Based on the Grand Cherokee, the Jeep Commander is the second-largest civilian-production Jeep in history. (The largest was the J-120/J-130 Gladiator pickup of the 1960s and '70s.) The Commander is two inches longer and 3.2 inches taller than the Grand Cherokee. The Commander's stepped roofline makes for excellent headroom for the rear-seat passengers, and the stepped effect is camouflaged by a roof rack rail.
The Commander is instantly recognizable as a Jeep, thanks to liberal use of Jeep design cues, such as the seven-slot grille, trapezoidal wheel openings, and squared-off lines with flat surfaces. Exposed Allen-head bolts along the wheel openings and in the headlamp module are decorative, intended to create a technical look.
Its body sides are more vertical than those on most SUVs, consistent with Jeep design heritage. From the rear, the flat hatch helps define a boxy space that reminds us of the Hummer H2. Jeep literature points instead to boxier ancestors within the Jeep family, including the 1946-65 Station Wagon, the 1963-91 Wagoneer, and the 1984-01 Cherokee.
The roof rack has three integrated tie-downs on each side. On Limited and Overland, assist handles extend from the roof rail down the back of the D-pillars, adding to the rugged, utilitarian appearance of the vehicle. The assist handles are black with chrome inserts on Limited, and black with platinum inserts on the Overland. On top of the rear bumper is a diamond-plate-texture step pad. The pad's nonskid surface is helpful when stepping on the rear bumper to gain access to the roof of the vehicle for tying down kayaks, bicycles and other gear.
Jeep has reached deep into its heritage to revive the Overland name. First built in 1903, the Overland automobile was the earliest ancestor of the Willys. Willys played an instrumental role in the development and production of the World War II-era Jeep, but was also the first automaker to seriously envision a civilian market for a military-style utility vehicle. The Willys Jeep debuted in 1946 and had its name shortened to just-plain Jeep in the early 1960s. Although the Jeep brand has passed through several owners since then, its lineage remains unbroken.
The cockpit of the Jeep Commander has a cozy, cocoon-like feel to it. The seats are nicely shaped and padded, and the steering wheel, a four-spoke design with cruise control buttons at the thumb positions, has the substantial feel of leather and exposed stitching on higher line models. The Commander has a tangible sheltering quality that immediately appealed to us. It's the kind of vehicle we'd like to get into on a cold, windy day.
At the same time, the Commander offers a sense of spaciousness. Overhead skylights add an airy feeling for passengers in the second row. The skylights are fixed and don't open, but they have pull-out shades to filter light and reduce heat. The Commander's raised roof permits use of stadium seating; each row is higher than the one in front of it, giving second- and third-row passengers enhanced forward visibility.
Up front, occupants enjoy a commanding view of the road. Head and leg room are plentiful. From the driver's seat, the controls are all within easy reach and are logically placed. The materials are fair, but there are more hard plastic surfaces than top-line buyers might like. Commander offers good storage space, with a large center console, a decent-sized glove box with an open cubby above it, plenty of cupholders and other thoughtful cubby holes here and there.
The second-row seats are comfortable but are tight on leg room for taller passengers. The third-row seat seems designed for children in the eight- to 10-year-old range. To access the rear, the second-row seat flops forward, providing a reasonably easy path to the rearmost bench seat, which is split 50/50. Those of average size and weight should be able to make their way into the third row with minimal effort. Still, the Commander is only a few inches bigger than a standard Grand Cherokee, so back-row seating is tight for adults or for longer trips. The third row does have available rear heating and air conditioning controls, and nearby power points. In addition to providing comfort for children, the rear HVAC can be a relief to dogs on hot days.
Both the second- and third-row seats fold to create a perfectly flat load floor, and there is an L-shaped storage bin located behind the third-row seats. The arrangement means that there will always be a practical way to configure the Commander for either more passenger seating, or added cargo and gear. It strikes us as versatile, but many competitors offer more room. With the second- and third-row seats folded, the Commander has 68.5 cubic feet of cargo space, which is certainly a useful amount, but is considerably less than the Ford Explorer’s 85.8 cubic feet and the Chevrolet Traverse’s 117.9 cubic feet. The load floor height is also relatively high, at 36.2 inches, meaning it requires extra effort to lift cargo up and in.
Jeep’s UConnect GPS system comes with a navigation system with real-time traffic information and a hard drive that can hold thousands of songs. The rear-seat DVD package comes with Sirius Backseat TV. Its channels, Cartoon Network, Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, are great for entertaining the kids, but there is a monthly fee. Two sets of headphones are provided, so front passengers can listen to Sirius radio while rear occupants watch the TV. With the car in Park, front passengers can watch TV on the navigation screen.
The Jeep Commander is remarkably responsive around town for a seven-passenger SUV, a trait we noticed while driving them in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Its rack-and-pinion steering feels more precise than in many truck-based SUVs. Driving in rush-hour traffic reveals the Commander to be quicker, better balanced, and a little more conducive to aggressive driving than the average truck-based SUV, and far more so than its appearance suggests.