It's impossible to criticize the business plan for the 2006 Jeep Commander: Take the Grand Cherokee and give it an extra row of seats. Jeep dealers have long been tired of losing customers who need to haul more than five people to other manufacturers, so it's overdue.
And a tip of the hat to Jeep for doing a great deal of work to make this happen. The company could have done what General Motors did with the Chevrolet TrailBlazer and its kin: Stretch the five-passenger version to make room for a third seat. But the Commander, while clearly a Jeep, will not be mistaken for a swollen Grand Cherokee.
What it will be mistaken for, though, is a Jeep Cherokee on steroids. Not the kind of steroids that make you big and strong and acne-laden, but the kind that makes you — well, sort of just swell up, like Jerry Lewis. (Press the horn, and it goes, "Hey Ladeeee!" But they love it in France.)
Actually, that's cruel, because on the road, the Jeep Commander's looks grow on you. It's 2 inches longer and nearly 4 inches taller than the Grand Cherokee, but its wheelbase, at 109.5 inches, is the same. The Commander's track is a half-inch wider than the Grand Cherokee, though.
Bigger Inside That extra height is there to make the middle and rear seats friendlier. The roof steps up more than 3 inches just behind the front seats, effectively hidden by the standard roof rack. It means ample headroom for all three rows, even though the second- and third-row seats are raised theater-style. Five 6-footers will fit without fisticuffs in the front and middle row, but the two passengers exiled to the rear had best be shortish.
With seven on board, there's room for 6.0 cubic feet of luggage. Folding the third-row seats expands the cargo space to 36.3 cubic feet, while folding the second and third rows gives a total of 68.9 cubic feet. A Grand Cherokee is only a wee bit smaller, offering 34.5 cubic feet of space with its second row in the up position and 67.4 cubic feet with its second-row seat folded.
The front bucket seats are wide and pretty flat, similar to the seats of the target demographic — age 35 to 50, 85-percent married, 55-percent male, 62-percent college graduates. There are two models: the Commander and the Commander Limited. You shall know the Limited by its chrome. Inside, the Limited gets the expected power, heated front seats, plus leather upholstery, premium stereo with six Boston Acoustics speakers, Sirius Satellite Radio, power-adjustable pedals and the usual other luxury features.
This does not mean that the regular Commander is a stripper, because it isn't. It is well-appointed, and options such as a navigation system, rear-seat DVD player, hands-free communications and rear air conditioning can dress it up to near Limited standards.
Distinctive Outside As with the interior, the base Commander doesn't look downmarket. In some colors, in fact, some of us prefer it to the so-shiny Limited, which has a chrome grille, side molding and rear grab handles. Big, industrial-sized exterior door handles add to the son-of-Cherokee look.
Standard are 17-inch Goodyear radials with cast-aluminum wheels that look pretty nice, and include a full-size matching spare. Chrome wheels are a Limited option. With even the least expensive Commander, you're lookin' pretty good.
Under the Hood The base-est Commander — responsible for that sub-$28,000 list price, with shipping — is a rear-drive model with the 210-horsepower, 3.7-liter V6. A five-speed automatic transmission is standard across the board. Next step up is the 235-horse, 4.7-liter V8, and at the top is the 330-hp, 5.7-liter Hemi V8.
The fact that the 3.7-liter V6 performs so well that it can't be dismissed out of hand is commendable. Even with four-wheel drive — and EPA rating of 17 mpg city, 21 mpg highway — there's enough pep to make it worth considering, so long as you don't need to tow more than 3,500 pounds. The 4.7-liter V8 has a lot more punch off the line, and can tow 6,500 pounds.
The big gun is, of course, the Hemi and its 375 pound-feet of torque; it can tow 7,200 pounds and has all kinds of acceleration. It also has the Multi-Displacement System (MDS), which shuts down half the cylinders to save gas when they aren't needed.
On the Road The Commander's five-link solid rear axle manages bumps and potholes about as well as any, and the independent short-and-long-arm front suspension gives you above-average road feel and a good ride. For such a tall vehicle, the Commander doesn't feel at all tipsy, even when you are cornering more sharply than the tires would prefer. Every Commander, incidentally, gets electronic stability control, antilock brakes with BrakeAssist, and side curtain airbags that cover all three rows.
Like most Jeeps, the Commander has a relatively high waistline, but you don't get the feeling you're that far off the ground. The front seats need more side support, but otherwise, they're fine, even for long stints. There's nothing alarming or complex about the instruments and controls. With an overall length of just 188.5 inches — more than 10 inches shorter than a Chrysler Pacifica — the Commander doesn't feel ungainly around town.
And Off the Road It's unlikely the Commander will be anyone's first choice to tackle the Rubicon Trail, but Jeep gamely insists that the Commander, appropriately equipped, is "Trail Rated." There are three available 4x4 systems: The base is Quadra-Trac I, with the convenience of full-time all-wheel drive and a single-speed transfer case. Quadra-Trac II has the new NV245 two-speed active transfer case, and Quadra-Drive II has front and rear electronic limited-slip differentials and pretty much every trick Jeep has up its 4x4 sleeve. When slippage is detected, 100 percent of the power can be sent to an individual wheel with traction.
We did some fairly serious off-roading with the Commander, and while it is certainly capable, it isn't all that much fun. Throttle tip-in seemed abrupt for rock crawling, and a little more ground clearance would be nice, but for a seven-passenger SUV, it's certainly capable of getting you there.
Bottom Line? The 2006 Jeep Commander's list prices start with the aforementioned $27,985 base. Get four-wheel drive with the V6, and you're up to $29,985. The Limited starts at $36,280 with the 4.7-liter V8 (EPA ratings: 15 mpg city, 20 highway), and $38,900 if you want four-wheel drive. The Hemi starts at $40,395, with Quadra-Drive II as standard. EPA ratings are 14 mpg city, 19 highway.
Undeniably, Jeep needs the Commander, but with gas prices what they are, how much room is left for big SUVs of any brand is an open question, and likely one reason the Commander carries, at introduction, a $1,500 rebate. Jeep is about to learn just what level of pent-up demand exists for a seven-passenger Jeep.