Rally-converted Landie makes the perfect Dakar training machine. Quick enough, a handful at times – but dependable and great fun

What is it?

Land Rover Defender turned into an MSA-passable production-spec rally car. It’s been developed and built by Bowler Motorsport – the same people who brought us the incredible EXR S – with input and sponsorship from Land Rover itself. And while it isn’t primarily intended as a road car, it is road-legal.

The Defender Challenge car offers a direct route into international motorsport for people who consider tarmac circuit racing – the national rally championship, even – a bit dull and unadventurous. Once you’ve bought your £60,000 Defender competition car, you can enter a series of seven UK rallies held throughout the 2014 season organised by Bowler, as a feeder series into proper, full-blown, desert-yomping international rally raids like the Dakar.

Bowler will provide as much or as little support as you want, and help you along the way not only to getting the relevant licence stamps for international competition, but actually putting your rally-prepped Landie on the Dakar start line in South America. Assuming you have the budget and the commitment to make it that far.

What's it like?

Surprisingly standard for a race-prepped rally car. Bowler starts with a normal Defender 90 Hard Top. Inside the cabin go bucket seats, six-point harnesses, fire extinguishers, a full rollcage and some timing equipment.

The oversized airbag steering wheel gets swapped for a smaller three-spoke competition number in Alcantara suede, and the gear lever is replaced for a shorter one. You get special sill protectors, lighter door casings and sliding Perspex windows. Otherwise, well enough is left alone.

Under the bonnet, Bowler fits a new ECU to the car’s Transit-derived 2.2-litre turbodiesel engine, increasing peak power to 170bhp and peak torque to 332lb ft. Downstream of the engine, customers can opt for a mechanical limited slip differential for the rear axle. But that’s it. In all other respects, the Defender powertrain is entirely unaltered, right down to the individual gear ratios.

The car’s rolling chassis has the biggest overhaul. Heavy-duty Bilstein shocks are fitted, as well as stiffer springs and anti-roll bars, and lightweight 18-inch alloys are adopted shod with Kumho rally-raid tyres. 

Bowler leaves Land Rover’s standard suspension bushes on the car, but they effectively become a service item to be changed once a season. That gives you an idea of how hard a life these cars will have. On a standard Defender, those bushes last the typical 15-year lifespan of the vehicle.

Almost all the weight the car sheds as a result of the subtractions of fittings from the cabin is put back into it with the roll cage, so a finished Defender Challenge car weighs almost exactly what a standard Defender 90 Hard Top weighs: roughly 1750kg. 

The rollcage adds complication to your entry routine, but nothing too terrible. Once you’re through the bars the bucket seats are quite wide-hipped and comfortable, but supportive enough to keep you riveted securely in place during the inevitable rollercoaster ride to come. 

The classic upright Defender driving position isn’t the perfect one for the heat of competition. The smaller steering wheel helps to solve the leverage problem Defender drivers have been suffering since time immemorial: it makes more room for your right elbow. The steering column could do with more rake adjustment. Equally, it could do with being in line with the middle of the driver’s seat. The pedals would be easier to operate if they were less upright-of-action, and the footwells were a bit deeper.

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But these are problems that Land Rover hasn’t solved in 65 years of continuous product development. It seems a bit much to expect Bowler to cure them overnight.

The car idles noisily once it’s running, even by Defender standards; it rattles the side windows when it revs. You don’t need first gear unless you’re moving off on an incline, and even second feels pretty short given the engine’s operational range. It’ll pull cleanly from low revs, and has a really torquey sweet spot between 2000- and 3000rpm, but it’s suffocating before 4000rpm comes around.

So going fast in this car involves plenty of gear changes. Arm-twirling, too. The Defender’s worm-and-roller-gear steering rack has four turns between locks. The smaller tiller and stiffer springs make the competition car feel about twice as wieldy as a standard Defender just off-centre, but that’s still about half as wieldy as any other rally car you’re ever likely to drive. Committing the nose to a muddy third gear corner requires lots of faith – and a good half turn of lock.

You wouldn’t rush to quicken up that rack though, because once the Defender has turned in, it can be quite a handful on a slippery surface. That famous 88in wheelbase is a bit short for ideal directional stability, as both Bowler and Land Rover will admit. Since it’s much stiffer sprung than a standard Defender, the car can surprise you with a sudden swing of mid-corner oversteer that often requires a full turn of the steering wheel to sort out. Corrections like that certainly focus the mind, and big slip angles aren’t advisable for the car, given the risk of rollover. A precise and disciplined style is absolutely in order – which makes the car perfect for rally-raid driver training, neatly enough.

The out-and-out pace of the car is more than high enough to keep you very busy indeed on a typical forest or gravel stage. Given the inherent challenge of driving the car quickly, you wouldn’t want it to be much more powerful. Overall, it’s roughly hot-hatchback fast. It’d give plenty of historic rally cars something to worry about, but shouldn’t trouble anything modern. And that’s exactly the level Bowler wanted to pitch the car at for the beginners who’ll be doing the driving.

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More important to rally raiders will be the car’s robustness. And in that vein, the Defender’s panels are very easy to replace, its engine is mechanically standard and as dependable as that implies, and its chassis will take serious abuse. The Defender Challenge will hurtle down a potholed muddy track in excess of 80mph, taking big hits to its suspension left right and centre, and still remain more stable and controllable than you’d dare believe. Its shocks have been tuned to handle medium-sized jumps as a matter of course – if you’re daft enough for that sort of thing.

“The mechanical weakspot may be the driveshafts, depending on how big your jumps are,” says Bowler Motorsport CEO Drew Bowler. But, like most of the major mechanicals, they’re fairly easy to replace, he suggests. Even in the desert.

Should I buy one?

Well, you don’t necessarily have to see yourself as a future Vatanen or Peterhansel. You will need a fairly mature and open-minded attitude towards motorsport, though. Not to mention a willingness to get your hands dirty when it all goes wrong. Because, sooner or later, something will go wrong. It’s all part of the appeal of raiding.

You’ll likely also need a test drive to understand just how challenging and capable a rally-converted Defender can be. I certainly wouldn’t have believed how much fun you can have in one, and how hard you can push, if I hadn’t experienced it first hand.

Bowler has 15 spots for its inaugural 2014 Defender Challenge. Having met the encouraging blokes that’ll support the series for Bowler, had a go in the car, and just a taste of the fun, adventure and camaraderie those 15 competitors will enjoy, I’d join them in a heartbeat. And I rather suspect they’ll need more than 15 spots next season.

Bowler Motorsport Land Rover Defender Challenge car

Price £60,000; 0-62mph tbc; Top speed tbc; Economy tbc; CO2 tbc; Kerb weight circa 1750kg; Engine 4 cyls, 2198cc, turbodiesel; Power 170bhp; Torque 332lb ft; Gearbox 6-spd manual

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.

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