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Sales Commander? Jeep’s Big New Baby

Depending on your outlook on life, Jeep is either a pioneering symbol of Americana, or a devilish corporate tool of the netherworld. After all, the old ‘General Purpose Vehicle’ just about saved our bacon back there in a couple of overseas conflicts-and yet the Grand Cherokee, sales favorite that it was and is, is often blamed as the progenitor of the SUV craze that cemented America’s place as the world’s energy glutton.

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So why a new, even-bigger SUV from Jeep? Well, maybe it’s because recent sales of the recently-redesigned Grand Cherokee are still sliding, thanks to increased competition in the lucrative “truck” market. Or, perhaps Jeep was just jealous of Hummer’s ‘folded-cardboard’ angular look. Either way, Jeep now has a bona-fide 7-passenger SUV (great for Moms hauling the whole soccer team; wonder if the marketers thought of that demographic?). It’s called the Commander, and it’s at a dealership near you right now. And what’s more, it just might be the best Jeep on the market.

We’ve blasted around in a Commander on a few different occasions over the last couple months, and lately just completed our week-long test of the beast. If we had to sum up the new rock-hopper in one sentence, it would probably be something along the lines of: this is the natural evolution of the well-known, well-loved old Cherokee. Not that rounded, yuppie-mobile Grand Cherokee, but the old, boxy ‘four-by’ that was just discontinued in ’04 after being flogged well past its natural lifetime. This new Commander is just as accomplished off-road, far more powerful and planted on-road, and much as the Cherokee was, unlike most anything else in the price class.

(Well, sure, the H3 is a lot like the new Jeep in profile, but the Jeep’s a lot bigger inside, and unlike how the Hummer still commands a price premium for its name, with the Commander you actually seem to get *more* car than what you pay for.)

Let’s start on the exterior, since that’s what’s going to generate the most attention anyway. The Commander is big, bold and boxy-a flying brick, but not in a bad way. Imposing is an apt descriptor; although the Commander is only a couple inches longer than its Grand Cherokee platform-mate-it retains the 109.5″ wheelbase-it tricks the eye into giving it much more visual credence than the truck’s actual footprint deserves. The “tough” theme is further emphasized by screwed-on fender flares, chromed grab-bars on the tailgate, and carved-from-a-brick-looking 17″ alloy rims.

Inside the Commander is a real revelation, then. Jeep took a page or two from some other desirable models when it comes to inside amenities. A circular design theme, much like in the more expensive Hummer H2, is repeated in the gauge cluster, vent registers and door pulls. Lots of little storage cubbies abound, adding just that little extra bit of utility. The fit and finish is excellent, as is the majority of materials used-except a hard black plastic used for the dashtop and unfortunately, the upper bits of the door panels.

Seating in our testers was a dark brown leather that calls to mind your favorite old baseball glove-with stitching to match. The first two rows offer comfortable seating positions and a commanding-pun intended-view out. The rearmost seats, however, are for babies, midgets and masochists-there’s a couple in every crowd-and using them cuts cargo space down to Miata levels. Not to mention that the huge seatbacks mean when the third row is deployed-intuitive as that mechanism may be-visibility is nil. A backup camera would be a blessing here.

Road noise in the Commander is surprisingly low. The navigation system, though-shared with other DaimlerChrysler models-lacks a touch screen, and thus suffers in terms of ease-of-use. At least Jeep only charges $1,200 for it.

Drop both seat rows and 68 cubic feet of cargo space opens up; it’s positively cavernous back there, especially compared to a lot of the crossovers that are out there these days masquerading as “SUVs.”

And then there’s the drivetrain. The Commander comes in a variety of flavors; from mild V6 to wild HEMI power. Yes, the Commander also gets one of the 340-horse wunder-motors that may well prove to have been the salvation of Chrysler & Jeep. And as in every other application, the 5.7 liter marvel turns even this biggest of Jeeps into a bit of a road rocket; sixty m.p.h. comes up in under eight seconds.

The other engine options include a 4.7-liter V8 and the base 3.7-liter V6. We spent a good bit of time in the $1,495-less baby V8 as well, and would thus recommend the HEMI’s extra expense to anyone other than Ma or Pa Kettle-even Junior would rue the 105 horsepower loss. It growls, but doesn’t provide the grunt to match (although the high-speed tire howl does fit it fine); we often found the 4.7 Commander laboring in aggressive traffic. We’re loathe to get behind the wheel of the 3.7 after this experience; we like vehicles that can do more than get out of their own way, and with the 210-hp V6 we suspect the 4,800 lb. Commander would feel a lot like the Hummer H3-that SUV’s 220-horse Inline-5 is definitely its Achilles’ Heel.

If you have to justify the extra expense-to the wife, or the local efficiency-nazi-cite the fuel-saving Multi-Displacement System, or the increased resale value. It’s important; 4,800 lbs. needs all the power you can buy, in our opinion.

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Jeep offers two four-wheel-drive options as well, from the base Quadra-trac II system to the ‘killer-app’ QuadraDrive II. The Quadra-trac II we had in the 4.7 gave a smooth ride with a “go anywhere” feel, thanks to the standard locking differentials. Quadradrive II was the featured player in the HEMI Commander, with easy-as-pie Electronic Limited-Slip Differentials-passable on all but the most treacherous roads.

So how does it work off-road? Well, in a word: perfectly. We drove the Commander through snow-covered back roads, and up a mountain pass or two, for good measure. It handled everything we threw at it without compliant; more importantly, it actually was confidence-inspiring. Like all good Jeeps, it makes you feel better at off-road driving than you really are. (Perhaps that’s because the Commander’s approach & departure angles are pretty much equivalent to the Grand Cherokee’s.)

The Commander starts well under $30,000-invoice is just under $27,000-but for a tricked out HEMI, expect to pay around $40 large. And it’s well worth it-the Commander’s great interior, on-road prowess, and off-road promise seem well-worth the money, especially considering what some other upscale SUVs with this level of equipment and mass cost.

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