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Commander adds a new dimension to Jeep lineup

September 16, 2005|by DAN LYONS/Motor Matters

Jeep has a long history of building vehicles to take people almost anywhere. Now, it has made that history a little longer - literally.

With the new Commander, Jeep introduces its first-ever sport-utility vehicle with seven-passenger seating. Compared to the Grand Cherokee, the new model is stretched 2 inches longer and sits 4 inches higher. Familiar styling cues like Jeep's signature, seven-slot grille blend with new elements, such as the stacked, quad headlights and bolt-on style fender flairs. Overall, Commander is distinctly more angular than other Jeeps. Its squared-off look conjures up the classic Willys wagons and Jeep Wagoneers.

To get extra room inside, Jeep took a novel approach outside by raising the roof. Starting at a point just above the second row, Jeep stepped up the roofline about 3 inches. This design has been used in other SUVs and the effect here is the same - enough headroom to withstand a stovepipe hat revival. Though noticeable inside for the room it creates, the kick-up top is cleverly hidden outside by the roof rack rails lining either side.

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Since the inside story on the newest Jeep is inside, we'll go there first. Up front, the driver and passenger see a two-tone dash outfitted with a logical layout of controls. The second row seats two or three comfortably, but 6-footers will be tight on legroom if big people are in the front seats. Row three is perfect for kids and occasional adult use. If you're carrying a full load of passengers, there isn't much room left for luggage (7.5 cubic feet). However, second- and third-row seats split and fold, so the space may be set up to best suit the ride: people, cargo, or some of both. Fold the third row down and there is 36.4 cubic feet for storage. Drop the second row to create 68.9 cubic feet. Liftover height in back is low and when folded, the seats form a flat load floor. Drivers will want to keep the third row down (as well as the second-row headrests) when not needed, to improve rear visibility.

Three engines and three four-wheel-drive systems are available. Buyers choose from a 3.7-liter, 210-horsepower V-6 engine, a 4.7-liter, 230-horsepower V-8, or a 5.7-liter, 330-horsepower Hemi V-8. Transmissions are five-speed automatics only; no manual is available. As to the chassis, the first 4x4 option is Quadra-Trac I, a full-time all-wheel-drive system. The upgrade is Quadra-Trac II, which has a two-speed transfer case with low range for improved off-road performance.

For maximum traction, there's Quadra-Drive II. It has a dual-range transfer case and electronic front and rear limited-slip differentials. When tires slip, they quickly channel available torque to the axle and wheel with the best grip. All of the above are combined with a host of standard, electronic safety and stability aids - Brake Traction Control System, Electronic Stability Program, Electronic Roll Mitigation, Anti-Lock Brakes and Traction Control - all charged with keeping you headed in the right direction.

People expect anything with a Jeep badge on it to be able to hit the dirt with confidence, and Commander does not disappoint. I sampled Quadra-Trac I and Quadra-Drive II and found them both sure footed and (in the case of Q-DII) exceptionally capable off-road. Commander has good clearance beneath (8.6 inches) and ample angles of approach, breakover and departure (34, 20 and 27 degrees). It tackles off-road trails with gusto that belies its size. All 4x4 models are fitted with undercarriage protection plates to shield critical components from rock damage.

On road, Commander handles well for its size, providing a smooth ride. I drove the 3.7-liter V-6 and the Hemi V-8, both of which work well with their respective, five-speed transmissions. The former engine has decent power and can tow as much as 3,500 pounds. The power of the Hemi will pull up to 7,200 pounds. Gas mileage on both is typical of big SUVs, which is not so hot. The EPA rates the six at 17 mpg city/21 highway, while the Hemi clocks 14/19. Two models are offered, base and Limited. Prices start at $27,985 for 4x2's; $29,985 for 4x4's.

Commander fills out the Jeep product lineup, allowing it to compete in a segment of the 4x4 market where it formerly had no player. Now, if you need three-row seating and want proven off-road capability, add a new name to your shortlist: Jeep Commander.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2005

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