MT. POCONO, PA -- Jeep, the DaimlerChrysler brand devoted exclusively to four-wheel-drive (4WD) vehicles, adds a brawny new SUV to the 2006 class.
Called Commander, the squared-off wagon looks like a modern interpretation of such Jeep classics as Wagoneer and Cherokee, but it's noteworthy as the first Jeep rigged with three rows of seats for a capacity of seven passengers.
Chassis and hardware for Commander come from the new generation of designs for Jeep's flagship SUV Grand Cherokee, including three powertrain options and choices for three different 4WD systems.
Commander shares a 109.5-inch wheelbase with Grand Cherokee although the overall structure measures inches longer in order to carve out more room in the cabin for the three tiers of seats.
Styling for the metal-clad body and arrangements in the spacious passenger compartment are exclusive to Commander.
Our first glimpse of Commander occurs on a Cherry Street parking lot in Philadelphia, where the wagon seems to tower over several adjacent vehicles.
There's no doubt it's a Jeep, however, as familiar Jeep design cues like the seven-slot grille and round headlamps are prominent on Commander's prow.
This new Jeep stands tall in the traditional two-box format of a wagon but with corners contoured and the horizontal lines chiseled and planed.
Wheel openings are cut in a trapezoidal design with wheels pinned near the corners of the platform and front and rear overhangs are crimped to make transitions easy on steep slopes.
It is square in style, with edgy angles scoring fascia and fenders, a flat hood and flanks, steep rake of the windshield, plus a roofline that's stepped higher in back to add headroom inside for backseat riders.
The passenger compartment is a luxurious space containing three rows of seats arranged stadium-style, with each successive row rising higher than the row in front. A bench on the second row splits in sections divided 40/20/40 percent, while the back bench separates 50/50. Seatbacks on both second and third rows fold forward to form a flat floor and expand the cargo space.
At the rear of the cabin a top-hinged liftgate accesses the cargo bay. In the stepped-up ceiling, there are optional skylights packaged with a front-seat sunroof to bring more light into the compartment. This is a substantial vehicle packed with sophisticated systems for easy travel, whether on-road or off.
A unibody structural design creates a rigid container that resists flexing and twisting when set in motion on pavement or dirt and ultimately enhances the smooth-riding manners of Commander. Precise rack and pinion steering brings quick-response turns and produces a tight turning diameter of only 36.8 feet for easy maneuvering. The independent suspension system, with short/long arms up front and a live axle in back with five-link suspension geometry, enables front wheels to move vertically high in order to step up and address off-road obstacles.
We challenged the wagon with three different situations that developed while driving Challenger prototypes across Pennsylvania.
First, we steer it over streets in Philadelphia and navigate paths through narrow parking lots. Despite the package size with a cabin large enough for seven riders, this SUV seems easy to maneuver in tight urban confines.
Next, we drive Commander up the Pennsylvania Turnpike, I-476, and feel the smooth ride quality at freeway speed. Then in the Pocono Mountains we point a Commander with 4WD away from pavement on a two-rut trace in the forest. Boulders liter a steep grade on this trail, the granite slabs stacking up like a giant's erosely notched staircase.
That's no obstacle for Commander, though, as the high-tech 4WD equipment goes to work and we climb the stone stairway in steady bump-bump-bump increments.
But for 4WD action, Jeep adds options with three different systems -- Quadra-Trac I, Quadra-Trac II and Quadra-Drive II.
The Quadra-Trac I system has a single-speed transfer case for full-time all-wheel-drive (AWD) management and no levers to pull. Quadra-Trac II contains a two-speed electronic transfer case for full-time 4WD operation and locked 4WD low range.
The ultimate system is automatic Quadra-Drive II with front and rear electronic limited slip differentials (ELSD) for infinite torque management at each of the four wheels plus an electronic stability program (ESP) for checking lateral slippage and a dynamic handling system (DHS) to decouple suspension stabilizer bars when not needed.
Standard safety equipment includes an anti-lock brake system (ABS), ESP and a traction control system (TCS). For powertrains, Commander shows three more choices.
In the base issue Commander stocks a 3.7-liter single-cam V6 that makes 210 hp at 5200 rpm with 235 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. The V6 ties to a smooth-to-shift five-speed automatic transmission, the W5A580.
For upscale Commander Limited, the standard engine is a single-cam 4.7-liter V8 producing 235 hp at 4500 rpm and torque of 305 lb-ft at 3600 rpm. With V8 engines, Jeep adds a different five-speed automatic shifter, the 545RFE which incorporates electronic range select (ERS) interactive shift controls.
Optional plant for Commander Limited is a 5.7-liter HEMI V8 screaming with 330 hp at 5000 rpm plus 375 lb-ft of torque at 4000 rpm. And this HEMI comes with a multi-displacement system (MDS) which can switch seamlessly and transparently to fuel-saving four-cylinder mode when all of that horsepower is not needed for romping.
With the HEMI V8 aboard, Commander scores top-of-class tow ratings up to 7200 pounds. A two-wheel-drive (2WD) Commander packing the V6 is the price-leader with MSRP set at $27,290. Commander Limited with the 4.7-liter V8 lists for $36,290 in 2WD mode or $38,205 for 4WD.