From £147,5008

Classic Range Rover transformation gives iconic SUV a new lease of life, as well as choice of ICE, EV and PHEV power

We should have seen it coming. All those rivet-popping Land Rover Defenders from the likes of Twisted, JE Motorworks and Kahn Design, made over then force-fed horsepower like corn-gorged Barbary ducks destined for the foie gras tin.

Well, now it has happened to Land Rover’s second landmark car, the Range Rover Classic. Not only does JLR offer its own restored version of what is considered by most the original luxury SUV, there are also various upgraded versions from independent fettlers such as Kingsley, Lunaz and inverted to name a few. However, none offer such a comprehensive range of updates as JIA (Jensen International Automotive).

The small Oxfordshire concern made its name with tastefully updated and upgraded Jensen Interceptors and FFs, before turning its attention to the classic Range Rover. Over the years, the JIA Chieftain Range Rover has become available in number of different flavours. Whether you want good old-fashioned V8 power, plug-in electric hybrid motivation or pure electric propulsion, JIA has you covered. 

There’s even a range of chassis options, from retaining the original’s underpinnings, to grafting the iconic Spen King-penned bodywork onto a more modern Discovery 3 platform. And of course the interior can be lavishly appointed with all the luxurious blandishments your heart could desire. As ever with these restomod projects, the only restrictions are your imagination and budget, with the latter needing to be fairly hefty.

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DESIGN & STYLING

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00104 JIA Range Rover Chieftain PHEV review 2024 rear cornering

So, where do we start with the Chieftain? Probably at the beginning and the original iteration, which was essentially a 1993 Range Rover transposed onto a Discovery 3 chassis, restyled inside and out, and endowed with General Motors’ 6.2-litre LSA supercharged V8.

Of course, that’s a huge simplification, because years of restoration and re-engineering went into the car. For starters, the donor car’s chassis is shortened by 345mm to accommodate a four-door Range Rover Classic’s body frame and panels, which are affixed via custom adaptors. GRP bumpers and side skirts embolden the exterior styling, as do chunky wheel arches to swallow the Discovery’s wider tracks, and there are bespoke, period-style 20in alloys, too.

Age has not withered Spen King's off-road classic, while JIA's engineering attention to detail is impeccable.

This version is endowed with General Motors’ 6.2-litre LSA supercharged V8 (with either an eight or ten-speed auto), which runs to as much as 700bhp depending on the model (you can have a standard body, a classic 2-door shell or the extended wheelbase LSE), which is enough power and torque to give any current Rangie the willies. Happily the power is largely matched to control, as the Disco 3’s independent, air-suspended suspension is carried over, including its various traction and stability control systems.

For those that want a little more originality, then there are options to retain the standard car’s ladder frame chassis and live axles (this is the layout used by the EV we drove, although this added an aftermarket air-suspension set-up). You can then take things a little further with JIA’s own fully independent, double-wishbone suspension that gives a fractionally wider track. This has been achieved by cutting the ends off the original live axles, but retaining the differentials, to which are attached new driveshafts, while the coil-sprung suspension (with adjustable Spax dampers) then hangs off bespoke and beautifully fabricated pick-ups that are mounted to the existing chassis.

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The beauty of the standard and modified ladder frame chassis options is that you can eschew the GRP add-ons and wide wheelarches to give the Chieftain a period perfect look if you wish. There have to be some compromises as the larger brakes (AP Racing discs all-round) and suspension enhancements demand bigger wheels and tyres, but JIA's billet 20-inch three-spoke wheels take their inspiration from those used on the original Vogue. For many, this tester included, Spen King's original lines are so appealing that this more subtle apprach suits the car much better.

The ‘basic’ powertrain choice is a 6.2-litre Chevy V8 in either naturally aspirated or supercharged guise and mated to an eight-speed auto. On all the ICE versions the driveline and diffs are carried over, although the Disco 3-based models lose the low range transfer capability (you’d have to be particularly churlish to take these hand-crafted creations off the beaten track).

Things get more technically challenging with the PHEV and EV models, which have taken more than 4000 hours each to develop and build. The former uses a 460bhp Chevrolet LT1 6.2-litre V8 that drives the rear wheels through an eight-speed auto, plus a pair of axial flow YASA P400R electric motors that serve-up 270bhp to the front axle.

