Missing the Marque: 2005 Jeep Commander

The idea of a seven-seater Jeep model to compete with vehicles such as the 2002 Volvo XC90, 2002 Ford Explorer and 2004 Land-Rover Discovery 3 was a sound one. The execution, however, was disappointingly poor.

2005 Jeep Commander. Image: thecarconnection.com

The 2002 Volvo XC90 brought the benefit of viable accommodation for seven adults in a sophisticated large SUV. Other similar SUVs, like the 1999 BMW X5, were either strict five-seat vehicles or, like the 1998 Series 2 Land-Rover Discovery, had third-row seats that were only really suitable for children, or for adult passengers to tolerate for the shortest of journeys. The 2004 Discovery 3(1) followed the XC90’s lead, adding 150mm (6”) to its predecessor’s overall length but, more importantly, 345mm (13½”) to the wheelbase, which finally allowed proper footwell space for third-row passengers.

Volvo and Land-Rover’s American competitor, Jeep, found itself at a significant disadvantage to its Swedish and British rivals, as well as domestic competitors such as the 2002 third-generation Ford Explorer(2), which also offered the option of seven seats. Jeep’s third-generation Grand Cherokee, launched in 2004, was only 81mm (3¼”) shorter than the XC90 but was a strict five-seater. The Discovery 3 was much more spacious inside, thanks mainly to its greater height, 160mm (6¼”) taller than the Grand Cherokee.

Following the 1998 Daimler-Chrysler merger, Jeep was better resourced than it had been for some time and decided to build its own seven-seat SUV. This would not be simply a modified Grand Cherokee, but a new model, which was launched in 2005 as the Commander. Based heavily on the Grand Cherokee, it shared its 2,781mm (109½”) wheelbase and was just 48mm (2”) longer overall. However, it was a substantial 106mm (4¼”) taller, which facilitated the installation of theatre-style seating in three rows, each one slightly higher than the row in front.

The Commander was closely comparable in size to the Discovery 3: it was just 62mm (2½”) shorter, 15mm (½”) narrower and 54mm (2”) lower. Its geometric styling also seemed to be strongly reminiscent of its British competitor, albeit rather lacking in sophistication. In fact, Jeep seemed keen to emphasise the utilitarian aspect of its styling, with exposed hex bolts securing the wheel-arch extensions to the wings and similar fixings securing the ventilation outlets to the dashboard. The latter looked particularly incongruous when set against the rather garish (plastic) wood trim on more upmarket versions.

Mixed messages: 2005 Jeep Commander dashboard. Image: drivemag.com

The Commander’s sole advantage over the Grand Cherokee was its additional seating, but this proved also to be a serious weak point in the design. The US Car and Driver magazine explained the problem with the middle row seating as follows: “The second-row seats recline individually, but the seatbacks are narrow enough to strand the inboard shoulder on the middle seat, which only folds forward. Free up some shoulder space by flipping down the center section, though, and the narrowness of the bottom cushion forces those of ample bottom to ride knock-kneed.”

Things were no better behind: “The third-row perches are about 25 percent wider but come with their own compromise, namely, the positioning of the seat only eight or so inches off the floor. Imagine sitting on a pair of phonebooks with your knees in your face, and you have a pretty good sense of it.”

Only the front seats offered anything like acceptable accommodation for adults of a larger build. Moreover, if all three rows of seats were in use, luggage space in the boot was reduced to just eight cubic feet (226 litres) barely more than that of the current Mini three-door hatch (211 litres) with its rear seats in place.

Deceptively snug: Jeep Commander seven-seat interior. Image: jeepcommander.com

The Commander was offered with four engine options, a 3.0-litre diesel V6 sourced from Mercedes-Benz, a 3.7-litre petrol V6 unit, and petrol V8 units with either 4.7 or 5.7-litre capacities. In all cases the Commander was equipped with a five-speed automatic transmission and full-time 4WD.

Car and Driver tested the updated 4.7-litre V8 version in 2009 and was surprised by its relative lack of pace, given the engine’s power and torque figures of 305bhp (227kW) and 334 lb ft (453Nm). 0 to 60mph (97km/h) took 8.0 seconds and top speed was limited to 111mph (179km/h). The latter was probably sensible, as the Commander had “all the aerodynamic grace of a billboard in a tornado”.

The handling was as expected, considering the tall and narrow build and “floppy tire sidewalls” which caused “relentless understeer” and “truly unsettling transient behavior” in evasive manoeuvres(3). Moreover, the brakes were “not as effective as they should be” taking 205 feet (62 metres) to stop the vehicle from 70mph, although the electronic stability control system seemed progressive and effective.

