Review: JE Engineering Land Rover Defender with automatic gearbox conversion

  • Auto transmission conversion for iconic off-roader
  • Performance and luxury upgrades also offered
  • Parkers Vans puts JE Engineering to the test

When production of the Land Rover Defender ended in 2016, demand for the company’s most recognisable model was still going strong. But if you’ve never been a fan it can be tricky to see what all the fuss is about.

With roots tracing back to 1948 and only a (somewhat recalcitrant) manual gearbox on offer, the prospect of living with a Defender certainly doesn’t have universal appeal. This is a utilitarian vehicle, with gruff road manners and a driving experience that at one time represented a fairly decent substitute for a session at the gym. Things have improved in recent years, but you’re still in for a bit of a workout.

With no direct rival or replacement, we understand that many commercial operators have begun investigating pickups as potential substitutes for their aging Defender workhorses. But there is also a legion of aftermarket tuners and modifiers who are keen to offer upgrades and modernising touches to keep the originals rolling as an alternative.

JE Engineering Land Rover Defender automatic gearbox conversion - gearlever

One such specialist is JE Engineering, and among the many services it offers is an automatic gearbox conversion. Aimed at taking some of the pain out of driving a Defender, it’s potentially a massive boon around town and on the motorway. We’ve put it to the test.

What does the JE Engineering Defender automatic conversion cost?

The six-speed automatic gearbox is sourced from Ford, and available as an £8,860 conversion on any of the 2.4-litre or 2.2-litre Puma diesel engines fitted since 2007 –  including the Heritage, Adventure and Autobiography Anniversary editions that celebrated the end of the Land Rover’s life.

As with all prices quoted here, this is plus VAT.

Is this just an automatic gearbox conversion?

The Defender on test is a short wheelbase 90 in Hard Top bodystyle. As well as the automatic gearbox, JE Engineering has fitted a number of other extras that attempt to address some of the basic compromises a Defender driver is usually forced to make.

Your left leg will certainly thank you for the automatic gearbox but the other upgrades fitted on this particular example include:

  • Stage 2 engine remap (with intercooler upgrade, £880) – producing 183hp and 486Nm
  • Sports suspension (Super Sport Dynamic pack, £1,150)
  • Basic sound deadening package (£595) – more comprehensive options are offered
  • Electronic handbrake (£355)
  • Sports steering wheel (£1,050)
  • 18-inch aluminium alloy wheels (£240 without tyres)
  • Starter button
JE Engineering Land Rover Defender automatic gearbox conversion - driving position

Elsewhere, the interior has been treated to leather seats, an uprated sound system, a larger centre cubby box, plus additional upholstery and orange paint on the dashboard. Regardless of whether this is to your taste, all of this has been undertaken to an extremely high standard; remember, this is a demo car, and more subtle alternatives are on offer.

What’s the JE Engineering Defender auto like to drive then?

Interesting. If we focus just on the gearbox conversion for a moment, it isn’t the most refined automatic we’ve ever experienced – but that is compared to more modern vehicles fitted with self-shifting capability from the factory. Still some of the conversion’s gearchanges are a little clunky, and even the manual override function is leisurely in its responses.

However, there is no arguing that having the auto makes driving this Defender a considerably more relaxed process. The ability to potter along in stop-start traffic without the need to book a follow-up sports massage for your left-lower appendage is a blessed relief, even if lower speeds like these are remain slightly jerky.

JE Engineering Land Rover Defender automatic gearbox conversion - rear

Better yet, long-distance motorway journeys will no longer have you routinely reaching for the Ibuprofen as you can now cruise along without the need to seemingly plan half a mile ahead.

In short, it makes a no-nonsense machine even more no nonsense. Though some may complain that without the need to stamp on a heavy, long-travel clutch pedal and wrestle the tall gearlever into another ratio some of the involvement is lost, they probably don’t have to drive one for a living.

What about the rest of the upgrades?

The smaller diameter steering wheel frees up a degree of room for your right hand and elbow and makes manoeuvring the Defender a much easier task at low speeds – especially when you consider the number of turns that are usually required. Together with a generous amount of power-assistance we found this Land Rover surprisingly easy to park.

We’d also opt for the electronic handbrake as this will be a welcome addition for all. Considering the awkward placement of the standard handbrake in the footwell at the base of the driver’s seat, this successfully solves one of the Defender’s quirks behind the wheel.

JE Engineering Land Rover Defender automatic gearbox conversion - load area

The performance upgrades on this 2.2-litre TDCi engine certainly help the Defender keep up with traffic, reducing the level of patience and space required to build up to motorway speeds; the improvements are integrated smoothly, too, so it doesn’t feel too aftermarket, just quicker.

As such, it’s a shame the brakes don’t shed speed in a similar vain. These were the weakest point on this example, with the limited feedback providing little confidence – though we found it would stop ok when the pedal was pressed hard.

The sports suspension, however, certainly improves on body control without ruining the ride – a good investment if you do mostly on-road driving; we didn’t venture off-road on this occasion so we can’t comment on its impact there. The sound insulation is also a worthy addition, but you’ll be wanting as much as JE Engineering can fit to significantly reduce the road and wind noise.

Verdict

This automatic gearbox conversion unquestionably makes for an easier life with a Defender, but it is quite a costly conversion – if you consider the cheapest compatible models (2.4-litre TDCI Pickups in particular) are now available under £12,000 at the time of writing, it equates to almost 75% of that price.

For those who wouldn’t dream of a replacing their Defender with a modern-day Land Rover though, let alone an SUV from any other manufacturer, this upgrade could breathe an extra lease of life into an iconic vehicle. And if you’re a working operator that needs to cover a considerable number of miles between jobs, the conversion will remove some of the hassle from these journeys.

JE Engineering Land Rover Defender automatic gearbox conversion - front

We’d also recommend the electronic handbrake and extra sound deadening, but we’d consider the other upgrades more carefully – they’re perhaps more relevant when respective parts need replacing.

A final piece of advice for private buyers: if this is your first foray into Defender ownership, you should still be prepared for a culture shock, as this remains a vehicle that majors on functionality rather than luxury, though JE Engineering’s enhancement could certainly help ease you along.

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