What's That Smell Coming from My Car's Engine?


March 07, 2019

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By Ellise Pierce

Spill something in the car—say, coffee or soup—one will have a pretty good idea of what's causing any strange scents. Here's how to get rid of those car smells. But if the origin of an odd odor isn't clear, chances are it's coming from the engine, says Jill Trotta, vice president, industry advocacy and sales at RepairPal and an ASE-certified technician—and it's not a good sign.

"Car smells are a clear indicator that's something wrong," says Trotta. "So you never want to ignore a strange smell when you're driving." Here are some of the most common car odors, she says, and what to do if picking up their scent.

If the Car Smells like Rotten Eggs

What it might be: Catalytic converter

"A sulfur smell could indicate an imbalance in your engine's air-to-fuel ratio," says Trotta. If there's fuel-injection problems, the unburned fuel can plug the catalytic convertor, and the exhaust will have nowhere to go. End result? The car won't run.

What to do: Have a mechanic look at the car immediately. The catalytic converter can be saved if the problem is caught early enough.

If the Car Smells like Mold or Mildew

What it might be: Air-conditioning

A car's air-conditioning works by pulling moisture out of the air; the extracted water goes into a box behind the dashboard, which has a drain. Leaves or papers can work their way into that box and block the drain. The standing water will eventually get moldy, which is a costly problem to repair. Plus, the water will often find another way out of the box—usually onto the carpets and floor mats. Mold-spawning moisture can also build up in the duct system unless the A/C is run regularly.

What to do: If smelling mold, have it checked out. To help prevent moisture buildup, run the A/C every month or two for a few minutes—even if it's not needed to cool off. This also helps lubricate oil seals and bearings in the compressor, which will make it last longer.

If the Car Smells like Maple Syrup or Fruity Candy

What it might be: Coolant

A sweet smell coming from the engine is probably coolant escaping from the cooling system, which means there is probably a leak. That could wreak havoc on the car, including causing the vehicle to overheat.

What to do: If coolant is leaking, driving the vehicle could damage the engine. Have the vehicle towed to the nearest repair facility.

If the Car Smells like Acrid Smoke or Burning Oil

What it might be: Oil leak

An oil leak is dangerous for two reasons. First, if it hits the exhaust, a fire could result. Also, a low oil level could damage the engine. If the smell is noticed not long after an oil change, the leak might be caused by a loose drain plug or filter that wasn't properly attached—or an oil cap that wasn't screwed on tightly enough. An oil leak from a bad gasket or seal can cause problems, such as oil dripping on the timing belt or the crankshaft seal. Either way, it's not something to ignore. "It could totally take your engine out," says Trotta.

What to do: Take the car back to the mechanic and have the oil level checked.

If the Car Smells like Burnt Carpet

What it might be: Overheated rotors or brake pads

If going down a steep hill and keeping a foot on the brake, even lightly, this smell may indicate that the brake pads or rotors are overheating. This can cause premature brake wear or, in extreme cases, brake failure. Here are five signs new brake pads are needed. The smell could also be caused by dragging or sticking brake calipers, or brake pads that are too thin—in which case the brakes may feel spongy. If the smell persists, and the vehicle hasn't been driving in stop-and-go traffic or on long downgrades, have the brakes inspected as soon as possible. Also, be aware that if the brake pads have just been replaced, it's normal for them to release a scent for the first couple hundred miles.

What to do: Pump the brakes on and off when going down hills.

If the Car Smells like Exhaust or Fumes

What it might be: Exhaust leak

Leaky exhaust that gets into the car's interior can quickly raise the amount of carbon monoxide to dangerous levels.

What to do: Roll the windows down immediately, and safely pull over to the side of the road. Turn the engine off. Have the car towed to a repair shop.

If the Car Smells like Burnt Rubber

What it might be: Slipping belts or overheating rubber

This may be the result of an engine belt that's slipped. It could also be a hose from the cooling or power steering system that's rubbing on a belt and has started to melt.

What to do: Wait until the car cools down, then open the hood, and inspect the belts and hoses. If the smell persists, take the car in to be checked out.

If the Car Smells like Burning Plastic

What it might be: A short circuit in the wiring

When the plastic insulation has worn down—or been chewed off by an animal that has gotten into the engine—the exposed wires can rub together and produce a short, which could cause a fire. Other types of shorts can melt or burn the plastic away directly. However, it may be as simple as a plastic bag that's landed on the exhaust and melted from the heat.

What to do: Pull over safely. If the problem is a bag or some other plastic on the exhaust, don't grab it, as it's likely hot. If the smell can't be located, or it persists, take the vehicle in for diagnosis and repair.

If the Car Smells like Gas

What it might be: Gas leak

This is one of the most dangerous smells and could mean that something is leaking in the engine or near the exhaust, like a fuel line. A fire could start if the raw fuel comes in contact with the hot exhaust system or rotating engine components. If the car is from the 70s or earlier, a lingering fuel odor after the engine is turned off might be normal; if that odor is strong, however, don't wait to get it checked out.

What to do: Pull over safely, and turn off the engine immediately. Get the car towed to the auto shop.

The sweet smell of success comes with adding GEICO Emergency Roadside Service to your auto policy for 24/7 help in case of a breakdown. Best of all, you can request roadside assistance through your GEICO Mobile App.

This article was originally published on GEICO.

In business for over 75 years, GEICO gives you the benefit of great rates on high-quality car insurance. You could be eligible for a special WITI membership discount on GEICO auto insurance. In addition to your special membership discount, you'll also receive 24-hour service online or by phone, as well as efficient and fair claim handling. Visit www.geico.clm/disc/witi or call 800-368-2734.

Opinions expressed by the author are not necessarily those of WITI.

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