Car and Driver’s trenchant criticism of the Commander was typical of the negative reviews it received widely from the automotive press both in the US and Europe. Its only saving grace was that it was still a highly capable vehicle off-road, but that was largely irrelevant to the vast majority of potential buyers. Sales were, as a consequence, pretty disappointing:

Year U.S. Europe
2005 17,048
2006 88,497 3,194
2007 63,027 4,376
2008 27,694 1,395
2009 12,655 877
2010 8,115
2011 105

Total sales in both markets over seven years were 226,983(4). By comparison, total sales of the closely related and similarly sized Grand Cherokee over the same period in these markets were 885,985. Production of the Commander ended in 2010 and no replacement(5) was forthcoming.

The idea of a seven-seat Jeep to compete with vehicles like the Volvo XC90, Ford Explorer and Land-Rover Discovery was certainly a sound one. Unfortunately, the execution was sorely lacking and the market punished Jeep accordingly. One of the Commander’s fiercest critics was none other than Sergio Marchionne, who in 2009 was appointed CEO of Chrysler Group LLC, Jeep’s parent company. He described the Commander as “…unfit for human consumption. We sold some, but I don’t know why people bought them”. It was Marchionne who ordered production of the Commander to be terminated, one of the first decisions he made in his new role.

(1) The 2004 third-generation Discovery was sold as the LR3 in the US, to disassociate it from the reliability issues associated with earlier generation models.

(2) The second-generation Explorer offered fold-away third-row seats on export models from 1997. The larger Ford Expedition offered seven seats from 1996.

(3) Where one has to swerve to avoid an obstruction in the road then immediately correct, sometimes called the Elk Test manoeuvre. The Commander’s tyres displayed considerable ‘shoulder-block feathering’ after the road test, indicating that they were highly stressed by such manoeuvres.

(4) All sales data from www.carsalesbase.com.

(5) The Commander name has, however, been repurposed for a Chinese market crossover produced since 2018 and a Latin-American market crossover introduced this year. Neither of these models is intended as a replacement for the original and neither is sold in the US or Europe.

Author: Daniel O'Callaghan

Shut-line obsessive...Hates rudeness, loves biscuits.

39 thoughts on “Missing the Marque: 2005 Jeep Commander”

  1. Well, at least the name is good. Commander has a nice, if authoritative ring to it. I’m sure the V8 sounds good and the bear in the middle seat in the photo seems pretty comfortable too, but other than that not much good to report I’m afraid.

  2. The description of the Commander’s leave me puzzled once again. Why would anyone prefer a seven seater SUV to a proper MPV with much lower centre of gravity, better accessibility and larger glass area? No one ever goes off road with such a vehicle.

    1. Good morning Freerk and Simon. Yes, Commander was a great name, shame about the vehicle to which it was attached. Simon, the answer to your rhetorical question, in a word, is (self) image.

    2. Because the Americans sexualise their choice of cars and equate ruggedness with manliness. That demographic wouldn’t touch a seven seater minivan with a cattle prod because a minivans somehow makes their balls look small. They would rather exchange all that practicality for image alone.

    3. Looking at the car with the “gender norms” glasses, the Commander´s macho exterior is confounded by its soft maternal interior, I suppose. Assuming there is such a strong preference for products in conformity with gender norms, you´d think Chrysler might have detected that in its market research. And secondarily, it´s a paradox that people so fixated on gender norms come across as mostly insecure rather than confident.
      I was going to say that not many people go off roading with 7 passengers and then I realised not many people go off roading in off roaders. It´s likely those who did want to use 7 seats went and bought something like a Mercedes van or similar instead. The Commando is the equivalent of a hiking tuxedo.

    4. Gender norms is certainly one part of the equation, but I get the feeling it’s not only men who think in these lines. There are also a lot of women who prefer SUVs. Maybe it comes from a sense of gender equality, meaning that they don’t want to exhibit a too feminine car choice, that they want to appear tough. But the excuse you hear quite often is: “I have a better view when I sit in a higher car”.

    5. At least young American men get to express their machismo with a pick-up truck, whereas extortionate insurance rates confine our callow youths to a 1.0-litre Vauxhall Corsa. No wonder they’re insecure…😐

    6. Simon, the implication is that you either own a secondary residence that isn’t accessible by paved road, or that you are an outdoors enthusiast who camps in the wilderness. Either of these is considered preferable to the social stigma of a minivan.
      Don’t forget that gas is cheap in the US, and roads are long, wide, and flat. Handling and efficiency aren’t critical.

