Over the years, Jeep has made a few attempts at a full-size offering, something that could take on the Chevy Suburbans and Ford Expeditions of the world. While Jeep’s original Grand Wagoneer attempt remained rather successful for nearly 30 years, Jeep’s second stab at a viable competitor wasn’t as great or notable. That attempt was known as the Jeep Commander.
Welcome to Forgotten Cars where we go into a brief history and background of some models you may not remember. Join us for an automotive trip down memory lane.
Like many of Chrysler’s products, the Jeep Commander started life as a concept. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the only thing the concept and production Commander had in common in the end was the seven-slot grille. I will, however, say the concept was ahead of its time. The powertrain in original ideation introduced in 2000 was exotic in its use of a methanol fuel cell. That cell converted energy in the liquid to electricity, that was then routed to electric motors at each wheel. Of course, we never saw anything like that on the production model.
The actual customer-ready Commander debuted at the 2005 New York Auto Show for the 2006 model year. It shared a platform, independent suspension, live rear axle, and unibody construction with the Jeep Grand Cherokee but visually came across as just a larger Liberty.
Jeep’s reasoning for the Commander’s existence was also a bit strange. According to Allpar, Michael Berube, Jeep’s marketing executive at the time, claimed that customers voiced they didn’t actually need a permanent set of three rows of seating, just seating that could be used as “in a pinch” flexibility — having to drive home two more kids or adults now and then.
Basically, the Commander came off as the largest vehicle in the Jeep lineup. And much of that is due to its boxy design. The SUV was just two inches longer than the Grand Cherokee and had a horribly cramped third row with just 28.9 inches of legroom. While kids could easily get back there, adults could tolerate being back there for quick jaunts around the block. Ask me how I know.
Speaking of its design, Jeep really embraced the box for the Commander. Senior manager of Jeep’s design studio Donald A. Renkert didn’t want to make anything too big or imposing, saying, “… let’s embrace and celebrate the box. Let’s not think outside the box, let’s build a cooler box.” The design ended up being something new but familiar for Jeep customers, but perhaps larger than what the designer envisioned, which may or may not be a good thing.
Inside the Commander, things were just as quirky. Chrysler offered a 5.7-liter Hemi V8 with 357 horsepower — more than enough engine to power the boxy three-row titan. However, its two other engine options were less appealing.
Mid-tier trims came standard with the 4.7-liter 305 hp PowerTech V8. It was an odd option, considering the 5.7-liter Hemi was bigger than the PowerTech, only $820 more (on the Limited trim), and got better fuel economy with its Multi-Displacement System. The PowerTech was also slower than the Hemi. Our own Mike Spinelli clocked 10.2 seconds for a 0 to 60 mph time from a 4.7-liter-equipped Commander.
Base Commander buyers, if there was such a thing, had it even worse with the 3.7-liter 210 horsepower PowerTech V6 (the 3.7 was just a 4.7-liter V8 missing two cylinders) that turned the Commander into a leisurely block on wheels. At least buyers could option three different four-wheel-drive systems and two transfer case setups.
Maybe its demise was easy to see coming as cargo room was near non-existent with all seven seats full; fuel economy was trash across the board with the Hemi-powered four-wheel drive versions putting out 13/19/15 mpg combined (similar to another huge three-row Jeep); and the boxy design gave way to disturbing handling with Car and Driver describing it as “truly unsettling transient behavior.”
But the press loved this box of a Jeep, somewhat. Its high stadium driving and seating positions were praised, as well as how well-equipped higher trims were.
Base Commander Sports started at $27,985, with the Limited 4x4s going for upwards of $38,900. Almost 85,000 Commanders found a home in the first year of production, with a total of near 200,000 sold through 2010.
As Jeep tries its hand again at a full-size three-row SUV in the Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer, you have to wonder if this kind of vehicle will find as many buyers today as it did then in a world of high gas prices and a looming EV transition.