2006 Jeep Commander test drive / car reviews
The Jeep Commander is, in many ways, an engineering tour de force. Using the same platform as the Jeep Grand Cherokee - which is shared with the Mercedes M-Class, but developed by Jeep/Truck Engineering in Detroit - the Commander is a fully retuned, reconfigured vehicle. It's said that the benchmark for the Commander was the new Land Rover LR3 - and that the Commander beats the LR3 in every benchmark, with greater reliability and much lower cost. It is produced on the same assembly line as the Grand Cherokee, so production can be kept in line with demand for both the Commander and Grand Cherokee. It's hard to say which one is the more prodigious feat: the flexible production line, which can make two vehicles with different bodies one after the other, or beating what was until recently considered to be the best-in-class vehicle in just about every way.
While it shares the same wheelbase as the Grand Cherokee, the Commander has a more luxury tuned ride and feel. The interior is different, and that goes beyond the number of seats - there are three rows in the Commander, two in the Grand Cherokee; there is a beautiful red leather interior in addition to the usual tan (our test vehicle had the tan), and the instrument panel is completely different in the two vehicles, a change which increased engineering and production cost but was well worth it (not to denigrate the Grand Cherokee at all, but it's nice to get away from the old "every vehicle gets the same dashboard" cost-cutting of the past.) The Commander uses chrome-trimmed white-on-black gauges, with just enough gradations to provide the needed information without getting in the way. The general look is upscale, in and out; the Cherokee-like front clip has been updated to give more luxury cues (including dual headlights in the squarish headlight pods), and the interior doesn't have massive expanses of featureless textured plastic.
One area where the Commander is clearly different from the Grand Cherokee is in the glass; it is set up more like the old Cherokee, except pushed even further away from the front passengers. The result of having the windshield being large and unusually far away is a feeling of spaciousness and openness, making the cabin seem larger than it is.
Road noise has been well insulated, while the ride can be a busy but is generally quite good for a Rubicon-ready, off-road-capable truck. Fairly hefty potholes and bumps are handled well, especially in terms of sound: rather than a dull boom or rattle, there is a faraway-sounding noise of the wheel dropping in. The Commander has good road manners, without the wallowing of some trucks that try to make their suspensions soft, though there is some jouncing at times.
Badly rutted roads were handled in stride, though other pavement issues could get in; one particular washboard road, which gives trouble to most cars and trucks (including loss of traction), felt almost smooth in the Commander. Wind noise is practically nonexistent, and engine noise is muffled well; even the heater fan manages to be quieter than usual (helped by the presence of "automatic low" and "automatic high" settings on the climate control).
Cornering is surprisingly good, with a feeling of confidence around sharp turns; the big Jeep seems very nimble and confident for such a heavy truck, especially one boasting this much interior comfort and freedom from shock The tires give audible notice long before grip disappears, but do not squeal excessively or prematurely.
Brakes are strong, as they need to be with the optional Hemi engine, putting out 345 horsepower, albeit with the gas mileage you'd expect to get from an engine of that power - the EPA overestimates it at 15 city, 19 highway, but we couldn't get near that (though we did achieve 15...on the highway). The engine responds instantly under just about any conditions, moving the heavy truck with alacrity but without excess noise. While 0-60 times are not particularly impressive, the instant-on acceleration is attractive. The five-speed automatic transmission helps by downshifting rapidly, yet fairly smoothly; shifts are moderately firm, but not mushy. Our one acceleration-related complaint is the rather sudden tip-in, which is to say that it was rather difficult to gently get just a little more gas while at highway speed. The cruise control is very gentle, but shut it off, and it's hard to avoid small driveline shudders.
We could not test offroad capability, but the vehicle has been tested by a reputable outside agency and been found "trail ready," which is to say it meets Jeep's criteria for off-roading, so that we would not feel any hesitation before steering off the paved path. The low gear four wheel drive is activated by a simple lever which is very easy to pull up; the truck will not allow you to move into low gear under the wrong conditions. Our test vehicle had the standard Quadra-Drive II, described in detail elsewhere on this site, essentially a serious and advanced off-road-oriented four wheel drive system that automatically engages all four wheels when needed. Our test vehicle had the optional off-road packages, which provides the skid plates needed for serious off-roading, since it prevents a rock from, say, gashing the gas tank (or, at least, makes it harder).
