SAN DIEGO – Mazda says it is undergoing a dramatic reinvention of its design philosophy, a move made possible by its new Skyactiv architecture, the automaker’s North American design director says.

Skyactiv is the term Mazda uses to describe its clean-sheet approach to reinventing nearly every part of the car, including engines, transmissions and lightweight vehicle architectures.

“Skyactiv definitely alters design strategy,” Derek Jenkins tells WardsAuto during a test drive here of the new ’14 Mazda3.

“It’s a big benefit vs. having to simply re-skin your old architecture,” he says. “It’s so hard to get a different look when you have to do that. Because with all those hard points, you end up just styling with lines, surfaces and graphics. You’re not re-proportioning the car, and that’s when it gets really hard to get a new look.”

The new Mazda3 is the brand’s latest model to display the new styling strategy, following the CX-5 cross/utility vehicle and Mazda6 midsize sedan. A key element of the new language, dubbed “Kodo,” which Mazda describes as the “Soul of Motion,” is a rearward cab, extended hood and wider stance.

“The push toward more cab rearward was only possible through clean-sheet packaging,” Jenkins says. “The A-pillars on this car are 80 mm (3.2 ins.) farther rearward than the prior generation, and that really pulls the dynamic weight of the car much farther back and places it on the rear wheels. That makes a big difference to the overall coupe-like quality the car has.”

Notable are the Mazda3’s dramatic character lines that flow across the side of the car before trailing off. Jenkins says a similar, yet toned-down approach, was used when the original Mazda3 was launched in 2004 in order to distinguish it from other C-cars that were “slab-sided econoboxes.

“It’s really about the tension of the lines,” he says. “It’s what we call line diffusion.”

The technique creates volume through the body, giving it a lean, athletic quality that makes the car look light on its wheels, yet planted to the road due to its wide stance,” he says.

The front grille also is changed, losing its smiling face that characterized the prior-generation model.

“The smile wasn’t my favorite thing, but it happened before my time,” Jenkins says. “When we started on this generation, we wanted to give the car a more aggressive look without going over the top.”

The new front fascia boasts a 5-point grille and slanted headlamps that fit well with the extended hood and raked profile and gives the car a “snarky, aggressive” feel, Jenkins says, adding the theme will be carried through to future Mazda models.

The interior also underwent a dramatic overhaul meant to improve the look, feel, connectivity, technology and materials.

“If I had to be critical of Mazda in the past, it was the (lack of) focus on interior design,” Jenkins says. “This is really what’s changing in this industry. There’s such a tremendous push to improve interiors.”

Mazda designers benchmarked the BMW 3-Series while crafting the interior. Although the Mazda3 is not a direct competitor to the popular 3-Series, Jenkins wanted the Mazda3 to reflect that devotion to craftsmanship and use high-quality materials.

“The whole point is, we’re not benchmarking Civics and Jettas, but much more premium vehicles and trying to bring that material and finish-quality down to this segment,” he says.

Depending on the trim level, the Mazda3 comes with cloth, leatherette or perforated leather seats with redesigned cushions said to improve ergonomics, lessen fatigue and provide more support.

Materials used throughout the cabin feature piano-lacquer finishes, liquid-metal details and brushed-aluminum surfaces. “The interior has been elevated well above the class to give the customer that feeling of a more premium product,” Jenkins says.

While the CX-5 and Mazda6 both feature Kodo styling, Jenkins believes the new design language is best reflected in the Mazda3 because of its size and use of Skyactiv technology.

All future Mazda vehicles will have a distinct personality, but also retain a family resemblance, he adds.

“In the past, I think we bounced around a little bit,” Jenkins says. “I think one of our biggest challenges as a brand is awareness, and consistency in the lineup is how you do that. Cars have to have a recognizable look across the range that people can identify with, and you build on that through the generations.”

bpope@wardsauto.com