A People Mover That Moves People
It's been a fast-food kind of week. We've hit the drive-thrus of a Del Taco, a McDonald's, a Wendy's and a KFC all in the last seven days. Yes, we're disgusting. Please don't tell our cardiologist or that jerk from the movie Supersize Me.
We're telling you this because the kids handing us our delicious fried stuff at all four bistros complimented our ride. That ride being this Hemi V8-powered, top-of-the-line Dark Khaki 2006 Jeep Commander Limited 4x4. Each handed over a "Nice Hummer, Mister" as they passed us our bags of bad cholesterol.
The first time it happened, we corrected the poor pimply-faced adolescent. "This isn't a Hummer," we said. "It's the new Jeep Commander. It's the largest and most expensive Jeep ever, and it's the first Jeep with a third-row seat." To which he replied, "Cool. Did you want ketchup?" The next three times we just said, "Thank you." At least they liked what they saw.
Hip to Be Square
Sure, there may be a little H2 in the Commander's lines, but it looks like a Jeep to us. Unmistakably, in fact. Jeep says key sources of inspiration were the Willis Station Wagons (1946-1962), the Jeep Wagoneer (1963-1991), and, most of all, the Jeep Cherokee (1984-2001).
And it isn't as boxy as it looks in pictures. Or as tall and narrow. In the metal, the Commander Limited is well proportioned and manages to look both upscale and quite rugged. It isn't pretty, but it has presence. And people notice it, whether they know what it is or not. You can't really say any of that about the Ford Explorer.
Although it's the Commander's unique flat flanks and sizable wheelwell flares that grab your attention first, it's the details that make its exterior so interesting. Touches like the chrome counterfeit Allen-head bolts that dot those wheelwell flares, the substantial grab handles (also chrome) above the taillights and the beautifully curved windshield add just the right amount of function and flash. On the other hand, the bean counter who stuck the whip antenna on this $43,000 truck should be fed to fire ants.
A Pleasant Place to Be
That simple design theme is carried into the Commander's interior. The flat-face dash is actually adorned with 16 real Allen-head bolts, while the simple round instrumentation and straightforward controls could not be easier on the eyes or easier to use. It's all very similar to the stuff Jeep puts in the smaller Grand Cherokee, the vehicle on which the Commander is based, and it all works.
Jeep also shaped the front bucket seats superbly, designed in a bunch of storage bins and created a perfect seating position. Too bad the fake wood is less convincing than Regis Philbin as a rap star.
Standard on the Limited is a laundry list of luxury and convenience items, from adjustable pedals to triple-zone climate control to heated front seats, satellite radio and a sunroof. Our test vehicle was also equipped with an optional navigation system ($1,200) and rich-looking Saddle Brown leather-trimmed seats which are worth the extra $150.
Seats Seven, Sorta
Rear-seat room isn't as abundant as you might think. In fact it's about the same as you get in a Grand Cherokee. You can fit three adults back there, we're just not sure you should. Plus, the seat is mounted so high it feels like you're sitting on the truck instead of in it. Jeep calls it theatre seating.
Beginning over the second row the roof is raised 3.2 inches to keep headroom reasonable, but we question the logic. Wouldn't it just be better to mount the seat lower? A couple of air-conditioning vents and two overhead skylights help keep backseat jockeys happy, and for utility purposes the seat is split 40/20/40 and folds very easily.
The third-row seat, which is a Jeep first, is really an adult-free zone. It's tight back there, but separate climate controls, four A/C vents, deep cupholders and a power port do make it more hospitable.
With all the seats in use, there's only enough cargo room for a toothbrush, a roll of toilet paper, and the latest issue of Mopar Action. You're better off folding the third row, which is split 50/50, and making the most of the 36.4 cubic feet of space that's available behind the second row. That's only 2 cubic feet more than you get in a Grand Cherokee. Fold the second row, and there's 68.9 cubic feet of space.
Leaving the third row folded also prevents it from completely filling your rearview mirror, which it does when it's up.
