The Jeep Commander offers more capability over rugged terrain than most drivers will ever need. It can haul up to seven people and a lot of stuff just about anywhere it can fit. If you're expecting an unrefined vehicle with sluggish performance, however, you'll be surprised. It's surprisingly smooth and spry.
As suggested by its slab-sided styling, the Commander offers utility and a roomy, airy cabin. The rear seats are progressively stepped up, theater style, giving back-seat riders a view of the road. This feeling of airiness is enhanced by a pair of glass roof panels, though the third row is best reserved for 10-year-olds.
Utility comes in the form of a perfectly flat cargo floor when the rear two rows are folded down, providing 68.5 cubic feet of cargo space. Those in the front seats enjoy a comfortable cabin, much of which is shared with the Jeep Grand Cherokee.
Belied by the utilitarian styling, however, is the Commander's responsiveness and ride quality. It rides surprisingly well for a tall, seven-passenger SUV. On the highway, the Commander is a notably smooth and comfortable cruiser. It's reasonably quiet, allowing easy conversation, a pleasant surprise given the squared-off styling and all-terrain tires. The tall ride height and off-road capability make the Commander handle poorly, though. While not tippy, the Commander is prone to body lean in turns and heavy braking, and isn't as nimble as the latest crossover SUVs.
A choice of V6 and V8 engines is available. The mid-level 4.7-liter V8 is upgraded for 2008, gaining 70 horsepower for a total of 305 while also gaining slightly in fuel economy performance. With its responsive acceleration and 6,500-pound towing capacity, the 4.7-liter V8 is a fine choice in the Commander. The top-line 5.7-liter V8 Hemi makes the Commander downright quick and is best for those who need to tow trailers up to 7,400 pounds.
Two-wheel-drive models are available, though that seems a curious choice because it loses the benefits of Jeep's highly capable four-wheel-drive systems, one of the Commander's most compelling features. Buyers who don't need off-road capability might be better served by something else.
In addition to the upgraded 4.7-liter V8, Commander gets new entertainment and off-road features for 2008, as well as an available five-passenger version. The entertainment features consist of Sirius Backseat TV with three child-oriented channels and Jeep's MyGig, a 20-gigabyte hard drive that holds songs, pictures, and navigation system map information. Hill-start assist holds the brakes when the driver lets off them on a hill to allow smooth launches. Hill-descent control uses the ABS to control the rate of speed when driving down steep hills. Commander is available with an optional trailer sway control system that helps stabilize trailers during towing.
Jeep Commander Sport 2WD ($27,415); Sport 4WD ($29,415): Limited 2WD ($36,305); Limited 4WD ($38,925); Overland 2WD ($40,385); Overland 4WD ($43,850)
Based on the Grand Cherokee, the Jeep Commander is the second-largest civilian-production Jeep in history. (The largest was the J-120/J-130 Gladiator pickup of the 1960s and '70s.) The Commander is two inches longer and 3.2 inches taller than the Grand Cherokee. The Commander's stepped roofline makes for excellent headroom for the rear-seat passengers, and the stepped effect is camouflaged by a roof rack rail.
The Commander is instantly recognizable as a Jeep, thanks to liberal use of Jeep design cues, such as the seven-slot grille, trapezoidal wheel openings, and squared-off lines with flat surfaces. Exposed Allen-head bolts along the wheel openings and in the headlamp module are decorative, intended to create a technical look.
Its body sides are more vertical than those on most SUVs, consistent with Jeep design heritage. From the rear, the flat hatch helps define a boxy space that reminds us of the Hummer H2. Jeep literature points instead to boxier ancestors within the Jeep family, including the 1946-65 Station Wagon, the 1963-91 Wagoneer, and the 1984-01 Cherokee.
The roof rack rail has three integrated tie-downs on each side. On Limited and Overland, assist handles extend from the roof rail down the back of the D-pillars, adding to the rugged, utilitarian appearance of the vehicle. The assist handles are black with chrome inserts on Limited, and black with platinum inserts on the Overland. On top of the rear bumper is a diamond-plate-texture step pad. The pad's nonskid surface is helpful when stepping on the rear bumper to gain access to the roof of the vehicle for tying down kayaks, bicycles and other gear.
Jeep has reached deep into its heritage to revive the Overland name. First built in 1903, the Overland automobile was the earliest ancestor of the Willys. Willys played an instrumental role in the development and production of the World War II-era Jeep, but was also the first automaker to seriously envision a civilian market for a military-style utility vehicle. The Willys Jeep debuted in 1946 and had its name shortened to just-plain Jeep in the early 1960s. Although the Jeep brand has passed through several owners since then, its lineage remains unbroken.
The cockpit of the Jeep Commander has a cozy, cocoon-like feel to it. The seats are nicely shaped and padded, and the steering wheel, a four-spoke design with cruise control buttons at the thumb positions, has the substantial feel of leather and exposed stitching on higher line models. The Commander has a tangible sheltering quality that immediately appealed to us. It's the kind of vehicle we'd like to get into on a cold, windy day.
At the same time, the Commander offers a sense of spaciousness. Overhead skylights add an airy feeling for passengers in the second row. The skylights are fixed and don't open, but they have pull-out shades to filter light and reduce heat. The Commander's raised roof permits use of stadium seating; each row is higher than the one in front of it, giving second- and third-row passengers enhanced forward visibility.
