The mitochondrial heat shock protein Hsp70 is essential for import of nuclear-encoded proteins, involved in both unfolding and membrane translocation of preproteins. mtHsp70 interacts reversibly with Tim44 of the mitochondrial inner membrane, yet the role of this interaction is unknown. We analysed this role by using two yeast mutants of mtHsp70 that differentially influenced its interaction with Tim44. One mutant mtHsp70 (Ssc1-2p) efficiently bound preproteins, but did not show a detectable complex formation with Tim44; the mitochondria imported loosely folded preproteins with wild-type kinetics, yet were impaired in unfolding of preproteins. The other mutant Hsp70 (Ssc1-3p') bound both Tim44 and preproteins, but the mitochondria did not import folded polypeptides and were impaired in import of unfolded preproteins; Ssc1-3p' was defective in its ATPase domain and did not undergo a nucleotide-dependent conformational change, resulting in permanent binding to Tim44. The following conclusions are suggested. (i) The import of loosely folded polypeptides (translocase function of mtHsp70) does not depend on formation of a detectable Hsp70-Tim44 complex. Two explanations are possible: a trapping mechanism by soluble mtHsp70, or a weak/very transient interaction of Ssc1-2p with Tim44 that leads to a weak force generation sufficient for import of loosely folded, but not folded, polypeptides. (ii) Import of folded preproteins (unfoldase function of mtHsp70) involves a reversible nucleotide-dependent interaction of mtHsp70 with Tim44, including a conformational change in mtHsp70. This is consistent with a model that the dynamic interaction of mtHsp70 with Tim44 generates a pulling force on preproteins which supports unfolding during translocation.