What creates that new car smell?


Constance Brinkley-Badgett

Constance Brinkley-Badgett

Contributing Writer

Constance Brinkley-Badgett is MediaFeed’s executive editor. She has more than 20 years of experience in digital, broadcast and print journalism, as well as several years of agency experience in content marketing.

Published September 25, 2017|3 min read

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People love the smell of a new car, right? After all, there are air fresheners, sprays, scented gels and a whole host of other products that claim to replicate that scent so your car at least smells new if it doesn’t necessarily look it. Heck, Ford Motor Co. even set up an “odor factory” in China in 2008 to perfect the smell inside its new automobiles.

That’s a good indication of the popularity of new car smell, right? Well, it turns out not everyone likes it. A Google search for “how to get new car smell” actually turned up more results for “out” than it did for “back.” Much more, in fact: 28 million to 16 million results respectively.

And Ford? Well, the company was actually responding to complaints about the smell. Turns out, people around the globe have varying opinions about new car smell.

“Smog and indoor pollution have made Chinese consumers paranoid about smells in new cars, and thus the problem is actually exaggerated,” Jeff Cai, general manager of auto product and quality at J.D. Power China, was quoted as saying in a Bloomberg article. “On the other hand, there’s a group of consumers in Europe and the U.S., who are so fond of it that they will buy new car smell spray to keep it as long as possible.”

Maybe it’s just the cars people are buying that makes them dislike the smell. After all, Car & Driver’s Sherri Daley did a high-end sniff test with a sommelier and it sounded positively delightful. It seems if you can afford a Bentley or Ferrari, you’re more likely to get hints of “leather and beurre noisette” than you are aromas of questionable chemicals.

So what exactly is “new car smell?” It turns out it’s actually a delightful melange of volatile organic compounds, or VOC for short. Yes, even in the high-end automobiles, though there’s often more burled wood and leather there to overcome the chemical smells.

As Chemical & Engineering News, the “newsmagazine of the chemical world” wrote back in 2002: “Nearly every solid surface inside a vehicle is a fabric or plastic that is held together in part with adhesives and sealers. Outgassing of residual solvents and other chemicals from these materials leads to a dilute sea of VOCs floating about in the passenger compartment. The same holds true for new airplanes, homes, and offices.”

Volatile compounds? Great. Toxic? Well, the jury is still out, but for some people, the chemicals that create new car smell – things like formaldehyde, ethylbenzene and toulene – can cause allergic reactions, nausea, dizziness and headaches. Prolonged exposure to these chemicals, which are found in other products like paint and glue, can even cause serious health concerns. What isn’t known about their presence in cars (and homes and other buildings) is whether there are enough of them to cause health concerns.

So, if you’re considering buying a new car and you love that new car smell, you’re in luck. Go ahead and enjoy the smell all you wish. No one is saying it’s necessarily bad for you … yet. And auto manufacturers have removed many VOCs from their products during the last several years, so there are fewer of them in use in most new cars these days.

If you hate the smell, however, but you need a new car, there are some things you can do to avoid new car smell altogether, or get rid of it as quickly as possible. Here are a few.

  • Buy or lease a used car that is just a couple of years old, as the smell should be lessened.

  • Crack your windows whenever possible, especially when parked in a hot, sunny place. This will allow the gases to escape from your car.

  • Keep your interior clean. Some of the chemicals that cause the smell can be trapped on dust particles, so keeping your vehicle wiped down can help the smell dissipate more quickly.

By the way, if you're in the market for a new car, it's good to understand how much insurance you'll need. To help you get started, you can compare auto insurance quotes here.

Image: gradyreese