Interior space is not much greater than in the Grand Cherokee, but there are three rows of seats; both rear rows fold flat with easy, with the back seats needing only a single lever pull to go from seat to flat floor. Middle-row seating space is neither generous nor cramped, though it gets cramped rather quickly if the automatic seat backup (for the driver, to allow easier exit and entrance) is activated; third-row seats have very little legroom and are clearly for smaller children or short trips. Overall, this is a fairly small vehicle to support three rows of seats, not that size stops its competitors, either!
Given that even entry-level Chrysler and Jeep vehicles have had excellent stereos, including the base units, it's no surprise that the Commander boasts an excellent sound system. What's more, it does so with the navigation system, not giving up any usability to the big screen; unlike the Toyota/Lexus system, you can control the stereo completely without resorting to the LCD screen (though you do see the results of what you're doing on the LCD). Press the tune button, and you're in audio adjustment mode, just like with a regular stereo; and you can adjust bass, midrange, and treble and well as balance and fade without ever having to look at what you're doing. There are also steering wheel controls, on the back of the wheel (the cruise control is on the front of the wheel). The navigation system takes a little getting used to - the screen is smaller than some, and there's a special wheel and Enter button for the nav system adjustments - but it has all the usual functions, and punching in new destinations can be almost as easy as on, say, a Toyota touch-screen.
Our model had the roof-mounted DVD entertainment system, with the best controls we've seen so far - the DVD is inserted at console level, with controls there reachable from either front or back, and a remote control that can be kept permanently stored in the same overhead bin that keeps the LCD screen itself. Headphones are supposed to be stored in convenient door pockets. The system was simply far easier than past and competitive systems have been, operating exactly as one would expect and without the need for driver intervention or the manual.
Generally, controls were sensible and easy to use; the wheel-mounted cruise control had buttons in intuitive places, as well as a cancel button, and all were placed within reach of the outside of the wheel. On the back of the wheel were the various audio controls. We never did figure out the automatic high beams, but the rain-sensing wipers worked well aside from the odd gratuitous wipe when starting or stopping. Window and door lock buttons are lit at night, along with all other non-stalk, non-wheel controls; backlighting is a simple white on the gauges, and a gentle green on other controls. The gear shfit is gated, with the usual AutoStick controls that allow selective, temporary downshifting or upshifting (these are the newer controls, Mercedes-style, not the original AutoStick system, which makes sense given the five-speed Mercedes automatic). The key goes right into the dashboard, which makes it easier to find and keeps the dangling fobs and such from being a nuisance.
The climate controls are eminently sensible and understandable, and hard to believe from the company that brought you the Neon and PT Crusier. Both passenger and driver have simple thermostatic controls operated by knobs, with the temperature scales always staying in place; the fan has both auto/low and auto/high settings, so you don't have to subject yourself to the maximum possible fan speed just to use the automatic fan setting, while ducting is set by a traditional knob that allows you to pick zones between, say, full lower-vents and bi-level. Recirculation, a/c, and the rear defroster each have their own button in the same cluster.
Above the climate control is the wonderful, traditional Chrysler information center, with your choice of a thermometer/compass, gas mileage or other vehicle information display, and a menu that lets you set the car's various features, such as automatic headlights (on with rain, staying on after the engine is shut, etc.), locking, and other items that, in the past, had to be set by a dealer or by strange machinations like turn the key on, press the locks, then wait, then press the locks again, etc. Meanwhile, below the climate control are controls for other various features: the adjustable pedals, backup alarm, heated seats, transmission tow/haul mode, and traction control shutoff. Let's talk about the backup alarm for a moment: using sensors in the bumper, which can be a bit high, the car will warn you with yellow LEDs if you are getting close to an object, like another car or a cement wall or a small child. When you get very close, there's an audible warning and red LEDs go on. (The LEDs are mounted in the roof near the rear window so they can be seen when you're backing up, assuming you're looking out the rear window - you are doing that, right?). This system has more LEDs than usual, for better distance judgement.
