Jeep aficionados know the Cherokee of 1984-2001, credited by some as the first (relatively) carlike unibody "compact" SUV. Its shape was as blunt as the box your refrigerator came in, it won three "4x4 of the Year" awards in its first year out, and it satisfied a lot of owners over its 18-year run.
That was the first and foremost of three design inspirations for this ultra-boxy Grand Cherokee-based Commander. The other two were the primitive Willys wagon of 1948-62 and the hulking Wagoneer of 1963-91. None won awards for sleekness or sophistication, but all were undeniably rugged, capable, and functional, and they enjoyed sizable followings.
At one point during our time with, we parked one next to an old Cherokee and noted the uncanny similarities: near-vertical windshield, tail and signature seven-slot grille, trapezoidal flared wheel openings and side windows as rectilinear as the ones on your garage. This new-model Commander, named for a high-ranking U.S. naval officer, looks like someone stuck an air hose into that old Cherokee and pumped it up like a parade float.
This look is exactly the designers' intent, and not necessarily bad. If you like its tough, rugged, bridge-girder industrial look, this Jeep's got it in proverbial spades, almost to the point of caricature. If not, well, you're not the target market.
"It wasn't about thinking outside the box," says chief designer Dan Renkert, "it was about creating a new box." Consistent with the bolted-together look, the big, blocky fender flares appear to be held on by quintets of large, proudly visible Allen-head screws.
The other reason it looks that way is purely functional: they lifted the new-for-'05 Grand Cherokee's already angular body and wedged in a third-row seat, then raised the second row a bit higher than the first and the third above the second, stadium-style, so everyone can see out front. Then they folded the sheetmetal crisply back around this expanded interior package. The resulting brick-shaped seven-seater, Jeep's first ever, is just two inches longer but a substantial four inches taller than Grand Cherokee on the same 109.5-inch wheelbase.
The $27,985 (including destination) base Commander's cabin has a new textured hard plastic upper dash with large, round air vents and 16 (count 'em) actual Allen-head screws, echoing the exterior's "bold, rugged, constructed" aesthetic, holding it on. Continuing that theme, sextets of fake Allen heads encircle the round chrome gearshift knob and the steering wheel hub.
The second row splits 40/20/40, the standard third row 50/50, and both fold flat for cargo. To accommodate the stadium seating, the roof steps up 3.15 inches over the middle row. Other standard equipment includes all-terrain tires on 17-inch cast aluminum wheels, power front windows, heated power mirrors, eight-way power driver's seat, air conditioning, cruise control, AM/FM/CD six-speaker audio, and tire pressure monitoring warning. Cloth seats are standard, leather optional.
The $36,280 Limited adds posh leather seats with heated fronts and four-way power passenger seat, leather-wrapped steering wheel, dual-zone automatic climate control with rear HVAC, power-adjustable pedals, six-CD in-dash changer with MP3, SIRIUS satellite radio, power sunroof, twin tinted "CommandView" skylights, and a tire-pressure monitoring display. On the outside, its grille, front fascia, body-side moldings and roof rail cross bars are chrome, as are the pair of large vertical grab handles on the rear liftgate to assist rooftop cargo access.
That thing got a Hemi?
Like Grand Cherokee, the Commander offers a range of engine/4WD choices. A 210-hp SOHC 3.7-liter V-6 is standard with 2WD or (for $2000 additional) Quadra-Trac I full-time 4WD with Brake Traction Control System (BTCS), which brakes any slipping wheel to allow torque transfer to wheels with better grip.
The Limited gets a 235-hp 4.7-liter SOHC V-8, also with 2WD or (for $2620) the more sophisticated Quadra-Trac II full-time 4WD that anticipates and prevents wheelspin. For roughly another four grand, the Limited can be highly motivated by Chrysler's 330-hp 5.7-liter HEMI V-8 with efficiency-enhancing MDS (Multi-Displacement System) and Quadra-Drive II. Jeep's most advanced 4x4 technology, QD II's front and rear Electronic Slip Differentials (ELSDs) can transfer all available torque to any single wheel with traction. All are coupled to the same electronically controlled five-speed overdrive automatic.
Since the dawn of time, Jeep front suspensions have been rugged but primitive solid axles. That is, until the '05 Grand Cherokee broke that tradition and joined the modern world with a new short/long-arm ( SLA) independent front suspension. Despite the howls of some off-road traditionalists, IFS brings major advantages - more precise steering, more comfortable ride, improved on-road handling, a lower center of gravity, and a 100-pound reduction in unsprung mass.
The Commander adopts this same front arrangement along with Jeep's multi-link rear suspension, with gas-charged shocks and stabilizer bars front and rear. Steering is power rack-and-pinion; brakes are four-wheel discs with ABS and Brake Assist. Electronic Stability Control (ESP) with Electronic Roll Mitigation (ERM), which senses a potential roll-over condition and works to eliminate it, is a key component of the most comprehensive safety package on any Chrysler Group vehicle to date. Advanced multi-stage front and three-row side curtain airbags, a tire-pressure warning system, and ParkSense rear park assist are also standard.
Driving it home
We sampled both the base V-6 Commander and the top-of-the-line HEMI-powered Limited and found little to criticize in either. Not surprisingly, given their hefty (4581-5169 pounds) weights and high centers of gravity, aggressive on-road cornering is not their forte, but impressive off-capability is. Performance with the V-6, at least at light two-passenger loads, is more than adequate even for passing on two-lane roads. Steering is nicely weighted and fairly precise, on-road ride is smoother and much quieter than expected, and braking is strong and fade-free.
Most impressive was the Limited's leather- and woodgrain-trimmed interior. The buttery leather front buckets provided excellent comfort and support on off-road ruts and bumps as well as on long freeway runs. The nicely designed automatic climate dials provided precise control and quality feel. Even the perfectly placed, stirrup-like round inside door handles were tactile delights. With just 28.9 inches of legroom, however, we would not want to spend much time in that far-back row. Behind it are grocery hooks and a bin with a clever three-way lid, but precious little cargo room with the seatbacks up.
Jeep says the Commander is the market's most capable seven-passenger 4x4 and offers "premium amenities" and (with available HEMI V-8) best-in-class on- and off-road performance. There's nothing else quite like it, so they're very likely right.
2006 Jeep Commander
Base Price: $27,985, including $695 destination
Engines: 3.7-liter SOHC V-6, 210 hp/235 lb-ft; 4.7-liter SOHC V-8, 235 hp/305 lb-ft; 5.7-liter HEMI V-8, 330 hp/375 lb ft
Transmission: Five-speed automatic, rear- or four-wheel drive
Wheelbase: 109.5 in
Length x width x height: 188.5 x 74.1 x 71.9 in
Curb weight: 4581 lb (3.7-liter 4x2)
Fuel economy (EPA city/hwy): 17/21 mpg (3.7-liter 4x2); 15/20 mpg (4.7-liter 4x2); 14/19 mpg (5.7-liter 4x4)
Safety features: Multi-stage front and three-row side curtain airbags, seatbelt pretensioners, ABS with Brake Assist, ESP with Electronic Roll Mitigation (ERM), tire-pressure warning system
Major standard features: 17-inch alloy wheels, AM/FM/CD six-speaker stereo, cruise control, power front windows, power heated mirrors, eight-way power driver's seat, air conditioning, and tire pressure monitoring warning
Warranty: Three years/36,000 miles