4x44X4 AdviceCar Advice

Reader Question: Should I convert my manual 4X4 to an automatic transmission?

A reader has asked about converting a manual transmission to an Automatic transmission, we explain the pros and cons.

Dear Practical Motoring,
I’ve recently ‘found’ your website and love it. Finally a web site that gives me good information that isn’t influenced by Toyota, ARB and friends. THANK YOU!
I also have both Robert’s publications on GPS and Off-roading, and found them invaluable sources of information to prepare myself for bigger road trips.
I am the happy owner of a LR Defender 110 MY12. Since my early childhood I have been looking with awe at these beauty machines, but until I moved to Australia never had a good justification to own one. In Australia we started out with a Jeep JK Unlimited, and it was great but loading capacity was a problem when going camping. So out went the Jeep and in came the Defender.
It’s been over three years now and I am still driving around with a big smile on my face. Yes, I understand that no-one takes you serious unless you follow the crowd and drive in a Toyo but I don’t care and am quite happy to have an opinion on my own. The problem is that although it’s good to have an opinion, it’s important to adjust that opinion based on solid information, which is where you gents come in.
We love being outdoors, camping and going off the beaten track. So far we’ve been to the Cape, done a big round trip to Alice, and frequently spend time on Fraser, Stradbroke, Bribie and Moreton as well as short weekend stays on farm-stays and the like. The rest of the time it’s my daily driver, but if I recap all KM’s done so far about a third have been off-road. I guess that’s not too bad given a busy work life.
I’m a relaxed driver, go as slow as I can and only hit the pedal when I absolutely have to, i.e. I try to drive with a lot of mechanical sympathy. Since a year and a half we have a camper trailer weighing ~ 1500Kg which is quite noticeable behind the Defender, especially on sand. I’m OK as an (off-road) driver, I’ve done training with clubs etc, but I wouldn’t claim to be an absolute rock-star. I guess you can only get that status when being off-road very regularly.
So, I’m pretty sure I’m not always hitting the right gear choices, which means you’ll pay the price when towing a trailer. The Defender hasn’t the strongest engine, but for most situations it’s sufficient. I don’t care about overtaking vehicles and such, so it’s just the uphill (highway) stretches as well as driving off from zero that I would like to have a bit more so that I don’t annoy people behind me too much. So I’ve been thinking of a remapping, which would arguably give me a little bit spare capacity, but in general would give me a better fuel economy (when keeping my right foot under control).
Lately however I have been wondering about a conversion to an auto gearbox and would appreciate your thoughts on that. As far as I can read on the web from ‘experts’, an auto box is better in almost any situation (Sand, Rock crawling, hill start, towing) and only in the downhill section there is a bit of a concern. Making the switch however is a big investment. We’re talking 10K if not more so I want to be 100% sure before forking out that kinda money.
I’ve also been thinking about selling the Defender (with pain in the heart) and switch to a Ranger 3.2L Auto which would solve a lot of problems in one big sweep, but it would be an even bigger investment i.e. the Defender is almost paid off and is kitted out with some off-road goodies, and on a Ranger I’d start from scratch again.
I know that the ANCAP safety ratings aren’t even comparable, and that we’re taking a risk by driving in a second world war vehicle, but I try to reduce that risk by driving defensive, keeping my distances, and on e.g. the Bruce highway I usually hide myself behind a big truck who can take the blow from idiots over-taking.
In a few years from now we’d like to start traveling around, but we’ll probably travel solo and stay at places that most other Grey Nomads won’t or can’t go. So what I need is a reliable setup, and one that I’d be less prone of breaking by making inexperienced mistakes. From that perspective I am thinking that an auto will be more friendly for the drive-train and engine than a manual would be. What’s your thoughts on this?
Is it worth the money to do an engine remapping (Puma 2.2L engine)? Is it worth to convert to an auto gearbox? The Ashcroft gearboxes are four speed whereas the current manual is six speed. Is that an acceptable trade-off, or will I find myself in a vehicle with an engine that is constantly howling at 3000RPM? In general, what do you think of the reliability of Defenders, i.e. is it a reasonable expectation I can still happily drive around in it in 10 years from now? Thanks.


