Bowler’s latest Defender-bodied rally raider has a chassis of rare brilliance. If you could get use out of it, competitive or otherwise, it’ll blow your mind

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The Bowler Bulldog is the latest road-legal rally raid off-road special from the people who brought you the memorably bonkers Nemesis EXR-S, and the Wildcat before it.

It is not what it looks like: another tuned and upgraded rich man’s Land Rover Defender. In fact, it’s the first car to use Bowler’s all-new, all-aluminium ‘CSP’ chassis (which is designed and built in-house, for the most part), attached to which are modified Range Rover Sport subframes, all-independent suspension (some links of which are also sourced from the Range Rover Sport parts bin) and some very special Bilstein shocks.

The character of the engine doesn’t discourage interaction with the driving experience via the gearbox’s lever-actuated manual mode one little bit

With its FIA-approved roll-cage becoming an integrated part of the car’s structure, the Bulldog is effectively a full spaceframe competition car – albeit one with 270mm of wheel travel and knobbly BF Goodrich All-Terrain tyres.

The car currently comes with a choice of petrol or diesel V6 engines from the Range Rover Sport, but the 280bhp, 515lb ft diesel is the one most customers pick for rally raiding, since it needs a fuel tank half the size of the one Bowler used to put in its petrol raiders in order to enable them to complete a 250-mile rally stage without a stop (even here, it’s still a whopping 221 litres, though).

Downstream of the engine is the same eight-speed ZF gearbox that Land Rover offers, although Bowler has developed its own transmission cooler, which is mounted at one end of the car’s flatbed pick-up loadbay, is fed with cool air via a scoop on the roof, and keeps the gearbox going in ultra-tough desert conditions.

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The car has a much wider track than a Defender, which is how you’ll likely distinguish it from a distance, but the same 2800mm wheelbase as the old Defender 110. The Defender bodywork and interior architecture, meanwhile, is there partly for practical reasons, because tooling up to produce your own bodies is expensive, and using Defender parts makes the cars easier to repair. But it's also allowing Bowler to tap into the healthy demand that currently exists for extra-special Defenders. In the medium term, Bowler expects to design and fit its own bodies again, just as it did with the EXR-S.

How has Bowler transformed the Bulldog from road car to rally machine?

The Bulldog’s interior has a Defender dashboard and a Defender-familiar driving position, but Bowler has been able to improve on the old-stager’s ergonomics a bit, moving the seat inboard to free up some elbow room.

The cabin ambience is probably best described as ‘functional’: think fixed bucket seats, six-point harnesses, and a board of auxiliary navigator’s controls for lights, blower, washers and wipers (because dodging camels is often enough for the driver to worry about). There’s a glass hammer where the radio might otherwise be, in case you barrel roll down a dune and have to get out via the windscreen. Even on a bad day on your way to the post office, you’d hope not to need it.

You might expect the Range Rover Sport’s six-cylinder diesel engine to run more smoothly and quietly than the four-cylinder oil-burner of a standard Defender used to, but good cruising manners aren’t part of the Bulldog’s repertoire. The company quickly realised that the ‘soft’ engine mounts used by Land Rover simply wouldn’t withstand the stresses of rally competition, and replaced them with rigid ones. So the Bulldog’s noisy: the sort of car in which you’d wear earplugs inside your ear defenders if you were driving a long way, accounting also for the way the car’s competition-spec brakes squeal at low speeds.

Since it weighs about 1800kg (a good half-tonne less than the equivalent Range Sport), the car feels hot-hatchback fast on the road, picking up particularly quickly from low speeds and low revs thanks to all that diesel torque. You can drive it very briskly indeed without ever using more than 3000rpm, in fact – and the character of the engine doesn’t discourage interaction with the driving experience via the gearbox’s lever-actuated manual mode one little bit.

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But you quickly appreciate why owners have been petitioning Bowler for more power: the car’s handling and body control are both breathtakingly good. On the road, the suspension deals with bigger bumps supremely well, and there is incredible flatness, balance and precision to the way the Bulldog corners for something on chubby BF Goodrich all-terrain tyres.

