Jeep is expanding its product line, and in coming years it may include pickup trucks, crossover SUVs and youthful small sedans that drive like rally cars. Strictly speaking, this is not a new adventure for Jeep, which has offered a line of pickups (Gladiator) utility vehicles (Willys Station Wagons) and AWD cars (AMC Eagle) in the past.
But in the new 2006 Commander, Jeep offers a capability no Jeep has had before: three-row seating and the ability to carry seven passengers. Equipped with a higher level of safety and security features than any previous Jeep, the Commander represents the first salvo in Jeep's upcoming product offensive.
Jeep Commander ($27,290), 4WD ($29,290); Limited ($35,585), 4WD ($38,205)
The Commander is larger than the Grand Cherokee: longer by 2 inches and nearly 4 inches taller, due mostly to a stepped roof line that makes headroom for the rear-seat passengers. The stepped effect is concealed by a roof rack rail, which is standard on all models. Body sides are more vertical than those on most SUVs, consistent with Jeep design heritage. From the rear, the flat hatch and prominently squared-off D-pillar assist handles help define a boxier space that reminds us of the Hummer H2.
Second- and third-row passengers have enhanced forward visibility. 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 third-row seats will accommodate an adult, but seem more likely to be designed for children in the eight- to 10-year-old range. To access the rear, the second-row seat flops forward, allowing a careful adult a reasonably easy path to one of the split-bench seats, which are divided 50-50. We hopped in and out a few times ourselves. My average size and weight allowed me to make my 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 and longer trips. The third row does have available rear heating and air conditioning controls, and nearby power points.
Both the second- and third-row seats fold perfectly flat to create a 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 designed-in tradeoffs. The load floor height is relatively high, however, at 36.2 inches, meaning it requires extra effort to load cargo.
The cockpit of the Commander has a cozy, cocooning 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. It was warm and humid that day in Philadelphia, but the Commander reminded us of the kind of vehicle we'd like to get into on a cold, windy day. There is a tangible sheltering quality that immediately appealed to us.
For a seven-passenger SUV, the Commander feels remarkably nimble and responsive around town. Steering, a rack-and-pinion design, feels more precise than the truck-based SUVs we'd been driving. Driving in the morning rush, our immediate preoccupation was to follow our route maps to leave the city, but we found ourselves in heavy traffic, dicing with morning commuters and local drivers. We noticed the Commander, like the Grand Cherokee, is just a little quicker, better balanced, and a little more conducive to aggressive driving than the average SUV. Throttle response around town is gratifyingly direct, which we later discovered is due to the fact that the automatic transmission is a multi-speed design, that effectively supplies two second gear ratios. Punching the throttle signaled the automatic to kick down into the lower ratio to supply greater acceleration. Otherwise, a taller ratio with a smoother upshift would be 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.
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 seemed unremarkable, well within the range of the average SUV and something less than bigger, square-bodied truck-based 4x4s. It was easy to maintain a conversation using normal tones of voice throughout the drive, and easy to imagine this would be a fine vehicle for crosscountry touring.
We found the 4.7-liter V8 to be more than adequate for routine around town and highway driving, leaving us to consider the 5.7-liter Hemi as a requirement only for those who plan to tow, since it can handle up to 7200 pounds. The standard V6, which we did not drive, is EPA rated to deliver 17 mpg City and 21 Highway, compared to 15/20 for the 4.7 V8. In terms of horsepower, the two engines are not that far apart either, but the 4.7 appears to be the superior power plant when it comes to torque. If we were planning on operating our Commander fully loaded, on longer trips, and across bigger highways, we would prefer the 4.7-liter V8 over the V6 because the extra torque would be appreciated and the mileage is not much worse.
We were headed for the Pocono area for an obvious reason: This is a Jeep, and Jeeps are supposed to offer proven off-highway capability. The Jeep team had set up a series of trails near the Big Boulder Mountain, up grassy ski slopes, into the forest, and through mucky, rocky sections of trail. We're accustomed to trail driving, but the course did get our attention, requiring us to use low range and drive accordingly. The Commander, with the advanced Quadra Drive II system and a 2.73:1 low-range gear, is not limited in terms of traction, and has the quicker steering that makes it more maneuverable in tight quarters.
The tires, an 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 electronic traction control built into the Commander. Ground clearance is sufficient
The Commander should be attractive to young families who have a need for four-wheel-drive capability, whether it be on vacations, weekend camping, or challenging winters. The seven-passenger capability is a useful upgrade that does not compromise overall utility, since the interior seats fold flat. With a wide range of engines, options and prices, the Commander would seem versatile enough to appeal to a broad array of buyers.
New Car Test Drive correspondent John Stewart filed this report from the Pocono Mountains.