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sciguy_0504

Commander: A looming case of Hummer envy

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LIKE a youngster debating the relative merits of careers - firefighter, astronaut, pop star? - Jeep is trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.

The key question has been this: Should the DaimlerChrysler division hew to tradition by continuing to build only uncompromising vehicles capable of legendary off-road feats, or should it broaden its lineup with some of the carlike quasi-S.U.V.'s that are becoming ever more popular?

The answer seems to be a strategy that tries to have it both ways, offering full-bodied Jeeps and Jeep Lites, too. Less rugged models are coming; a production vehicle based on the Compass concept car (which is based on the Dodge Caliber that replaces the Neon) will be unveiled at the Detroit auto show in January. But even the hard-core off-roading trucks are getting the kinds of family-friendly amenities that have attracted families to the likes of the Ford Explorer and Honda Pilot.

For instance, the biggest Jeep yet, the 2006 Commander, can carry seven occupants in three rows of seats. Based on the Grand Cherokee, this high and hulking vehicle aims to confer Rubicon Trail credibility on suburban parents whose primary driving adventures involve shuttling little Emma and Jacob to their endless practices.

The Commander performs such chores with an undeniable presence, like it or not, and one with overtones of the Hummer. There is a blunt seven-slot grille, a bunkerlike greenhouse and squarish windows. While the Commander doesn't compete directly with any of the three existing Hummers, it could be seen as a retort to a brand that has stolen some of the rough-and-ready image that Jeep used to claim exclusively. (The chicken-or-egg debate doesn't end there, given that several of Hummer's styling cues seem to have been borrowed from Jeep in the first place.)

True, the angular panels of this supersize Jeep are meant to evoke the long-running but defunct Cherokee, but the geometry seems awkward on such a large canvas. The result is undeniably rugged, but the proportions seem off - like a gawky teenager after a spurt of hormone-driven growth.

The blocky lines do maximize interior space; there is plenty of elbow and shoulder room in the first two rows of seats. One impressively executed stylistic detail is the way designers camouflaged the stepped roofline, which juts up behind the driver to add headroom for the rear seats.

On the top-of-the-line Commander Limited, the roof rack extends down the back of the truck a couple of feet on each side of the liftgate window, providing a grab handle for hoisting cargo onto the high roof. It is such an obviously useful accessory that the company is thinking of making it available on base models.

That elevated roof - 3.2 inches taller than the Grand Cherokee's - creates substantial headroom, and each row is higher than the one ahead, providing megaplex theater seating without the sticky floors. With "CommandView" skylights overhead, the middle row is a pleasant place to spend some travel time.

But Jeep's deep questions of self-identity have compromised the comfort of the third row. Because the Commander is built with the same distance between the axles as the Grand Cherokee, and is a scant two inches longer over all, the truck's solid rear axle intrudes on passenger space in the way-back.

Even with the third-row seat set so high, the Commander has less legroom than a kindergarten desk. Children's friends can pile into the back for a trip to the mall, but forget any notions of third-row cross-country treks. The ride over dips and potholes is bouncy even in the driver's seat; in the back, it feels like a school bus on speed bumps.

The second-row seat does flip easily out of the way, offering a convenient means of escape. But a consequence of the stadium-seat arrangement is that the third-row seatbacks and head restraints utterly obscure the view out the back window. Fortunately, parking assist sensors are standard on all versions, minimizing the risk that the vehicle will back over something (or someone).

The front row comes closer to first-class accommodations, with cushy multiadjustable seats and an attractive instrument panel that pays homage to older models with exposed Allen-head bolts. As in other recent DaimlerChrysler products, good design and decent assembly are let down modestly by shiny, cheap-looking dashboard materials.

Jeep had a solid rationale for keeping the Commander so compact: long, bulky trucks cannot navigate the rocky trails where four-wheel-drive Jeeps earned their "Trail Rated" badges.

This is a part of Jeep's image that it will surrender only when it must. So the Commander is, despite its appearance, only minimally larger than a Grand Cherokee - and nearly as capable at scrabbling up rock faces outside Moab, Utah.

On the drive home from work in a few inches of fresh snow, the Commander will be just as capable as any other Jeep.

The powertrains are shared with the Grand Cherokee. The base 3.7-liter V-6 cranks out an adequate 210 horsepower. While on par with the Ford Explorer's base engine, that falls short of the Toyota 4Runner (236 horses) and the Nissan Pathfinder (270). The five-speed automatic transmission shifts smoothly.

The optional 4.7-liter V-8 has more grunt, with 235 horsepower, but the star is the 5.7-liter Hemi V-8, with 330. Four of the Hemi's cylinders shut down at cruising speed, improving highway mileage considerably. Indeed, at 19 m.p.g. the Hemi's federal highway rating is only one less than that of the smaller V-8.

Even while posing in its free-spirited attire, the Commander clearly aspires for the upper middle class. Prices start at $27,985 for the basic rear-drive model but rise to $38,900 for the Commander Limited with four-wheel drive. That's $6,000 more than a similarly equipped Explorer Limited.

It is also almost the same as an existing Chrysler S.U.V., the Dodge Durango Limited, that has a real third row and a less ungainly appearance.

If the Commander proves anything, it is the depths of desperation the division felt to get a model with two extra seats. Jeep wanted a third row in the worst possible way, and it pretty much got one.

INSIDE TRACK: A macho Jeep image now available for parties of seven.


http://www.nytimes.com/2005/11/20/automobi...0AUTO.html?8dpc
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i smell a phaeton!

[post="47289"]<{POST_SNAPBACK}>[/post]

I dunno about that. I've already seen more Commanders on the road already than Grand Cherokees... and the GC has been out for a year. Perhaps that can be explained by the cold reception the GC has gotten around here. First and second gens abound, but the third doesn't seem to have taken off quite as well... or maybe it's just me, and the Commander stands out more than does, well, almost anything else.
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