They don’t make Jeeps like they used to … especially when it comes to the all-new 2006 Jeep Commander.

The Commander seats seven, a record crowd for a Jeep vehicle. Those passengers can be spread out in a three-row, 2-3-2-seat arrangement that features – get this – stadium seating. Yes, the sport-utility vehicle’s second-row seats sit higher than those in front, and the third row seats sit even a tad higher.

Remember those small, nimble Jeeps that packed far less than 200 horsepower? Under the hood, the tested Commander Limited 4X4 has a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 that poured out 330 horsepower. And it weighed in at nearly 5,200 pounds.

Unlike old-school Jeeps with rubberized flaps to peel back for a rooftop view, the Commander comes with what Jeep calls CommandView skylights, the better for second-row passengers to stare at the heavens.

OK, I admit it’s all pretty cool. But how Commander play with hard-core Jeep fans?

Pretty well, is my guess.

Most significant, the Commander looks very much like a Jeep … maybe one on steroids, but still a Jeep.

The automaker’s signature, seven-slot grille and trapezoidal wheel openings are easily spotted. Jeep engineers said they drew inspiration for the new offering from past Willys station wagons, Jeep Wagoneers and Jeep Cherokees.

“Simply put, the Commander is more Jeep,” according to the company’s marketing line.

Yes, a lot more. In fact, it is such an imposing-looking vehicle that, at first glance, it looks much longer than its advertised 188.5 inches. The sizable feel is accentuated with the interior roof of the second row slightly more than 3 inches higher than the roof section over the front seats – the better to achieve that stadium-seating arrangement.

Interior touches on the tester were downright luxurious – multi-zone climate control and heated seats on a Jeep! – and controls were large, with a comfortable, substantial heft to them. The two-tone color scheme on the instrument panel is subtle, not in-your-face – a touch of class.

Having ridden in all five seats behind the front row, I can confirm that the Commander’s stadium-seating touch actually does enhance the view, although that third row is a little cramped for two normal-size adults.

Side-curtain air bags in all three rows are a big plus.

The Commander’s exterior is serious Jeep fare. The classic, boxy style looks rugged and is bolstered by decorative silver bolts in the wheel flares.

Commander’s intimidating covering is not just for show. On a mild off-road course an hour’s drive north of Sacramento, the Jeep bullied its way through rocks, water and mud so easily that I feared for the environment more than the vehicle.

Multiple stability control systems performed brilliantly. Despite its weight and nearly 72 inches in height, the Commander never gave me a hint of tipping or unsteadiness.

With the Hemi power plant, a properly equipped Commander Limited with four-wheel drive can tow a whopping 7,200 pounds. I didn’t try this out as I was short a trailer and reluctant to strap one sedan on top of another. But from the power I experienced, I have no doubt the Commander could handle the load.

A big-boy roof rack is standard, for those who like to mount an entire campsite atop their SUV.

Highway manners were surprisingly gentle, given Commander’s big-brute body. Body sway in the turns was evident, but certainly not disruptive. Interior noise was likewise surprisingly soft for so much vehicle and engine.

I confess that I expected a little more oomph from the Commander when I mashed the accelerator after coming to a stop. But with 5,200 pounds to move, even a big Hemi power plant can’t work miracles.

For those counting pennies to pay for that next trip to the gas pump, you’re right to question Jeep’s timing in releasing a broad-shouldered, Hemi-equipped SUV that gets a paltry 15 miles per gallon in city driving and 19 mpg on the highway. I’m guessing that fuel economy is not going to be part of the Commander marketing campaign.

Instead, Jeep is stressing that prospective buyers have choices and do not have to opt for the primo Limited 4X4, the most expensive of four trim levels with a starting price of more than $38,000. The starting fare for a basic 4X2 Commander – still a fairly rugged vehicle in the SUV segment) – is about $27,000.

More Jeep? For sure. And more to like.

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JEEP COMMANDER AT A GLANCE

Make/model: 2006 Jeep Commander Limited 4X4

Vehicle type: Seven-passenger, four-door, four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle

Base price: $38,205 (as tested, $43,700)

Engine: 5.7-liter Hemi V-8 with 330 horsepower at 5,000 revolutions per minute and 375 foot-pounds of torque at 4,000 rpm

EPA fuel economy: 15 miles per gallon city; 19 mpg highway

Transmission: Five-speed automatic with overdrive

Steering: Power-assisted rack and pinion

Brakes: Power four-wheel discs with anti-lock

Suspension: Short/long independent on front; live axle on rear (coil springs and gas-charged shocks front and rear)

Fuel tank: 20.5 gallons

Passenger volume: 112.3 cubic feet

Cargo volume: 68.9 cubic feet

Curb weight: 5,169 pounds

Track: 62.6 inches front and rear

Ground clearance: 8.6 inches

Height: 71.9 inches

Length: 188.5 inches

Wheelbase: 109.5 inches

Width: 74.8 inches

Tires: P245/65R17 all-terrain tires

Towing capacity: 7,200 pounds

Final assembly point: Detroit

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About the writer: The Bee’s Mark Glover can be reached at (916) 321-1184 or mglover@sacbee.com.