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Sitting under the front passenger seat is a healthily-sized 62kWh CATL battery pack that offers an all-electric range of 100 miles. At the flick of a switch on the centre console drivers can choose to run either in petrol, EV or hybrid modes, the latter serving up over 700bhp and four-wheel drive traction. 

For the EV, the  woofly 3.9-litre V8 and sluggish four-speed auto are ditched in favour of a trio of the same YASA P400R motors (two driving the rear axle and one the front), that deliver a theoretical 648bhp peak (although JIA peg it back 405bhp in the name of driveability) with a 40:60 front to rear torque split. 

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Battery capacity is a mighty 120kWh, the CATL lithium ion cells split into two packs, with one under the bonnet and the other beneath the boot floor. JIA claims a real world range of between 220 and 250 miles, while 800V architecture means a full charge can take as little as an hour and a half. Every part of the electrical system is of-the-shelf OEM (you won’t find any cast-offs from a crashed Tesla here).

INTERIOR

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00108 JIA Range Rover Chieftain PHEV review 2024 switch panel

Currently, JIA is basing most its conversions on the later, early-1990s ‘Soft Dash’ cars, as these deliver the best mix of modernity and retro appeal, plus they tend to come with all the ‘latest’ luxuries and safety aids, such as air conditioning and airbags. There are even a pair of pop-out cupholders in the dash, meaning well-heeled owners can indulge their exotic coffee fetishes on the fly.

The original seats, passenger grab-handle and distinctive steering wheel have been upholstered in fresh, soft Bridge of Weir leather and there’s Wilton carpet underfoot, Alcantara headlining and a completely redesigned centre console that’s also sealed with rarefied cow. It’s here that you’ll find a row of bespoke switches for the electric windows and heated front and rear screens. On the electrified versions there’s also a natty touchscreen rotary gear selector, while the EV gets an ‘Urban’ button that engages the enhanced regenerative braking.

The lavishly retrimmed interior look and smells the part, but the slightly cramped driving position betrays the Range Rover's age.

An Apple CarPlay-enabled touchscreen has been tidily integrated, while there are billet aluminium and carbonfibre panels and lovely satchel-style leather pockets dotted about, too. Lest we forget how spartan early Range Rovers were, these are all momentous upgrades. Ergonomics are also much improved, with most of the switchgear now concentrated on the centre console and of respectable quality. The electric seat buttons seem a bit austere but easily trump the rudimentary, tacked-on originals and allow me to find comfort around the fixed tiller. 

However, the EV model is based on an earlier car with its more haphazard dashboard layout that has you fumbling for the ventilation controls and features its infotainment so low down you could almost operate it with your feet. Still, the fit and finish are as exquisite as the other versions, with acres of soft cow hide and the deepest of deep pile carpets.

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All Chieftain models suffer from a slightly cramped driving position, while owners who plan to frequently carry rear seat passengers will be far better served by the stretched LSE. Stil, the boot is large (especially on the Disco 3 cars, which carry their spare wheel under the floor) and the Rangie’s trademark split tailgate is retained. You and your occupants also get an imperious view out, thanks to the high set seating, thin pillars and large glass area. As expensive indulgences go, this is a surprisingly practical one.

ENGINES & PERFORMANCE

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00110 JIA Range Rover Chieftain ICE V8 review 2024 LS engine

The woofly 430bhp V8 makes for wonderfully elastic performance and the Chieftain gathers speed like a Wile E Coyote-dropped anvil plummeting off a cliff edge. It’s helped by the eight-speed automatic gearbox (we’ve yet to sample the ten cog version), which delivers quick, clean shifts when you’re in the mood, yet slurs them nicely when you’re not. There’s the odd shunt through the transmission as you tip into the throttle at low speed, but otherwise it’s smooth and neatly integrated.

