Bowler Defender 2023 review

Exactly how much fun can you have in a 296bhp Land Rover? If it’s been fettled by Bowler, rather a lot

Evo rating
from £141,600
  • An appealing package that offers new challenges
  • It’s a chunky price for 139bhp per ton

'Oh no. you’ve really gone and done it now, Towler.’ I’m not sure if I said that out loud or if the words are just echoing in my head, but whatever, there’s no way the nose of this new Defender is going to survive what I’m bracing for. I’ve locked up and a three-foot-deep gulley is approaching… downhill, at about 40mph. There’ll be a loud crunch, I’ll pull over, tentatively creep around to the front of the car, pull a pained expression at the jagged metal and plastic, then have the inglorious limp back to Bowler’s field set-up, or ‘bivouac’ as they call it, where I’ll have to slope off and hide behind the portable toilet in disgrace. 

Instead, the Defender drops down into the hole, springs unfathomably up the other side with the front wheels clear of the ground, then does it again over two more such obstacles that really exercise my HANS straps, before dispatching jagged rocks twice the size of my head with barely a thump. In that very moment not only is my admiration for the Bowler Defender sealed, but I also realise I’ve got a lot to learn about this hill rallying thing… 

> Bowler Defender Challenge review – the ultimate off-road toy?

The words ‘rallying’ and ‘Defender’ might not be the most natural of pairings, but add in ‘Bowler’ and it starts to make a lot more sense. You might recall the Bowler Defender Challenge Rally Series for original Defenders that ran between 2014 and 2016, and you are probably aware of some of the company’s wilder Land Rover-based creations that have stormed wooded hillsides and jumped dunes on the Dakar. You may also know that this Derbyshire firm – established in 1985 by Drew Bowler, who passed away in 2016 – was acquired by Jaguar Land Rover in 2019 and is now a wholly owned subsidiary of the group. 

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Its latest venture is this, the Bowler Defender, based on the Land Rover Defender 90 P300 SE and forming part of the Defender Rally Series. The championship consists of seven rounds, split across both conventional gravel stage rallies (where the Defender competes alongside everything from clubmen on a budget to modern R5 rally cars) and hill rallies, which are much rougher events on a mix of surfaces (and feature everything from wild V8-engined, tube-frame specials to battered old Vauxhall Fronteras). The idea is that crews gain experience across a range of disciplines, enabling them to progress to European ‘Baja’ events, or maybe even the full-on Dakar itself. Although the Bowler Defender isn’t designed to defeat the desert, its makers say it’s already held its own against more specialised machinery, and they’re looking at what would be required to take the car to the next level.

In its current form, the Bowler Defender is a full-blown ‘works’ rally car built to something akin to Group N specification. And like an old Group N Impreza, the modifications to it are relatively minor, and mainly concern strength and safety. Bowler sings the praises of the standard car and its capabilities, and you might say it would given who owns the company, but a poke around the Bowler Defender and a chat to the engineers behind it shows that much of the standard car is retained, particularly its engine and drivetrain. 

The cars are manufactured in JLR’s prototyping workshop, each beginning as a completed P300 SE taken from the end of the regular production line. This is then stripped back for the modifications to be added and made. Chief among them is some bracing for the monocoque and the fitment of a full, FIA-compliant bolt-in roll-cage that also ties to the suspension mounts. Engine and gearbox mounts are strengthened, there are suspension-turret braces front and rear, plus a rally-spec gearbox cross member and braced subframes. From there, the front upper wishbones are revised to enable the correct geometry with a higher ride height, and there are some bespoke springs and pretty special Fox Racing dampers. Cooling for both engine and gearbox is improved, there’s a sports exhaust system, a snorkel air intake for wading, and all-terrain tyres.

The interior is also prepared for competition, with bucket seats, harnesses, a racing steering wheel and so on, plus all the usual safety items. A ‘Bowler’ mode allows all ABS and traction control to be switched off, although you can put it back on (useful if you get stuck in a ditch, apparently). Exterior changes are few but include minor revisions to the front end to improve airflow and allow the fitment of the significant underfloor protection, which consists of 6mm reinforced aluminium plates. There are also small wheelarch extensions and an elongated roof spoiler that also houses some downlights.

The result is the antithesis of the black-wheeled, tinted-glass, urban-school-run style of Defender. In Bowler’s world, wheels aren’t better the bigger they get, but the smaller they can be; the car uses a bespoke 18-inch rim with enhanced strength, but to get the best tyres they’d ideally drop an inch further. I find myself instantly drawn to the Bowler’s unpretentious, purposefully chunky form, and I’m not alone: the firm has sold examples to people who have no intention of using them in anger, but simply as a bit of fun.

Pulling up to the start line seems slightly incongruous. Strapped tightly into a no-nonsense bucket seat, the detached voice of a co-driver in the intercom, it feels odd to be sitting up high and in something with such pedestrian performance stats. You need to floor it at least a second before the gantry signals ‘go’, such is the delay while the gearbox recognises what you want to do. And with 296bhp and 295lb ft from the 2-litre Ingenium engine shifting well over two tons, the acceleration is hardly that of a rocket. Yet the drama of accelerating on a loose surface makes it feel faster than it actually is; fast enough to be arriving at the first sequence of corners with lots to think about and very little time in which to process it all. 

Beyond the usual requirements of car control, there are two key qualities required in this alien environment. One, to have the confidence in what the Bowler can do, which is to say the punishment it can take. It needs a complete brain reset to accept what this vehicle can deal with, but the skill is also in judging what it can’t – what will actually cause damage. Secondly, it’s about reading the grip: not just feeling what grip is available through palms and buttocks, but literally looking ahead and translating that into what grip might be available and where. My co-driver and instructor continually says ‘look for the grip’, pointing out the lighter patches of compacted grass among the darker green areas, as the tyres bite more effectively on them. It’s a skill I had never even considered before, beyond looking for the Technicolor telltale of diesel on a roundabout. I can imagine both these points take time and experience to master.

Bowler has designed a unique push-pull gearshift paddle that’s mounted behind the wheel, and with the car in manual mode it’s much more responsive, now with engine braking, too. The steering is light and easy, and even on the mild terrain of this test course I’m not wishing for more power – it’s all about reading the road and the grip. Stray off line, even just slightly, and it’s amazing how quickly that grip ebbs away, and once the car is sliding there’s significant momentum at work. An opportune lift of the throttle helps the back to come round, and you can adjust your line further by hitting a mid-corner bump just so, as momentarily taking the weight off the rear rotates the car into the corner. Further techniques include ‘riding the bumps’, where you actually increase your speed so that the tyres merely kiss the crests of each hump in turn, not drop down into the dips. By the time I unbuckle after my last run it’s just starting to make some kind of sense.

A standard Defender 90 P300 SE costs £57,540, whereas for £141,600 you get a Bowler Defender, entry into a full season of rallies, a dedicated race technician, access to a senior race engineer and electrician, the keys to the parts truck, a slot in the mobile workshop awning and some very tasty in-the-middle-of-nowhere catering. You can up the spend and simply arrive, drive and disappear, too. The hill rally/Baja/Rally Raid route was not something I’ve ever considered previously for my fantasy season of motorsport expenditure, but the Defender Rally Series makes for a fascinating alternative to a season of circuit racing.

Bowler Defender specs

EngineIn-line 4-cyl, 1984cc, turbocharged
Power296bhp @ 5500rpm
Torque295lb ft @ 1500-4500rpm
Weight2165kg (139bhp/ton)
Top speed119mph
Basic price£141,600

 This story was first featured in evo issue 312.

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