By the Numbers

What's That Smell?

Ooooh, that smell

From that ‘new car’ scent to the odor of old fast food bags, your car has many different smells. Some are normal and harmless while others signal that there is something wrong with your vehicle. When that new car smell has been replaced by something more noxious, it’s time to pay attention. Use the power of your nose to detect when your car has a problem. Read on to learn about some smells that could spell trouble for your vehicle.

Burned carpet



If you detect a burned carpet smell after using your brakes, it can indicate that your brake pads are overheating. Driving on worn and overheating brake pads is dangerous, as you lose precious stopping power. Don’t hesitate to take your vehicle to your mechanic for a brake inspection. Another possibility is that you’ve been driving with the emergency brake on. In this case, you likely haven’t done any permanent damage to your vehicle, possibly a little extra wear that might result in you needing a brake job a bit sooner.

Mold and mildew



If you’re greeted with a musty odor when you turn on the air conditioner, it could be an indicator that mold and/or mildew has developed in the air conditioning system. The air conditioning evaporator can harbor mold as a result of moisture naturally collecting on it. To get rid of the smell, you need to dry out the evaporator by turning off the air conditioner and driving with the fan on high. A musty smell can also be a sign that the cabin air filter needs to be changed. To learn more about your vehicle’s cabin air filter, check out this article.

Burning oil



The smell of burning oil needs to be investigated immediately to prevent further damage to your vehicle. Start by checking the oil level in the engine by removing the oil dipstick and inspecting it. You could be low on oil. If this is the case, add oil to the engine and keep an eye on it in the coming days to make sure the level stays up. If you continue to lose oil, look for oil leaks under your car to further isolate the problem. If the oil level is good, look at the temperature gauge. This smell can also be a sign that your engine is overheating. Consult your mechanic if the engine temperature is too high or if the problem persists. Continuing to drive with an overheating engine can cause permanent damage.




A sweet, syrupy smell is good at breakfast but not so good if it’s coming from your car engine. A sweet odor similar to maple syrup is an indicator of an antifreeze leak in the cooling system. There could be a leak in the radiator, heater core, cylinder head or a blown intake manifold gasket. Avoid driving your vehicle until the source of the leak is determined; you run the risk of your engine overheating and causing permanent damage. Make an appointment with your mechanic who will be able to determine why your car is leaking and fix it.

Exhaust fumes



If you smell exhaust fumes coming from the glove compartment or passenger side, it could mean that you have a faulty exhaust pipe that is letting gases into the vehicle through the floorboards. Exhaust fumes contain carbon monoxide, an odorless gas that can cause death if breathed in for too long. If this happens to you, be sure to open the windows to get fresh air in and get your vehicle to your mechanic as soon as possible.

Rotten eggs



The unmistakable smell of rotten eggs can signal a problem with your vehicle’s catalytic converter. It could be an issue with the engine or emissions system that caused the catalytic converter to overheat. It could also be a problem with the fuel injection system. A trip to your mechanic will sort everything out.

Burned rubber



A hose that has come loose and fallen on a hot part of your engine will give off an odor of burning rubber. Pull over and remove the hose from resting on the engine; be sure to let the engine cool before touching it. Failing to do this can cause the hose to melt, resulting in bigger problems.

General unpleasant odor



If your car’s odor isn’t related to a mechanical problem, a deep cleaning may be in order. Food and drink spills on the upholstery and carpet can cause a lingering funk. Start by shampooing the seats and floor mats. Clean out fast-food wrappers and other garbage on a regular basis to help prevent smells from developing.

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The content contained in this article is for entertainment and informational purposes only and should not be used in lieu of seeking professional advice from a certified technician or mechanic. We encourage you to consult with a certified technician or mechanic if you have specific questions or concerns relating to any of the topics covered herein. Under no circumstances will we be liable for any loss or damage caused by your reliance on any content.