Quite a Kick
It might look big, but the Commander is only 2 inches longer and 4.2 inches taller than a Grand Cherokee. In fact, both ride on the same wheelbase and are the same width. The Commander is significantly heavier, however. Jeep says our Hemi-powered Limited 4x4 model weighs 5,169 pounds, which is 434 pounds more than the Hemi-powered 2005 Grand Cherokee Limited we tested last year.
Despite those extra inches and bulk, the Commander feels light on its feet. Like its interior, the Commander's underpinnings and drivetrain are shared with the Grand Cherokee, and it all works, both on and off the paved road. The optional 5.7-liter Hemi V8 in our tester makes 330 hp at 5,000 rpm and 375 lb-ft of torque at 4,000 rpm and it's bolted to a smooth five-speed automatic, which can be shifted manually.
The combination gives this heavy SUV quite a kick. Zero to 60 mph takes just 8 seconds, and the big Jeep covers the quarter-mile in 15.9 seconds at over 85 mph. But that kick is, of course, accompanied by thirst. Although we never explored the Commander's 7,200-pound towing capacity, we averaged only 13.2 mpg during our 10 days with the Jeep.
Around town, that power and a satisfying surefootedness make the Commander feel smaller than it is. We wouldn't call it agile, but it's responsive, and it never feels tipsy despite its height. In the slalom test it even managed a very respectable 58.6 mph (the Grand Cherokee's speed was 60.2 mph) and showed awesome stability and very little body roll. Plus its rack and pinion steering is nicely weighted and the ratio feels right.
Traction and stability control are standard on all Commanders, but we attribute much of that stability to the Jeep's Quadra-Drive II full-time all-wheel-drive system, which is standard when you order the Hemi. It uses three electronic limited-slip differentials and does its job transparently. It also has a low range for serious off-roading, and it's a snap to engage with a console-mounted lever.
The Commander's four-wheel disc brakes, which come with standard four-wheel ABS, also felt good, with progressive pedal action, linear engagement and no fade. But we were disappointed with the Jeep's stopping distances from 60 mph, which were long at 141 feet. If Jeep shaved 10-15 feet off that distance and dialed out some of the Commander's excessive brake dive, we would up its brake rating to "Excellent."
Another point of contention is the Commander's ride. Some thought it felt floaty, while others appreciated its compliance. Either way it's never harsh and it's always comfortable.
As new owners do on Hummers and the equally rectangular Mercedes-Benz G-Class, we expect a large percentage of Commander Limited buyers to ditch the standard 17-inch wheels and tires for a set 24s. It's just that kind of truck.
By that we mean it's more than just a people mover. Instead, it's the kind of vehicle that moves people. It's emotional. It's interesting. It's a truck people will lust after for more reasons than its third-row seat, Hemi power and smooth ride. Just ask the kid at the drive-thru.
System Score: 8.0
Components: Optional on the base Commander and standard on our Commander Limited is a stereo that should sound very familiar to Dodge/Chrysler owners. It's a 276-watt system that includes an in-dash six-CD changer with MP3 capability. There are six Boston Acoustics speakers and the head unit is the same as that found in the Chrysler 300, Dodge Charger and other Chrysler Group cars.
Performance: We've been pleasantly surprised in the past by how good the Boston Acoustics systems in Dodge and Chrysler products sound. Now the surprise is over and we just expect this premium system to deliver; and it does.
The highs are clear without being squeaky and the bass is sharp and just punchy enough. However, we feel the addition of a subwoofer would round out the sound quality nicely. DaimlerChrysler's other Boston Acoustics systems have subs and we'd like one here, too. But we can't complain too much as the sound quality is still very good. Midrange is not muddy and enhances the listening experience. Country and pop music with lots of guitar sound especially good.
We do have two minor complaints. First, those seated in the rear seats don't get to hear the same rich, full sound as those seated up front. Of the six speakers, four are up front — two in the dash and two in the front doors. Second, this upgraded stereo is only available as part of expensive option packages. Although options like leather, foglights and a power passenger seat are worth having, we'd like to see the stereo as a stand-alone option.
