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Among Jeep owners, there's a popular bumper sticker that states, "It's a Jeep thing...You wouldn't understand." After driving the Jeep Commander for a week, we still don't understand. A new model in the Jeep stable, the Commander is a decent enough machine--powerful, loaded with fancy electronics, and actually fun to drive. But we're having a hard time determining who it is intended to appeal to--and whether that group will actually find it appealing.
The Commander is touted as a seven-passenger vehicle, but you'd be putting your friendship to the test by asking average-size adults to sit in the cramped third row while fording a river. And they'd need the agility of a mountain goat to climb back there. More significantly, with seven people in the car, there is no practical storage space for any cargo--almost all of it would need to go on the roof. Even with the rear seats folded down for just five passengers, the storage space is limited in the back because it must be placed on top of the prostrate seats.
While it is a rugged, well-equipped SUV, the Commander seems to us to be an odd mix. Is it a vehicle for lugging the family around in (a militarized minivan), or is it a rugged mountain machine for a gaggle of guys? By catering to both, we think it fails to sufficiently appeal to either group.
The Commander comes in two basic versions: The standard model starts at $28,235, and another $8,000 or so will get you the Limited model. (There's also a 65th anniversary edition that includes some modest visual enhancements and runs a few hundred dollars more than the standard version.) For the extra dough, the Limited adds such items as a 4.7-liter V8 (up from a 3.7-liter V6) engine, leather-trimmed bucket seats, and rear-seat air conditioning and heater. Our tester also had an optional 5.7-liter HEMI motor ($1,495), chrome-clad wheels ($820), an upgraded head unit with GPS navigation, and a six-disc CD changer ($1,200). With a destination charge of $595, it rang in at $42,895. When climbing into the front seat of the Commander, there are two dominating first impressions: the leather seats, which are as handsome-looking as they are comfortable, and the vertical slab of a dashboard.
The next things that grab your attention are the attractive gear-shift knob, housed in a console of "wood" and "chrome," and a rather pedestrian instrument cluster that employs gauges. Then it's back to that wall of a dashboard. You may not really notice the gentle slope of the dashboard in your current car, but you'll appreciate it more when you contrast it with the Commander's upright version.
The dash is not exactly overwhelming, but it felt a bit claustrophobic and took some getting used to. The feeling is enhanced by a windshield that also is more perpendicular than those in most cars or SUVs. Another dominant feature of the interior is a parking brake handle that we presume draws its design inspiration from the tiller on a sailboat. The handle sits on the right-hand side of the driver's seat and arches up so that it is significantly higher than the transmission console when engaged. Yo-ho, it's got to go.
We are also not fans of the air vents--eight in all are scattered across the face of Mount Dashboard, with four groups of two stacked vertically, surrounded by the same fake rivets that can be found throughout the interior and exterior.
Lastly, the space seemed somewhat cramped, particularly on the passenger side. For example, operating the power seats requires wedging your forearm between the arm rest and the seat bottom, and when the passenger seat is in a normal position, the glove compartment door can be opened only slightly before striking the passenger's legs.
The Boston Acoustics "premium" six-CD stereo sounded good even at high volume, although the bass was a bit muddy. It comes with a built-in Sirius satellite receiver, which worked well, except for one major annoyance. On occasion, the output from the left channel would fade significantly, with almost all the sound coming from the right side. We speculated that this may have had something to do with an audible override in the navigation system, but it occurred even when the nav was not operating. The instruction manual said there was an AUX input for connecting sources such as an iPod, but we couldn't find it. We know someone will write in and say, "It's right there," but honestly, we looked long and hard and couldn't locate the dang thing. Answers on a postcard, please.
Another quibble was that the radio was unable to scan and find a popular radio station in San Francisco that other car radios have had no trouble locating.
Programming the Commander's navigation system was a pain. As the dash-mounted LCD is not touch-screen enabled, destinations must be entered letter by letter using a goofy joystick knob to the right of the display. Even more cumbersome is the fact that you select each letter by pushing the Enter button beneath the joystick, a procedure that must be performed with both hands if you don't want to spend all day in the parking lot before setting out for your destination. When finally programmed, Jeep's navigation system performs well, giving turn-by-turn directions by voice and presenting maps in a useful split-screen mode, showing an overhead plan of the route in the left window and details of the next turn on the right. On the downside, the system was slow to recalculate a route for us when we willfully got offtrack, taking more than a minute to even realize that we had strayed from the suggested route.
On the upside, the system does display local points of interest, a feature we found very handy when the low-fuel alert came on one morning while cruising on the freeway. Normally, such an alarm doesn't cause much anxiety because you have maybe another 20 or 30 miles before you really need gas (and we're fond of pushing it to the limit). But when we checked the car's system info to see how many miles were remaining before we hit empty, it read 10. Within a couple miles, it dropped to 6, then back up to 10, then down to 3. Not knowing how accurate the reading was, we hurriedly cranked up the nav system and scanned for nearby gas stations. Sure enough, one could be seen two exits down the road, and we refueled without incident.