Don't misunderstand Jeff Bell.

The Chrysler Group vice president in charge of managing the Jeep and Chrysler brands could easily come across as another rehearsed executive who sticks to the script when media types are jamming tape recorders in his face.

But Bell, like the brand he represents, is original when you catch him on the sidelines. He waxes authoritatively on how U.S. buyers are fatigued with “pretender” SUVs that, he says, are nothing more than cars dressed up as off-roaders; on the macroeconomic conditions currently restricting Jeep from entering the largest of SUV segments; and on his strong conviction today's vehicle designs should either appeal to what we loved as young auto aficionados or break the mold.

Enter the Commander, the first of four vehicles earmarked to expand the Jeep fold over the next four years, not including significant revamps of the Wrangler and Liberty.

To some, the boxy Commander breaks no new ground, representing nothing more than a bulked-up Cherokee, the popular model that launched in 1984 and was replaced by the Liberty in 2002.

To others, Commander is too small for the purpose, cramming 7-passenger capacity into a vehicle just 2 ins. (5 cm) longer than its 5-seat Grand Cherokee platform companion. And to others, it's exactly what the doctor ordered, offering off-road capability in a 7-occupant package refined enough to be the top-of-the-line Jeep but rugged enough to appeal to the 7-slot-grille diehards.

The auto maker hopes to sell as many as 120,000 Commanders on an annual basis, officials say. That could prove a hefty feat, considering crashing SUV sales and fuel prices surpassing $3 per gallon as the vehicle launches in August.

The Commander rides on Grand Cherokee mechanicals, which bowed as a wholly redesigned vehicle in '05. It shares the Grand's three powertrain options (3.7L SOHC V-6, 4.7L SOHC V-8 and the Hemi 5.7L OHV V-8), all mated to 5-speed automatic transmissions. Commander also offers the same 3-tiered 4-wheel-drive setup. It is built alongside Grand Cherokee at Chrysler's Jefferson North plant in Detroit.

Commander is available in two trim levels, base and Limited. The entry sticker runs $27,985, which includes the 3.7L V-6 and three rows of seats. The optional 4WD adds $2,000. The glitzier Limited, expected to represent the minority of the sales mix, kicks off at a far steeper $36,280, with 4WD an additional $2,320.

The Limited, carrying a whopping $9,000 premium, gets the 4.7L V-8 as standard and is the only trim to include the Hemi V-8 as an option, which drives the price up to a risky $40,395.

The fold-flat third row is a new marketing advantage for Jeep that makes the interior appear more accommodating but, as expected, gives fullsize passengers little room, although it is nicely raised, stadium-style, for a view past the front two rows.

In addition to a 4WD design that rivals the best in the industry, it boasts standard electronic rollover mitigation, two variations of traction control, multi-stage airbags and side-curtain airbags extending to the third row. Continental Teves Inc. supplies the electronic rollover mitigation system.

Jeep promises the best-value trail vehicles on the market, and the Commander does not disappoint. The few who genuinely foray into the bush will appreciate the comparatively rugged chassis and uncompromised visibility (thanks to the short front overhang and standup windshield).

Most, however, will keep the Commander on the tarmac and discover one of the best-driving boxes available.

Chrysler has crafted a 7-passenger derivative of the Grand Cherokee platform that, suprisingly, unquestionably rivals the class-leading Ford Explorer.