Up front, occupants enjoy a commanding view of the road. Head and leg room are plentiful. From the driver's seat, the controls are all within easy reach and are logically placed. The materials are decent for the price, but there are more hard plastic surfaces than top-line buyers might like. Commander offers good storage space, with a large center console, a decent-sized glove box with an open cubby above it, plenty of cupholders and other thoughtful cubby holes here and there.
The second-row seats are comfortable but are tight on leg room for taller passengers. The third-row seat will accommodate an adult, but seems designed for children in the eight- to 10-year-old range. To access the rear, the second-row seat flops forward, providing a careful adult with a reasonably easy path to the rearmost bench seat, which is split 50-50. Those of average size and weight should be able to make their way into the third row with minimal effort. Still, the Commander is only a few inches bigger than a standard Grand Cherokee, so back-row seating is not ideal for taller adults or for longer trips. The third row does have available rear heating and air conditioning controls, and nearby power points. In addition to providing comfort for children, the rear HVAC can be a relief to dogs on hot days.
Both the second- and third-row seats fold to create a perfectly flat load floor, and there is an L-shaped storage bin located behind the third-row seats. The arrangement means that there will always be a practical way to configure the Commander for either more passenger seating, or added cargo and gear. It strikes us as versatile, with few tradeoffs. The load floor height is relatively high, however, at 36.2 inches, meaning it requires extra effort to lift cargo up and in.
Jeep says the MyGig Multi-Media Infotainment system can hold 1600 songs. The MyGig Entertainment system doesn't have a navigation system and all its associated map information, so it hold twice as many songs. The rear-seat DVD package is now offered with Sirius Backseat TV. The TV has three channels, all aimed at kids: Cartoon Network, Disney Channel, and Nickelodeon. Two sets of headphones are provided, so front passengers can listen to Sirius radio while rear occupants watch the TV. With the car in Park, front passengers can watch TV on the MyGig screen.
The Jeep Commander is remarkably responsive around town for a seven-passenger SUV, a trait we noticed while driving them in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Its rack-and-pinion steering feels more precise than in many truck-based SUVs. Driving in rush-hour traffic reveals the Commander to be quicker, better balanced, and a little more conducive to aggressive driving than the average truck-based SUV, and far more so than its appearance suggests.
Still, the Commander is a tall and heavy and it suffers from copious body lean during heavy braking and in turns. When driving a Commander, you'll want to slow down more for turns than in most vehicles. Many car-based SUVs offer more stable carlike ride and handling than the Commander, and better fuel economy, too.
The Commander's 4.7-liter V8 engine delivers good throttle response around town, and with its 2008 upgrades is better than ever. The five-speed automatic transmission enhances the engine's responsiveness and features two second-gear ratios. Punching the throttle signals the automatic to kick down into the lower second gear to supply greater acceleration. Otherwise, a taller ratio with a smoother upshift is used. The effect is an energetic surge when you call for it, and a sense that you can control the transmission with your right foot.
We found the 4.7-liter V8 to be a fine all-around performer, leaving us to consider the 5.7-liter Hemi as a requirement only for those who plan to tow heavier loads. The Hemi is rated to handle up to 7,400 pounds vs. 6,500 pounds for the 4.7-liter V8.
The 3.7-liter V6 uses the same electronic throttle control as the V8s, but its EPA-ratings are only 14/19 mpg City/Highway, compared to 13/18 mpg for the 4.7-liter V8 and 13/19 (13/17 with 4WD) for the 5.7 V8. Given its fuel economy and power limitations, we would not recommend the V6.
The 4.7 offers the additional advantage of Flex-Fuel Vehicle (FFV) capability, meaning it can run happily on gasoline or up to 85 percent ethanol (E85). Except, that is, in Maine, New York, Vermont, Connecticut and California, where the 4.7 remains a gas-only unit.
On the highway, the Commander is a notably smooth and comfortable cruiser. Jeeps are not the most aerodynamic vehicles in the world, but wind and tire noise seem unremarkable, well within the range of the average SUV and something less than in bigger, square-bodied truck-based 4X4s. It is easy to maintain a conversation using normal tones of voice, and easy to imagine this would be a fine vehicle for cross-country touring.
The advanced Quadra-Drive II system and a 2.72:1 low-range gear gives the Commander excellent capability, something we learned on rocky forest trails in the Pocono Mountains. This system supplies lots of traction, and the Commander has quick steering that makes it maneuverable in tight quarters.
The Goodyear Fortera tires, with their all-terrain tread, proved their worth as traction devices and suspension components, helping to soak up the lumps from rocks and logs, and maintaining a grip clearly enhanced by the Commander's electronic traction control.
Ground clearance is sufficient to negotiate rocky terrain, but the trail was challenging enough to create a few clangs and clunks when we touched the underbody. We found the Commander capable of going anywhere it will fit. The limitation would come if the Commander were used to cross steep, narrow gulches that call for extreme angles of departure because its longer body has more rear overhang than a Grand Cherokee. Nonetheless, for most people, there is probably more rough terrain capability built into the Commander than they will ever need or use.
The 2008 Jeep Commander should be attractive to families that need four-wheel-drive capability for vacations, camping, or challenging winters. Its seven-passenger seating capability is complemented by seats that fold flat for big cargo capacity. With a wide range of engines, options and prices, the Commander is versatile enough to appeal to a broad array of buyers. On the road, it's far more quick and quiet than its slab-sided styling suggests. Those who don't need off-road capability may want to consider one of the larger crossover SUVs now available from a variety of competitors.
Off-road expert John Stewart filed the original report, with NewCarTestDrive.com editor Mitch McCullough reporting from Los Angeles and correspondent Kirk Bell reporting from Chicago.