Trust your nose: 10 vehicle warning signs you can smell

Lots of people enjoy that “new car smell”, but there are other smells you may notice coming from your vehicle that can be a sign of a serious and potentially costly issue. By having the source of any odors investigated promptly you can avoid an unexpected breakdown or more extensive repairs down the road.


If you didn’t just come from a fill up, this could be a sign of a fuel leak somewhere, such as in the fuel injector line or the gas tank. A cracked or faulty gas cap could be allowing fuel to evaporate into the air around your car. Leaking fuel is a serious fire hazard and the vehicle should be inspected by a professional immediately.

Burning oil

Oil could be leaking onto the exhaust system. Look for oil on the pavement or smoke coming from the engine area or exhaust. Turn off the engine first!

Burning rubber

This smell could mean a slipping drive belt or a belt about to break, or a hose that has come loose and is now rubbing or melting against another engine component. Never reach into a hot engine compartment!

Burning plastic

The simplest thing to check first is that no plastic debris (like a grocery bag) has been caught under the vehicle and melted. If you do see something, don’t grab it. It will be very hot! If that’s not it, there could be an electrical short somewhere. When the plastic insulation around wires has been worn down or chewed away by rodents it can cause a short, or other types of shorts can manage to melt the insulation surrounding the wire directly. This is a severe fire hazard that demands immediate attention.

Burning carpet

Double check that the hand brake/emergency brake is disengaged. If the smell isn’t fleeting and is happening under normal driving conditions, it’s probably a sign that your brake pads and shoes need attention. This is a big safety issue, so have it check immediately.

Rotten eggs

If you doubled checked your trunk for forgotten lunch boxes and still smell eggs, you probably have a problem in your fuel system. If your catalytic converter, fuel filters or fuel pressure sensors are damaged or worn out, stinky hydrogen sulfide is not being properly converted to an odorless form and can leak into the passenger compartment.


A strong smell of exhaust or fumes that permeates the inside of the vehicle indicates a leak in the exhaust system. This could quickly raise the carbon monoxide level in the car’s interior to dangerous levels. Roll down all the windows and drive straight to the nearest repair shop to have it inspected.


The smell of burning wood or paper might be par for the course for drivers still learning a manual transmission, but if you’re an experienced stick shift driver and are smelling campfire, you may be in need of some clutch repairs.

Sweet syrup

Unless you are passing an IHOP, you are probably smelling ethylene glycol, a key component of engine coolant. This may be a sign that engine coolant is leaking. Fix it right away and you might get lucky and only need a new hose. Neglect it too long or let the radiator run dry and you are looking at a much bigger repair bill. Never remove the radiator cap while the engine is hot.

Musty basement

That terrible smell that comes out of the vents when you turn on the A/C is the result of mildew and bacteria growing in your HVAC system. The condensation that builds up on the condenser, in the drain line and on the filter is the perfect breeding ground. You can start by changing your cabin air filter and running your fan on high with the A/C off, but if that doesn’t take care of it you’ll need a professional cleaning and disinfection by a mechanic. Ignoring the smelling can cause reactions in some people with asthma or allergies such as watery eyes, headaches, sneezing, and breathing difficulties.


Never ignore the signs that your vehicle is trying to give you about a problem. If you are smelling any of the above warning smells coming from your car, bring your car in to our expert technicians. We will conduct a thorough review of all major systems in your vehicle, diagnose the issue and have you on your way in no time.


From brake services to oil changes to full engine replacements, Hillside Automotive Center can provide top quality service with the best nationwide warranty available. Call 860-951-1083 or schedule online today.

Written by Hillside Automotive

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