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.
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.
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.