What’s That Smell? 5 Car Smells and What They Mean

The Stories of Our Cars’ Smells

After a while, everybody’s car gets a smell.

And usually, that special olfactory relationship between owner and auto can be pinned down to a few factors that paint a picture of our day-to-day: the good and bad smells of us and our pets,  our jobs, what we like to eat, and whether or not we habitually forget our gym attire in the trunk – just to name a few.  Once you know what to look (or sniff) for, it’s easy to see that the scents emanating from our car cabins come together to say a lot about us.

But there are other smells that come from our vehicles. And unlike the odors that accumulate in our car seats and headliners that give us insight into the life of the driver, these kinds of smells come from under the hood to clue us or our auto repair shops into the life of the car.


1. The Surprisingly Sweet Smell of Burning Coolant

Often described as smelling like maple syrup, or sweet candy, the smell of burning coolant might be pleasant if it weren’t also toxic  – and indicative of a radiator or engine leak.

2. Burnt Hair or Fabric

What may accompany a high-pitched squeak (and commonly follow curvy, downhill driving), the unmistakable smell of burnt hair or fabric usually means the brake pads have been working overtime and are starting to get cooked.

3. Inescapable Heat

When transmissions are functioning properly, we don’t smell them working. Unlike some of the other benign smells produced by a well-running engine, if it smells like fire and brimstone coming from beneath the car, that might mean transmission fluid is dirty or leaking. To make this one easier, it might come along with reduced or loud shifting performance.

4. Rotten Eggs

Impossible to miss and even harder to ignore, the stench of rotten eggs rising from your engine should be a red flag for any driver. And if your emissions test didn’t tell you, the smell means it could be time for a new catalytic converter.

5. The New Car Smell

Of all the smells associated with our cars, the beloved new car smell is one that takes us back to the days when we first got our vehicles. In reality, the fleeting scent of new car smell is mainly a combination of the plastic, foam and adhesives that make up our cars – and is actually considered by some to be not very good for us.

But the good news is that it typically means your car is fresh off the lot…and problem-free – so enjoy it while it lasts.


If You Smell It, Let A Professional Look At It

For many car owners, noticing a smell that seems to follow their car around town is the first sign that something is amiss with their vehicle. But to an expert auto repair shop, the type of smells can immediately tell them where to look.

Which means if you start to smell anything other than the usual smells of “you,” bring your car to a qualified auto mechanic and let them take a whiff!