So quick is the standard car that for many the supercharged version might be considered overkill. Stll, who’s going to turn their nose up at a square-rigged superannuated SUV with up to 700bhp and a NASCAR-aping soundtrack? Not us. From almost any speed, a suggestive flex of the right ankle is all that’s needed to kick down one gear (if you’re feeling timid) or two (if you’re certified free of heart murmurs) and access and sustained thump of torque skelps you down the road, that bombastic engine note trailing in your wake. The blown V8 will pull strongly from 2750rpm, but keep it between 3500rpm and 6000rpm and this plush wagon becomes a raging hot rod.

The standard car's Chevy V8 brings a hilarious soundtrack and an indecent turn of speed, but's its the neatly integrated drivetrain of the EV that really impresses.

The PHEV's cleverly integrated powertrain adds a compelling new ingredient to the electromod recipe. At the flick of a switch on the centre console drivers can choose to run either in petrol, EV or hybrid modes, the latter serving up over 700bhp and four-wheel drive traction that allows it match the supercharged car almost blow for blow in the performance stakes, with a rapid 6.2 seconds all that is needed for the 0-60mph dash.

On the move the system is remarkably well resolved, with the switch between power sources almost imperceptible, apart from the guttural bellow from that V8 as it churns into life. Acceleration in EV mode is brisk enough to keep up with the flow of traffic and there’s enough torque to light up the front wheels on our wet test drive. Call upon electricity and unleaded for motivation and the Chieftain lunges forward with serious intent, its progress matched by the laugh-out-loud snap, crackle and pop of from the twin exit exhausts.

Despite the prodigious power output, the initial throttle response and torque map in the full EV model means it doesn't feel face-pullingly fast off the line (0-60mph takes a little over eight seconds), and it’s only once you’re rolling that the Chieftain feels as quick as the numbers suggest. In fact, between 30 and 70 mph it’ll put the frighteners on some serious performance machinery. Better still, those AP brakes offer superb stopping power and excellent pedal feel.

Yet it’s the seamless integration of the EV powertrain that impresses as much as the pace. There’s virtually no shunt, fight or noises-off from the driveline (a remarkable achievement for an old Rangie). And while there’s a small amount of motor whine at low speed, it disappears the faster you go. In fact, apart from some wind noise on the motorway, refinement is strong. Given that JIA’s R&D budget probably wouldn’t cover JLR’s monthly biscuit bill, the results are remarkable.

RIDE & HANDLING

00101 JIA Range Rover Chieftain PHEV review 2024 front cornering

The Chieftain is essentially a road-focused Range Rover, which becomes obvious from the moment you ignite that throbbing and burbling V8. It will tackle some rough stuff - especially since the Disco’s adjustable air suspension is retained – but JIA reckons owners won’t try it. For this reason, the centre differential no longer locks and there’s no low range, while the new chassis’ all-round double wishbones are far more tarmac-friendly than the original’s pair of coil-sprung live axles.

Don’t expect scythe-like cornering, though. Roll is pronounced enough to be the limiting factor in cornering speed, closely followed by the steering’s relaxed demeanour. Even on bumpy roads, though, it never feels unstable or unsettled. The air suspension hunkers down above 70mph to tighten the car’s otherwise loping gait and you can confidently clip along with your right hand on the wheel and your elbow on the executive armrest. There’s little road noise, and wind noise is manageable; it can’t match a modern alternative for refinement, but it’s far from raucous. It’s also very easy going about town, with plenty of lock and assistance to the steering, an easily modulated throttle, visible front corners and a ride that’s gentle enough (bar the occasional sharp-edged shock) all do their bit.

JIA's double wishbone suspension conversion brings welcome smoothness to the ride and more accurate handling.

The same is true of the non-supercharged and PHEV versions with their bespoke double wishbone suspension. The steering is impressively accurate (that’ll be the addition of a rack and pinion set-up from a Discovery 3), as does the controlled suppleness of the ride. Whereas an original would be hopping and occasionally shuddering its way down the road on its live axles, the Chieftain deals deftly with most imperfections. There’s a dash of underlying firmness, but the Rangie is largely unruffled by scarred Tarmac.

Cornering with conviction still results in some roll, but it never gets alarming and the Chieftain will cling tenaciously to your chosen line. In fact, you can cover ground at a startling rate when harrying this Spen King classic across give-and-take secondaries, scaring the odd modern high-performance motor in the process. It’s still a fast-in-slow-out sort of car and the steering rarely reveals any secrets, but it’s impressively composed while that elevated view gives you earlier warning than most as to which way the road is unfurling. 