Where the ride feels tetchy and occasionally aggressive at low speeds, it comes alive and vividly on song as you accelerate up to cross-country pace. The Bulldog always seems to have a huge surfeit of body control, simply swatting away those bigger inputs taken at bigger speeds that might have tested the vertical composure of other fast SUVs. And the car’s steering rack is a wonderful, positive, tactile delight: geared to less than two-and-a-half turns between locks, it makes this big car handle with really pointy immediacy and accuracy. Never thought you'd read that about a Defender? Well that's not what this is, remember.

Off road, meanwhile, it’s the abuse that suspension can soak up that’ll take your breath away. The Bulldog can be hustled along rutted gravel tracks up at 70mph, with stones clanking noisily off its underbody plating, where you wouldn’t take most 4x4s beyond 30mph. Nasty-looking bumps you expect to jolt clean through the travel of the car’s suspension are devoured.

Given those struts are designed to allow the car to land safely during dune-hopping jumps of up to 10 or 12 feet, you might think a certain casual nonchalance when dealing with the odd muddy pothole, football-sized boulder or deep rut is to be expected of this car; and you’d be right. But I’d challenge you to actually expect it; to just shrug your shoulders when you witness the Bulldog’s remarkable appetite for speed and punishment over the rough stuff. I certainly didn’t – and I’ve never driven anything quite as tough.

Does the Bulldog make sense away from a rally stage?

Even accounting for this car’s unexpectedly compelling on-road ride and handling, you’ll need to be a keen hobbyist mud-plugger to get the best out of a Bulldog. Being a strict two-seater with bucket seats, racing harnesses and surprisingly little in the way of accessible storage space, you’d get little more practical daily service out of one than you might an Ariel, Radical or a rare-groove supercar.

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There, I've written it; as ridiculous as it now looks in connection with what is an FIA-approved competition rally car. And I felt duty-bound to because this is a Land Rover we're talking about (not really, just testing etc) and you expect usability and versatility from cars like that.

The fact is that explaining that you might need to quite like off-roading to get the best out of a car like this is unnecessary, isn't it? Accepting that is no more of a restriction on the Bulldog's appeal than being willing to imagine regular bouts of driving around quickly in two-and-a-half mile circles to really enjoy a McLaren Senna, a Ferrari Pista or a Porsche GT3 RS. Being able to make room in your life for the intended purposes of such cars is part and parcel of embracing why they're so special.

And don’t doubt for a second that the Bulldog is good enough to make regular off-roading, whether competitive or otherwise, suddenly look like a really appealing hobby. Or that driving it home from the Kielder forests, Welsh mountains and various green lanes of the UK wouldn’t be damn-near as much fun as what you’d been up to beforehand. The Bowler Bulldog is a first-rate driver’s car, and addictively good fun in its mud-soaked, rough-and-tumble element.

And when its Derbyshire creator gets around to fitting it with a slightly more habitable cabin, and the engine it deserves for fast road use? It’s happening as we speak. Don't be surprised if it results in something very special indeed.

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Matt Saunders

Matt Saunders Autocar
Title: Road test editor

As Autocar’s chief car tester and reviewer, it’s Matt’s job to ensure the quality, objectivity, relevance and rigour of the entirety of Autocar’s reviews output, as well contributing a great many detailed road tests, group tests and drive reviews himself.

Matt has been an Autocar staffer since the autumn of 2003, and has been lucky enough to work alongside some of the magazine’s best-known writers and contributors over that time. He served as staff writer, features editor, assistant editor and digital editor, before joining the road test desk in 2011.

Since then he’s driven, measured, lap-timed, figured, and reported on cars as varied as the Bugatti Veyron, Rolls-Royce PhantomTesla RoadsterAriel Hipercar, Tata Nano, McLaren SennaRenault Twizy and Toyota Mirai. Among his wider personal highlights of the job have been covering Sebastien Loeb’s record-breaking run at Pikes Peak in 2013; doing 190mph on derestricted German autobahn in a Brabus Rocket; and driving McLaren’s legendary ‘XP5’ F1 prototype. His own car is a trusty Mazda CX-5.

Bowler Bulldog First drives