We all know the one question that no one in a car wants to hear:
"What's that smell?"
When something goes wrong, it can be difficult to tell what is causing the problem. That's why we've put together this handy list, designed to help you sniff out the problem at hand - meaning less stress for you, and your vehicle.
By the end of this article, you will know:
1. Some of the main smells you might encounter
2. What causes the smell
3. What you can do to fix this
Use the following table of contents to find the problem you want to solve:
Crashing Catalytic Converter?
Smells like: Rotten eggs
A struggling engine could be a sign that your catalytic converter is failing. The catalytic converter is responsible for turning harmful gases into harmless ones. A sulphuric smell could indicate a build-up of gas, and a flagging catalytic converter could be a sign that the engine itself is failing.
Best to get this checked out early with an exhaust repair, to prevent more - potentially costly - repairs in future. Once replaced, the smell should disappear along with the faulty car part. Your catalytic converter should last around ten years, with proper maintenance.
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Smells like: Burning rubber, burning paper, burning plastic, burning oil, burning carpet
An accelerating car can produce a range of smells, and these smells each have distinct causes and meanings.
If you press too hard on the clutch, you may smell burning rubber, as the rubber casing around the clutch melts. Similarly, you may encounter a burning paper smell when changing gears, as the paper-like surface of the clutch can wear away if too much friction occurs. In both cases, try using less pressure.
A burning rubber smell could also suggest that a rubber belt has come loose and is melting due to the heat of the engine. Alternatively, the smell could be being caused by hot oils or coolants reaching the engine. You should get this looked at to prevent further leaks from doing the same.
Likewise, you should have your car looked at if you smell burning plastic, as this could point to an electrical fault caused by the melting of the plastic casing around wires. This same smell may also signal that it is time to clean out your car heater, as something may have gotten into the system.
Failing to replenish oil at the right time can disrupt the appearance and smell of the oil, and a burning oil smell might mean that it is time to schedule an oil change.
An oil leak, however, could be a sign that the engine is overheating. You should get this checked out as soon as possible, to ensure that you don't have a blown gasket. The oil drain plug may also need to be tightened, which should help to prevent further leaks.
Overheating brake pads can struggle with uphill climbs, leading to the production of a burning carpet smell. The heat caused by the friction of applying pressure to the brakes can take a toll, even making the pedal feel spongelike as a result of the brake fluid converting air and water into steam.
Smells like: Mould
The moisture of your air conditioning unit encourages mildew to form. Bacteria can grow if you do not use your A/C often enough, which will send a mouldy smell through your dash vents. To get rid of this smell, you need to check that your drain tube is working properly.
If it seems to be working correctly, then you may need to target the mould directly within the A/C unit. A mechanic can do this for you.
If you want to try and fix the problem yourself, try leaving the fan on for five minutes after driving to dry out the system, cleaning your A/C filters, and disinfecting the exterior air vents to target the bacteria.
Smells like: Sugar
Whilst this might sound nice, a sweet scent can point towards an engine coolant leak. As the sweet-smelling coolant works to manage the temperature of your car, you should definitely get this looked at, before your engine overheats.
This is not the only concern, as engine coolant contains the chemical ethylene glycol, which can be highly toxic to humans. Get your car booked in for a coolant change as soon as possible to avoid potential dangers and expensive costs later down the line.