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OFF-ROAD TEST

Jeep Commander Hemi





10 September 2006


  • Although the lower portion of the dashboard panel is shared with the Grand Cherokee, the top section is all new. Both the steering wheel centre and the gear selector knob feature the Jeep logo framed in a bright ring.
  • Although the lower portion of the dashboard panel is shared with the Grand Cherokee, the top section is all new. Both the steering wheel centre and the gear selector knob feature the Jeep logo framed in a bright ring.

Go big, or go home. That could be the rallying cry of the Jeep Commander, the brand’s first seven-seater, and boy, does it live up to that credo (and it ain’t going home).

Without prejudicing it with our opinions on aesthetics, suffice to say that the new Jeep Commander looks as though it could have been commissioned by the US military. But when they rejected the concept, Jeep’s designers simply added a whole bunch of chrome – including the faux screwheads for the wheelarch extensions – and hoped for the best in the retail market.

Opinions varied from “ruggedly macho” to “damn ugly” but for sheer visual impact – and overtaking presence, as we discovered – there’s little to match it.

The interior also has an ambience with vaguely military undertones and some finishes are apparently deliberately designed to evoke memories of classic Jeep models. But despite a slightly eclectic mix of moods and materials, the cabin is a whole lot more appealing, if the exterior had you wondering… Put a tape measure on the Commander and you’ll be surprised to discover that it’s smaller than it appears. That relatively low roofline creates an illusion of being longer than its 4787mm, while its wheelbase of 2780mm (which it shares with the Grand Cherokee, as it does many of the basic underpinnings) is almost 100mm shy of a Disco’s. The 17-inch wheels are almost lost in the massive wheelarches, and also contribute to a low-slung look slightly at odds with its persona.

Features and equipment
★★★★★

The main technical feature of the Commander is Quadra-Drive II, Jeep’s awesome (and we don’t say that lightly) fourwheel- drive system. A chromed T-handle on the centre console simultaneously engages the 2.72:1 reduction ratio and switches off the vehicle stability control software.

Under the slab-like bonnet is another tour de force: a free-revving V8 displacing almost 5,7 litres, with a camshaft per bank and hemispherical combustion chambers – which explains the ‘Hemi’ badge alluding to combustion chamber technology that was a big deal in the 1960s.

A 5-speed auto box sends drive to all wheels all the time, with electronically-controlled limited slip differentials front and rear.

All this is bolted to a ladder-frame chassis, and at the back you’ll also find a coil-sprung solid axle – as on the Grand – ensuring plentiful wheel travel and consistent ground clearance. The front is independently-sprung coils, by an upper and lower link system.

The interior, in addition to having a certain American charm, is pretty sumptuous. Attractive wood trim, electric adjustment for heated front seats, 12 air vents you can aim every which way, and a DVD player that flips down from the roof are just a small sample of an impressive list of kit.

The sunroof is a R9000 option, but considering the technical and comfort features, the Commander still represents reasonable value at R495 000.

Accommodation
★★★

With its near vertical sheet metal and upright glasshouse there is a particularly commanding view of the surroundings, and those in the second and third rows are perched progressively higher so everyone has a democratic chance of being first to spot something fierce lazing in the shade of an acacia tree.

The driver’s environment would be perfect save for the lack of a rest for one’s left foot and the fact that the steering column only adjusts for height and not for reach. A wellshaped and forgiving seat makes up for these shortcomings.

Another foible is the lack of a stalk control for the driving computer: to scroll through the menu (in itself not particularly user-friendly) one is forced to stretch across the hang-down section of the centre console – clearly configured for left-hand-drive – to reach the appropriate buttons. Some drivers may also find it irritating that the trip meter isn’t permanently displayed alongside the odometer.

Other controls work very well, however, and we particularly liked the steering wheel: the cruise control buttons are on the face of it, with paddle-like buttons on the rear controlling the sound system.

Despite the Commander’s extra length, it doesn’t translate into great second or thirdputer class accommodation.

The middle row has limited legroom and those behind don’t have much of anything. At least getting there is easy thanks to a 40/20/40 split to the seatbacks, which also adds luggage versatility, and there’s plenty of load volume with the various seats stowed.

Unfortunately it has very little of that when all seats are in use, being bested by the Fortuner/Pathfinder (see comparative test on page 40) in this regard. However, a rear glass which opens independently of the tailgate, is useful for dropping in a (small) load of groceries.

Performance
★★★★

Not a lot of criticism can be levelled at the Commander’s ability to get up and go. We’d be remiss if we didn’t appreciate a 2,4-tonne SUV that can sprint to the national speed limit in little more than nine seconds, and reach 210km/h despite the aerodynamics of the Gariep Dam’s wall.

It’s a smooth powerplant, and thanks to a system that switches off four cylinders in certain cruising situations, tolerably fuel-efficient. On our steady 120km/h test we recorded 14,6 l/100km – a figure mirrored by the computer display. Average consumption, however, is likely to be more like 20, or R132 per 100km travelled. Used largely for urban commuting it will be higher still and in the light of this, the 78-litre fuel tank is hardly generous. Overtaking, as you can imagine, is pretty straightforward thanks to 240 kW and 500 Nm underfoot, even if the smooth-shifting box sometimes thinks for more than a moment or two before dropping a cog. Because of the substantial mass, the outright stopping ability is only average, but consistent in the rate at which it sheds speed even after the 12th and final run of our 80 to 0 km/h test regime.

Ride/handling
★★★★

Whether cruising down the freeway or chugging over boulders, the Commander feels perfectly at home. The tail can get a little wallowy on suburban speed bumps, and the poor breakover angle causes some angst off-road, but it copes equally well whether getting to the playground or showing off its skills once there. The Jeep’s well-protected underside can clunk against the scenery and extra ground clearance would be welcome between the axles, yet you always feel it’ll get through.

Quadra-Drive II quickly and seamlessly feeds torque to the wheel which can use it, translating into a series of pushing and pulling motions that keep forward momentum going, and it seems that no special off-roading skills are necessary to exploit the Commander’s considerable ability. And despite an 11,8m turning circle, it doesn’t feel cumbersome: just very wide on occasion!

Verdict
★★★

Day-to-day running costs may not bother those who have half-a-bar to blow on a 4×4, but even the well-heeled will note the frequent service intervals and short warranty and service plan with some disappointment.

In addition, buyers at this price may expect something more advanced in the suspension department, and hydraulic ride height adjustment would allow for better ground clearance off road. But our main concern is that, while the Jeep brand has tremendous street cred, we’re not convinced the Commander version has the visual cachet to match what is clearly going to be its main rival: the V8-engined Discovery III. Only time will tell.