King of All Trades: Can the Kia Sonet' iMT gearbox really do it all?
It is an unnerving experience at first, I’m not going to lie. Muscle memory is making my left foot twitch in response to my left hand working the manual gearbox, but my brain is overriding years of reflex action and ordering the left foot to stay firmly planted on the dead pedal. This is a manual gearbox but one where the clutch is automated so the left foot does nothing expect stay glued to the dead pedal. And in any case, thanks to the wonder of adaptability that the human brain is, in just a few minutes I was comfortable, rowing through the ’box like an iMT master. Confused? I was too.
Let me give you a refresher. Kia was the first to showcase the Intelligent Manual Transmission when it took the wraps off the Sonet at the Auto Expo last February. This was the first of its kind clutchless manual transmission and aimed to deliver the convenience of an automatic without the price premium. That alone caused as many questions from the journalists as the Sonet itself did — how will it know when I want to change gear? Can you stall it? But perhaps most importantly, will you enjoy it? Before I tell you all that, let’s talk about how the iMT works.
The iMT, put simply, is a conventional H-pattern manual gearbox with an automatically-operated clutch. It exists to serve a similar purpose to the AMTs we seen offered with a lot of the Sonet’s competitors — to provide the obvious benefits of an automatic gearbox, without having to spend too much dough on a sophisticated DCT or even a regular torque converter. But that’s where the similarities end. Because while the AMT shifts the gears for you, the iMT lets you do the handy-work. Why not just offer an AMT? In our experience, AMTs don’t often perform well — they are plagued by head toss, make the engine dull, and take quite long to complete shifts. They do however make life easy in traffic and I suspect Kia’s engineers came to the same conclusion. So, what if you could take that ease of driving in traffic snarls, while adding to the driving experience? That’s where the iMT comes in. It lets you do the lag-free, seamless shifting with your hands, but takes away the tiring hours of leg exercise when you are in rush hour traffic.
The iMT relies on a set of sensors and actuators to sense when you are about to change gear and then engages the clutch. The same actuators also intelligently engage and disengage the clutch when you come to a stop or when you start moving. The iMT behaves exactly like an automatic gearbox in every situation, it has a creep function and, on this top-spec Sonet, it also has hill-hold assist to keep you in place when setting off on an incline. And no, you cannot stall it. Like an automatic, when you come to a halt, or even slow down too much for that particular gear to be able to work, it will engage the clutch to prevent stalling and warn you to shift down. Out in the real world, the iMT is a joy to use. I absolutely fell in love with it in the week that I spent with this iMT-equipped Sonet. It makes commuting much easier, now that evo India office has finally replaced the Zoom calls for the first time since the pandemic began. And now that everyone is back in office, I enlisted the help of some colleagues and a few friends to find out if the iMT is actually as good as I thought.
“I’m driving a car for the first time after the pandemic struck, and it’s been even longer since I drove a manual,” says Avadhi Katariya. Avadhi loves cars, but prefers appreciating beautiful designs like the Sonet’s, rather than squeezing through a gap between two municipal transport buses. “At first I was a bit nervous, especially in traffic, and was instinctively reaching for the brake pedal every time I shifted because muscle memory was kicking in”. But just a few kilometres in and she felt right at home. “When I drove my own car the next day, I slotted it into gear without depressing the clutch — the iMT is just so easy to get used to!”. While it is a bit embarrassing to admit this as an auto journo, I too have been struck with iMT withdrawal when driving conventional manual cars. It isn’t just easy to get used to, it is also very intuitive and seamless when shifting which makes it hard not to miss it when stuck in a traffic jam. But the fact is that the iMT would obviously perform well in traffic, since everything is happening slowly. But what if you’ve entered a hill climb event in this Kia Sonet — would it be able to keep up?
To be honest, a mountain pass is exactly where I thought the iMT’s toughest challenge lies — the 118bhp and 172Nm of torque from this 1-litre turbo-petrol engine mean that flowing corners come at you fast, and that requires constant gearshifts and slick rev-matching. “It is perhaps even better than a regular manual around the Lap of Mutha,” says Abhishek Wairagade, our resident muscle-man who is usually seen only on his motorcycle’s saddle on our favourite testing road. But he’s also a closet car enthusiast and and loves having the added control of third pedal. “I don’t drive too often, so when I do, I want to feel involved”, he says, “Sure, the iMT does lose out on that extra bit of involvement you get from the clutch, but it still puts you in control without making your left leg get tired after a spirited drive”. So while an AMT is probably not the best companion to have on a twisty road, the iMT performs very well here too. “Yes, it doesn’t let you slam shifts at light speed but, you can switch ratios at a fairly quick pace”. And the shifts are smooth! We tried our best to throw it off balance — shifting straight from fourth to first or downshifting mid-corner to see if the Sonet gets unsettled. And you know what? It didn’t. Of course, the iMT will senses when the engine speed is too high for a particular gear and will not engage the clutch thus preventing you from damaging the engine and other components of the drivetrain. But if you are at the correct speed and make an aggressive downshift, the revs rise up (automatic rev-matching!) and the engine makes itself audible, but there's no head-tossing whatsoever! Moreover, you don’t need to worry about engaging and disengaging the clutch at all — think of a gear and send it!
The iMT is good on a winding road then, but here’s the next test, to find out if it fares well on a long-distance cruise, where an automatic shines. To validate my findings, I enlisted the help of Anchal Mundkur. She loves her car almost as much as she loves taking it on a road trip. Her car is full of nifty modifications to make those road trips easier, barring one — it is paired to a conventional manual gearbox. Anchal came along with us when we went #TrippinWithLemonTree to Udaipur and the fact that she drove the entire distance from Pune to Udaipur on her own, is a testament to just how adventurous she is. She took the keys to the Sonet to take it on one of her weekend drives to Lonavala, just outside Pune, and came back quite impressed. “Perhaps my only concern when I’m on long road trips is how often we need to change gears on Indian highways, and that can cause a little extra fatigue”. The iMT does away with that, and it also doesn’t sap power from the engine, so you can get very similar fuel economy figure to a conventional manual ’box. It means you end up paying less for fuel, while having to stop less too, and that’s a win-win if I’ve ever seen one.
At the end of the day, the iMT conquered everything we threw at it. It nails the commutes as advertised, but to our surprise it is fun to take along on spirited drives and weekend getaways too. I was a bit confused about it at first, since it neither seems to fully please the #ManualsMatter fanbase, or make it a totally effortless drive. But after a week of exclusively driving this Sonet iMT, it all makes sense now. The iMT is a double edged sword. The marketing jargon will have you believe that it gives you almost all the benefits of the automatic gearbox, while making your wallet happier. But what they didn’t tell you, is that it can also please the enthusiast.