OK, so maybe consumers are abandoning their once-favored traditional SUVs for the new breed of family hauler, the so-called crossover utility vehicle.
That's fine, if you really don't want or need a true sport utility - one that can take you just about anywhere you might want to go, on- or off-road.
But for those of us who were driving SUVs before most of the rest of the auto-consuming world had even heard of such a thing, there still are some pretty good choices out there.
One of my favorites is the Jeep Commander -- equipped with four-wheel drive, of course.
This one takes me back a bit - it reminds me of my first SUV (which I owned about 20 years before someone coined the term "SUV"). That vehicle was my 1965 Jeep Wagoneer, equipped with a Buick engine and a quite capable four-wheel-drive system that allowed me to explore the fire and logging roads in the Cumberland Mountains of upper east Tennessee around my home in a small town north of Knoxville.
The Commander, introduced in fall 2005 as an '06 model, borrowed a lot of its character from the Wagoneer models of the '60s and '70s, but in a first for Jeep, it also added a third row of seating.
Actually, the Commander looks a lot like the recent Jeep Cherokee (not Grand Cherokee) models, as well, but that vehicle's styling was heavily influenced by the Wagoneer, too.
And while the body of the Commander is boxy like the Wagoneer, underneath it shares many of its components with the current generation of the Grand Cherokee, which made its debut for 2005.
Seeing the two side by side, though, you wouldn't see any similarities. The Commander shares no body parts with the Grand Cherokee, which has a sleeker, swept-back design. The Commander is purposely boxy to give it more interior space, including room for that third seat, which is not offered in the Grand Cherokee.
While the Grand Cherokee seats only five, the Commander is the first seven-passenger production version of a Jeep vehicle. It gives Jeep a family-size wagon to meet the competition from such models as the Ford Explorer, Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder and Chevrolet Trailblazer XL.
The coolest thing about it, after the extra seat, is how strongly reminiscent it is of the legendary Wagoneer. Built from 1963-1991, the Wagoneer was the forerunner to just about every truck-based SUV that has shown up on the market since.
Our test vehicle was the 2007 Commander Limited four-wheel-drive model, with a base price of $38,645 (plus $695 freight). This is the second-to-the-top version, and includes such standard amenities as leather-covered seats (first and second rows only), dual-zone automatic climate control, and a rear air conditioner/heater. For 2007, there is a new top-of-the-line model, the Overland, which begins at $40,855 ($44,320 with four-wheel drive), and includes platinum-chrome exterior accents and wood, leather and suede interior trim.
Although I consider this a traditional SUV, because of its awesome off-road capabilities, the Commander technically would be classified as a crossover because it is built on a unibody arrangement, with chassis and body combined in a single unit. That's also the format for today's crossover SUVs, whose unibody designs were adapted from chassis-less cars.
Three engines are offered - a V-6 and two V-8s, including a Chrysler Hemi. All come with a five-speed automatic transmission, although the transmissions are different for V-6 and V-8 models.
Base models come with the same 3.7-liter V-6 that Jeep introduced in the compact Liberty for 2002, and which replaced the Jeep 4.0-liter inline six in the current Grand Cherokee. It's rated at 210 horsepower and 235 foot-pounds of torque.
The mid-level engine is a 4.7-liter V-8, which turns out 235 horsepower and 305 foot-pounds of torque.
For the best performance, there is the 5.7-liter Hemi Magnum V-8, which came in our test vehicle at an extra cost of $845.
It's rated at 330 horsepower and 375 foot-pounds of torque. To help increase fuel economy, this engine has a cylinder-deactivation system that cuts out four of the cylinders while the vehicle is cruising at highway speeds. With four-wheel drive, it's rated at 14 miles per gallon city and 18 mpg highway.
Three four-wheel-drive systems are offered, although all three engines also are available with two-wheel drive as well.
Standard with four-wheel-drive versions of the Commander with the 3.7-liter engine is the Quadra-Trac I fulltime four-wheel-drive system, which does not include a two-speed transfer case for low-range off-road gearing.
Included on 4.7-liter four-wheel-drive models and optional on 3.7-liter models is Jeep's Quadra-Trac II fulltime four-wheel-drive system, which does have a two-speed transfer case and gives the vehicle a good level of off-road performance.
The best system, however, is the Quadra-Drive II fulltime four-wheel drive ($650). It is not offered with the V-6 engine, however. This system has a two-speed transfer case and separately locking front and rear differentials.
Even the base four-wheel drive system will be of help much of the time. Here in Texas, most vehicles that offer optional four-wheel drive are sold in two-wheel drive configuration most of the time because Texans believe they'll never have a need for four-wheel drive. But all-wheel drive is great on wet pavement, dirt, sand, gravel, and curvy Hill Country roads.
But for me, having a Jeep without four-wheel drive would be like having a refrigerator without a freezer compartment. You don't need it all the time, but when you do need it, nothing else will suffice.
