Expanding the brand-and the back seat
It is no secret that Jeep has aspirations to expand its lineup and offer a wider variety of vehicles in dealership showrooms that were once anchored by only three models: the Wrangler, Cherokee, and Grand Cherokee. The first in this onslaught of new products is the 2006 Jeep Commander, which rides on the Jeep Grand Cherokee's unibody platform, but adds traditional Jeep styling and a third row of seats, finally allowing Jeep owners to bring two extra people, for a total of seven, on their off-pavement forays.
Other than the it's-cool-to-be-square styling that harkens back to previous Jeep designs and the exclusive interior, the rest of the Commander is pure Grand Cherokee. Riding on the same 109.5-inch wheelbase, but with a 0.6-inch increase in track-due to more widely offset wheels-the Commander loses nothing in terms of approach, breakover, or departure angles and actually runs a slightly larger P245/65R17 standard tire, which is an option on the Grand. Overall length of the Commander is only about 2 inches more than the Grand Cherokee. Suspension tuning is also softer in the Commander, adding to its more compliant over-the-road ride.
Underpinning the Commander is the Grand's SLA independent suspension with coilover shocks and 9 inches of ground clearance. In the rear, a solid axle with coil springs and a track bar give the Commander 8.6 inches of ground clearance. Compare those with the Grand's 8.5 and 8.0 inches of front and rear ground clearance, respectively.
Drivetrain choices are also the same as the Grand, with the 210 hp/235 lb-ft of torque 3.7L V-6, the 235 hp/305 lb-ft 4.7L V-8, and the 330 hp/375 lb-ft 5.7L Hemi V-8 with the Multi-Displacement System (MDS) for improved fuel economy. Backing each of these engines is a five-speed automatic transmission. The V-6 gets the W5A580 model, and the 4.7L and 5.7L get the 545RFE model.
The Commander will be available in 2WD, but for those of us who enjoy two differentials to one, there are three full-time four-wheel-drive systems to choose from. The standard system on the V-6 Commander will be the Quadra-Trac I system, with its single-speed NV140 transfer case, which is good for those who fear switches and levers. Both V-8 models will come standard with the Quadra-Trac II (optional on the V-6) and its two-speed NV245 transfer case, which has open differentials and uses the brakes for optimum traction. To us, the Quadra-Trac II system is adequate for the majority of uses and is the most fun to drive off-pavement because it requires a certain amount of skill to pick lines and throttle application to engage the system, but if you want the most user-friendly system of the bunch that will get you through the rough every time, check off Quadra-Drive II (also including a NV245 transfer case) on your order sheet. This system replaces the Vari-Lok progressive axles from the previous generation of Quadra-Drive with Electronic Limited Slip Differentials (ELSD) in the front, center, and rear differentials that offer quicker responses to changing conditions and greater torque capacity.
Another nice feature of the Commander is a traction control system, the invasiveness of which can be reduced by the touch of a button, or completely turned off by holding down the button for 5 seconds. A thoughtful touch when you consider most traction control systems these days will render a vehicle immobile in sand.
While the interior of the Commander uses similar textures, colors, and materials as the Grand, it has its own personality-with a slightly different layout and more industrial feel-thanks to a circular theme and exposed hex bolts. The Commander, with its raised roof, stadium-style seating, and large glass area, including a sunroof and Command-View skylights, is arguably more inviting and airy than the Grand.
This past May, we jetted out to Moab to meet with a small group of Jeep engineers who were anxious to get our feedback on the Commander from the driver seat. As a matter of fact, Jeep has had us in the loop for some time, gauging our reaction to the Commander over a year ago in a studio setting, but this was the first time we were able to drive one. The more supple suspension that makes the Commander a pleasure over long distances also make it more comfortable and compliant on the dirt. While the Grand is set up to feel sportier, the Commander feels more relaxed and casual, yet another aspect that gives it an identity beyond that of a seven-passenger Grand Cherokee.
Jeep has high expectations for the Commander, especially in the hotly contested seven-passenger segment. With real-world utility in mind, a right-sized exterior, and a host of options, the Commander should definitely be on the list if you are shopping for a capable family hauler that can take you down the road less traveled. Look for a comprehensive trail test, with complete specs and data, in our Four Wheeler of the Year test in the February 2006 issue.
Vehicle model: 2006 Jeep Commander Hemi Limited
Base Price: NA
Engine: 90-degree OHV V-8
Displacement (liter/ci): 5.7/345
Compression ratio: 9.6:1
Mfg.'s hp @ rpm: 330 @ 5,000
Mfg.'s torque (lb-ft) @ rpm: 375 @ 4,000
Transmission: 545RFE five-speed automatic
Low range ratio: 2.72:1
Axle ratio: 3.73:1
Front: SLA, independent with coilover shock, stabilizer bar
Rear: Live axle, link coil with track bar, stabilizer bar
Steering: Variable power rack-and-pinion
Front brakes: 12.9-inch vented disc, two-piston caliper
Rear brakes: 12.6-inch, single-piston caliper
Tires: P245/65R17 Goodyear Fortera
EPA city/highway mpg: 13/18
Base curb weight (lb.): 5,169
Wheelbase (in.): 109.5
Overall length (in.): 188.5
Minimum ground clearance (in.): 8.6
GVWR (lb.): 6,399
Payload (lb.): 1,230
Maximum towing capacity (lb.): 7,200
Fuel capacity (gal.): 20.5
Seating, persons: 7