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Expert Reviews 1 of 2
By Kelsey Mays
March 3, 2008
If you're thinking about buying an old-school SUV like the Jeep Commander, I can only hope you've vetted the alternatives — crossovers, minivans, wagons — and discounted criteria like gas mileage and space efficiency. Your priorities should include romping about the backwoods and towing 7,000-plus pounds to Grandma's house.
Then, and only then, might the Commander be the vehicle for you. Mildly revamped for 2008, it offers a few more kid-friendly features and a more powerful V-8, and its reliability of late has improved to respectable levels. Still, if you just like the Commander's styling but don't need its abilities, it's probably best to warm up to something else.
This is the Commander's third year on the market; it comes with rear- or four-wheel drive in Sport, Limited and Overland trim levels. Click here to see a side-by-side comparison with the 2007 model. A V-6 and two V-8s are offered, and most models seat seven. I tested a four-wheel-drive Commander Sport with the 4.7-liter V-8, but I've driven the other trims in past years. Going & Stopping Output for the V-6 and V-8 engines ranges from 210 to 330 horsepower. All three engines work with a five-speed automatic transmission. Here's how they compare:
Horsepower (@ rpm)
Torque (lbs.-ft. @ rpm)
standard on Sport
210 @ 5,200
235 @ 4,000
optional on Sport, standard on Limited
305 @ 5,650
334 @ 3,950
5.7-liter Hemi V-8
optional on Limited, standard on Overland
330 @ 5,000
375 @ 4,000
The V-6 is strong enough for most situations, particularly if you drive solo, but it loses some steam on the highway. Last year's 4.7-liter V-8 delivered appreciably more off-the-line grunt. This year's version has been tweaked to raise output from 235 hp to 305 hp, and the improvement is noticeable. My test car accelerated easily to highway speeds, with smooth, linear power and a burly exhaust sound well into the upper revs.
I'm not so keen on the automatic transmission. It shifts quite early in most situations, and around town there's a discernable lag as it moves from gear to gear. I found its highway manners much more agreeable, however, with hassle-free kickdown for easy passing. Even with three passengers and enough gear for a weekend away, there was ample power to accelerate from 60 to 70 mph in fourth gear.
When you experience the 4.7-liter engine in such moments, it's hard to see why anyone would spring for the 5.7-liter Hemi. Though that engine's high-speed passing power is impressive — and it emits an authoritative rumble when pushed — it doesn't feel all that much gutsier starting out. Where that extra power might come in handy is easing the transmission's shifting fussiness, but I haven't driven that engine back-to-back with the revised 4.7-liter V-8, so be sure to do so if you're comparing the two.
Thanks to its fuel-saving cylinder-deactivation system, the Hemi's mileage penalty versus the 4.7-liter engine is just 1 mpg in the city. Note that Jeep recommends midgrade fuel for the Hemi, though, while it recommends regular fuel for the other engines.
All told, the Commander's mileage is disappointing when compared to its trucklike competitors. (I didn't compare crossovers and minivans here, but suffice it to say they're considerably more fuel-efficient.)
Four-wheel-discantilock brakes are standard. The pedal delivers linear response, but it never feels particularly strong. As you might expect, loading up the Commander with people and cargo diminishes its braking performance even more. Ride & Handling The Commander uses Jeep's rugged Uniframe architecture — it's technically a unibody SUV, though the independent front and non-independent rear suspension are more like those of body-on-frame trucks. The underpinnings preserve a comfortable ride: Road and wind noise stay in check on the highway, but the Commander's poor aerodynamics mean crosswinds can catch drivers off-guard. Serious potholes produce lingering echoes as the suspension bounces around, but the Commander manages to isolate drivers from most of the lighter disruptions.
The steering wheel turns with an appropriately light touch, stopping short of the lifeless, artificial feeling that can come from too much power assist. Prolonged curves induce plenty of body roll, and the SUV feels especially top-heavy if it's loaded with people and cargo. Exterior & Offroad Abilities The Commander's shape made it instantly recognizable as a Jeep when it arrived in early 2005, and it remains fresh today. Jeep says it drew on the long-lived Cherokee for inspiration, and it shows in the Commander's slab-sided body and boxlike hood. I find the styling fits Jeep's tough-guy credo much better than the Grand Cherokee or Compass SUVs do, and its continuation in the Patriot and Liberty is probably a good thing.
The tall stance enables some serious offroad abilities. I won't delve too much into the hardware, as I suspect hardcore enthusiasts will buy a vehicle tailored just for the trail. But for a seven-seat SUV, the Commander has formidable talent. Three four-wheel-drive systems are available, and all three earn Jeep's "Trail Rated" designation. The most rugged of them, Quadra-Drive II, has a low-range transfer case and automatically locking front, center and rear differentials. That's particularly impressive because it allows all four wheels to be powered independently, enabling you to move forward even if three of them are stuck in the mud or up in the air. (A simpler 4x4 system, in contrast, might continue channeling power to a wheel that's spinning hopelessly.) The Inside Though the cabin doesn't raise the bar in any specific area, I found its overall refinement acceptable. Jeep designers went the rugged route: The dashboard's upper sections have exposed Allen-head screws, there's no shortage of A/C vents (I counted eight up front), and most surfaces are hard to the touch. Storage areas, too, are abundant. A pocketed shelf sits above the glove compartment, and there are several nooks around the gearshift to stash cell phones or parking stubs. The silver plastic surrounding the center controls and window switches is respectable in quality, but my test car's all-black interior could have used more of it to lighten things up.
