Interview: John Polasek, Chief Engineer Lincoln MKX
John Polasek's father worked for General Motors, and his first car was a tiny British Triumph Spitfire. Yet he has forged a highly successful career as a product leader at Ford.
He grew up in the Flint, Michigan, suburb of Swartz Creek and worked his way through bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His hands-on car-guy dad got him interested in working on cars, and he worked summer intern jobs at Flint GM plants every year beginning in high school to help earn his way through college. That little red sports car he drove through his college years was also great training. "I did a lot of work to keep that thing on the road," John says.
When Polasek earned his bachelor's degree in 1988, he was offered a production supervisor job at a GM plant, but he turned it down. "I was an engineer and really wanted to work as an engineer," he says. "So I worked that summer, then went to graduate school."
With his Masters degree in hand in 1989, his first full-time job was with the Environmental Protection Agency in Ann Arbor, where he helped develop the first onboard vapor recovery system. "It was a pretty big project," he relates. "We put a working system together despite a lot of feedback that it couldn't be competitive or safe and would be too costly. I did that for a year, made some contacts with Detroit Diesel, and got an offer to work there in 1990."
At Detroit Diesel, John worked on alternative fuels (including the first alcohol-fueled compression-ignition engine) through 1992. "At one point, the guy next to me, who was doing some alcohol work for Ford, said Ford was hiring people to work in their alternative fuels group. I always wanted to work for one of the Big Three, so I went to Ford Powertrain to work on natural gas engines."
After eight years in a variety of powertrain and vehicle engineering positions, Polasek was appointed assistant chief engineer for medium-duty trucks in 2000, the first major step on his climb up Ford's product engineering leadership ladder to chief program engineer for the North American Ford Focus in 2014 and then MKX chief engineer in 2015. Married with three teenage children, he enjoys boating, golf, racquetball, and weight lifting when not on the job.
Truck Trend: What is your leadership philosophy?
John Polasek: My style is to pull a team together, look at the big picture and lead the team where it needs to go. I'm a straightforward guy; upfront, truthful and good at pulling teams together and aligning people to get them going in the right direction to achieve the end goals.
TT: Your product philosophy?
JP: Making sure we have a stellar product for the customer, especially the Lincoln customer. With the MKX, we went after three critical things to separate us from the competition: the 2.7L twin-turbo powertrain, the interior, and overall noise, vibration and harshness. Those things set us apart while protecting quality for the customer and providing new technologies that this segment really wants.
TT: What were the overall objectives of this program?
JP: We set the theme of quiet luxury, and we wanted a vehicle that stood out, and our research indicates that we've won on both exterior and interior. We wanted to provide a smooth, safe, effortless ride and give customers a tailored experience with a menu of content, technologies, and themes from which to choose, and then move that into our Black Label lineup.
TT: Is Lincoln going after Lexus (smooth, refined, luxurious, quiet) more than the German luxury cars, or even Cadillac?
JP: No, we try to go against all of them. We are along the lines of quiet refinement and luxury more than sporty, but we do look at Cadillac, Mercedes, and to some extent BMW to make sure we're competitive. When you drive this MKX and compare it across the competition, it is on par with or surpasses all of its key competitors in handling and ride.
TT: Will we see sportier and/or higher-performance versions down the road?
JP: We look at where our competition is going and have to think about that. Our standard 3.7L V-6 is very competitive, but our 335hp twin-turbocharged 2.7L V-6 separates us and surpasses the competitive set at this time.
TT: What differentiates MKX from its Ford Edge platform-mate?
JP: The Edge is a very good product and among the leaders in the segment, but its competitors are different products with different attribute sets. The MKX is a totally different product from a totally different team. The platform is shared; including the brakes and fuel tank, but the body sides, doors, hood, fenders, all the exterior sheet metal is unique. And if there are a handful of shared parts in the interior, I'd be surprised. The instrument panel, console, everything is unique.
Edge doesn't have the 3.7L V-6 we have as our base engine. It does offer the 2.7L twin-turbo V-6, but we have the higher-performance version. We had to make sure that the MKX's performance was better because of its competitive set. Our suspension and handling are also more refined.
And we have far more technology. Thirty-six new features and technologies over the outgoing MKX, and 22 over the current Edge: the 360-degree camera, full LED headlamps, door-mounted power-fold mirrors, Continuous Control Damping, auto hold, LCD instrument cluster, pushbutton shifter, 22-way seat, Lincoln Embrace, Approach Detection, the Welcome Mat, dynamic ambient lighting, and the MyLincoln Mobile App. And there is nothing else out there like the Revel Audio system, which separates us by far. We even developed the door trim panels around the speakers, so they are exactly where they need to be for maximum performance.
TT: How does the MKX 2.7L Twin-Turbo V-6 differ from the one in the Ford F-150?
JP: It's the same basic engine with different calibration, different shift points, more refinement and higher output. With more performance and better fuel economy, I believe it was made for this product in terms of weight-to-power ratio. No competitive vehicle is even close.