"Think Different" is a slogan Apple used a few years ago to differentiate its hardware and operating system from ho-hum PCs. It would be an equally apt slogan for M7 Tuning, whose MINI tuning products address some issues other tuners haven't even considered.
Not being a "me too" traditional tuner comes easily to M7 Tuning's Swedish-American founder, Peter Horvath, who was a professional photographer. "Looking at the business from a customer's point of view has distinct advantages," says Horvath. "I fell in love with the MINI from day one, but also noted its shortcomings.
"I started designing and producing what I wanted. And not always the way a traditional tuner would. I went at it from the angle of an informed enthusiast with exact goals in mind rather than a company wanting to sell particular 'expected' products to its customers." This personal approach is M7's USP; would-be customers liked what they saw and the business took off from there.
As someone trained in the visual arts, Horvath is a stickler for design and quality, so it's no surprise that M7's parts look good and are manufactured to the highest standards. Items like the Under Strut System, for instance, are CNC-machined from solid aluminum billets and then anodized. It's a shame that they remain hidden from view. However, the complementary front strut tower brace is there for all to see and the plates that reinforce the factory metalwork (also available separately) evolved from client feedback when cars suffered from distorted strut tower tops because of poor road surfaces.
As a hobby tuner, Horvath gets extremely upset when a part he buys needs specialist tools or plain doesn't fit. He assumes people just want to get on with fitting the parts and so supplies explicit instructions with good photos as a guide, along with the relevant Allen keys or drill bits required. M7 parts are installed using original factory attachment points, so everything is easily reversible when the car goes up for sale.
Those were impressions I gained when I first visited M7 in 2007 to drive the Los Angeles-based MINI tuner's fully tricked-out R53 Cooper S. At the time, Horvath had just taken delivery of a new R56 Cooper S and had only got as far as fitting larger wheels.
In early 2008, Horvath acquired a powerful new quad-core Apple workstation and a computer-controlled prototyping machine that allows him to make a resin mock-up of a new component. This saves a lot of time and money since the full-sized dummy part can be positioned on the car and checked for fit and clearance. Using this machine, Horvath came up with new components that helped boost the R53's engine to well over 200 hp. But what really took my breath away was the sequential shifting system.
Some purists will never give up their manual gearbox, which they believe gives the most control and purest driving experience. However, a clutch becomes a real pain in the butt when stuck in traffic. Even on track days, it's easy to miss a gear and over-rev the engine in a red-mist moment.
M7's sequential shifting system for the R53 and R56 (not Convertible) uses an electro-mechanical arrangement to select ratios in the existing manual gearbox. It doesn't need to interface with the car's ECU, which can cause problems with the latest generation of ultra-sophisticated software.
The clutch is still operational, but gears are shifted either by a steering wheel-mounted paddle, or the CNC-machined aluminum racecar-style gear lever, which M7 calls a Bump Shifter. This takes the place of the normal gearlever. Both may be installed, which is the arrangement on Horvath's demo car parked on these pages.
The paddle shifter sends a wireless signal to a control box mounted on M7's rear strut brace system in the trunk. This in turn actuates the cables that shift the gears. Actuation time is just 240 milliseconds. A professional driver might equal that in a slam-change from first to second or third to fourth, but there's no way anyone can select a gear across the gate in anything remotely approaching that time.
The system is also future-proofed: it has a programmable flash memory. Through this upgrade path, a fully automated clutch engagement system could be incorporated if there was enough demand.
Clutch safety protocols may be set so that if the long sequential shifter is touched accidentally, it won't initiate a shift without the clutch being depressed first. In addition, neutral and reverse are locked out by a driver-adjustable time delay protocol, which means pulling on the stick for the preset time before the system allows selection.
Best of all for keen drivers, gears can be stacked both up and down the 'box. While flying down a straight in fifth, it's possible to pre-select third for the next corner and the software would not initiate that downshift until safely within the engine speed range of third gear. An LED display in the bespoke anodized aluminum pod indicates which gear has been selected.
