Considered without context, the new 2006 Jeep Commander SUV is an impressive vehicle. Its rugged exterior reminds me of a classic, pre-boom sport-utility, say a 1987 Jeep Grand Wagoneer, a Ford Bronco from the same era or even an International Harvester Scout from the ’60s and ’70s.

Its sophisticated cabin — with rich saddle-brown leather seats, a sweet-sounding Boston Acoustics stereo and all sorts of niceties from a rear-seat DVD player to three-zone air conditioning — is top-notch.

And with the Commander, executives at DaimlerChrysler finally have capitalized on the strength of the Jeep brand name and produced a three-row sport-utility vehicle. It comes on the scene years behind rivals such as the Ford Explorer and Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT. Even Suzuki brought out a seven-seat SUV back in 2001.

So, the Commander would seem to arrive as a slam-dunk smash hit, a sure-to-be success — except for two very well-publicized facts.

Gas prices topped $3 a gallon in the summer. And although prices have dropped just a bit as of late, they’re still up substantially, a dollar or more a gallon from this time last year.

As a result of those higher prices and other considerations, the market for larger SUVs has severely slumped in 2005. The main headline in the Oct. 10 edition of Automotive News says it all: “Big trouble for big SUVs.”

The story reports that sales of these big truck-based utilities are down 15.5 percent so far in 2005, and were down an astounding 48.1 percent in September.

That’s the context that unravels some of the promise of the new Jeep Commander.

As good as it seemed after a week behind the wheel, I couldn’t help but wonder about its prospects. It weighs more than 5,000 pounds. It gets gas mileage that’s dismal, but typical for big SUVs, of 14 mpg in the city and 18 mpg on the highway. Real-world owners are likely to realize that their fuel economy varies — downward.

The Jeep Commander arrives just in time to not benefit from years and years of the SUV boom. The waves of excitement floated vehicles such as the Ford Excursion and Hummer H2 to popularity, and sent suburbanites into Ford Expeditions, Chevy Tahoes, Cadillac Escalades and Toyota Sequoias like there was no tomorrow.

The Jeep Commander arrives just as tomorrow finally appeared.

I like its square-shouldered profile, the mix of old Jeep design cues (a seven-slot grille, round headlights) and new touches like rivets along the wheel wells.

The interior is fancy, yet still functional. Dark leather seats in our test model complemented the wood trim and shiny bits of chrome.

Jeep notes the Commander has theater-style seating, which elevates the second row over the first and the third over the second. There’s also what Jeep calls CommandView, a pair of solid glass panels above the second-row seats.

The second row is very comfortable for two adults, and adequate for three. The third row has good head room, but shoulder and leg room is a bit confined. Getting back into the third row is somewhere between gracious and awkward.

With all seven seats upright, there’s barely any cargo capacity, just 7.5 cubic feet of space. But both the second- and third-row seats split and fold, so configurations are varied and multiple. Put down the third-row seats, Jeep says, and cargo room grows to 36.4 cubic feet. Put down all the back seats and there’s a spacious 68.9 cubic feet of space.

Since the Commander is larger than the mid-size Grand Cherokee, it’s natural to think of it as Jeep’s version of the Ford Expedition, Chevy Tahoe or Toyota Sequoia. Actually, all those vehicles are much larger than the Commander.

The 2006 Tahoe (not the 2007 model that arrives in January) has a 116-inch wheelbase (vs. 109.5 inches for the Commander) and measures 198.8 inches long (vs. 188.5 inches for the Commander). In fact, even the mid-size (and bestselling) Ford Explorer is longer and has a longer wheelbase than the Commander.

What the Commander does offer is a very nice on-road driving feel combined with Jeep’s peerless off-road reputation. You can buy a two-wheel-drive Commander, but Jeep also sells three four-wheel-drive systems with the vehicle. They range from Quadra-Trac I, which is full-time 4WD with no transfer case, to Quadra-Trac II and its active 4WD system and a low-range gear, to Quadra-Drive II, with three electronic limited slip differentials.

Jeep says the new Commander is Trail Rated, its in-house designation for off-road ability and one that it shares with the Wrangler, Liberty and Grand Cherokee.

Buyers also can choose from three engines: a 210-horsepower, 3.7-liter V-6; a 235-horsepower, 4.7-liter V-8; and a 330-horsepower, 5.7-liter Hemi V-8.

That’s the one I drove, and it proved a powerful choice. Chrysler engineers attached the Multi-Displacement System (MDS) technology that turns off unneeded cylinders. It boosts fuel economy by up to 20 percent.

Still, gas mileage is poor throughout the Commander lineup.

According to the government’s Web site (www.fuel

economy.gov), the 2WD V-6 Commander gets 16/20 and the 4WD V-6 gets 16/19. Both the 2WD and 4WD 4.7-liter V-8 get 15/19. The 2WD Hemi V-8 gets 15/19, while the 4WD Hemi V-8 gets 14/18.

Commander prices range from $27,290 to $38,205. Our test model, which was loaded with options, had a final sticker price of $43,700. Prices for the five-passenger Grand Cherokee aren’t much cheaper.

The redesigned 2006 Ford Explorer sells for $26,530 to $35,940.

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Contact Matt Nauman at mnauman@mercurynews.com or (408) 920-5701.