In 2010, Jeep walked away from the three-row market. Their first attempt at a three-row SUV, the Commander, arrived just before a tumultuous period in its corporate parent’s history that culminated in Chrysler declaring bankruptcy. Like almost every Mopar product of the era, the Commander rapidly haemorrhaged sales. Unlike a large number of Mopar products, however, there was no Fiat-mandated refresh and the Commander was stood down. Jeep is only now about to return to the segment, a decade later. Let’s hope it does better this time.
Lest you think the Commander was merely an unfortunate victim of circumstance, its sales only declining because of its parent’s well-publicized struggles and the implosion of the SUV market, I must remind you this was a Chrysler product of the early 21st century. It had flaws.
You can put all Mopars of this era on a spectrum of market competitiveness and general competence. A Chrysler 300 or Dodge Charger/Magnum is at the good end of the spectrum – there’s some underwhelming engine choices, cheap interior materials and less-than-stellar reliability, but you’ve got a fundamentally good car. Smack-bang at the other side of the spectrum is the ’07 Chrysler Sebring, woefully uncompetitive with its rivals and reeking of cost-cutting and corporate malaise.
So, where does the Commander sit? It is based on the Grand Cherokee, after all, which means it had a fundamentally good foundation. But it was a flawed and misguided product, which led to the late, great FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne declaring after its axing:
“That car was unfit for human consumption. We sold some. But I don’t know why people bought them.”
Alas, the Commander’s mission was to provide comfortable transport for seven passengers. At that, it failed miserably. The Commander wasn’t the first SUV or crossover to have an uncomfortable third row and it certainly won’t be the last but it should’ve been packaged a lot better.
The Commander looked huge but it really wasn’t. The Commander measured just 1.9 inches longer than a Grand Cherokee and used the same 109.5-inch wheelbase. That meant it was actually almost 5 inches shorter than a Ford Explorer.
If Jeep was trying to avoid significant chassis revisions in order to get a three-row SUV to market quickly, why then did they spend a great deal of money differentiating the Commander from the Grand Cherokee? A Ford Explorer offered three rows in the same body as the two-row model; a Chevrolet TrailBlazer EXT or GMC Envoy XL had a different body only aft of the B-pillars. Instead of giving the Grand Cherokee a stretched wheelbase and independent rear suspension – the latter of which would arrive in the ’11 WK2 – Chrysler instead went to the considerable expense of designing a new interior and exterior and marketing the Commander as an entirely different model line.
Like the TrailBlazer EXT and Envoy XL, the Commander’s roof was raised 3.2 inches above the third row. This was ostensibly to give third row occupants a better view (“theatre-style seating”) but may have been dictated by the five-link solid rear axle. The higher floor of the Commander’s third row, coupled with its limited legroom, made occupants extremely uncomfortable; second row legroom was reduced by half an inch compared to the Grand Cherokee. And with all three rows up, there was just 7.5 cubic feet of cargo volume. At least the rear two rows could be folded flat.
Jeep’s gotten quite good at the details lately, including dotting little easter eggs throughout their vehicles, but the Commander’s interior was marred by an abundance of faux Allen head bolts to match those on the flared wheel arches. It was an attempt to look rugged and instead it just looked cheap. Perhaps you’ll disagree. Otherwise, the interior was typical mid-2000s Chrysler.
Not everybody uses the third row of their SUV and, if they do, it’s often for small children. Giving loyal Jeep buyers this option was wise and, surprisingly, the MSRP of the base 2WD 3.7 Commander was just a few hundred dollars more than the like-for-like Grand Cherokee. Where owners paid the price was in fuel economy. Again, comparing 3.7 2WD versions of each Jeep, the Commander was rated at 14/18 mpg (16 combined) while the Grand Cherokee managed 15/21 mpg (17 combined). The brick-like shape of the Commander resulted in brick-like aerodynamics and highway gas mileage clearly suffered for it, though the margin was narrower in the 4WD V8 models. And though some rivals were switching to six-speed autos, every Commander had a five-speed automatic.