On the other hand, we really like the head unit's interface. When the navigation system is included, this stereo has one of the best displays around. The buttons and knobs are logically placed and the screen is large and uses sharp, orderly graphics to convey relevant information. Simple menus and an easy-to-read display make this system simple to navigate — the large type for broadcast and satellite stations also makes it easy to see information with a quick glance.
Best Feature: User-friendly display.
Worst Feature: Part of expensive option packages.
Conclusion: A very good sound system that's especially user-friendly and offers better sound quality than many of its competitors. — Brian Moody
Executive Editor Richard Homan says:
OK, I'll sucker on the obvious lead — I do feel like a Commander when I drive it. From the outside, this brute looks more Jeep than a Wrangler. You could've carved its shape out of a block of steel with a straight-edge ruler and a chainsaw. A 13.26 coefficient of drag. That's one cool brick.
And while I'd hate to have to go tooling around on any terrain behind the 3.7-liter V6, our test Commander's 5.7 Hemi V8 hauled the big Jeep's tonnage around a lot more happily than I expected. And so many of the other driving inputs — transmission, steering and outward visibility included — were so good that it was no sweat to maneuver in and around tight traffic. The Commander looks huge from the outside, but it drives petite by comparison. And the tight turning radius deserves a love letter all its own.
But it wasn't all Imperial roses and valentines. The ride felt very accommodating, and when I crossed over a few slow-down bumps on the residential streets near our office, I found out why: The suspension floats like a duck. A little rebound control would go a long way toward winning my unconditional love.
During my days with the new Commander, it seemed like a lot of folks in the neighborhood had their radars set to spot this new 'ute. It's a real attention-getter. Rightly so, as it happens, rightly so.
Road Test Editor Brian Moody says:
I really like the rugged and utilitarian look of both the interior and exterior of the new Commander. The purposefully un-cool exterior is so boxy that it's, well, sorta cool. I don't know if the hex nuts that appear to hold the fender flares on are real, but they look real enough to me. The same treatment inside further drives the "I-can-take-whatever-you-can-dish-out" point home.
I also like that you can get one of three four-wheel-drive systems, and the fact that the window washer reservoir holds a gallon of fluid. I guess they really want you to take this thing off-road — that's so Jeep.
And when you do go off-road, your butt won't know it so long as it's seated in the Limited's plush chairs. The leather is softer and much nicer than the leather in the Chrysler Pacifica and several other premium SUVs.
On the other hand, I don't care for the bouncy ride. Third-row passengers will surely grow tired of all the commotion and that alone could keep some from buying a Commander. And speaking of third-row seats, it's almost impossible to see out the back with those seats folded up for people hauling.
Overall, the Commander has more high points than low. Jeep needs more than three vehicles in its lineup and this seven-passenger Commander is exactly right for it. The interior is roomy and comfortable, with a rugged look and feel that's more Rubicon than Rodeo Drive. And isn't that what a Jeep is supposed to be?
"This isn't my first Jeep product, nor my last. I have owned Comanche, Cherokee 4X4 (and still own a great little '97 Country) and two late-model Grand Cherokee Laredos. All have had the venerable 4.0L inline six to pull my 24-foot offshore boat. This one has the 4.7L V8 which makes a ton of torque and gets much better fuel economy than any of the old sixes did. I have never been unhappy with my Jeeps; they have been extremely reliable and have never failed me." — Clarke, September 6, 2005
"What a wonderful alternative to huge SUVs and minivans. This great vehicle is comfy, fun to drive, and carries lots of kids and family. It is great to own a small SUV that is so versatile. The Commander handles well, rides smooth, and looks great!" — Deborah Fowler, September 2, 2005
"Leased one of first delivered. So far, very satisfied. Ride is great, interior is simple, but still elegant. Have family, and the back row is as great as we had hoped for two kids. Was very very surprised that this vehicle was priced a little under the Cherokee." — Carlos Kelly, August 31, 2005