The third seat is a great feature, allowing the whole family to come along - even on off-road excursions. When Jeep introduced the third-generation Grand Cherokee, a decision was made not to try to jam a third seat into that vehicle. Hence, the Commander was born. The Commander's third seat is great for kids, but adults can sit back there, too, although they might not be comfortable on a long trip.
There is one drawback that the Commander shares with other midsize, three-seat SUVs -- cargo space is severely limited with the third seat in place. But if the family isn't along on a shopping trip, the third seat can be folded away.
With the seat in place, the Commander has just 7.5 cubic feet of cargo space; with the seat folded, that expands to 36.4 cubic feet. On a long trip with a big family, though, you would have to put most of the luggage and/or camping gear in a car-op carrier. Roof rails are standard, so you can lash the suitcases to the top if necessary.
And while the driving position of the Commander offers a great view to the front and both sides, the third seat limits the view to the rear. With it in place, the driver can see only the top half of the rear window. It's best to leave the third seat down except when it is needed. It has a 50-50 split, so half of it can be folded out of the way to increase cargo space, while leaving the other half for one passenger.
The body and interior of the Commander are completely different from the Grand Cherokee. The Commander is two inches longer, but has the same wheelbase -- 109.5 inches.
Instead of the raked windshield and rear end of the Grand Cherokee, the Commander has a steep windshield and rear glass. This gives the vehicle distinctive appearance as well as giving it more interior space. A higher roofline also helps, giving the vehicle enough height to create theater-style seating.
The Commander has the signature seven-slot Jeep grille, but nearly vertical -- more like the Cherokee and Wagoneer. The hood and fenders actually look more like those of the Wrangler.
Inside, the Commander is well-equipped and quite comfortable, at least in the first two rows. The second row of seats has a 40/20/40 split.
"Command View" skylights, standard on our tester, give middle- and third-row passengers their own view of the sky. These skylights, which do not open but do have roller shades, are packaged with a regular sunroof for front-seat passengers.
For safety, our Commander had multistage front air bags, side-curtain air bags, seat belts equipped with pretensioners and load-limiting retractors, and BeltAlert, a buckle-up reminder system for the driver. Crash-avoidance features include standard electronic stability control, antilock brakes, and traction control.
Other standard features on our Limited model included power-adjustable pedals, power front seats with memory, a tire-pressure monitoring system, rear parking-assist system, and rain-sensitive front wipers.
Options included a GPS navigation system with backup camera ($1,645), a power rear liftgate ($400), SmartBeam headlights, 17-inch aluminum chrome wheels ($820), a trailer-towing package ($225), and a skid-plate package ($295) to protect the underside of the vehicle on rocky trails. Also available is a rear DVD entertainment system.
Total sticker on our vehicle was $44,625 (including freight and options), but you need not spend that much to get a decently equipped Commander. Base prices for the Commander begin just under $28,000 for the two-wheel-drive V-6 model. The V-6 with the simplest four-wheel-drive system begins just under $30,000. The two-wheel-drive V-6 model is rated at 16 mpg city/20 highway.
At a Glance: 2007 Jeep Commander
The package: Full-size, four-door, rear- or four-wheel-drive, seven-passenger, six-cylinder or V-8 powered sport utility. Highlights: A brand new model just last year, this is the first Jeep vehicle built for seven passengers. With styling reminiscent of the old Jeep Wagoneers, the Commander combines Jeep's heritage with a modern SUV package suitable for large families. Four-wheel-drive versions are very off-road capable. Negatives: Third seat is best left to the kids; cargo space severely limited with third seat in place. Engine: 3.7-liter V-6, 4.7-liter V-8, 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. Transmission: 5-speed automatic. Power/torque: 210 hp/235 foot-pounds; 230 hp/290 foot-pounds (4.7-liter), 330 hp./370 foot-pounds (Hemi). Length: 188.6 inches. Curb weight: 4,581-5,169 pounds. Cargo volume: 7.5 cubic feet (behind 3rd seat); 36.4 cubic feet (third seat folded). Trailer-towing capacity: 3,500-7,200 pounds, depending on engine and drive system. Brakes, front/rear: Disc/disc, antilock. Electronic stability control: Standard. Side air bags: Side-curtain bags standard. Fuel capacity/type: 20.5 gallons/unleaded regular acceptable. EPA fuel economy: 15 miles per gallon city/19 highway (4.7 V-8); 14 city/18 highway (5.7 V-8); 16 city/20 highway (V-6, 2WD). Major competitors: Ford Explorer, Chevrolet TrailBlazer/GMC Envoy, Toyota 4Runner, Nissan Pathfinder, Dodge Durango/Chrysler Aspen. Base price range: $28,260-$44,320, plus $695 freight. Price as tested: $44,625, including freight (Limited four-wheel drive with Hemi engine and options). On the Road rating: 8.7 (of a possible 10).