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DETROIT – Mazda North America’s chief designer is beginning to put his own mark on the Japanese auto maker’s design language.

Derek Jenkins joined Mazda 18 months ago after a stint at Volkswagen. Shortly after his arrival, he began working with Ikuo Maeda, the head of Mazda’s Design Division who replaced Franz von Holzhausen in 2008.

Jenkins says he and Maeda are evolving the auto maker’s “Nagare” – Japanese for “flow” – design language first introduced by von Holzhausen.

While Nagare drew inspiration from aspects of nature, such as wind and swept sand, Mazda’s new “Kodo” design theme seeks to emulate animals, particularly predators, Jenkins tells Ward’s during an interview here.

“We’re focused on muscle or lean body surfaces,” he says. “Maeda talks a lot about racing hounds or large cats; the type of animals that have lean, tense kind of bodies. So, much of it comes into how you handle the surfaces and lines of the car and not over-detailing.”

The new design language was featured on the Shinari concept car shown during last year’s Los Angeles Auto Show and currently is being used to craft the next generation of Mazda cars and cross/utility vehicles.

“The Shinari was our big work over the last year, and I will say that car was developed in concert with our whole sixth-generation lineup,” Jenkins says. “So it’s part and parcel of the next (design) direction.”

Kodo, which Mazda describes as “Soul of Motion,” places great importance on the front end of the car, as evident in the Shinari, he notes. “A big priority has been front-end character. We want a little more confident and focused look.”

The Kodo next theme will be seen on the Minagi compact CUV concept, set to debut at next month’s Geneva auto show.

The Minagi will feature a version of Mazda’s next-generation fuel-efficient Sky engine and transmissions, as well as a lightweight Sky architecture, the auto maker says.

While the Kodo design form will permeate most of Mazda’s next-generation vehicles, don’t expect it on so-called “legacy” products such as the Miata MX-5, Jenkins says.

Updating the styling on those types of vehicles is particularly difficult, as alienating legions of diehard fans is always a risk.

“There’s a lot of debate around legacy cars,” Jenkins says. “On one hand, we’re fortunate to have such a challenge, because obviously we’ve done something right. But I think it’s something that takes a lot of debate and discussion, and you have to be very careful.”

He also says Mazda is not concerned the upcoming Ford C-Max small cross/utility vehicle will cannabilize sales of the Mazda5 CUV, which is similar in size and function.

The C-Max is slated to launch in North America later this year, while the next-generation Mazda5 hit dealerships last month.

“I think the Mazda5 is more attractive and dynamic,” Jenkins says. “It doesn’t speak the ‘minivan’ language, and I feel like the C-Max still does. So that’s how I differentiate the two of them.”

bpope@wardsauto.com