2016 Ford Explorer: a blast from the past? (Image: Ford)

2016 Ford Explorer: a blast from the past? (Image: Ford)

In November, Ford pulled the wraps off a facelifted 2016 Explorer at the L.A. Auto Show – an event that caused little fanfare.

After all, a mid-cycle update of an SUV unchanged since 2011 isn’t the sexiest thing, especially when there’s a MUSTANG OVER THERE!

Still, the Explorer is a storied nameplate, and a highly visible model for Ford. And changes can make a good vehicle better or worse than before.

I quite liked the look of the newly unibody Explorer when it was released in 2011. Exterior design elements were reminiscent of the Land Rover-Range Rover stable, and gave the utility vehicle a visual sense of luxury and class it didn’t have before.

Driving it revealed remarkably agile handling for such a heavy vehicle, with precise steering, a smooth powertrain, compliant suspension, and every creature comfort a motorist could want. All of this remains for 2016, save for some new engine choices, and a refreshed front end.

The front end is the problem.

Circa-2007 Ford Freestyle (Image: IFCAR/Wikimedia Commons)

Circa-2007 Ford Freestyle (Image: IFCAR/Wikimedia Commons)

Most mid-cycle styling refreshes serve to make an aging vehicle look newer, or at least ‘different’, lest the consumer grow bored. The 2016 Explorer’s new front end – featuring a normally inoffensive chrome mesh grille – actually makes the vehicle look older.

On the night of the reveal, I wasn’t the only commenter remarking on the new Explorer’s resemblance to the 2003-2009 Ford Freestyle (aka the Taurus X). And we all remember (if we brush the cobwebs away) what a forgettable vehicle that was.

In this instance, I think making the ‘safe choice’ for the restyle was the wrong choice. The Explorer’s body still looks good, and the grille was hardly the best part of the 2011-2015 models, but at least it ‘fit’.

The blacked-out grilles on the Explorer Sport looked the best, in my opinion, especially when coupled with those black rims. Outfitted with that trim, it resembled a police pursuit vehicle.

2015 Ford Explorer Sport. Now, isn't that better? (Image: Ford)

2015 Ford Explorer Sport. Now, isn’t that better? (Image: Ford)

Besides the throw-back grille, the 2016 Explorer brings the new 2.3-litre Ecoboost engine into the fold.

Available in the Lincoln MKC and Ford Mustang, the 2.3 (unlike the previous 2.0) will be offered in 4-wheel-drive models, including those with towing packages.

While the 3.5-litre V-6 remains the standard engine, a 3.5-litre Ecoboost now comes standard on Explorer Sport and Platinum models.

The 2016 Explorer goes on sale in mid-2015.