    7. You think my first car (an AX) could explain most of my insecurities?
      Can that be remedied by immediately switching to a pick-up or a BMW X6 with a loud exhaust?

  3. I can’t help wondering what market research was carried out in the USA before making a vehicle of this size with seven seats? In my view obesity affects a large part of the American population so what was the point of having so many seats I wonder?

    1. That’s a good question, Mike. I think the fundamental error was to retain the Grand Cherokee’s wheelbase for the Commander. The full-size 1996 Ford Expedition seven-seat SUV was 409mm (16″) longer, 91mm (3 1/2″) wider, 115mm (4 1/2″) taller and had a wheelbase 242mm (9 1/2″) longer than the Commander.

    2. I suspect it’s for the ‘soccer mom’ market – or would-be soccer mom.

      People love to have capacity in reserve – it’s why strict 4-seater versions of saloons are (were) poor sellers compared with those which could seat 5. It also accounts, apparently, for the popularity of pick-ups in the US.

      I always thought the Toyota iQ 3-seater was an interesting concept, but one which goes against people’s feelings of what they might need. The demise of the 3-door car may also be related to ‘what if’ feelings, especially if car seats for children or elderly relatives come in to the equation, at all. You hear people say “we’re getting an SUV now we’ve got a child on the way” and I think it makes people happy to feel they’re joining a club. They don’t need an SUV, of course.

      Coming back to the Jeep, those bolts on the wings are terrible. I’ve also had flashbacks to the Chrysler Crossfire for some reason, too. Same level of cack-handed design possibly?

  4. Hi Charles. Jeep did at some point get rid of those visible bolt fixings on the wheel arch extensions:

    Note, however, the remaining fixings underneath the wheel arches, which stick out like a sore thumb on a light-coloured car. That lack of attention to detail really bugs me.

    As for the Chrysler Crossfire, the coupé version was once memorably described as looking like a “dog taking a dump”:

    Quite.

    1. Chrysler themselves were very proud of the car. They parked one in Mainz railway station in the hot summer of 2003, I seem to recall. It was built by Karmann. The rear lamps are like a Ford Focus Mk2 headlamps, did you notice? I was working as a CAD modeller at the time it came out and I thought the area on the door where the creases fade must have been utterly horrible to work out in whatever CAD package they used.

  5. My laugh out loud moment of the day – “hiking tuxedo”. Brilliant! Thanks Mr Herriott

    1. Yes indeed, very droll, Richard. For the full “hiking tuxedo” effect, you could get an aftermarket dashboard kit to load up on the luxe:

      Note that even the vent outlets are, er, carved out of ‘walnut’.

    2. Totally agree on the “hiking tuxedo”. My office colleagues wondered why I was laughing…

    3. That ‘full wood’ dashboard is a masterpiece; real luxury. I do worry about sustainability though: How many plastic wood trees did they have to fell to cover even the air vents?

    4. That dashboard must be prosecutable as some sort of crime, surely?

    5. A hiking tuxedo is surely an essential in every man´s wardrobe. I don´t know about you but when I get to the top of Roquebrune or Mont Blanc I like to be properly attired for my supper.

  6. Wasn’t this another glorious product overseen by the infallible maestro Doc Zee?

    1. Indeed it was, Christopher. Dr Zee, allegedly, personally approved the Commander, Compass and Patriot for production. The Patriot was ok, but the Compass was another dog’s dinner. More about that coming to DTW shortly. Stay tuned!

  7. I think the Commander is the victim of what the industry calls feature creep or mission creep. The Cherokee XJ was a worldwide success, but it had its limits, mostly the lack of interior space. When it was replaced by the Cherokee KJ (Liberty in Europe) it wasn’t as big a success as the XJ, and it would be fun if someone could write an article in why that happened? One part of the success of the XJ was its looks, it simply looked *just* perfect. What the buyers didn’t want was a taller roof and rounded off corners, nommatter how much space they craved. For the Commander Jeep gave the buyers what they thought the buyers really wanted, a squared off XJ replacement but stretched in every dimension to make it slightly bigger. What they ended up with was a bloated mess suffering from mission creep….

  8. Wheel arch fixing details, soccer moms, “walnut” dashboards and hiking tuxedos; what a veritable delight reading and writing for DTW, is!
    Bravo, everyone

    1. Good afternoon Andrew. Just wondering, why is it ‘soccer moms’ and not (American) ‘football moms’? Is it because children of both genders play soccer?

    2. Daniel, that’s part of it. Soccer is a suburban sport in the US, whereas (American) football is a small-town sport.
      Also, soccer doesn’t require space to carry equipment, so the tiny allocation behind the third row is irrelevant. The target customer over-buys so that they can take turns driving kids to “activities.”
      Football moms drive pickups, of course.