The Commander’s extra 300 pounds of curb weight over the Grand also affected fuel economy and blunted performance. These were heavy trucks – the base 2WD Commander weighed around 4500 pounds, 4WD adding 200 and the top-spec Limited 4WD topping out at over 5000 pounds. The standard 3.7 PowerTech V6 was a waste of time – with just 210 hp and 235 ft-lbs, it had its work cut out hauling the heavy Commander around. The 4.7 PowerTech V8 had more torque (290 ft-lbs) but its 235 horses were lousy compared to rival trucks from Ford and GM, both of which had almost 300 hp in their V8 variants. Best to go with the legendary 5.7 Hemi V8 which produced 330 hp and a mighty 370 ft-lbs while surrendering only 1 mpg in fuel economy. By that point you were looking at over $40k for your Commander as the Hemi was only available in the Limited and, later, Overland models.
Overseas markets, like Europe and Australia, had an optional Mercedes-Benz sourced 3.0 CRD turbodiesel producing 218 hp and a Hemi-beating 376 ft-lbs of torque. Without this diesel option, the Commander would have been DOA in those markets. Not that it sold very well in either market but at least the CRD gave it a chance.
Like the Grand Cherokee, the Commander was available with multiple different 4WD systems. 3.7 models had Quadra-Trac I, a full-time 4WD system. Quadra-Trac II was available on V8 models and added a two-speed active transfer case. Finally, Quadra-Drive II added electronic limited slip differentials to the front and rear axles. The Commander could therefore tackle the rough stuff with aplomb and yet it was rather refined and manoeuvrable on the road. The IRS-equipped Explorer was widely regarded as having better ride quality but the Commander was referred to as nimble by some automotive journalists, although others found its handling to be frightening in emergency maneuvers.
The exterior tapped the same XJ Cherokee well as the Patriot and second-generation Liberty. Though the XJ was an iconic design, none of this boxy triad were especially hot sellers relative to other Jeeps – the Patriot eventually played second-fiddle to the Compass and wasn’t renewed for another generation, the 2G Liberty sold half as well as its predecessor, and the Commander flamed out quickly. Outside of the Wrangler, Jeep would learn they did better pursuing a sleeker, more modern and more upscale look for their vehicles.
The Commander received some worthwhile improvements during its short run. In 2008, the 4.7 V8 was extensively modified and gained 70 (!) extra horses and 44 extra pound-feet of torque. The following year, the Hemi gained 30 horses and 20 extra pound-feet of torque. However, the Commander’s third row became an option in 2008. Were there really that many buyers who wanted the extra weight and fuel consumption of the Commander without the third row?
Jeep sold 88,497 Commanders in 2006. The following year, sales were down 29%. In 2008, they were down by half again and Chrysler led the disgraced Commander to the firing squad. Also executed around this time were the Chrysler Crossfire, PT Cruiser and Pacifica and the Dodge Magnum.
This probably should’ve been a Jeep
Jeep has been working on new Wagoneer and Grand Wagoneer flagships for some time and these are slated to be launched soon. These big, body-on-frame SUVs may also be accompanied by a three-row version of the unibody Grand Cherokee. Why Jeep didn’t roll out a three-row Grand Cherokee with the WK2 redesign of 2011 is anybody’s guess, FCA instead giving the three-row version of that platform to Dodge as the Durango and therefore forgoing any major export sales.
The lack of a three-row SUV was keenly felt in China, where FCA has tooled up a new crossover called the Jeep Grand Commander. Based on the Compact Wide/CUSW platform underpinning the Cherokee, the Grand Commander is a decidedly on-road focussed Jeep fractionally smaller than a GMC Acadia. Allegedly, the Grand Commander may soon be built in the US and slot into the Chrysler brand’s tiny line-up.
Though it had the charm and off-road ability of most other Jeep, the Commander was certainly a misfire, an ill-conceived and poorly-executed attempt at a three-row SUV. Instead of engineering an SUV with a comfortable third row, Jeep perplexingly tried to wedge one into a Grand Cherokee-sized truck yet went to the effort of giving it an extreme makeover. A Grand Cherokee with a moderately comfortable third row was all that was really needed and yet Jeep over-compensated and under-delivered. Unfit for human consumption? Certainly for those in the third row.
Commanders photographed in Prague Castle, Czechia and Charlottenburg, Germany in September 2018.