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2006 Jeep Commander


We kiwi car fans don’t seem to realise how lucky we are.

New car prices are dropping in relation to income – it currently takes 35 weeks of average gross wage to buy an average car: in 1997 it was 55 weeks.
Given used imports, we’ve got a fantastic range of prices and models to choose from; and given deregulation the new-car distributors can import however many models it’s cost-effective for them to offer. Which means there’s almost endless choice.

Take Jeep. You can buy a Grand Cherokee in 5.7-litre petrol or 3.0 CRD form for $78,990. Or, if you want a couple more seats, you can buy a Commander for $1000 more.

The Commander might seem better value for money but, hey, we haven’t all got five kids, so why make everyone buy the same car? There’s a little more to it than that, of course, as I found on one extensive South Island odyssey.

At first glance, you’d have to say, only its mother could love the Commander. Chrysler has almost made a virtue of Jeep’s rugged, function – before-form appearance, and it’s emphasised here. It looks almost as if the designers had a Grand Cherokee drawing, thought “add seats and luggage”, took a ruler, drew an up-sloping roof line and slab sides to fit the concept, and then built it.
From some angles the thing is frankly ugly, though it certainly advertises what it is
– a roomy off-roader.

It’s based on the Grand Cherokee, with a lengthened cabin to fit the extra twin seats that fold out from the boot floor. That rising roofline allows theatre seating – each row sits slightly higher so passengers get a better view out. Thus the Commander is 70mm taller than its Grand Cherokee sibling and has a truly capacious load space, further expanded by the sub-floor storage bin behind the third row.

With all seven seats in use, there are 170 litres of luggage space. But with the third row folded it’s 973.5, and with both rows folded, there’s almost two square metres! The thing seems to swallow luggage, so it comes as a surprise to find Commander is only 350mm longer than the Grand Cherokee.

This car’s high, square profile is tied down by those roof rails, which flow over the rear to become prominent grab handles.

The Commander is powered by either the 5.7-litre V8 Hemi or the 3.0-litre V6 CRD common rail diesel. Both units are shared with the Grand Cherokee and the imposing Chrysler 300C sedan. That means the petrol Hemi will cut four cylinders under light throttle loads to improve fuel economy. It really does work; and it works more often than you might think (even at round town speeds, for example). And no, it’s not possible to tell when those cylinders are taking a break. Chrysler is proud of these engines. It likes to point out that at 160kW and 510Nm, the diesel’s got more power and torque than the equivalent Land Rover or Toyota Prado, and a faster acceleration claim, yet thirst is apparently lower.

Chrysler says that at 240kW and 500Nm the petrol’s got more power and torque than the equivalent Landie or Toyota – and a faster 0-100 acceleration time. Jeep can’t claim the economy high ground here, but 15.5 litres/100 for a 5.7-litre V8 isn’t bad next to the 4.4-litre Landcruiser’s 15. Both engines drive through five-speed auto gearboxes, and both versions use Jeep’s clever Quadra-Drive four-wheel drive system.

So Commander is permanently in four-wheel drive, putting torque to those wheels with grip – which means if three wheels are slipping, you can still drive out of trouble. As long as one tyre’s got some traction, you’ll keep moving. There is low range so big though it is, this Jeep will head into the rough. Which is what we did, punctuating an extended road drive that revealed yes, ‘quiet steel’ technology (three layers of bonded metal) does seem to reduce noise. And yes, electronic roll mitigation does seem to reduce the SUV’s characteristic body roll. On road the Commander feels notably more composed than the Cherokee I drove recently – with less roll, and less bounce and shimmy when you’re really pressing on.

The petrol V8 also impressed off-road. You expect a diesel’s torque-at-low-revs recipe to work well when chuffing carefully through the rough – but this V8 does the same. In low range, low gear, it plunks around steep terrain as happily as the diesel and, as ever, Quadra drive is apparently idiot-proof. It’s also appreciated that you can turn ESP off completely – ie to control momentum on a steep, slippery uphill.

Meanwhile the interior design suits the car’s character. It looks rugged and I like the little design touches like the allen head bolts Jeep says are functional. All the seats are leather, the fronts are heated. And nice bits include stuff like the flip-up rear glass if you’re just throwing a smaller bag in and the fact the third row is taken seriously – with its own cup holders and three-zone air conditioning plus curtain airbags.

I do have a few quibbles. Where Land Rover has improved its formerly poor interior ergonomics – particularly for items like switchgear – Chrysler drops the ball in a few odd places. Like the 300C, there’s no reach adjust for the steering wheel and yes, it does matter, because the seat sits high. I’m an average-sized woman, and it was hard to get comfortable.

The centre-rear headrest obscures the rear view, and the handbrake is mounted on the passenger’s side of the centre console. There’s no useful grab handle for the front passenger either, bar the one on the A-pillar which is too far forward to help in rough off-road going. Still, it looks good, and it’s well specced. There are ABS-equipped brakes, of course. Traction control and ESP, tyre pressure monitors, rain-sensing wipers, a tow rating of 3500kg.

I don’t have five kids, and I wouldn’t need an SUV this size. But if I wanted a Jeep Cherokee, even with two kids I’d look at the extra $1000, and I’d take the Commander every time. 

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