By Larry Walton & Bruce W. Smith / Editorial Services
No matter what you think of the trend toward retro styling, sometimes it just makes sense. Take the newly released Jeep Commander, a “retro” version of the old Jeep Wagoneer that debuted in 1962 as a modern replacement for the then 20-year-old Willys station wagon (Willys-Overland, 1946 to 1962).
It’s funny how the auto manufacturers are digging into their past for future vehicles. The Wagoneer (1963-1991) remained a mainstay in the Jeep line for 30 years and was actually the basis for the “Cherokee” line of sport utility vehicles. In a move to update the style and technology, Jeep ditched the Wagoneer and two years later came out with the Grand Cherokee.
Now, a decade later, the Wagoneer of old is back again in the form of the 2006 Jeep Commander and shares a place in the ever-expanding Jeep offerings alongside the Grand Cherokee.
“The past is the inspiration for our future,” said Jeff Bell, Vice President – Jeep, Chrysler Group. “The Jeep Commander succeeds because it blends the Jeep brand’s unrivaled heritage with 21st Century technology.”
The Commander succeeds because Jeep wanted to expand passenger capacity of the Grand Cherokee from six to seven and it was the boxy lines of the Wagoneer of old that provided the much needed headroom for the third row of seating needed for the increased demand in passenger capacity.
While the Commander shares a lot of visual cues with yesterday’s Wagoneer and Cherokee, those familiar with today’s Grand Cherokee will feel right at home behind the wheel. That’s because the Commander and the Grand Cherokee share underpinnings all the way from the engine and four-wheel drive systems to the transmissions and suspensions.
These are all good things for those who want a seven-passenger SUV with real world on- and off-road capabilities. The Commander, after all, is a Jeep. It has an innate ability to take on less than ideal driving conditions better than the majority of other four-wheel-drive vehicles.
This was brought to light during our off-road excursions with the Commander. The new Jeep SUV surprised us with better than expected agility, turning radius and traction while driving over some truly rugged terrain.
For those unfamiliar with seven passenger SUVs, don’t confuse the capacity with the spaciousness of a van; with each row you sit farter back from the front seat in a mid-size or compact SUV, the shorter you had better be. Head clearance, and more importantly the distance between the seat surface and floor, diminish as the row numbers go up and the closer one sits to the cargo area.
(Before loading your six passengers, have everyone line up by height and load the vertically challenged first and direct them to the third row.)
During the times when one doesn’t need seven-passenger seating the convenient fold-flat third-row seat transforms drops into the floor opening up a good amount of cargo space. Actually both the second and third rows of seats fold down to open up an impressive 68.9 cubic feet of cargo area. With the third row only folded down, a very common configuration, there is 36.4 cubic feet of space but with full passenger capacity the cargo space goes to a skinny 7.5 cubic feet.
This cargo arrangement is a very handy feature when want to toss a bicycle that needs a quick lift to the repair shop in the back, or don’t want to bother with strapping down skis, snowboards or wakeboards on a short trip to or from the recreation area.
The hatch glass can be opened while the tailgate remains closed, which helps when loading stuff into the limited space behind the third row. For those who need a lot of room in an SUV for everyday work and home duties, the Commander rear hatch opens nearly to the full interior width, which allows you to actually load cargo into the available space.
POWER ON TAP
One of the nice attributes of the Commander is buyers have the choice of three engines to suit their power and fuel economy needs. The base engine is the 210hp 3.7L V6 that has become a mainstay offering in the Jeep line from the Liberty to now the Commander. The V6 is relatively fuel-efficient, with an EPA rating of 17 city/21 hwy, but the lack of torque makes it a little sluggish under the Commander hood.
A better choice is the optional 235hp, 4.7L V8, which offers a lot more sporty feeling to the Commander driving experience while increasing its towing capacity beyond that of the little V6. Overall the 4.7L will probably be the engine of choice because it offers a nice compromise between power and fuel economy.
Of course, for anyone who really wants both the feel and sound of power, it’s the 5.7L, 330hp Hemi option that turns heads—and lightens pockets at the gas pumps. The Hemi puts a lot of life into the Commander throttle, making passing and merging fast-moving interstate traffic thoroughly enjoyed opportunities.
Such a combination also makes the Commander the optimum sport utility vehicle of the Jeep line; a Commander equipped with the Hemi and a weight-distribution hitch can tow trailers up to 7,200 pounds.
Speaking of sportiness, although the Commander stands a bit taller than the Grand Cherokee, it didn’t seem to hinder it’s handling ability. Jeep suspension engineers have done a good job of tuning the new SUV in such a way that there’s a nice balance between comfortable ride and cornering stability.
During the road test there were numerous opportunities on twisting mountain and country roads to test the Commander’s sport aspect. The new Jeep commanded respect with a minimum of body roll in every situation. Both braking and steering have a good balance of assistance and road feel, which is what you hope for in a vehicle that is suppose to be sporty, family friendly, and off-road capable.
