing the latest models from Japan. The German luxury brands were clearly out of their league -- no point scoping them out.
"We had no chance to look at BMW, Audi. It was a waste of time and money," Lee, who now is vice president of Kia's overseas marketing group, said. "These days, we always allocate time" to checking out the top German automakers.
Today not only is Kia benchmarking BMW and Audi; it is crawling out of the shadow of its bigger corporate sibling, Hyundai. Its new goal: model its own brand identity after Volkswagen's as it seeks to be mass-market yet one notch above the pack in terms of quality and flair.
Oh Tae-hyun, COO in charge of Kia's international business division, said: "Eventually, Kia would like to be one of the mainstream brands like VW."
In interviews with Automotive News, top Kia executives said the automaker has a two-pronged strategy to build and distinguish the brand: an unrelenting focus on quality and the rollout of a lineup packed with technology.
But they also worry that the brand-building push could be undermined either by boosting output prematurely to meet sales targets or by decontenting vehicles to cope with unfavorable currency rates.
Kia is on track to join the volume players, thanks to an explosive threefold increase in global sales since 2002.
Kia sold 2.7 million vehicles worldwide in 2012 and targets a 28 percent surge to 3.5 million in 2016. It expects its U.S. sales to rise 6 percent to 590,000 this year from a record 557,599 in 2012.
That rampant expansion has executives worried.
Kia's global sales are constrained by a lack of production capacity. But executives are reluctant to invest in more output. They want to make sure the company and its suppliers can cope with the surging workload, lest quality deteriorate.
Oh and Lee conceded that may mean sacrificing market share. Despite a 15 percent rise to record U.S. sales last year, for example, Kia saw its market share finish flat at 3.8 percent. In the first two months of this year, its share shrank to 3.5 percent from 3.9 percent a year earlier as Kia's sales fell 3 percent vs. the market's 8 percent gain.
"For the time being, we have to look at quality over quantity," Oh said. "Who gives the final go-ahead for start of production? It's not the chairman. It's not a salesman. It's not the finance or planning or procurement people. It's the quality-control people. Without their agreement, we can't move one inch."
Executives point to the carmaker's Pilot Center, which opened several years ago at the Hyundai-Kia tech center south of Seoul. Before being approved, each model runs through this test assembly line and is scrutinized for possibly production glitches.