ANSWER: Thanks for the note, and there’s a lot to cover there!

Yes, the Wrangler JK is a wonderful vehicle but it lacks the storage capacity, payload and tow capability to be a real tourer (Jeep people will disagree, but facts are facts).

Now to your question. In short, I really don’t think it’s worth you doing an auto conversion.

Your reasons seem to be – you’re worried about your skill as a driver to pick the right gear, the power of the Defender, wanting more capability and concerned about reliability.

An automatic won’t truly fix any of these, and there are better ways to spend the money.

First, skill. Picking the right gear isn’t all that hard, and driver training will easily improve skills. It is easy to get a bit more power and torque out of the Defender, which reduces the need to be quick and precise with the gearshifts anyway. Also, even with an automatic there are times when you’d need to select the correct gear. The Defender is so capable you don’t often need much momentum or need to quickly change gear. You might also consider a set of cross-axle differential locks so you can crawl, feet off pedals, up really rutted and rocky ground. It’s quite amazing what the Defender will do. I once filled a 130 with four passengers, drove onto a 25degree hill, stopped the car by stalling it, and then simply turned the key with the vehicle in gear. We idled up the hill from there. The vehicle does need a different, more relaxed driving style and that would suit you it seems, once you realise how to use it to best effect.

Reliability – the Defender in manual guise is arguably more reliable than automatic, and will use less fuel. The typical auto conversion means a heavier car, and the 2010 Defender has six speeds whereas the typical auto conversion for this vehicle has only four, which means less efficiency all around.

Capability – yes, an auto is better, more so because it’s easier to drive than actual outright capability. But I can assure you there is nowhere that an auto-converted Defender is going that a manual Defender can’t follow, and I’d also bet the latter would use less fuel in the process. Again, driver training is the answer. I’m not sure where you live (probably Queensland), but 4WD Victoria for example offer courses from basic to advanced, and many other organisations do the same. What you want here is proper offroad training as opposed to the easy tick-the-box compliance that is done so commercial organizations can say their staff have a 4WD ticket.

We also asked one of Australia’s top Land Rover specialists, Ritter Land Rover, and this is what they had to say:

“We have done a number of manual to auto conversions for Defenders, 300tdi, Td5, and Puma. For the Pumas we use the Ashcroft conversion parts and a rebuilt Discovery II ZF transmission (four speed) with the various modifications required to suit the Td4 engine. This transmission requires the use of an aftermarket control unit supplied by  Compushift USA. Whilst this ECU is programmable, shift quality is typically somewhat firmer than in the Discovery 2. The conversion utilizes a Discovery T-shifter, trim finish is good, and integrates well into the Defender. A suitable cooler is used to control transmission temperature.

Drivability is good, gear ratios being the same as a Discovery 2 and the torque converter lockup clutch is enabled. The cost is about $18,000 (change over) subject to exchange rates.”

Ritter also noted that:

“Hi tuff axle axles are a good long term rectification for the well known problems of worn axle splines causing clunky driveline, and upgrading the engine ECU has been very successful performance wise, however it is tailored to the standard manual gearbox.”

So we don’t think that spending $18k plus on an auto conversion is the answer. Instead, invest in some driver training, talk to your local Land Rover specialist (and only a Land Rover specialist like Ritter) about the variety of engine power improvements readily available, consider a set of cross-axled differential locks, and continue enjoying Australia!

Finally, will Defenders be still working in ten years time? Yes, and I think in 100 years time too, or as long as they (and other self-drive cars) are allowed on the roads. Defenders are now fetching premium prices, and there are vast amounts of skills, parts and people out there dedicated to keeping them running. Have no concern on that front.

Ritter Automotive
Address: 116 Highbury Road, Burwood VIC 3125

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Robert Pepper

Robert Pepper