With the H-pattern gearshift removed from the equation, I was happy to use paddle shifts in city traffic. This proved not only quick and smooth in operation but also a lot less fiddly than a normal manual. Keeping both hands on the wheel gives more control anyway and makes for maximum steering stability should the need arise to shift mid-corner for any reason.
I was also impressed with the improvement an M7 upgrade has made to the snappiness and power of the turbocharged engine. "We use sophisticated airflow management testing equipment to design and test our Super AGS cold air intake system," Horvath explains. "The intake tract behind this features vortex generators to improve ram intake velocity and the air filter element has a total surface area of over 1,100 square inches. This is more than enough area to work as a filter for a big-block V8 engine and so removes significant restriction from the intake system."
Downstream of this is M7's silicone turbocharger downtube bypassing the factory pipe. The M7 intercooler is a bar-and-plate type with one-eighth NTP fittings pre-and post-intercooler, so a temperature probe or water/methanol injection system may be installed. The latter is an effective and relatively inexpensive way of raising octane levels from 91 to 113 (MON). The turbocharger itself is modified with a specially machined and finely balanced impeller wheel, while the factory turbo housing is subtly modified to improve airflow. An Alta three-inch diameter sports exhaust helps the spent gases on their way with a healthy burble.
Horvath uses the Unichip ECU tuning system, mapped for higher boost pressure, and the commensurate fuel and spark. It also provides the option of two different maps that can be accessed at the flick of a switch. The first is for normal fuel and the second is optimized for water/methanol injection or racing fuel.
It's not unusual for a turbocharged car to lose power in high ambient temperatures and when the underhood area gets hot from the turbo/exhaust system. M7 offers specialized heat shields made from Aerogel, an aerospace substance, to keep those temperatures down and thus maintain engine output.
With 252 hp and a 290 lb-ft of torque, the M7 Cooper is pretty lively. But more than that, the improved air and exhaust flows make the engine feel even keener, giving it an edge the stock engine hints at but cannot deliver. Coupled with the speed of the paddle shift system, this car goes down the road at a rate that confounds the drivers of big American V8s, who cannot believe how fast this little car can motor.
Agility has always been a Mini asset, but the chassis of M7's R56 takes this to a whole new level with fully adjustable coilovers, the Under Strut System, front and rear strut braces, 25mm rear anti-roll bar, and rear H-Sport camber links. The ride is firm on 17-inch Yokohama Advan alloy wheels wrapped in 235/40 Yoko rubber, but still has impressive resilience.
The car simply turns into corners as if they were mere kinks in the road, the one proviso being that this level of power means grappling with torque steer on the way out. When it comes to stopping, the D2 vented and grooved discs with eight-piston calipers sitting behind the front wheels provide complete reassurance.
Speeds reached by a delimited Cooper S in this trim means aerodynamics come into play. The carbon front splitter and rear roof wing are totally functional and provide significant extra stability at speed. The rear diffuser looks similar to the one on the factory racecar, but is totally different and starts further forward, extends slightly further back and has an additional horizontal foil under the exhaust pipes.
The car's appearance falls into the subjective category. Not everyone wants such an extroverted look. But regarding all the mechanical changes, nothing is there just for show. In a market full of go-faster parts that don't always do what they claim, M7's tuning program comes like a breath of fresh air.
M7 Mini Cooper S
Transverse front engine, front-wheel drive
Engine 1.7-liter I4, dohc, 16-valve, turbocharged and intercooled. M7 Super AGS cold-air intake, M7 intercooler, modified turbocharger, Alta sport exhaust, Unichip software
Transmission Six-speed manual, M7 sequential shift kit with "Bump Lever" and paddle-shift gear selectors
Suspension M7 adjustable coilovers, M7 Under Strut System, front and rear strut tower braces, 25mm rear anti-roll bar, H-Sport rear camber links
Brakes D2 eight-piston calipers, slotted rotors (f)
Wheels and Tires Yokohama Advan alloys, 17-inch Yokohama Advan AE80, 235/40
Exterior Carbon front splitter, roof wing, rear diffuser
Peak Power: 252 hp
Peak Torque: 290 lb-ft