YOU might expect me to object to the 2 1/2 -ton Jeep Commander Limited 4×4 on the grounds of its in-the-teens fuel economy. You would be wrong. I wouldn’t drive this thing if gas were free and I got 72 virgins with every fill-up.
As we say in the South: Dang, she’s ugly.
Let us grant for the purposes of amusing argument that Jeep’s traditional styling — the classic rectilinear shapes and volumes, the utilitarianism of the old Jeep Cherokee un-neutered by aerodynamic design — is worth preserving. I’m sympathetic, since a 1999 Jeep Cherokee V6 was part of my wife’s dowry and we’ve had nothing but good luck with it. But the Commander makes such a hash of those design cues, I wonder if it isn’t the result of industrial sabotage.
Let’s start at the front. You have the traditional Jeep seven-port vertical grille flanked with headlight assemblies, fine. Then you have this enormous plastic-covered bumper jutting out like a lower lip, making the vehicle resemble the Churchillian malocclusional bulldog. Grrr. And, as much as I appreciate the steep upward rake of the bumper — that gives the Commander a respectable 34-degree approach angle for off-roading — the tow hooks sticking through the lower bumper seem like something Jeep designers forgot until the last minute.
The Commander — hate the name, by the way, but then I’ve always had authority issues — is full of weird proportions and curious details. See how snouty it looks? That’s because of the relationship between the upright windshield angle and the front wheel center; typically, in an SUV, you want the line of the windshield, if continued, to intersect at or in front of the wheel center, as it does in the Ford Explorer or Land Rover LR3 or even Jeep’s own Grand Cherokee, which is as handsome as the Commander is homely. The low, flat hood looks like something fell on it.
Note that the front doors are very long, while the rear doors are short, almost vestigial (with a predictable impact on ease of entry). The other strange dimension is the cabin greenhouse, which is squeezed between the relatively low roof and high door line. At first glance, you might think the windows are large enough — they certainly are square enough — but once you get into the vehicle, you realize that outward visibility is just awful. When both second- and third-row seats have their headrests in place, you simply can’t see out the back or rear quarters. In this respect, the Commander isn’t much different than the Hummer H3 in that both trade degrees of outward visibility for expressive styling. (Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for expressive styling, but manufacturers have to make ultrasonic parking assist and/or reverse-angle video cameras standard equipment on such boats lest they court the granddaddy of all product-liability lawsuits.)
Taken alone, none of these proportional peculiarities would be troubling. Taken together, though, they set people’s teeth on edge. In the week I had the vehicle, no one ever came by with admiring words. Comments were more of the “dang” variety.
One last thing on the exterior: The wheel arches on up-level Commanders are studded with chrome Torx bolts (similar attachments appear in the cabin). Please. This is a Jeep in Jeep drag.
The purpose of the Commander — based on the Grand Cherokee platform — is to give Jeep a seven-passenger vehicle, two more seats than the Grand Cherokee. Which raises the question: Who are these two additional people and what did they ever do to Jeep? The third-row seats, reached after a brief spelunker behind the folded second-row seats and onto the hump of the rear axle, are hilariously cramped and uncomfortable. Don’t believe me? Go to Jeep’s website (www.jeep.com/commander/photos/home_flash.html), click on “interiors” and look at the poor model jammed into the back in the overhead interior view. It looks like a scene out of “Saw II.”
Actually, it’s those two extra seats that cause all the problems. The Commander is mechanically a clone of the terrific Grand Cherokee, with the same number of engines available: a 3.7-liter, 210-horsepower V-6, a 4.7-liter, 235-hp V-8 and the 5.7-liter, 330-hp Hemi V-8, with which our test vehicle was equipped. Both vehicles have the same pair of five-speed automatic transmissions available. Both come in two- and four-wheel-drive flavors. Three traction systems are available: Quadra-Trac I is a full-time, all-wheel-drive system that is paired with the V-6; Quadra-Trac II adds a two-speed transfer case with low range for the V-6 or the 4.7-liter V-8; and the Quadra-Drive II (hey, what happened to Quadra-Drive I?) adds front and rear limited-slip differentials. Both come with beefy Dana 44 live rear axles for serious off-roading. Equipped with the Hemi V-8, both the Commander and the Grand Cherokee can tow up to 7,200 pounds.
And, like the Grand Cherokee, the Commander is chockablock with available luxury features, including a DVD entertainment system, rain-sensing windshield wipers and smart headlights, just about any bit of fanciness in the DaimlerChrysler larder. The Commander’s interior styling, fittings and switches, noise dampening, pillowy highway ride are all easy to love. And, for the relatively few buyers who would venture off the tarmac, the Commander has the goods for serious off-roading: great clearance, excellent wheel articulation and lots of torque.
THE trouble with the Commander is all about packaging. It has the same 109.5-inch wheelbase as the GC, and is only two inches longer overall, yet it wants to cram an extra row of seats in back. Meanwhile, the Commander is nearly 10 inches narrower than the GC — this imposed on the Commander by its old-school styling. The result is a seven-passenger vehicle that doesn’t really seat seven, offers scant additional storage and weighs about 300 pounds more. Apparently, ugly is very dense.
The penalties of that weight are compounded by the Commander’s additional 4 inches of height. The Commander handles like a basket of wet laundry balanced on your head, with no steering feel and a lolling, rolling kinetic heft in corners. Oh, and the gas mileage is pretty awful. The Hemi-powered model returns a combined EPA mileage of 14/18 miles per gallon — this even though the Hemi is equipped with cylinder deactivation. That means the engine shuts down four cylinders during light-load cruising; maybe it should shut the other four down too.
Look, this is a nicely constructed and, I’ll warrant, well-built vehicle that emerged from a dubious product brief. It’s not easy to fit 10 pounds of SUV in a 5-pound bucket, especially a nostalgic bucket, if you know what I mean. If you really need a seven-passenger vehicle, stroll calmly but insistently across the Jeep lot to the Chrysler showroom, where they have any number of lovely minivans.
Automotive critic Dan Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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2006 Jeep Commander Limited 4×4
Base price: $38,205
Price, as tested: $43,220
Powertrain: 5.7-liter, overhead-valve V-8 with cylinder deactivation; five-speed automatic transmission; full-time four-wheel drive with two-speed transfer case; limited-slip differentials front and rear.
Horsepower: 330 at 5,000 rpm
Torque: 5,263 pounds*
Curb weight: 5,263 pounds*
0-60 mph: 8 seconds
Wheelbase: 109.5 inches
Overall length: 188.5 inches
EPA fuel economy: 14 miles per gallon city, 18 mpg highway
Final thoughts: Nobody’s cute ute
*Car and Driver magazine