Of course, there are quirks: it’s still essentially a 25-year-old Rangie that’s based on a design that dates back half a century. It’s comfortable and quick on long runs, but there are vintage levels of wind noise, plus you’ll have to get used to some squeaks and rattles, the alloy body retaining the original’s built-in flex, which was required for serious off-roading.

When it comes to the business of driving dynamics, the EV finds it harder to disguise its age, not least because it retains not only the ladder frame chassis, but also a pair of live axles. A quicker steering set-up (too heavy for our tastes, but this can be tuned) increases the sense of agility, while a fairly firm air-suspension set-up helps resist roll and control wayward body movements, but ultimately this is still a 33-year old Range Rover, which means bouncy low speed progress and vague limit handling come as standard. That said, careful isolation of the body and chassis to make the most the EV silence means this is the quietest riding Chieftain of the lot.

MPG & RUNNING COSTS

01 JIA Range Rover Chieftain PHEV review 2024 front cornering hero

If you've the sort of deep pockets that put the Chieftain on your car-buying shortlist, then the potentially hefty running costs are unlikely to dissuade you. Prices start at around £200,000 after taxes, while the EV and PHEV add around £150,000 to that figure. And that's before you add some options or start personalising the paint and interior finishes. So, not cheap then. However, the attention to detail lavished on the Chieftain means it almost feels like decent value - these are hand crafted creations after all.

You could also argue (not totally convincingly) that EV and PHEV offset some of their massive asking prices with lower running costs. Thanks to its vast 120kWh battery the electric version can travel up to 250 miles on a charge, while 800V architecture allows the battery to be replenished in just an hour and a quarter. And thanks to its 62kWh battery the the plug-in will travel around 100 miles in zero emissions and the tailpipe mode, which is not bad at all.

Let's not pretend these JIA creations are cheap to buy, but the PHEV and EV models can serve-up surprisingly low running costs.

In all other respects, the Chieftain will drain your wallet as fast as it can accelerate, with single figure mpg returns easily achieved when giving it the full moo. Stil, as the old adage goes, if you have to ask then you probably can't afford it....

VERDICT

00106 JIA Range Rover Chieftain PHEV review 2024 front stati

With its £200,000 starting price, the Chieftain is more expensive than Land Rover’s own Classic Works restored cars, but unlike those machines, the JIA car has performance and ability that are pretty much bang up to date.

The wind noise and some of the ergonomics remind you that this is essentially an old car, but such are the feel-good vibes you get from this quick and capable machine that you soon put them to the back of your mind. It's appeal is boosted by the variety on offer, with the differant chassis configurations, bodystyles and powertrains making the Chieftain a machine you can truly make your own. 

Perhaps the clincher is that, unlike many restomods that get squirrelled away for high days and holidays, this is a car you could genuinely use day to day. However, if it was us, we’d go forgo the bodykit and stick with a standard shell in period colours. Not only does it look great just as Spen King intended, but it also makes it brilliantly surprising Q-car.

Yet for us, it's the brillantly resovled drivetrain of the electric version that's really impressive. For such a small band of dedicated engineers to deliver such a polished end product is a remarkable achievement. The Chieftain isn't the cheapest Range Rover restomod, but it's undeniably one of the best.

 

 

James Disdale

James Disdale
Title: Special correspondent

James is a special correspondent for Autocar, which means he turns his hand to pretty much anything, including delivering first drive verdicts, gathering together group tests, formulating features and keeping Autocar.co.uk topped-up with the latest news and reviews. He also co-hosts the odd podcast and occasional video with Autocar’s esteemed Editor-at-large, Matt Prior.

For more than a decade and a half James has been writing about cars, in which time he has driven pretty much everything from humble hatchbacks to the highest of high performance machines. Having started his automotive career on, ahem, another weekly automotive magazine, he rose through the ranks and spent many years running that title’s road test desk. This was followed by a stint doing the same job for monthly title, evo, before starting a freelance career in 2019. The less said about his wilderness, post-university years selling mobile phones and insurance, the better.

JIA Chieftain Range Rover First drives