Fit and finish is good, with no gaps visible around the radio or steering wheel hub. Upper and lower dash panels are tightly fit, but some controls didn't get the same attention to detail: The gated shifter stumbles from Park to Drive with sloppy uncertainty, and the stalks for the turn signals and windshield wipers have an unsettling amount of wiggle room.
I found the cloth seats in my test car well-cushioned and durable, and the standard eight-way power driver's seat has lots of travel. Leather upholstery and a power passenger seat are optional. One quibble — the hefty steering wheel telescopes but doesn't tilt very high, so it can get in the way of entry if you have the seat elevated much past its lowest position.
The stadium-style seats are positioned slightly higher for each successive row, and a stepped ceiling yields nominally more room as you go back, creating excellent headroom and a decent view of the road even from the third row — good news for those prone to carsickness (and anyone charged with cleanup). Unfortunately, legroom isn't nearly as good; I'm about 6 feet tall, and I found it tight in the second row and untenable in the third.
The second row folds in a 40/20/40 split, allowing you to create two separate chairs to keep squabbling kids apart. The outboard chairs fold and tumble forward for third-row access, but the opening they leave is tight, and the narrow rear doors make getting back there even harder.
Parents will appreciate a few new kid-friendly options this year. Among them are Sirius Satellite TV, which debuted in Chrysler's redesigned minivans not long ago; it streams mobile content from Nickelodeon, The Disney Channel and Cartoon Network to the Commander's rear flip-down screen. Chrysler's MyGIG infotainment system incorporates a hard drive that can store some 1,600 songs — enough that you can leave your iPod at home. A navigation system can be coupled with it, and the system includes real-time traffic monitoring, provided you subscribe to Sirius Satellite Radio, which streams the data in. Although my test car didn't have the system, I've tested it out in the Town & Country; its graphics are first-rate, but the screen's 6.5-inch size can hamper usability a bit. Many systems have 7- or 8-inch displays.
A third row is optional on the Commander Sport and standard elsewhere. It stores easily and has tall seatbacks with integrated head restraints, so when the seats are up, visibility out the rear window all but disappears. There's just 7.5 cubic feet of luggage space behind the seats, which is less than half what you'll get in a Nissan Pathfinder. Fold all the rear seats down, and the Commander still disappoints: The high cargo floor limits maximum cargo room behind the first row to 68.5 cubic feet. That's a bit short of other trucklike SUVs and far behind most comparable crossovers.
Cargo area behind 3rd row (cu. ft.)*
Cargo area behind 1st row (cu. ft.)*
72.4 — 75.1**
*Models with three rows of seats. **72.4 with double-decker cargo system; 75.1 without. Source: EPA, automaker data
Safety & Reliability As of this writing, the Commander has not been crash-tested by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Standard safety features include side curtain airbags for all three rows, with tip sensors so they'll deploy during a rollover. An electronic stability system, traction control and four-wheel-disc antilock brakes are also standard. The stability system uses Chrysler's Electronic Roll Mitigation, which attempts to intuit an imminent rollover and trigger preventative braking measures. ERM doesn't detect when a rollover is occurring, as Ford's Roll Stability Control does.
The second row comes with Latch child-seat anchors for all three positions; most cars have specific provisions for the outboard seats only. Top-tether anchors for the outboard positions are conveniently located midway down the backside of the seats, but the anchor for the middle seat — the safest spot for kids — is in the more traditional (and harder to reach) location at the base of the seatback.
Following a poor start in 2006, the Commander's reliability is on the upswing. Consumer Reports gave the 2007 Commander V-8 Above-Average marks for reliability (the V-6 model was not rated; it scored Average in 2006). The publication predicts overall reliability of Average for new Commanders. Features & Pricing Without Jeep's $730 destination charge, a two-wheel-drive Commander Sport starts at $27,415. Standard features include the V-6 engine, a power driver's seat, 17-inch rims and ultrasonic rear parking sensors. The Limited ($36,305) includes the 4.7-liter V-8, a power passenger seat, heated leather upholstery and a moonroof, while the Overland ($39,485) comes loaded with the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, a backup camera, a navigation system and more. Adding four-wheel-drive costs anywhere from $2,000 to $3,645, depending on the type of system added, and lower trims can option up to the next engine choice.
Expect a fully loaded, four-wheel-drive Commander Overland to cost around $45,000. Commander in the Market Graded against a narrow class of competitors, the Commander seems like a solid choice. Its offroad prowess is a force to be reckoned with, it tows a stout 7,400 pounds and it can be packed with plenty of family-friendly gadgets. If that's exactly what you're looking for, look no further.
I suspect most shoppers are open to alternatives within the general SUV field, though, and here's where a crossover would win out. They're more space- and fuel-efficient, and most handle with carlike grace. The hype is true, folks: If you possibly can, consider one of those before you buy one of these.