Kia is riding great momentum, thanks to improved quality, competitive technology and eye-catching styling. But the K900 -- which shares the same platform as the $62,170 (including shipping) Hyundai Equus -- marks its most ambitious gambit in remaking its reputation.
"We have changed our position from follower to challenger," Lee said. "Our next goal will be being a mainstream brand. To be a mainstream brand, we need more profitable customers."
In his sights are VW and Toyota, the two brands Lee benchmarks most. But the K900's objective is to siphon customers in the $80,000 to $110,000 income bracket from brands such as Audi or BMW.
The move carries risks. Through April, Kia sold 365 K900s in the United States. While it is too soon to gauge customers' long-term reaction to a Kia that costs $60,400, including shipping, the pace is off the 5,000 annual units executives forecast to dealers last fall.
Volkswagen famously fumbled when it brought its top offering, the Phaeton, to the United States in 2003, only to pull the plug amid tepid sales. And Kia doesn't have the benefit of VW's brand image.
"They've had a reputation for inferior quality," said Eric Lyman, vice president of industry insights at TrueCar. "Now they are making great competitive products. But they are pushing up into new segments with the baggage of the previous reputation."
Last year, Kia's U.S. sales fell 4 percent to 535,179 units. Through April, however, they were up 7 percent to 186,682.
Lee says there is room to go higher:
"Our positioning is not the same as premium brands, but we have to maintain our own territory and at the same time, we can grow slightly into upper categories," he said. "It does not mean we can compete with premium brands, but just expand our footprint."
Kia's strategy: Condition buyers to higher-priced Kias through fully-loaded SXL top-trim packages with existing nameplates.
The first SXL was the Sorento crossover, offered in the summer of 2011. An SXL package for the Optima followed in 2012.
The Sorento SX-L starts at $40,795, a huge jump from the base version, at $24,995. Likewise, there is a lot of distance between the $36,100 Optima SXL and $22,300 entry model. Those prices all include shipping.
"We wanted to introduce the K900 to the USA, so we needed some bridge," Lee said. "Otherwise, the price gap is too high."
The SXL packages come with standard everything: heated, D-shaped steering wheels, drive mode select, HD radio, rearview camera, surround-sound speakers, rear spoiler, chrome accents, panoramic sunroof and LED head- and taillights, for starters.
Cho Sang-un, general manager for overseas product marketing, said the SXL packages have tapped a new customer base that is less dazzled by brand and more focused on content and value.
"People see now that luxury means a full, complete package of content, styling and value. Not just brand," Cho said.
Indeed, Consumer Reports' 2014 Car-Brand Perception Survey rank-ed Kia No. 4 among value brands, behind Toyota, Honda and Ford. Hyundai was No. 4 last year but didn't make 2014's top five.
Kia will extend SXL packaging to other nameplates above the Forte compact sedan and to markets outside the United States, Lee said. This year's redesigned Sedona minivan also gets SXL.