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Text and Photos by Dubspeed Driven Editor, Zerin Dube. Additional Photo Credit: Dubspeed Driven Photographer, Matt Chow

With new SUVs being announced on what seems to be a weekly basis these days, it’s hard to keep up with the market’s newest offerings. But don’t let the marketing departments of these brands hear you call their vehicles SUVs. They are now SAVs, SUTs, SATs, “Lifestyle” vehicles, crossover vehicles, and Cute-Utes. As if that weren’t bad enough, the manufacturers seem to be naming their SUVs by putting alphanumeric characters into a hat and randomly drawing. You have the QX56, the B9, the MDX, the XL-7, the ML55, the SRX, the X5, the X3, and on and on and on. How are you supposed to know what kind of vehicle these seemingly random names represent? Are they large or small vehicles? Are they rugged or are they glorified station wagons with big tires? Who knows these days.

One company in particular seems to recognize the value in a name, and that company is Jeep. Jeep is known by just about everyone for having some of the most capable SUVs on the planet. Some might even say that Jeep invented the SUV. One thing is for certain though, Jeep knows what they are doing when it comes to building a vehicle that is as capable off-road as it is on the road, and each model in their lineup is “Trail Rated”. One such vehicle that has enjoyed immense popularity over the past decade is the Jeep Grand Cherokee. The Grand Cherokee has won several accolades for being the leader in its class for off-road and on-road performance. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Jeep would use the Grand Cherokee as the inception point for their new 7-passenger vehicle.


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Named the Commander, there is no mistaking this vehicle as being anything other than a Jeep. The name Commander tells you that this is a vehicle that means business, and implies that it is ready to take on the toughest challenges in the concrete jungle, as well as command its way through the paths less traveled. No silly acronyms here, just a solid name for a vehicle that immediately demands respect.


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Commander’s wheelbase remains the same as the Grand Cherokee at 109.5 inches, but thanks to some clever packaging, Jeep was able to fit two extra seats in the Commander, while only adding 1.8” to the overall length. Jeep also used a stepped roofline to accommodate the stadium seating for the passenger seats behind the driver. This stepped roofline allows Commander to give its occupants great visibility to the outside world, while retaining ample amounts of headroom. Still, taller passengers will be most comfortable if they don’t venture beyond the middle row of seats. Commander’s track is also a half-inch wider than the Grand Cherokee, which translates into greater stability both on and off-road.

EXTERIOR


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With all this extra girth all the way around, the Commander looks more like a throwback to the days of the rugged Jeep Wagoneer than it does a Grand Cherokee. There will definitely be no mistaking the Commander for a Cherokee on the road. I will admit that when I first saw the Commander in press photos, I thought it was one of the most ghastly looking vehicles I had seen in a long time. The press photos made this vehicle looks disproportionate and the styling looked uncohesive. Nothing seemed to flow together. Not to worry though, after seeing Commander in person, I completely changed my mind on its looks. Commander is one of the best looking SUVs I’ve seen in a long time. The Commander’s lines all flow well into that traditional Jeep style that so many purists miss, and all the design cues went great together. The chiseled body lines give Commander a very stout stance, accentuated by the trademark Jeep trapezoidal wheel arches. The trapezoidal theme carries over throughout the rest of Commander’s exterior, even in such places as the rear glass hinges.


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The base Commander comes equipped with a body colored front grille and side moldings. Commander Limited adds a chrome grille, chrome side moldings, and chrome accented rear grab handles around the rear liftgate. Both trim levels of Commander come equipped with the dual operation rear lift gate which incorporates a power lifting rear glass window that can be opened separately from the liftgate. This is an excellent feature if you regularly have one arm occupied by a screaming child and the other carrying a heavy bag of groceries. 17” wheels are standard on both trim levels, with an optional chrome wheel becoming available when you step up to Commander Limited. Both trim levels also include a full size matching spare to get you going quickly, and ensure that you look your best at all times.

