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.
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.
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.
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:
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.