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Car reviews - Jeep - Commander - 5-dr wagon range

Our Opinion

We like
Build quality, interior space and comfort, benchmark off-road ability, on-road handling and ride quality, slick five-speed auto, bristling CRD diesel performance and economy, 5.7 V8 sound and acceleration, safety features, equipment levels, value for money
Room for improvement
Polarising styling, chunky interior styling, restricted front/rear vision, occasional wind noise, lacklustre 4.7 V8 performance, 5.7 V8 fuel consumption

Jeep logo23 May 2006

By BYRON MATHIOUDAKIS

SOMETIMES looking back is the best way forward.

Especially if you’re a car-maker with a core product as steeped in American military history as Jeep.

But the surprising thing here is that the DaimlerChrysler brand’s big new Commander model only reaches back three decades into Jeep’s back-catalogue, to its seminal XJ Cherokee.

You know the model – square-cut, compact, city-friendly, dinky little doors and interior space fit for a Hobbit. It was Jeep’s mainstay model from the early 1980s until the slightly wacky looking KJ usurped it five years ago.

Yet this generation Cherokee – which burst onto the Australian market in early 1994 – had enough off-road ability to take it deep into Middle Earth. The XJ was a bona-fide scaled-down 4x4 truck.

Today Jeep believes there are legions of ex-XJ owners, as well as old-school 4X4 aficionados, searching for a modern SUV that still says ‘John Wayne’ rather than ‘John Stamos’ from Full House.

So that’s why the Commander looks the way it does – rough, rugged, utilitarian... blokey. Tough gals will love it!

And while you may think the latest Jeep’s design is Good, Bad and Ugly all in one, photographs don’t pay the Commander justice.

Seeing it in the flesh also reveals influences as varied as the current Discovery and Pathfinder to Volvo’s XC70. Jeep ought to demand a DNA test.

You’ll find all the modern comfort and luxury amenities of a contemporary Jeep inside, however, but in a new-to-the-marque seven-seater layout.

The blocky dashboard isn’t going to win any style awards (the 16 Allan key-like rivets and eight circular vents try way too hard to appear tough), but all the main switches and controls are easy and logical to use, while the (Austrian) build quality seems beyond reproach.

If you live in sunnier climes you’re likely to appreciate the shallow and distant upright windscreen that is anything but panoramic in its field of view. Fat pillars don’t help the hemmed-in feeling either, although the optional sunroof and twin skylights do.

Front seat comfort is surprisingly good since at first they seem flat to sit in, and the outboard middle row impress with ample space for legs, shoulders and heads (despite the ‘theatre’ style seating that is even higher out back).

But the middle-centre is short-haul-only for adults, while the rear twin seats that fold flush – like the centres – into the floor in one easy movement, is only suitable for pre-teen kids and the aforementioned Hobbits.

Chrysler Group Australia boss Gerry Jenkins says the Commander was originally going to be a five-seater wagon until pressure from overseas markets like ours forced a rethink. We think the limited-access third-row seating layout reflects this late addition to the car.

Yet as a 4+1+2 seater the Commander works well, as the littlies out back get to enjoy ventilation (with hot and cold fan controls), cup-holders, head restraints designed for all sizes and great views out.

But why Jeep hasn’t developed headrests that fold down flat when not in use is a mystery, as the current bulky items severely limit rear vision.

Lurking underneath the XH Commander is pure XG Grand Cherokee, the third-generation model released only last year.

This means a monocoque body sitting over a 2780mm wheelbase that is flanked by independent-front and five-link solid-axle rear suspension system, rack-and-pinion steering and a dual-range on-demand 4WD system.

So from behind the wheel the Commander has very acceptable on-road manners for an SUV that can cut it off-road with the best of them, with responsive handling, excellent roadholding, a comfy ride and impressive amounts of body roll.

Only occasional wind noise from the windscreen and huge mirrors made themselves known on the highway (the only type of on-road driving sampled at the launch), but otherwise mechanical refinement levels proved to be pleasantly high.

And topping this is Mercedes’ brilliant 3.0-litre CRD turbo-diesel, a Euro IV-compatible V6 that delivers an eager 160kW of power at a revvy 4000rpm and a monster 510Nm from as low as 1600rpm.

Mated to an excellent five-speed automatic gearbox with a sequential-shift facility, this engine shone with a very-un-diesel V6 pur, more-than-ample acceleration and overtaking abilities, and significantly better fuel consumption figures (around 14.0L/100km over some very thrashed circumstances – expect this to drop markedly in normal driving conditions).

A sweetheart of an SUV powerplant, the CRD is the engine to opt for – unless you’re not paying for petrol... in which case the 240kW 5.7-litre Hemi V8 is a superstar.

In the Commander it sounds and goes like it is in total control, with a magnificent mechanical soundtrack to deep-lunged performance that will give many similarly-engined sedans a real run for their money.

The 5.7 really proved its worth off-road too, hauling the Commander fitted with Jeep’s excellent Quadra-Drive II electronically-controlled limited-slip diff over impossibly rugged 4WD tracks with consummate ease, thanks to 500Nm of torque, good ground clearance and adequate approach and departure angles.

You’re hard pressed to pick this as a ladder-frameless and monocoque-bodied wagon in these brutal conditions.

The big V8’s outputs are almost enough to make you forget the 20.0L/100km-plus petrol consumption as recorded by the Jeep’s trip computer readout.

And this is in spite of the Hemi’s famed Multi-Displacement System technology that cuts out four cylinders for more frugal highway cruising!

Only a brief drive in the Commander’s base model 4.7-litre V8 was allocated.

Its respective 170kW and 410Nm power and torque offerings seemed fine for urban tootling and long-distance cruising, but a delayed acceleration response during overtaking or going up steep hills counted against it. Combined with the expected high fuel consumption, we recommend the diesel over this V8 every time.

Jeep also expects you to do the same, since more than half of all Commander sales are slated to be the CRD unit.

At a whisker below $60,000, the base-model turbo-diesel Commander seems to cover all seven-seater SUV bases, throwing in excellent performance, refinement and safety levels (stability control and airbags for all outboard occupants are standard on all models), good fuel economy and superb off-road ability into the mix.

Whether you like the old-school Cherokee-enlarged-30-per-cent styling is a subjective point, but Jeep believes there’s enough emotional currency in its recent past for the company to have a real shot at success.

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