An old editor of mine when I worked in the UK used a big old Jeep Cherokee for pulling his boat, which he berthed in a northern Scottish loch each summer. Swearing its towing ability was unsurpassed and that it was perfectly suited to his less-than-svelte frame, he insisted on driving the Jeep wherever he went, regardless of its about 8mpg gas consumption and the exorbitant price of gas in Britain.
The towing capacity of the Jeep Commander -- basically an enlarged, reskinned Cherokee -- wasn't tested this week because 1) I have no boat to tow and 2) I was more interested in finding out if perhaps the most famous marque in off-roading is more suited to the concrete of Southern California than any conditions encountered in the Scottish summer boating season (ie, snow, wind, ice and hail).
I also wanted to know if Jeep has shed its somewhat masculine image and whether it could be easily piloted around town with the wee ones in the back, as there must have been a reason for Jeep strategists to add the two extra seats, making the new model a bona-fide seven seater.
One reliable indicator of quality and appeal to women is the wife, who tends to love austere, classy interiors. And the Commander's got the two thumbs up; first the leather and wood trim, then she remarked on the DVD in the back seat and its wireless headphone set, the head and legroom front and back and the massive central console storage box, and the fact that by clever rear-window ergonomics and the half-glass rppf, the Commander seems even more roomy than its near 69-cubic-feet carrying capacity.
Had she driven, I'm sure she would have liked the easy lock-to-lock maneuverability of the rack-and-pinion steering and the power-operated feet pedals, which makes it easier for shorter legs to reach the brake and accelerator.
As soon as I high-stepped into the Jeep I found its big, barge-like leather seats wonderfully comfortable. A bigger, comfier version of the wide, springy seats in the Toyota Corolla, which I thought were ace, these babies give a high-up experience opposite to that of the now-ubiquitous bucket seats.
Heated and powered in oodles of ways, the seats extend far into the back too, these ones with split-fold technology. I can almost see why, way back then, my editor was so in love, even though his model didn't have 'theater seating', a new innovation this year apparently giving those in the back seat an elevated, better view of the road and their surroundings.
The dog fit easily even with the wife in front, three relatives in the back and three weeks' worth of luggage as we scooted up to LAX to drop them off and then take the dog up to Will Rogers State Historic Park near Santa Monica as you can't walk dogs in nearby Topanga State Park - also to test the Jeep's adeptness on less-than-even roads.
Not surprisingly the Jeep was great on trails and winding canyon roads courtesy of its independent front suspension and Quadra-Trac system that delivers torque to whichever wheel needs it at the time, eliminating slip.
It wasn't quite so assured on the straight and narrow, it didn't roll or pitch but perhaps is a victim of its own success: SUVs have become so good on-road, so car-like, that the Commander while perfectly adequate and refined is not at the top of its class for on-the-road performance.
It's got a good bit of oomph by way of its 4.7-liter V8, but not as much as others. Gas is 14/19 town and highway on the test model, which varies by one or two miles each way across Commander models.
Outside I liked the square back end that apes the LR3 -- squarish with clean lines, though without the LR3's angled window drop but the rest of the shell is functional rather than radical. You may feel that back-end passenger seats are a little, well, near the back end but Jeep has assured on the safety of the vehicle in the event of a rear-ending.
Otherwise, the Commander caters very well safety-wise, with side-curtain airbags for all three rows of seats, anti-lock brakes and anti-rollover and, of course, you're in a Jeep: as a passenger, you don't really get much safer than sitting four feet above the road in this 188-inch long, near 5,000-pound behemoth. It's also got rear-parking video assist, which makes it feel a good bit smaller when parking and safer for others around, too.
These days the Jeep is a good bit more fuel efficient than its predecessors and also still offers pretty much unsurpassed off-road performance but perhaps more importantly delivers a big, comfortable motoring experience inside and out, off road and in cities.
You may not be as big as my old editor, whose ham-shank forearms and bulldog scowl scared more than their share of young reporters, but if you've ever experienced a Scottish summer snowstorm, you'd be glad to be in a Jeep there, too.
*Jeep Commander in model ranges from the 3.7 liter V6 to the 5.7 liter Hemi V8 from base MSRP price of $28,610 to $40,395; test model 4.7 liter runs just north of $40,00 on the road.*