Philadelphia The Jeep Commander exists for two reasons. First, like every manufacturer of mid-size SUVs, Jeep wants a model with a third row of seats, a feature that is a must when families who suffer from minivan-avoidance syndrome go shopping for a new sport-ute. Second, Jeep hopes that the Commander will recreate some of the positive imagery and romance of the old Grand Wagoneer, which, unlike the current Grand Cherokee, really was grand in its day.
During our drive from downtown Philadelphia to the Pocono Mountains, occupants of Cherokees and Grand Cherokees definitely noticed the Commander. We were unsure whether they were admiring or simply curious. The Grand Cherokee-based Commander certainly looks like a Jeep, and it was intentionally penned to recall the iconic Cherokee. But the stance and proportions are very different, so the result brings to mind those Silly Putty comic-strip transfers you did as a kid, when you stretched and pulled Superman's image. There are some clever design touches, however, including the roof rack that disguises the stepped roofline and the (optional) grab handles mounted on the D-pillars.
The Commander shares the Grand Cherokee's 109.5-inch wheelbase and is only two inches longer overall. These tidy but tight dimensions mean that Jeep designers needed a very upright rear window to carve out enough space for two additional bodies. The second and third rows of seats are elevated, stadium-style. Access to the rearmost seats, which are perched high atop the solid-rear-axle underpinnings, is cumbersome at best. Once the third-class passengers climb in, they'll rue their fate, because the seat bottom is shallow and hovers only inches off the floor. For a normal-size adult, it's like sitting in a chair designed for kids, which is whom the third row is intended for, we suppose. When the third-row seatbacks and their headrests are in place, the driver's view out the rearview mirror is reduced to the size of a mail slot. The Nissan Pathfinder and the Ford Explorer both do the third-row thing much better.
Like the Grand Cherokee, the Commander is fully at home off-road and is offered with three different four-wheel-drive systems. The Commander also mimics its smaller sibling by offering decent, but not class-leading, on-road driving dynamics. Body control and steering feel fall short of many competitors, and the rear axle does the sideways skip-de-do-dah over minor road imperfections. Three available engines are all mated to a smooth-shifting, five-speed automatic. The engine you want, of course, is the 330-hp, 5.7-liter Hemi, since its EPA-estimated fuel economy, at 14/19 mpg city/highway, is only 1 mpg worse than that of the 235-hp, 4.7-liter V-8. If you can afford only the weak 3.7-liter V-6, maybe you ought to consider that minivan after all.
On sale: Now
Price: $38,900 (Limited 4x4)
Engine: 5.7L OHV V-8, 330 hp, 375 lb-ft