2006 Jeep Commander

Stretching a point

In the land of super-sizing, you can't get by with just small, medium and large. That's basically the business case for Jeep's new Commander. To stay in step with the competition, the pioneering producer of 4x4s adds an "XL" to its lineup for 2006 with the introduction of a new, seven-seat SUV. Commander is two inches longer and almost four inches taller than Grand Cherokee, the former big dog in the Jeep lineup. But, Cherokee's seating stopped after the second row, leaving a product gap now filled by Commander.

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Commander's downright upright shape is a case of form following function. The need to add a third row dictated a longer, taller profile. A stepped roofline kicks up 3.15 inches, starting over the second row. The roof raising is visually hidden by the addition of new, standard roof rack rails. Commander becomes the most angular of all Jeeps, the look is a visual throwback to the former Wagoneer series and the classic Willys station wagons of the '50s.

Good news for back seat drivers! Commander's taller roofline allows stadium style seating. Each row is higher than the one in front of it, allowing all in back to have a good look at what's ahead. Packaged with the optional front sunroof is a set of fixed, glass skylights to provide a shot of sunshine to second row passengers. A rollout shade blocks old Sol if so desired.

Commander's front cabin is "first cabin," in terms of accommodations. Comfortable bucket seats face a two-tone dash, with circular design vents that score well on function and fashion. Controls and switchgear are easy to reach and use. Even the optional navigation system is straightforward in design and operation. Row two seats are split 40/20/40, and seatbacks recline. They're adult-sized, though a snug fit for six footers if like-sized folks are up front.

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The 50/50 third row seats are suitable for kids or for short-term travel for adults. In a max-people mode, there's little room left for cargo, 7.5 cubic feet to be exact. However, the multifold seating makes for a flexible layout inside. Capacity expands to 36.4 cubic feet if both third row seats are folded, and reaches 68.9 cubic feet, with the second row down too. And when they're down, they're really down-the seat design allows for a flat floor for carrying cargo. Liftover height in back is low and the lift gate glass and door can be opened independently, via key fob remote.

Commander is offered in two trim levels (base and Limited), with a starting price of $27,985. 4x4 models start at $29,985. A fully equipped Limited model can crest $40,000. In addition to rear-wheel drive, Jeep offers three 4x4 systems for Commander. Quadra-Trac 1 offers full-time all wheel drive, with no need for driver intervention. It works in concert with two systems standard on all models, the Brake Traction Control System and the Electronic Stability Program. The BTCS automatically provides resistance to any wheel that is slipping, allowing additional torque transfer to the tires that have traction. The ESP adjusts throttle response and applies individual brakes as needed to keep you on track.

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Quadra-Trac II is Jeep's mid-level 4x4 system, employing BTCS, ESP and a two-speed transfer case for enhanced off-road capability. Quadra-Drive II is Jeep's highest tech traction system. QDII uses a two-speed transfer case, BTCS, ESP and front and rear Electronic Limited Slip Differentials. When all these on-board electronics get wind of a wheel slipping, they instantly transfer 100 percent of the available torque to the axle or wheel with the best traction.

Our test drive of the new Commander included highways, byways and some soft- and hardcore off-roading. It's probably true that Jeep owners are more likely to venture off-road than owners of any other SUV make. And even if they don't, they want to know that they can. Commander is trail rated and has the chops to back it up. Despite its longer overhangs, Commander maintains fine angles of approach, break-over and departure (34, 20 and 27 degrees, respectively) and good ground clearance (8.6 inches). Skid plates (standard on 4x4 models) protect the powertrain and transfer case from close encounters with sharp objects below. Picking our way through a rock-strewn trail, we found Commander to be stable and surefooted, far more competent than most people will ever need it to be.

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Back on pavement, Commander has good-for-the-breed handling, a smooth road ride and a practical turning radius. With a full load of passengers, rear visibility is challenged, requiring the driver to do some bobbing and weaving and checking of mirrors. Even with no one in back, the seats partially shield the rear view. To maximize hindsight, we suggest folding the third row seats when not needed for passengers. Ditto for the second row headrests, which flop forward when not in use.

Three engine choices are offered: a 3.7-liter, 210-hp V-6, a 4.7-liter, 230-hp V-8, and a 5.7-liter Hemi V-8. The latter is listed at 330 hp @ 5,500 rpm and 375 lb.-ft. of torque @ 4,000 rpm. All engines are linked to five-speed automatic transmissions. Gas mileage is typical, SUV dreary. A sampling shows a 4x4 V-6 EPA estimated at 17 city/21 highway, while a 4x4 Hemi checks in at 14/19. Towing capability for the three engines is rated at 3,500, 6,500 and 7,200 lbs., respectively. We drove both the V-6 and the Hemi V-8 and commend both. The six has adequate power, maximized by the gearing of the transmission. The Hemi's 330 hp will spoil you for lesser motors and for that reason it's recommended that you not try one unless you might buy one.

The new Commander fills a slot long vacant in the Jeep lineup. Until now, extra large families with outdoor interests might not have considered Jeep simply because they couldn't fit the entire clan inside. Commander expands the brand by combining traditional Jeep virtues-off-road capability and rugged looks-with a new hook: seating for seven. (www.jeep.com)

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