Short on Finesse, Big on Fun

Land Rover isn’t commonly associated with the faster and more exciting forms of motorsports. The British SUV maker was formerly known for its patronage of the Camel Trophy and later G4 Challenge, but both of these competitions prioritized slow, cerebral performance above never-lift thrills. When it comes to off-roading, Land Rover’s guiding motto has always been “as slow as possible, as fast as necessary.”

The new Bowler Defender Challenge reverses those principles in spectacular style. It’s a rally version of the new Defender 90 that has been designed to attack terrain at speed and soak up the sort of punishment that would break regular SUVs in short order. Up to a dozen identically prepared Challenge cars are going to be competing in a six-round championship series in Britain next year, with hopes of bringing something similar to the United States.

Bowler has been modifying Land Rovers for off-road competition since 1985. Its best-known products are probably the Wildcat and Nemesis, V-8-powered monsters on a spaceframe chassis with styling cues from the last-generation Defender and Range Rover Sport. The company also made a rallying version of the old Defender, and the original Defender Challenge used identical spec cars and ran in the United Kingdom from 2014 to 2016. This was popular, but not enough to prevent Bowler from going bankrupt in 2019; the company subsequently was bought by Jaguar Land Rover and placed in the Special Operations Division.

The new Bowler Challenge car is based on the Defender 90 P300 and uses an unmodified version of that car’s 296-hp turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine and eight-speed automatic gearbox—an unusual transmission choice for a rally car. That makes it considerably more potent than the Challenge version of the old Defender, which used a 2.2-liter turbo-diesel with just 170 horsepower. A drive on an impromptu rally stage created in one of the rougher parts of JLR’s Fen End test track in England proved the new Bowler is more than fast enough to be thrilling.

Although the driveshafts, differentials, and brake components are all standard parts, substantial changes have been made. The most obvious of these is the addition of an FIA-spec roll cage that has been integrated to the car’s structure with welded joints to the floorpan and suspension turrets. The springs are both stiffer and an inch taller than those of the standard Defender 90, and the Challenge gets remote-reservoir Fox Racing dampers—similar to those that enable the Ford Raptor to do its anti-gravity landings.

Other changes include surgery to the regular Defender’s doors: The 2.8 inches that overlap the sills have been removed to reduce the risk of damage from impacts. (Snazzy perforated sill protectors replace them.) At the front is a much simpler fiberglass bumper in place of the standard car’s complex molding, and the Bowler’s radiator is cooled through a mesh-covered aperture rather than the plastic radiator grille. The 90’s low-mounted auxiliary heat exchangers have also been removed due to the risk of damage. Rally cars crash, so repairs need to be as simple and inexpensive as possible.

Beyond the need to climb up, getting in is much easier than with most competition cars. Even the sizeable roll cage doesn’t fill that much of the 90’s cabin. The driving position is slightly offset, as the added structure requires the bucket seats to be further inboard of the seating position in the regular three-abreast Defender. A microfiber-wrapped motorsports steering wheel replaces the regular car’s airbag unit. But as proof of how deeply integrated modern electronic systems are, the two touch-sensitive control panels from the original wheel have been retained and moved to the dashboard. They’re the only way to access certain functions. Bowler has also created a new wheel-mounted shifter for the gearbox, a single paddle that’s pushed forward to downshift and back to shift up.

The Bowler version is as easy to drive as the regular Defender. Knobby BFGoodrich All-Terrain KO2 tires give impressive off-the-line acceleration on dirt, and although almost all of the production vehicle’s traction and stability control has been coded out of its ECU, the all-wheel-drive system finds plentiful traction. The engine is effective but doesn’t feel bred for motorsports, as the preponderance of low-down torque means there’s little point in running it up to the redline. (Bowler reckons many novice competitors will just leave the transmission in its selectable Sport mode rather than shift gears themselves.) Subjective acceleration felt pretty much the same at 4000 rpm as it did at 5500 rpm.

Despite its combination of a relatively short wheelbase and a high center of gravity, the Bowlerized Defender didn’t feel nervous when asked to change direction, although it does need to be wrestled into tighter corners to keep the front end from washing out. The standard brakes didn’t complain at the modest thermal loadings possible on a loose surface, but their lack of a front-to-back bias adjustability denied the ability common to more serious rally cars to tweak corner-entry attitude through a rearward brake setting. The Landie also lacks that other rallying favorite: a hydraulic hand brake. Once it’s turned into a corner, the Bowler Defender gets its power down cleanly, but the open differentials at each end mean there isn’t any spectacular power-on oversteer.

It’s not that sort of car. Instead, it’s designed to take savage terrain in stride. The firmed-up springs lack the pillowy compliance of a Ford Ranger (or the high-flying Bronco), but the Bowler Defender uses its substantial suspension travel and unflappable dampers to absorb and defuse huge vertical loads without complaint, even when these follow in a rapid succession that would bamboozle lesser shock absorbers. The result is a car that truly feels as happy in the air as it does on the ground, and one that can carry huge speed down bumpy or rutted tracks.

While obviously closer to the regular Defender than it is to a cutting-edge rally car, the Bowler Defender still feels like a special experience. It also isn’t ludicrously expensive for what it is, $115,000 at current exchange rates, being close to the cost of the Defender D90 V8 and including entry to six rounds of the Bowler Challenge rally championship next year. The truck itself is street legal and should be capable of many more years of competition beyond that. Bowler says discussion over the launch of a similar U.S. series is underway. We very much hope it goes ahead.

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Fredrick R. Siegel

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Thu Aug 19 , 2021
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