Mid-Engine LS-Swapped Rear-Wheel Drive VW Golf “R59”
In 2002, Volkswagen debuted the crème de la crème of the Golf line up: the 237hp VR6-powered, all-wheel drive Golf R32. At a time when the GTI made 180hp, the R32 was the most powerful Golf ever made. Near redline, the motor was described as sounding like “Chewbacca on steroids.” Many would have been satisfied with that set up, but there are some that see it as the perfect platform for their even wilder ideas.
It Started With a Crazy Idea
After a few years of driving and autocrossing the R32, owner and builder Steven Berchtold thought was time for a wild change to his Golf. There was nothing wrong with the R32 powertrain, but he had always had this crazy idea of a front-mid-engine Golf in the back of his mind. One day he decided to stop dreaming about it and turn his idea into reality.
The R32 was the perfect platform for the swap, due to already having a rear differential carrier from its all-wheel drive system and suspension designed to handle much more power.
From the outside, the red Golf looks unassuming, but Nitto NT01s tucked into the fenders flares, a front splitter, a large rear diffuser and NACA ducts give you a hint that there is more to it.
Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice how serious this Golf really is. Through the windows, you can see that the driver’s seat and steering wheel are about 3-4 feet further back than it should be. A massive air filter connected to a turbocharger sticks out from where a headlight used to sit.
From Front-Engine to Mid-Engine
To make it a “true” mid-engine, Steven stripped the car down to the barebones and cut a hole in the firewall and a large tunnel through the center of the car.
With a V8 as central in the car as possible, the driver’s seat was moved to where the backseat used to be.
Originally, a naturally aspirated LT1 sat in the middle of the Golf when the swap was first completed. Currently, Steven is running an LS1 out of a Pontiac GTO. Not one to leave things stock, the LS1 received a cam, upgraded valve springs, chromoly pushrods and a Garrett 4088R turbo to top things off.
A Megasquirt MS3 Pro ECU ties everything together. On E85 and moderate boost (5-10 psi) the turbo LS1 makes 560hp and 528 lb-ft of torque at the rear wheels.
From All-Wheel Drive to Rear-Wheel Drive
Gone is the Haldex 50:50 all-wheel drive system. Power is sent from the engine to a T56 transmission and finally to a Ford 8.8 rear differential built with custom half-shafts.
The engine bay space is still used, but now it's housing the turbo and intercooler. You will also find a few remaining stock parts still in use, such as the steering rack and OEM R32 radiator.
Nitto NT01s sized 275/40/17 sit at each corner of the VW Golf to apply the 560hp to the pavement. The suspension geometry remains the same minus reinforced trailing arm pockets. In fact, the R59 still runs the same Bilstein PSS9 coilovers that have been on the car since 2008. Two-piece 13-inch rotors with four piston calipers up front and upgraded stock rear brakes bring the car to a stop.
Made for Time Attack
The car was built strictly for road racing and to endure a 20-30 minute track session. Steven has taken the car to a few events at various tracks across Southern California and for the most part the R59 has performed reliably, although he is constantly refining it.
How does it drive? Steven says, “The original R32 handles well up to a certain threshold at which the car became a nose heavy with uncontrollable understeer."
"That was one of the main reasons why I finally decided to do a mid-engine setup. In its current form, the car is now as neutral as it gets. It is unbelievable (to me anyway) how little work and effort I have to put in to run laps on the track. The R59 is very predictable, has a well behaved rear end and I can rotate it with the throttle input. Now... is this car record breaking? No not at all, but it is a blast to drive and I am very happy to know that the car far exceeds the performance of that original R32," Steven said.
Building a mid-engine rear-wheel drive VW Golf took years of work and it will continue to evolve. Steven did 99 percent of the work himself, from welding, fab work, electrical and more but he says it wouldn’t have been possible without the one percent of specialties provided by his friends, moral support of his brother and the patience of his wife and kids.