Jeep Commander commands respect on and off road

By Jim Meachen and Ted Biederman

“Is that another new Hummer?” a woman asked coming out of a restaurant as we opened the door to the 2006 Jeep Commander.

The newest Jeep is well named. It commands attention. It looks a lot like a Jeep Cherokee — discontinued after the 2001 model year — on steroids. And yes, it has a passing resemblance to the big over-the-top Hummer H2 from General Motors.

The blocky Commander won’t win any automotive beauty prizes. But then the Cherokee was not a styling champion either.

The Cherokee symbolized off-road prowess. Its familiar box shape was synonymous with go-anywhere transportation. And the new Commander looks equally rugged.

Even though the Commander has an imposing presence, it is far from the biggest SUV on the block. In fact, it’s built on the same platform as the mid-sized Grand Cherokee and measures just two inches longer at 188.5 inches. That’s more than a foot shorter than the full-sized 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe.

The flat sides together with large wheelwell flares are attention grabbers. Large headlight enclosures and a bold Jeep grille carry the macho Hummer-like theme. Chrome faux Allen-head bolts on the fender flares add to the rugged all-business look. The bolts may, indeed, be going one step too far in attempting to achieve an image, but we feel they are well done and we like the look.

What the Commander offers that no other Jeep — at least in modern times — has offered is a third-row seat. The third seat is in vogue these days and a company as sport-utility-oriented as Jeep had to have one, too. So enter the Commander.

But some words of caution — don’t buy the Commander simply for that reason. The third row is too cramped for adult passengers. If carrying children is the reason more seating capacity is needed, then the Commander’s third row will work just fine. You would also have to be as limber as a kid to climb into the third row.

The Commander comes in two trim levels, base and Limited, and with three engine choices. Our test truck was the Limited outfitted with the optional — and increasingly popular — Hemi V-8. The 5.7-liter engine developing 330 horsepower and 375 pound-feet of torque is up to the task of pulling the 5,263 pound behemoth.

The Commander moves smartly from a stoplight with little effort, running smartly through the gears of the 5-speed automatic. Exemplary would be the key word for performance which has been measured by a major publication at 7.3 seconds from 0 to 60.

The mid-level engine, which is standard in the Limited, we think would offer enough grunt for most people. It’s a 4.7-liter V-8 capable of 235 horsepower and 305 pound-feet of torque. However, we are not sure the base engine, a 3.7-liter V-6 generating 210 horsepower, is quite up to the task of offering satisfying performance for such a weighty vehicle.

If towing capacity is of primary concern, any of the three engines can handle most boat and camper pulling chores. The V-6 has a capacity of 6,500 pounds while the V-8s are rated at 7,200 pounds.

And, as with all Jeep products, four-wheel drive is available across the lineup. The base models can be outfitted with a full-time all-wheel drive system, while the Limited can be equipped with Quadra-Trac II or the more advanced Quadra-Drive II. The most advanced system combines a full-time two-speed transfer case with front/rear/center electronic slip differentials.

The Commander offers a very enjoyable driving experience. Behind the wheel is a good place to be. Handling is predictable and the Jeep is easy to herd down the road although don’t expect to find sports-car-like road feel.

The ride is relatively soft and pleasant considering this truck, properly outfitted, is designed to go far off road. We predict there will be no complaints on the ride even from the most sensitive behinds.

Brake pedal feel is excellent and a steady supply of pressure brings the big Jeep down from speed in a predictable manner.

The front seats are large and comfortable and a good driving position is easy to find. The dashboard is attractively laid out with easy-to-use switchgear. For instance, the ignition switch is on the dashboard and easy to see and use rather than hidden on the steering column. A nice touch is a real hand brake between the seats, something generally not offered on a big SUV.

Second-row seating is a bit more cramped than we’d like to see in a larger vehicle. But a compromise between the front and second-row passengers should be obtainable so all can ride in comfort. The third row, as noted above, is strictly for children.

We know that one of the main reasons for the Commander’s existence is the third seat. But without it more space could have been created for second-row passengers, and with it up and in use, cargo space behind it is minuscule.

Standard safety equipment is generous. It includes four-wheel antilock disc brakes, side curtain airbags, stability control and a backup alarm system.

Available amenities run the gamut from a rear-seat DVD entertainment system to a Boston Acoustics audio system. The Limited model comes with such good stuff as heated leather seats, power-adjustable brake and accelerator pedals, rain-sensing wipers, power sunroof and dual skylights for rear-seat passengers and automatic dual-zone climate control. Overall, the Commander is an attractive package.

Perhaps the downsides are already obvious — anemic gas mileage and a high purchase price. The Hemi-powered Commander is rated at 14 city and 19 highway. In mixed driving, we were achieving around 15 miles per gallon. If the Commander is your choice, but you must have better fuel efficiency, the base V-6 is rated at 17 and 21.

As for price, get ready to open the pocketbook wide. The base V-6 begins at $27,985, but the good stuff including the Hemi V-8 begins at $38,900. And quipped like our test vehicle, which included navigation, the price rose to $42,415 including destination charge. It is certainly not priced out-of-line with its competition but it is a good chunk of change.

The Commander seems at the outset to be doing what officials had intended — add to Jeep sales without stealing from the Grand Cherokee.

For the first two months of 2006, the Commander sold 11,200 units while the Grand Cherokee was off slightly to 26,383. Combined sales of the two vehicles were more than 9,000 units ahead of Grand Cherokee sales in the first two months of 2005, so the growth gambit may be working. Since March lots of have changes have taken place at the gas pump so check with your local Jeep dealer to see how Jeep is responding to keep sales on the upswing.