Drivability is further enhanced by the better-than-expected turning radius and outstanding visibility. You feel safe and secure whether behind the wheel or riding along as a passenger. Add in the almost un-Jeep-like quietness of the interior and you end up with a vehicle that is not unwieldy for the kid chauffer in the family to drive every day.
I wouldn’t call the boxy look of the 2006 Commander stylish in any way. But I do like the neo-industrial look of the exposed bolt heads even if they aren’t functional—and we already know that some will find the retro look of the new Jeep quite appealing.
Driving the Jeep Commander is a lot like finding a new pair of jeans that look and feel a lot like one of you favorites in the day that felt comfortable then and now are suddenly back in fashion. The difference is now they are made a lot better.
The third row of seating in the Commander is kid’s stuff. But that’s ok because the Commander is really kid friendly. Younger kids are going to love the back row where they can have their own space to hang out. Some kids will think it’s cool to be able to run their own climate controls while having cubbies for their action figures and cup holders for their drinks.
Older kids will dig the available DVD entertainment system, which has a console-mounted DVD player and an overhead LCD monitor. Equipped with a remote control, the system also has wireless headsets that can be used in the second or third row.
Plug-in jacks allow video games to display on the screen and music can be played directly from an MP3 player. Parents will agree that the ability to play separate music selections through the speakers and the head-sets will lower the teen-tension level.
The Commander has a number of kid friendly safety features including three point belts in all seating positions, child seat anchor system and side-curtain air bags with roll detection. There are a number of other general braking and traction safety features that will also help protect your most precious cargo.
Vehicle Type Sport-utility
Construction Steel UniFrame®
Assembly Plant Jefferson Avenue North, Detroit, USA and Magna Steyr, Graz, Austria
EPA Vehicle Class Special Purpose 4WD
Engine 1: 3.7-LITER SOHC V-6 90-degree, cast-iron block and alum heads
Bore x stroke 3.66 x 3.57
Displacement, ci/L 226/3.7
SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm 210 @ 5200
SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm 235 @ 4000
Recommended fuel 87 octane
Engine 2: 4.7-LITER SOHC V-8 90-degree, cast-iron block, alum heads
Bore x stroke 3.66 x 3.41
Displacement, ci/L 287/4.7
SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm 235 @ 4500
SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm 305 @ 3600
Recommended fuel 87 octane
Engine 3: 5.7-LITER HEMI® V-8 90-degree, cast-iron block, alum heads
Bore x stroke 3.92 X 3.58
Displacement, ci/L 345/5.7
SAE horsepower, hp @ rpm 330 @ 5000
SAE torque, lb-ft @ rpm 375 @ 4000
Recommended fuel 89 octane
Transmission 1: W5A580 AUTOMATIC, FIVE-SPEED OVERDRIVE
Final Drive Ratio 3.07:1 with 3.7L engine or 3.55:1 with 3.7L engine and
NV245 transfer case
Overall Top Gear 2.55 with 3.07 axle or 2.95 with 3.55 axle
Transmission 2: 545RFE, AUTOMATIC MULTI-SPEED
2nd 1.67 upshift; 1.50 kick-down
Final Drive Ratio 3.73 with 4.7L or 5.7L engine
Overall Top Gear 2.50 with 3.73 axle
Transfer case 1: NV140
Low range ratio N/A
Transfer case 2: NV245
Low range ratio 2.72:1
Wheelbase 109.5 (2781)
Track, Front 62.6 (1589)
Track, Rear 62.6 (1589)
Overall Length 188.5 (4787)
Body Width 74.8 (1900)
Overall Height 71.9 (1826)
Load Floor Height 36.2 (920.3)
Sill Step Height Ground Clearance 9.9 (504.9) (4x4)
Chassis (Fuel Tank) 9.9 (250.6)
Front Axle 9.0 (227.4)
Rear Axle 8.6 (217.9)
Approach Angle, degrees 34.0
Ramp Breakover Angle, degrees 20.0
Departure Angle, degrees 27.0
Aero Cd(a) 13.26
Fuel Tank Capacity 20.5 gal. (77.6L)
Head room f/m/r 42.1/40.3/35.7
Leg room f/m/r 41.7/36.1/28.9
Shoulder room f/m/r 59.0/58.5/50.4
Behind front-row seats with second and third-row seats folded 68.9 cu. ft. (1.95 cu. m)
Behind second-row seats with third-row seats folded 36.4 cu. ft. (1.03 cu. m)
Behind third-row seat 7.5 cu. ft. (.17 cu. m)
Suspension, front dual a-arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Suspension, rear live axle, five-link, coil springs, anti-roll bar
Steering type rack and pinion
Steering ratio 15.4-17.4:1
Steering wheel turns lock to lock 3.1
Turning room needed, ft 36.7
Brakes, front 12.9 inch vented disk, ABS
Brakes, rear 12.6 disk, ABS
Tires Goodyear Fortera HP P245/65R17
EPA fuel economy (city/hwy) 17/21-14/19
Price range $27,985-$45,000 US