Is Kia’s intelligent manual transmission a game changer or just needless technology?

Hyundai and Kia are two peas in a pod. As sister companies, they share technology, drivetrains, and platforms, among other things. So, when we broke down Hyundai’s Intelligent Manual Transmission – you know, the one with no clutch pedal – we figured Kia would be quick to follow suit. And, it has, but only to a certain extent. We’ve now learned that the mild-hybrid versions of the Kia Ceed Hatch, Xceed crossover, and the facelifted Rio will all be available with an iMT. But Kia’s version is a little different compared to Hyundai in that it still has a clutch pedal. This is getting interesting, huh?

Is Clutch By Wire the New Normal or Is This Yet Another Nail in the Manual Transmission’s Coffin?

Kia's Intelligent Manual Transmission (iMT) Explained
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Considering the fact that Hyundai’s iMT makes use of an intent sensor on the shifter handle, as opposed to a clutch, we figured Kia’s version of the iMT would be the same. We couldn’t have been more wrong, though.

When the iMT makes its way into the Kia Ceed, Xceed, and Rio, it will be backed by a clutch pedal, but not in the traditional sense.

While modern manual transmissions make use of a simplistic hydraulic circuit for clutch control, Kia’s iMT will use an array of wires and sensors. So, basically, the manual transmission is seemly more complicated than ever.

How a Modern Hydraulic Clutch Works

The clutch in a manual transmission of most modern cars is operated via hydraulics. When you press the pedal, the linkage on the pedal moves the plunger inside the clutch master cylinder (much in the same way hydraulic brakes work). That plunger applies pressure to the clutch fluid, causing the plunger in the clutch slave cylinder, usually located at the manual transmission to actuate the clutch release fork, which in turn separates the clutch plate from the transmission, and allows you to shift gears. As you release the clutch pedal pressure is reduced and the clutch re-couples the engine and transmission. It’s a fairly simple setup if you have a basic understanding of hydraulics and was a big step up from physical clutch linkage from the past.

How Kia’s Clutch-by-Wire System Works

Kia's Intelligent Manual Transmission (iMT) Explained
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Now that you have a basic understanding of how a traditional hydraulic clutch works, you can understand the complexity of Kia’s new intelligent manual transmission. This system has zero hydraulics between the clutch pedal and the transmission. Instead, the clutch pedal is connected to a sensor. When you press the clutch, that sensor sends a signal to the computer. That computer then sends a signal to another sensor – we’ll call it the clutch sensor for now – and the clutch inside the transmission is actuates automatically. This is done almost entirely with electronics.

At the transmission, an electronic actuator is used to apply pressure to a mini-hydraulic system.

As that actuator applies pressure to the system, the clutch fork is actuated, the throw-out bearing applies pressure to the fins of the clutch pressure plate, and the engine is effectively disconnected from the transmission. You’re free to shift gears as you usually would, and as you release the pedal, the electronic actuator will begin to release pressure, and the re-coupling of the engine and transmission is initiated. This might sound nearly as simple, and it gets rid of the need for a sealed hydraulic system between the clutch pedal and transmission, but Kia’s system takes things a step further, as you have less control over your transmission and engine than ever before.

Kia's Intelligent Manual Transmission (iMT) Explained
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Thanks to the “intelligence” that’s baked into the iMT, the car – i.e., the car’s computer – is able to take control of the entire driveline whenever it deems necessary.

According to Kia, if you take your foot off the gas, the onboard computer system will automatically disconnect the engine from the transmission and shut the engine off. This means no more coasting in gear and no more engine braking – something that’s become second nature to people that like to row their own. If you touch the brake, clutch, or accelerator during the coast, the engine will automatically restart, and the engine and transmission will be re-coupled – sometimes. See, if you’re moving too slow for the chosen gear, the system will remain disconnected until you choose an acceptable gear. If your engine revs are too low, the mild-hybrid system will boost engine speed to prevent excessive bogging. This will also stop you from over-revving in any given gear.

In a basic sense, Kia has rethought the finer points of manual transmission use and has, effectively, changed what it means to have a manual transmission altogether.

”The open clutch limiting deceleration and allowing the car to make the most of its kinetic energy.”

Kia also claims that the way the iMT works can cut CO2 emissions by about three percent in real-world driving, most notably do to the lake of engine braking and the constant start\stop function of the engine.

Final Thoughts

Kia's Intelligent Manual Transmission (iMT) Explained Exterior
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While it is nice to see automakers try to keep the manual transmission alive,

Kia and Hyundai’s intelligent manual transmission – with a clutch pedal or not – just feels like an over-complicated automatic transmission with extra electronics

. Kia’s system might have a clutch pedal, but for the most part, moving the gear lever into a selected gear is about as close as you can get to all those selective-shift automatics on the market today. This is even more true for Hyundai’s system without the clutch pedal, but Kia’s system also feels like it has a clutch pedal as an attempt to make it more appealing despite the fact that the car has full control over the engine and clutch.

Kia's Intelligent Manual Transmission (iMT) Explained
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It feels like it pretty much defeats the purpose of having a manual and, in all honesty, takes the fun out of it. One of the biggest benefits of having a manual transmission is the ability to have full control over the engine and transmission, utilize engine braking, and have 100-percent control over gear selection. With an iMT, you don’t have that ability because if the computer, which will most likely play it safe, doesn’t think your choice is acceptable, it won’t allow the transmission to couple with the engine.

Robert Moore
Editor-in-Chief and Automotive Expert - robert@topsped.com
Robert has been an auto enthusiast his entire life. He started working cars at a young age, learning the basics from his father in the home garage on the weekends. As time went on, Robert became more and more interested in cars and convinced his father to teach him how to drive when he was just 13 years old. Robert continued working on cars in his free time and learned as much as he could about engines, transmissions, and car electrical systems, something that only fed his curiosity more and eventually led him to earn a bachelors degree in automotive technology with a primary focus on engine performance and transmission rebuilding.  Read More
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