2009 Jeep Commander 4X4 Limited Review
By Roger Boylan
The minute I saw this boxy behemoth, I knew it was a Jeep. No surprise there: I’d known for days that one was on the way from the good folks at the Chrysler press fleet. But once my Commander Limited was actually sitting in my driveway, I was struck forcibly by the thorough Jeepness of the thing. In a world of ho-hum SUVs, this one is unmistakable. It’s visibly the direct descendant of the venerable Wagoneer and the much-loved Cherokee and even the World War II Jeeps of Patton’s Third Army, with hints of Wells Fargo stagecoaches; and, as such, about as Jeepish as they come.
Up close, the Commander’s seven-slot grille, square lines, and straight up-and-down surfaces reinforce the heritage, along with details such as exposed Allen-head bolts and squared-off headlight lenses. The Commander is a couple of inches longer and considerably taller, thanks to its stepped roofline, than the Grand Cherokee, its better-known sibling; indeed, my research informs me that it’s the biggest civilian Jeep in history, except for the Gladiator/Honcho pickup of the ’70s. (It’s also one of the costliest: The ’09 4X4 Limited lists at $41K, but of course there are rafts of discounts available.)
In short, I like the exterior. I think the designers succeeded in evoking the firm’s heritage without sacrificing style. But the interior isn’t quite as unqualified a success. The slab-sided outside implies that the Commander is spacious within, and indeed it is, and it offers utility and legroom sufficient for a family of four, but only if you fold down a ludicrous third row of mini-seats that, when in place, take up all the cargo area and almost completely block the view out the rear window-and whose sole function, it seems to me, is to allow Jeep publicists to meretriciously claim that the Commander has “room for seven.” This is only true if at least three of the seven are pygmies or small children who, if confined to the third row, will wail inconsolably in distress, despite sitting on fine saddle leather and having climate controls to fiddle with. No; drop the back seats, assume a passenger load of four, and you can count on reasonable comfort for all, however long the road trip.
The Commander’s cabin has plenty of light and is roomy enough, especially in front. The driver’s and front passenger’s seats are very comfortable, as are the slightly more confined second-row seats, which are raised, theater style, giving back-seat riders a view over the driver’s shoulder. When the two rows of rear seats are lowered, a cargo area of nearly 70 cubic feet is revealed, slightly less if you configure the second row in 60/40 form to accommodate a backseat passenger. The light, airy feeling that compensates for the cabin’s shortcomings comes mostly from the two skylights above the second row; small shades are thoughtfully provided, to prevent old Sol from cooking your bald spot.
The dashboard, beneath a wide but not unattractive plastic brow, is intelligently laid out, with Chrysler’s signature easy-to-use climate controls and touch-screen radio, CD player, XM satellite, etc., well positioned for maximum use without excessive fuss or distraction. The glovebox is big enough for several-maybe three-pairs of gloves, the ubiquitous khaki-wrapped three-volume Jeep driver’s manual, a tedious read overall (except for the off-roading section, rife with warnings of potential perils along the trail, but even there the stern Chrysler-speak tends to dull the edge). The Commander’s steering wheel is big and solid and, in the Limited edition, leather-wrapped, with the usual bevy of auxiliary controls attached: Driver Info center, cruise control, and stereo selection and volume. Power seat buttons are on the driver’s door and on the right side of the front passenger seat; lumbar-control levers are on the outboard sides of both seats. The gear shifter is the handsome chrome-ringed lever found in all Jeeps, set at a jaunty angle to the driver and falling easily to hand. Chrysler’s trademark AutoStick manual option is part of the package but I ignored it, being quite satisfied with the smooth action of the 5-speed automatic mode.
It’s on the road, and especially off, that the Commander shines, if you can overlook the fuel economy, which is nil, or at least a contradiction in terms: 18 mpg on the highway at best, much less (13) around town. The thirsty mill in my vehicle was the 4.7-liter 305-hp V8 with Flex-Fuel capability, meaning the truck can run happily on (lots of) gasoline or up to 85% E85 ethanol-except in Maine, New York, Vermont, Connecticut, and California, thanks to the strictures of the enviro-nannies. (The Obama Administration’s new nationwide guidelines will make some readjustment necessary.) I got about 14 in town and 17 on the highway, but it takes regular, which is some compensation. The 4.7 liter is an otherwise nice engine, rated to tow up to 6,500 lbs. but a bit reluctant to show off unless you really drop the boot. Then it wakes up with a satisfying roar and, rapidly but smoothly shifting through the seamless transmission, hurls the big bus forward, 0-60 in a tick under 8 seconds. But such is the serenity of the Commander’s forward motion at speed that not too many more seconds will pass (but a gallon or so of fuel will have been consumed) before you realize you’re going 85 in almost total silence, with no tire shimmy or rhythmic bouncing or any of the usual symptoms of an SUV at speed. Remarkably, for a vehicle with the aerodynamics of a stone wall, the most you hear is a faint, soothing whisper of wind. That, combined with precise steering and most un-SUV-like handling, makes the Commander more of a pleasure to drive than the casual observer would expect. I know I was pleasantly surprised, and never more so than when I left the hardtop and took her up the mountain, all 1300 feet of it, near Fisher, in the Texas Hill Country. I drove my family four miles up a rutted, rocky, potholed unroad, undulating and narrow, that the big Jeep navigated with aplomb and ease, there and back. The ultra-sophisticated Quadra Drive II system and a 2.72:1 low-range gear gives the Commander goat-like agility and gobs of traction, and the truck’s alert steering makes it as maneuverable over rockfalls as a Porsche Turbo through the Nordschleife.
From the summit of the mountain, at ease in the leather-shod and air-conditioned comfort of our luxury stagecoach, we admired the mesas and mountaintops that were once the exclusive domain of the great warrior Comanches and are now the preserve of the great weekend warrior Grand Cherokees and their hiking and biking owners. It was great fun going up that mountain, using a Jeep as God and General Patton intended. I’ll go back for more, if there’s a less thirsty Jeep in my future.
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