What is it?
Dates in history remind us of great and tragic events. A birthday, the day you passed your driving test (first time, hopefully), maybe the day you got married (first or second time), or how about Christmas Day 1986 when Dirty Den served Angie with divorce papers.
For some, a date that resides painfully in the memory is 29 January 2016, when, after 67 long years of production, the final new Land Rover Defender rumbled into life.
This has left many loyal Defender owners with a problem. No longer can they replace their ageing 'Landies' with shiny new ones, especially if they’re not convinced by posh, curvy alternatives, such as the Discovery Sport or Range Rover Evoque.
There may be a solution at hand, though. Don’t throw away your old Defender, just refresh it. Dare I say, improve it? Well, that’s what JE Engineering claims to do. It's been around for more than 40 years, and now its existence, alongside competitors such as Kahn and Twisted, seems to make a lot more sense.
One of the most notable of JE's services will appeal to those fed up with shifting cogs themselves. JE Engineering can replace your manual gearbox for an automatic one.
That’s what we’re testing here, a 2012 Defender 90 Hard Top with an automatic gearbox and an array of modifications from JE Engineering. Our car also has a power upgrade, an electronic handbrake, sports suspension, added sound insulation and new upholstery.
What's it like?
It’s a Defender that’s a bit better is most departments, yet still has the ability to cross landscapes without roads. Inside, a blast of orange trim dresses the centre console, while the transmission tunnel is finished in leather and houses the new automatic gearbox, electric handbrake and starter button.
Suede with orange stitching covers the top of the dash, while the leather, orange, and suede mix finish off the central arm rest, which doubles as the lid for a deep central storage bin.
The front seats are part leather, with suede bolsters and contrasting orange stitching; considering they don’t adjust for height, tilt or have any lumbar support, they are surprisingly comfortable. In the back, our car had no additional seating, just a metal lined load bay with some additional storage nets. A useful fold-down step aids access through the side-hinged rear door.
Pressing the starter button fires the engine into life sending the cabin into a permanent state of diesel judder. The engine is the Defender's famous 2.2-litre TDCi, which here develops 183bhp and 358 ft lb of torque, up from 122bhp and 266 ft lb of the standard unit.
JE Engineering has applied its Tune Plus pack, remapping the engine and adding a performance induction kit. The result is a 0-60mph time of 11.9sec. There’s a big slug of low-down torque and it pulls strongly until motorways speeds where you'll need more patience.
The new six-speed auto is sourced from Ford - more specifically a Ford Ranger pick-up - so it should be built to withstand the Defender’s rugged way of life. Gearshifts are generally pretty smooth when pottering about, but they feel lethargic when you're pushing on, and downshifts can be accompanied by the odd clunk and jerk.
JE's Startech Sports steering wheel has a nice feel to it, but with no airbag, it’s a rather daunting sight when entering the car. It doesn't improve the Defender's steering, either; it remains extremely heavy, and the poor turning circle makes it quite a workout for the biceps.
Undoubtedly, the Defender is not the last word in handling prowess - or the first for that matter. However, JE's sports suspension does keep things a little tidier, and while there’s still quite a bit of roll and wallow, it is an improvement over the standard car. That said, the ride is firm and bouncy, with potholes taken well but protrusions exaggerated; this is not helped by the 90's short wheelbase.
To improve refinement, sound deadening has been added to the floor and engine bay; although it has improved matters, our Defender remained a noisy vehicle to be in. The engine is always vocal, there’s a lot of tyre noise at speed and wind noise is almost always prevalent. Added to that, there’s so much vibration through the cabin that the image in the rear view mirror appears more of a watercolour painting than of what’s actually happening behind you.
Should I buy one?
There’s no question that JE's Defender benefits from its engine tuning (£1150+VAT) and to a lesser extent its sound deadening. The automatic transmission is trickier to justify because it genuinely makes life easier, but at £8,860 before VAT, it’s not cheap. The sports suspension, electric handbrake and sports steering wheel meanwhile, are a matter of taste.
Defender owners are a loyal bunch, and anyone who tries to convince them to admit their vehicle's shortcomings would be a brave soul. To them, the Defender is a loyal, capable workhorse that helps form the backbone of good old Blighty; and it's fine as it is.
To others, however, it is an uncouth, uncomfortable, archaic machine that needed replacing decades ago. For these people, the likes of JE Engineering enable them to enjoy the Defender by making it easier to live with.
JE Motorworks Defender automatic
Location New Forest, Hampshire; On sale Now; Price £23268 + Defender; Engine 2200cc, diesel; Power 183bhp; Torque 358lb ft; Gearbox 6-spd automatic; Kerb weight 2510kg; 0-62mph 11.9sec; Top speed 100mph (estimated); Economy 28.5mpg (combined); CO2/tax band 266g/km, 37%