Visibility is aided by strong headlights and big mirrors, and greatly hindered by the headrest of the middle-row seat, which blocks much of the rear quarter - an area few modern cars seem to be able to keep clear. The rear visibility is excellent when the back seats are folded down, and poor when they are up. Large sun visors that can be pulled out on their support rods keep the sun from being too much of a nuisance; as befits a car of this cost, both driver and passenger get mirrors that light when the flap is pulled up.
The Commander is replete with little storage spaces; by the driver's sun visor is a recess with little straps to hold EZ-Pass type objects, while there are rubberized inlets in the center stack and left-hand dashboard for other small objects, and yet another area or two in the center console, not to mention the primitive cupholders (set in removable rubber) and the center console itself. Within that covered console is a clever molded-in coinholder, one of the first we've seen to allow for four different coin sizes, but placed in a way that makes it nearly impossible to actually reach. There is a slot above the glove compartment, which both avoids the "big mass of plastic" look on the driver's side in favor of a more sophisticated layout, and provides a place to temporarily dump CDs, maps, and such. All four doors have map pockets, and between the rear seats is an armrest that can sprout dual cupholders. One of the few potentially unergonomic features, however, is the positioning of the door latches, fairly low on the doors, which makes for an odd movement to get the doors open.
The storage area is decently sized, and the middle row of seats can fold forward for more space. This is not a particularly large vehicle, despite its appearance, and minivans will swallow up more people and cargo, but the Commander does have more than enough room for most purposes, and, since the middle seat was moved forward, it does haul more than a Grand Cherokee. The flat loading area is also handy, and not too high to load easily (though not particularly low, either!). Generally, the Grand Cherokee stands high enough to give a good road view, and not so high that other vehicles float way down below, or that adults have to climb in; the styling is deceiving in a way. The Commander is small enough to be convenient; it only looks as though it's a hard-to-park, hard-to-enter monster.
Our test vehicle was not the entry-level Commander, but the Limited, which starts at $38,000 — a good deal more than the Grand Cherokee and Hummer H3 (which, by the way, offers similar mileage with 100 less horses), but less than the Land Rover LR3 and Hummer H2. With that, you get the quiet, reliable 4.7 liter V8, side airbags, four-wheel drive with four-wheel antilock disc brakes, four-wheel traction control, an enhanced accident response system, the rear parking warning system, electronic stability control, a power sunroof, power windows, doors, and locks, rain-sensitive wipers, tire pressure display, dual-zone a/c (with rear vents), power front seats with memory and heat, split/folding second and third row seats, power adjustable pedals (with memory), in-dash six-disc CD player with satellite radio playing through Boston Acoustics speakers, tilt wheel, mini trip computer, leater-wrapped wheel, cruise control, fog lights, automatic power heated folding mirrors, 17" aluminum wheels, and a full sized spare. That's a hefty set of safety and comfort features.
Our test vehicle had a number of option packages which inflated the price to $44,370. These included $1,200 for the DVD entertainment system; $255 for the towing group; $225 for the off-road group including skid plates and tow hooks; $1,200 for the navigation system; $275 for the hands-free phone system; and $820 for fancier wheels. There was also the most desirable option, the Hemi, at $1,495; while the Hemi engine itself is cheaper to make than the 4.7, it also comes bundled with QuadraDrive II, a more advanced four-wheel-drive system, and electronic limited-slip differentials for both axles that respond far more quickly than the older mechanical limited-slip differentials.
That partly answers the question of “why $38,000?” This is a segment where prices are rather high, and you can pay a lot more without getting much more. The Commander is
competitive with similarly priced Toyota, Lexus, Land Rover, Ford, and
GM vehicles. In particular, the Commander beats the Hummer H2 in just
about any on-road criterion (it's hard to judge off-road), and handily beats the LR3 in just about every way. If you were eagerly awaiting a
three-row-of-seats Jeep, or if you really had your heart set on that
square look and were deciding between a Hummer, Honda Pilot, and Land
Rover, the Commander was probably made just for you; it beats the
benchmarks and is cheaper. On the other hand, for moving around lots of
people and/or cargo, a minivan will do it for half the price and
considerably less gasoline...as long as you stay on pavement.