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8 Common Car Smells and What They Mean

BY: Larry Witherspoon Jr.
Car air freshener mounted to a vent

With the temperatures at their all-time high heading into the home stretch of summer, your vehicle’s components get put to the test at this time of year. The higher temperatures take a toll on just about every part of your car, so maintaining your car throughout the summer is essential.

One of the easiest ways to maintain your car in the summer is to stay alert for unusual smells. Since your vehicle has many different components built from various materials, unique smells can appear out of nowhere. Unusual smells coming from your car should be taken very seriously as they can indicate failing components. Let’s look at the 8 most common car smells and what they mean.

Common Car Smells and What They Could Be

1. Burnt Rubber

The indistinct smell of burning rubber is one of the most common car smells that indicate an issue. Since many of the components on your vehicle are made of rubber, the cause of this smell can come from many different problems. The common issues associated with a burnt rubber smell in your vehicle include slipping belts, a faulty A/C compressor, transmission issues, and tire rubbing.

Slipping Belts

The serpentine belt on your vehicle is responsible for turning the accessories on your engine. Over time, these belts can start to wear, crack, and fray, causing them to slip. When serpentine belts slip on the pulley, they can start to burn and emit a burnt rubber smell. If you believe your serpentine belt is slipping, you must replace it as soon as possible to reduce the chances of it falling apart while driving.

Faulty A/C Compressor

The A/C compressor on your engine is the primary component that generates power for your car’s air conditioning system. It utilizes a clutch and pulley system to cycle on and off to keep your car’s cabin cool. A burning rubber smell can come from your air conditioner compressor due to the clutch becoming stuck and the belt slipping across the stuck pulley or the internal components or your compressor burning up. A malfunctioning A/C system will usually accompany this, so you will likely experience multiple symptoms.

Slipping Transmission

A slipping automatic transmission can also cause a burning rubber smell in your car. Transmission issues can range from small leaks to larger failures of the entire transmission. A burning rubber smell from automatic transmissions usually indicates that the bands within the transmission are slipping, which will require a professional mechanic to repair the issue.

Tire Rubbing

Lastly, one of the larger rubber components of your vehicle, your tires, can lead to burning rubber smells. This is usually due to your tires rubbing against worn-out suspension components or against the frame/body of the vehicle. This can also be due to a misalignment of the wheels that causes the tires to rub against other components.

2. Burnt Oil

If you smell hot or burnt oil from your vehicle, you should have your car inspected by a certified mechanic as soon as possible. This is usually the indication that your engine has an oil leak. Oil leaks can come from just about any sealed part of your component where oil is present. This can include your valve covers, oil pan gasket, oil filter housing, etc. Oil leaks are usually easy to diagnose and fix if the component is easy to get to. Neglecting an oil leak can cause serious engine issues and damage to other adjacent components.

3. Gasoline

Several issues can cause a gasoline smell from your car. Since fuel is transferred from the rear of your vehicle to your engine in the front of your car, there are many places to leak from. Let’s look at some of the most common reasons your car might smell like gas.

Gas Spill

If you have recently filled up your vehicle and spilled some gas on or around your car, you may experience a fuel smell when driving. This can be avoided by paying close attention when filling your car and cleaning up gas spills.

Loose Gas Cap

Your gas smell can sometimes come from something as simple as a loose gas cap. Properly secure your gas cap by tightening it until you hear audible clicks when filling up your vehicle. If your gas cap is not tightened correctly, fuel vapors can enter the car’s cabin and cause a gas smell.

Exhaust Leak

Exhaust leaks can also cause a fuel smell to enter your car’s interior as the exhaust system runs under the vehicle’s cab. If you have a crack in your exhaust pipe, a faulty exhaust gasket, or a hole in your muffler, you will most likely smell your exhaust while driving, which smells like gasoline.

4. Sweet Syrup

If you are experiencing a sweet syrup or maple syrup smell coming from your car, your vehicle isn’t cooking a dessert for you. A sweet smell indicates a coolant leak that could drastically damage your vehicle’s engine if not addressed ASAP. If you have leaking coolant, your vehicle will not have enough antifreeze to keep your engine at the correct temperature. This leads to overheating and can cause your engine’s head gaskets to become damaged, causing a repair that can cost thousands to fix.

5. Burning Carpet

A burning carpet smell from your vehicle usually isn’t due to your car’s carpet burning. The cause of a burning carpet smell usually comes from something you would least expect – your brakes. When your brake pads become overworked and overheated, they can emit a burning carpet smell. If you have experienced this smell while driving, a certified brake mechanic should inspect your vehicle’s brakes.

6. Rotten Eggs

A rotten egg smell is one of the worst smells you can have coming from your vehicle. This musty smell is usually due to a faulty catalytic converter. A catalytic converter’s job is to filter out harmful chemicals from your exhaust fumes to emit cleaner exhaust gas. Inside the catalytic converter is a filter that captures all of these gases. Once this becomes clogged, it can cause a loss of power and a rotten egg smell that can be enough not to want to drive your vehicle. If you smell rotten eggs while driving, take your car to a mechanic or exhaust shop to check the catalytic converter out.

7. Fish

A few different issues can cause a fishy smell from your vehicle. If condensation accumulates in your car, especially in humid conditions, it can smell fishy. Leaked coolant that starts to dry up on your spark plugs or other engine components can also cause a fishy smell from your engine that can travel into the vehicle’s cabin. Perhaps the most common reason your car smells like fish is mold or mildew growing in your vehicle’s cabin. This usually happens on the lowest spot of the floor, under the carpet, due to a leak.

8. Burning Paper

If your vehicle is equipped with a manual transmission and you start to smell a burning paper smell, your clutch is most likely going out. The faces of many clutch discs are made from a paper-based material that can start to burn if you are riding the clutch when shifting gears. If you are smelling a burning paper sound, have your clutch inspected by a transmission professional.

How Endurance Can Help Keep Your Car Properly Maintained

While routine car maintenance can help keep your vehicle running at its best, many cars still experience unexpected mechanical breakdowns. If your automotive factory warranty has expired, you will be responsible for footing any repair bills. With a vehicle protection plan such as Endurance, you can get factory warranty-like protection for years after your vehicle’s factory warranty expires.

All new Endurance customers will receive one year of Elite Benefits (with a small activation fee). These benefits include two tire repairs/replacements, key fob replacements if yours are lost or stolen, battery jump assistance, and flat tire assistance if you experience a blowout or flat tire on the road.

Experience our award-winning customer service firsthand by calling our dedicated team at (800) 253-8203 to request a FREE quote. Alternatively, explore our online store for an instant price preview and shop with confidence.

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