INTERIOR


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Once I climbed into Commander, I was immediately impressed with the quality of the interior. The layout of the dash puts all of Commander’s controls within easy reach of the driver. Materials were top notch and looked like something you would see in an expensive German car (this is not by coincidence). The doors of Commander shut so solidly that I was actually in disbelief. Never before in a domestic vehicle had I experienced doors that shut with such solidness as the doors did in a Commander. I actually had to open and close the doors three times before I realized that the doors were indeed shut. This is again something I expect from an expensive German car, not in a tough American SUV. Good job Jeep. The titanium finish Allen-bolts that are visible on the Commander’s dashboard are actually functional, and add an industrial, rugged feel to the interior of Commander. The controls of the DVD based Nav/Stereo system were extremely easy to use, and the maps looked to be very detailed and clear, unlike some other manufacturers’ maps which look to have been created using Microsoft Paint. The seats in both the base Commander and Commander Limited supported me well, although I would like to see a bit more side bolstering for smaller framed individuals like myself. The leather hide used in the Limited is very fine to the touch, and looks great too. The brightwork in the Commander Limited also added a nice flair to the interior. My gripes are few, but need mention. While the gauge cluster is clear to read, can we please have a digital display for the computer and odometer that doesn’t look like something out of the 80s? And speaking of the 80s, the faux wood trim in the Commander Limited we drove looked atrocious – you’re not fooling anyone here. Not to worry though, attractive silver trim is available in lieu of the “wood”.

Being that this is an SUV, utility is of primary concern, and the Commander has lots of it. With the seats in seven-passenger configuration, there is 6.0 cubic feet of storage space. Fold the third row down, and that space increases to 36.3 cubic feet. Fold both the middle and third rows down and the Commander opens up 67.4 cubic feet of storage.

BEHIND THE WHEEL


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On-road, the Jeep Commander’s five-link solid rear axle (I think I hear the purists crying), and independent front suspension soak up bumps in the road fairly well, and make the Commander’s ride on pavement among one of the smoothest I’ve experienced in an SUV. Despite the high center of gravity that is inherent with any SUV, the Commander felt solid and around corners, and never once made us feel like we were going to roll-over when pushed thanks to Commander’s standard stability control and brake assist. Maneuvering through traffic was made simple thanks in part to short overhangs and Commander’s electric servo assisted power steering. This new steering rack allows Commander to be steered with ease at low speeds, yet gives you plenty of feedback and tightness at highway speeds. The 5.7 liter HEMI V8 propels the Commander with ease. Torque comes on low, and the engine pulls hard throughout the rev-range. The automatic transmission in Commander offers decent performance, but could stand to shift a bit faster under wide open throttle.


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Along with the rest of the Jeep lineup, Commander is “Trail Rated”. Serious off-roaders will find themselves wanting something a bit more hardcore than Commander, but this isn’t to say that the Commander isn’t perfectly capable for light to medium off-road duty. The Commander we drove off-road was equipped with the Quadra-Trac II 4-wheel drive system, which had no trouble helping the Commander put the power to the dirt. On a steep hill climb, the Commander never once exhibited any difficulty with traction or slippage.


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The Commander also did well through deep dips, and never once felt out of place on the trail. The Commander was very easy to maneuver through the narrow and twisty forest course we were driving on. This was again due in part to the new electronic steering found in Commander. Because the Commander does not have the ground clearance of a more hardcore off-roader, tall obstacles may be impassable. Overall, the Commander felt great off-road, but it is probably best to steer away from heavy off-road duty unless your experience level or cache of aftermarket parts merits it.


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The Verdict


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Regardless of whether you think the Commander is an ugly duckling or a work of art, there is no denying the value you get out of it. The Commander comfortably seats seven, has a class leading interior, is available with every type of equipment you can think of, and offers a whole range of engine and equipment combinations. Ranging in price from $27,985 for the 2wd base model with the V6 to just over $40,000 for the HEMI Powered Commander Limited, the Commander can be equipped in just about any configuration to best suit an individual’s needs. With this flexibility, I think that Jeep has a real winner on its hands. Unfortunately, with gas prices tipping just over $3.00 a gallon, Jeep has picked a difficult time to introduce the Commander. With consumer’s minds giving economy more priority than in the past, SUV sales are slowing. The economy issue combined with the controversial styling will make this an uphill battle for Jeep to plant Commander firmly in the market. If Commander’s marketing department is as good as Commander’s on and off-road performance, Jeep will have no problems getting up that hill. — DD

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Zerin Dube

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