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5 Car Smells and What They Mean

Your car has ways of telling you when it needs service. One of the most unpleasant mediums of this communication is car odors. So what does it mean when your car smells bad? The local mechanics at Chapel Hill Tire are here with insight.

1) Sulfur (Rotten Eggs) Car Smell: Failing Catalytic Converter

Does your car produce a pungent smell when you’re driving? This odor could signify an issue with your catalytic converter. The catalytic converter works to filter your exhaust. This vehicle component successfully translates harmful compounds (like hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and carbon monoxide) into harmless compounds (like water vapor and carbon dioxide). 

The combustion of your car’s engine can produce sulfur dioxide, which drivers report as a horrible, strong rotten egg smell. When your catalytic converter is failing or stolen, it cannot filter these emissions—allowing the pungent sulfur dioxide smell to carry through your exhaust. You can read more in our guide to why catalytic converter theft is on the rise

2) Burning Oil Smell

If you smell burning oil in your car, there is likely a problem under the hood. This is often caused by skipping routine oil changes or maintenance fluid flushes. 

  • Low Engine Oil: Naturally, burning oil odors are most commonly derived from low, deteriorating, and overheating engine oil. Getting your oil changed as soon as possible is essential to preventing costly engine damage.
  • Car Overheating: When you smell burning car oil, check the temperature gauge. Is your car overheating? Overheating engines leave any internal component vulnerable to burning, including your engine oil. 
  • Transmission: Your transmission fluid carries a similar smell when burning. In these cases, the burning oil smell could be a sign that your transmission is overheating. A transmission fluid flush can eliminate this odor and protect your transmission.

3) Car Smells Like Burning Rubber: Brakes, Tires, or Engine Components

If your car is putting off the smell of burning rubber, there are a few potential culprits to consider:

  • Brakes: As your brake pads press against the brake rotor, it generates heat and friction. If you overwork your brakes (such as with intense, frequent braking), the heat and wear of your brake pads become intensified. In these cases, they may begin emitting the burning rubber smell—as most brake pads contain rubber particles. 
  • Tires: Similarly, the rubber of your tires can create heat and friction against the pavement. Especially after rough driving, accelerated tire wear can also emit a burning rubber smell.
  • Engine: Your engine is filled with rubber belts, hoses, and other components. Any of these parts can be prone to failure—resulting in this burnt smell. 

4) Sweet Maple Syrup: Failing Radiator 

What about when your car smells sickly sweet? Perhaps you are smelling burning maple syrup or butterscotch pudding? This car odor often indicates a failing radiator. Your radiator fluid is composed of ethylene glycol—a product chemically similar to the compounds of the simple sugar glucose. In fact, researchers have found ways to convert sugar into ethylene glycol. 

When your radiator is due for service, it can begin burning this radiator fluid. As ethylene glycol burns, it produces that signature sickly sweet smell. In these cases, visit a mechanic as soon as possible for radiator service. 

5) Internal Car Smells

The most common source of car smell is not from your car at all; spilling, dropping, or forgetting something stinky in your vehicle can leave a lingering odor. If caught early enough, you may be able to eliminate car smells with a simple cleaning. However, set-in odors require a professional car detailing service. 

Chapel Hill Tire Car Service Near Me

Is your car producing unusual or unpleasant odors? If so, bring it to the local mechanics as quickly as possible for service. Addressing the issue early can prevent more costly and significant damage from occurring. If you don’t have time to visit a mechanic, we will come to you with our pick-up and delivery service

Chapel Hill Tire’s local mechanics proudly serve the greater Triangle area with 9 locations across Durham, Apex, Raleigh, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Our local automotive technicians also commonly serve nearby communities, including Knightdale, Cary, Pittsboro, Wake Forest, Hillsborough, Morrisville, and beyond. We invite you to make your appointment, browse our coupons, or give us a call to get started today!

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