      We split the difference in Canada: we have hockey moms. Perhaps an article on the Dodge Journey would be warranted? It was a huge seller in Canada, and no where else. Its USP was that it was the cheapest way to drive kids to a hockey game/practice, with all their gear, at 6:00 AM, on a Saturday morning, during a snow storm. It’s something that almost every Canadian parent needs.

      I wonder what mothers drive in Finland.

    3. Ah, thank you Bernard, and also for reminding me of the Dodge Journey, which was, I believe, one of the better of the Daimler-Chrysler era designs:

  9. Well, I have to say this, in order to stay halfway out of the way of all the madness out there, I read almost no news sites on this internet any more, as almost all of them only confirm my opinion about the wealth neglect and educational catastrophe of Homo Sapiens in the western hemisphere.

    One of the few refuges of culture, education and good taste is this site, which is why it has become my favourite read. A breakfast with DTW is always more digestible than a breakfast with any “news” from out there.

    And (almost) every day is schools-day on DTW.

    Thanks to Daniel’s article, I also understood for the first time today the difference between the Grand Cherokee and the Commander – or at least understood what Jeep intended with the Commander.
    Well, not that I understood the product – and reading here, who has it anyway.

    In retrospect, I can’t understand the uproar over the fake screws on the wheel arches, as they beautifully document the whole flaw in the vehicle concept. You don’t need these fake screws, as you actually have no use for the whole vehicle. So they fit perfect.

    “Hiking tuxedo” also made me laugh. But the real hit is the interior with the fake-walnut-plastic-dashboard-kit. A picture that you should only look at outside of meal times.

    1. Hi Fred. Yes, I really should have put up a warning for people of a nervous disposition before posting that photo of the full ‘walnut’ dashboard. I stumbled across it when looking for a photo of the standard Commander dashboard to illustrate the piece.

      Thank you for your kind words about DTW. The quality and good grace of the ‘below the line’ comments and discussions is always a pleasure to behold. It makes DTW an oasis of calm civility in a fractious world.

  10. The Journey in its Fiat Freemont guise is one of my guilty ‘likes’. Not quite sure why, I saw loads on a holiday in the French Riviera in 2012 and the Fiat badge lent them an inexplicable cachet – was it the Sergio effect?

    The Freemont never made it to the UK, but the we got the Journey, and Australia got Freemonts. They all came off the same line in Toluca. A pity they never made it here – I could have been tempted if Arnold Clark was selling them off cheaply enough pre-reg as ‘distressed merchandise’.

    1. I feel a bit the same way about the Freemont, actually. I still don’t think it’s a very Fiat-y car, but definitely one of the better (the best?) examples of early FCA badge engineering. Its SUV flavour is just diluted enough for me to still like the design.

    2. Looking more broadly at the plethora of US models released during the Daimler-Chrysler era, there seemed to be rather more misses than hits, and some pretty egregious examples of the former, for example, the dreadful 2007 Chrysler Sebring, which was only fit for rental car fodder.

  11. Might I suggest that that dashboard is not walnut but some other hardwood? It´s quite nasty though, whatever it´s called. I wish there was a “curtain” feature for images so you could slide the image open gradually and perhaps stop if you did not like what was shown so far.

    1. Hi Richard, IIRC it was described as ‘walnut’ but it is presumably meant to resemble straight-grained rather than burr (burl, in American English) walnut. Either way, it’s hideous.

      Here’s the burr walnut version, which is MUCH more classy (It so isn’t!):

    2. Oh – I wasn´t aware of that version of walnut. That makes it somewhat worse, I think. Goodness. Isn´t it interesting how rare are such cases of bad design? 98% of it is okay or unnoticeable. The bad stuff is so infrequent as to make one think one must go through extra hoops to be so egregiously ghastly. That makes these examples cherishably bad, I suppose.

  12. Great article Daniel, thank you.

    I cycle past some sort Jeep most days and am always struck by the exposed wheel arch bolts. Marvellous that they carried the theme to the interior as well!

    Not sure they were really trying with the burr walnut version of the dash though, there is still a fair bit of plastic showing, air vents and so on.

    Perhaps the carpenter had to be sedated before he could finish the job? Some of these crafty types are rather highly strung.

  13. Rather forgettable car, badly executed, looks like. Makes me think of Lionel Richie, though:

    Excellent anecdote.

    1. What a lovely clip, and what a nice man. I’d forgotten how good some of the earlier Top Gear programmes were.

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