CHICAGO – Ford, it seems, plans to use the Detroit Auto Show in January to unveil a Five Hundred sedan sporting new front- and rear-end styling, plus a more powerful engine.

Ford won’t confirm the fashion or muscle upgrades, much less the Detroit debut.

In fact, it admits only that it will unveil restyled versions of the Ford Freestyle crossover and Mercury Montego sedans at the Chicago Auto Show in February.

Insiders, however, say the redone Five Hundred is on tap for Detroit. All three are built at Ford’s Chicago plant.

Ford is equally tight-lipped about a new engine, which reportedly will be a version of the 3.5-liter V-6 for the 2007 Lincoln MKZ, the sedan formerly known as Zephyr.

The MKZ will be built off the same platform as the Ford Fusion, and Ford says the engine would fit in the larger Five Hundred.

The Five Hundred is powered by a 3-liter V-6 that gets a little winded in lumbering away from the light or up steep inclines.

No word on the horsepower rating on a 3.5-liter in Five Hundred, other than it will be no less than 250 h.p.

The restyled models will go on sale as 2008 models after their auto-show intros.

While criticism of too conservative design prompted the minor restyling that’s coming, it’s “not an emergency,” Peter Horbury, executive director for Ford’s North America design, told us. “This is in line with what we had originally planned.”

It should be noted that the sharpest criticism has been leveled at Five Hundred. It’s true it would win few, if any, prizes for design. Nor would its V-6 help it capture any checkered flags on the racetrack.

Both are reasons Ford will reduce line speed at the Torrence Avenue plant to bring production in line with sales.

Through April, Five Hundred sales totaled 30,080 units, down from a little more than 31,000 a year earlier.

In keeping with Ford’s closed-mouth policy on the Five Hundred sedan, Mark Fields, president of the Americas for Ford, won’t say just how much the line speed at Torrence Avenue will be reduced or when.

“Later this year” is the most we got. It may be announced in the third quarter.

While some workers will suffer a temporary layoff when line speed slows, it is a much better way to manage inventory than in the past: Closing the plant for a week at a time and idling all the workers to allow supply to catch up with demand. The start/stop/start pattern hurt quality, too.

Ponied up: Ford is talking about Shelby 500GT Mustang, however.

Hau Thai-Tang, director of advance product creation for Ford and head of its SVT performance group, said the car, which comes out this summer, has been certified at 500 horsepower, up from the 450 Ford had expected.

The Shelby 500GT will be offered in coupe and convertible models and start at about $40,000. Only 10,000 will be built.

It is the creation of the SVT, or Special Vehicle Team, and Thai-Tang said at least one car and one truck will get the high-performance treatment annually. And he’s looking at an SVT edition of the midsize Fusion sedan and midsize Ford Edge crossover soon.

Write to Jim Mateja, Chicago Tribune, 616 Atrium Drive, Vernon Hills, IL 60061-1523, or send e-mail, including name and hometown, to [email protected]

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