We raced Bowler’s 440bhp supercharged Defender in a mental hill rally

Ollie Marriage tests the V6-engined race Defender. Crashes a bit

This is a Land Rover Defender 110. But you knew that already. You can probably also tell that’s it’s been rally-prepped by Bowler, which is suitably amusing in itself.

What you probably can’t tell is that underneath isn’t a diesel engine, but the supercharged V6 from a Jaguar F-Type. With 440bhp. This is not a typo.

And here is that engine. Tight squeeze, no? So we’re going to do a hill rally in it. Hill rallying is essentially the same as regular rallying, apart from sometimes the terrain gets a bit more… serious.

It also takes place exclusively away from public roads, so the vehicles don’t have to be road legal - although all of Bowler’s cars are.

One more thing. This is the supercharged Defender V6’s first ever rally. And they’ve let TopGear do it…

We’re in Scotland at the Scottish Hill Rally in Galloway Forest near Dumfries. Bowler has 13 cars taking part out here, all Defender 90s with 2.2-litre diesels pushing out about 200bhp, bar us. But I wouldn’t say we’re the fruitiest thing in the paddock…

There are about 50 cars altogether taking part, and some of them are even madder than our Defender. There are some buggies, homemade specials and others running big V8s.

I reckon about 75 per cent of the entrants have some sort of Bowler content in them, but on the whole they look much more trick than we do.

We’re car number 46, we being myself (daft beard, black overalls) and co-driver Quinn Evans (in red with the rugby scrum-half build).

There are no pacenotes in hill rallying, unless you work them out yourself from a map – you get given maps with outlines of the route on them, but large scale OS isn’t going to tell you the difference between third and fourth gear corners, and it isn’t wise to get the calls wrongs.

Aside from the maps, intuition and experience are the only things that tell you how the course will be laid out. I have none of either. Luckily Quin is over-endowed with both, being a veteran of Dakar and much other extreme off-road stuff.

The Defender is basically bulletproof. Here’s the cabin – and yes, that is a Jaguar F-Type gearlever. It uses the eight-speed auto ‘box. The seats are brilliant at locking you in place, although I’d quite like the steering wheel a bit closer to me.

Also, when we trundle up to the start of stage one, I note just how firm the ride is. The reason for this will become clear in due course…

The terrain is diabolical. It’s familiar enough to start with - easy sweeping lefts and rights for about a mile of stage one. Then Quinn hollers, “Sharp right at the second arrows!”

“Nah,” I think. “All I can see out the window is some mucky brown cliff.”

“Go on, go on, up there,” Quinn confirms in a suitably vigorous tone. We have no pictures of it, and I’m still not sure how the Defender yomped up that muddy wall quite so easily, but the terrain…

You know how extreme off-road driving can be, and how everything has to be done in first gear, and you crawl about the place at weird angles, gently encouraged by a heftily bearded chap in camo gear who just can’t wait to use his winch?

Well, now imagine racing through all that, battering through axle-twisting, chassis-wrenching terrain as fast as you dare without breaking the car. Fat chance of that – I’ll break well before the Defender does.

A bit later we’re at the end of stage one. I’ve been a bit tentative, not just because I’ve never done a hill rally before, but because I have driven this Defender before, for a shakedown about a month ago…

…it didn’t end well.

The trouble was I was trying to treat it like TopGear’s Hyundai i20 rally car in which we won (sort of) Wales Rally GB in last year, but the Defender demands a very different driving style.

You can’t Scandi-flick it about the place. Not when it weighs 1.8 tonnes and has a high centre of gravity. You have to coax it to turn in. 

Nevertheless, after five of Day One’s eight stages we’re doing OK, running similar stage times to the diesel Defenders and punching further up the leader-board from our lowly starting position thanks to a frankly astonishing attrition rate.

Quinn tells me it’s not unusual for fewer than half the competitors to make the finish at some of these races.

I know what you’re thinking – similar stage times to a diesel Defender 90 when I’ve got twice their horsepower isn’t that great. It’s what I’m thinking, too. Not least because paddock banter is also informing me that I have a much more sophisticated suspension set-up and longer wheelbase.

In mitigation, our Defender isn’t as agile and good on turn-in, and – would you believe it – it turns out that on a snowy sub-zero gravel/ice track it’s not actually possible to deploy all 440bhp. I try. All four wheels spin and we head rapidly towards the edge of the road.

There’s another small issue. It’s to do with the right hand pedal. It’s extremely responsive. Now, in a road car we like this.

But in a rally Defender when you’re being bounced all over the cockpit like a jumping bean, the last thing you can do is apply constant, careful pressure to the throttle. So what’s happening is alarmingly jerky as I Morse Code 440bhp through the throttle pedal.

Then the brakes go soft. They don’t lose any power, but when you’re doing 70mph downhill in a Defender, any loss of pressure comes as an especially unwelcome surprise. In this case the extra half inch of pedal travel wipes a year off my life expectancy.

But I’m finding a bit of a groove and have even caught a couple of cars in stage. I know my confidence is improving because I’ve hit obstacles hard enough to have bent a rear mudguard.

Back at the service park between stages, a special organic device is used to fix this.

Then I manage to bend the exhaust. Andy the mechanic informs me that he may now need to apply the organic device to my backside.

Day One is meant to end with a pair of night stages. We do the first one, and even by the standards of what we’ve already been through, it’s a complete joke: bombholes, quarry plunges, boulders, washboard and more, all packed into about 3.5 miles.

The second night stage is almost 13 miles long. It gets cancelled when one of the other Defenders rolls, blocking the road. I pretend to be disappointed. About the only thing I am disappointed about is not getting to deploy the awesome LED spotlights.

Day Two dawns, the temperature is a bit warmer, which makes me happy as with no ice to contend with, we should have more grip.

Wrong. We now have slickly polished gravel, and, as we’re using the same tracks as yesterday, deeper ruts and churned-up loose terrain.

Just how rough is it? Well, see how deep those tyre side walls are, and how tough those rims look? Imagine how much force it would take to crack a wheel. I managed it.

True, this was during a light off-track excursion at about 50mph, where, it turned out, an end-on tree trunk was hidden in the undergrowth. That’ll do it.

Still made it to the end of the stage, got the wheel changed and carried on. This Defender is just so tough.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the car that rolled in stage last night? That’s back running again this morning.

How’s the Defender to drive? Unsurprisingly, it’s not as stable as a traditional rally car. You can’t just throw steering lock at it, you actually have to be pretty measured with your inputs to get the best from it. Slow in, get it settled, get it through, get it straight, then apply the power.

There’s some supercharged shrieking (even inside my helmet this thing sounds properly bonkers), gravel batters the underside, and then you arrive at the next opportunity to have a crash. It’s genuinely hilarious.

I wouldn’t say it’s especially responsive or talented, but it’s remarkable for a Defender, especially considering it hasn’t yet had that much development work.

But after 13 stages and around 100 brutal, brutal miles of pounding impacts and compressed spines, we’ve done OK. We’ve risen to nearer the top of the Defender class and wound up finishing 14th overall.

I’m utterly made up. OK, this is chiefly because I’m able to hand the 110 back to the good people at Bowler in one piece, but I’ve had a high old time of things, too. Hill rallying is mad – until you’ve seen it, you just won’t believe how rough it is, how amusingly unhinged the stages are, how bananas the machines are that can cope with it.

I’m now convinced the Bowler Defender 110 is part-cockroach. It’s about the only damn thing that’ll survive the apocalypse…

TopGear
Author: TopGear
Top Gear is a British television series about motor vehicles, primarily cars, and is the most widely watched factual television programme in the world.