MONTEREY, CA – Mazda North American Operations’ newly appointed design director is leveraging his experience in Germany to bring “extra refinement and level of execution” to the Japanese auto maker’s lineup.

“Of the Japanese brands, I feel Mazda is very design oriented,” says Derek Jenkins, former chief of design for Volkswagen of America Inc. He is credited with numerous concept and production vehicles, including the Audi A2, A8 and VW Scirocco.

“The (Mazda) brand has been founded on, and historically perceived, as a strongly designed brand,” he tells Ward’s during a recent media event here. “So in that sense, they really set themselves apart from the other Japanese brands and in many ways they’re trying to stay on par with what’s coming out of Germany and the rest of Europe.”

Jenkins, who in May replaced Franz von Holzhausen after he left to head up design at electric-vehicle manufacturer Tesla Motors Inc., says he doesn’t want to imbue Mazda vehicles with a “Germanic” feel.

“I think the exotic nature of a Mazda, with its fluid form language and more dynamic stance, is unique,” he says, adding he wants to build upon the design progress Mazda has made in recent years, with a specific focus on interiors.

“We want to get that nicer (interior) refinement, nicer details, nicer materials and nicer overall execution,” he says. “(Interiors) are very competitive and continue to be that way both in this country and in Europe and Asia as well. So it’s a big focal point.”

Jenkins faces a unique situation, as Mazda since 2006 has operated under a “Nagare” design language, Japanese for “flow.”

According to Mazda’s former global design chief Laurens van den Acker, who created the concept, Nagare was meant to “suggest where Mazda design will be in 2020.”

Jenkins says he doesn’t view Nagare as an impediment to his own creativity.

“I think the philosophy is a good one and it’s fitting with the brand,” he says. “It’s more a matter of how I’ll interpret it and evolve it and bring my values to that philosophy. I have total respect for the work that was done before me.”

Based in Europe much of his professional career, Jenkins is now adapting to the design preferences of U.S. buyers.

European consumers prefer cars that “are more compact, lighter and agile” than Americans, Jenkins says, while noting Mazda already combines the best design attributes utilized on both sides of the Atlantic.

When it comes time to update some of Mazda’s mainstay products, such as the MX-5 Miata, it pays to tread lightly, Jenkins acknowledges.

“Oftentimes, good design has some lineage to the products that came before it, and you have to try and show that and visualize that in a way the customer can identify,” he says.

“Having that lineage is part of building the brand, and if you do it consistently, year after year, and decade after decade, the brand gains value and equity in the customer’s mind.”

bpope@wardsauto.com