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The Nose Knows: What Your Car’s Smells Are Trying to Tell You

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car smells what's wrong

What’s that smell?

Most car smells are easily identifiable, accounted for, and often benign. The grease stench from yesterday’s late night drive-through run, the wet dog odor from your wet dog, the sweet grape aroma from your kid’s smashed juice box in the back seat are all smells that drivers can dismiss. None of these car smells should cause alarm, unless of course you don’t have a dog, a fast food habit, or children—then you might either be a thief, you’ve gotten into the wrong car by mistake, or someone else has hijacked your vehicle to run everyday errands.

Anyway… Although the above smells are nothing to sneeze at, there are certain car smells that should immediately capture your attention, according to the Car Care Council at

Burnt rubber should grab your nose by the hairs, and it’s a sign that the drive belts have slipped or loose hoses are “rubbing against rotating accessory drive pulleys,” according to the Council, which advises drivers not to reach into a hot engine.

Oil could be leaking on the exhaust system if you smell hot oil; look for smoke coming out of the engine or an oil spill on the concrete, advises the Council.

The stench of rotten eggs—unless you discover a forgotten carton in your trunk—requires your undivided attention. According to the Council, this pungent odor could be a signal that your catalytic converter is malfunctioning by “not converting the hydrogen sulfide in the exhaust to sulfur dioxide properly. This smell can also be attributed to a poor running engine, causing the catalytic converter to become overloaded and fail due to meltdown.”

If you smell syrup and there are no pancakes or waffles in sight, “your car is leaking engine coolant from a leaky component related to the car’s cooling system,” reports the Council, which warns against messing with a hot radiator.

If you smell gas, you’re likely to have a gas leak. Because this smell is exceptionally worrisome and flammable, find the cause as soon as possible, warns the Council.

Brake trouble can smell like burning carpet, according to the Council, and if this scent occurs during normal driving situations, the Council advises you to have your brakes checked ASAP.

Keeping your eyes, ears, and nose open to what your vehicle is communicating is important to everyday and long-term vehicle maintenance and, most importantly, your safety.

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