Does your car have a weird smell coming from it?
And no, not just from the bag of fast food your teenager left under the seat three weeks ago.
Unpleasant or unusual smells are usually indicators that something is about to go wrong (or already has). When in doubt, take your car in for a check-up, but the purpose of this post will be to help you identify a handful of common problematic car smells so that you know what’s potentially going on.
Aside from preventing problems from getting worse and thus more expensive, learning to recognize these problem smells is important: it can prevent an accident. For example, what if the smell is coming from your brakes and it means that they need immediate maintenance? Believe it or not, honing your sense of (car) smell can actually improve your safety and the safety of others on the road.
Ready to start sniffing?
#1 – Overheating Brake Pads
Overheating brake pads tend to smell like burning carpet, or, more accurately, burning hair. What you associate it with really depends on your frame of reference and how unlucky you’ve been in life.
Anyway, this smell doesn’t necessarily always mean that you need to have your brake pads replaced. It’s very contextual: have you just come down a long hill, your foot on the brakes half the time? In that case, the smell is probably normal (tip: downshift in these scenarios to avoid wearing down your brake pads faster than necessary).
However, if you’re driving around in normal conditions and get that burned carpet/hair smell, it could mean that a brake is “dragging” because the caliper piston seized up. In this case, your car does need immediate repairs—calipers can be somewhat expensive to replace, so getting the brakes maintained as soon as possible may save you a bit of money as well.
#2 – Loose Hoses or Belts
When a hose or belt comes loose, it usually makes contact with other parts under the hood that become quite hot while driving. Since hoses and belts are made of rubber, the smell to look for here is—you guessed it—burning rubber. This smell is usually associated with tires (there’s even a phrase for driving fast, “burning rubber”), but assuming you haven’t been doing donuts in a parking lot, the smell is probably a hose or belt.
If you catch a loose hose or belt quickly enough (i.e., the moment you smell rubber burning), you can usually put it back in place by yourself after it cools down. However, the odds are if you could smell it burning, it was probably damaged and needs to be replaced. Better now than on the interstate, right?
#3 – Climate Control System
If you catch a whiff of something moldy, not entirely unlike old gym shorts, it can mean that mildew has been cropping up inside your air conditioning evaporator. This is usually due to moisture condensing and remaining stagnant over time, giving the mildew time to grow.
The solution is often as simple as turning the air conditioning off but leaving the fan on while driving for a few miles. This can dry out the air conditioning system. If it doesn’t work, get climate control servicing done at your local BG shop.
#4 – Leaking Fuel Injection Line
If you ever smell gas anytime that you’re not at an actual gas station, you might be smelling the result of a faulty fuel injection line. This requires immediate maintenance.
The only exception may be if you’re driving a pre-1980s vehicle, but only after having driven the vehicle and subsequently shut it off. This because older cars didn’t have the kind of evaporative emissions systems we have now.
#5 – Leaking Coolant System
If you suddenly start smelling something sweet, almost like syrup, there’s a very high probability that it’s because of a leaking coolant system. This is because coolant contains ethylene glycol—smells nice, but it’s super poisonous.
How severe of a problem this indicates depends. If the fluids are coming from a heater hose, it just means that the hose needs to be replaced. If it’s coming from the radiator itself, that could be expensive, unless it’s just a leaky cap. Either way, sweet smells mean that you should have your car inspected pronto. A malfunctioning cooling system could damage the engine, perhaps permanently.
If you decide to inspect things on your own, make sure you let the car cool down entirely before taking the radiator cap off. While it’s still hot, pressure build up can send the cap flying off at dangerous speeds.
If the problem was something minor like a hose or a cap, don’t forget to refill your coolant.
Can’t Identify The Smell?
As you’ve learned in this post, unusual smells can mean big problems. If you’re unsure of the cause of an odor in your car or truck, bring it on over to your local BG service center where one of our professionals would be more than happy to put their sense of smell to the test.