As seen on:

SMH Logo News Logo

Call 1300 303 181

Australia’s Best New Car News, Reviews and Buying Advice

Making Sense of Car Scents

I don’t think they’ve managed to bottle it yet, but there a certain something about the smell of a new car that is very attractive. The closest the perfume industry ever came to it was Paco Rabanne’s “Calandre” (French for a car radiator grille) and it was supposed to represent the smell of leather seats and making love al fresco on the bonnet of an E-type Jaguar (French perfume gurus create briefs that instruct the poor lab techies to come up with the smell of a fantasy. But we’re getting off topic here). Even cars bought second-hand from a dealer have a characteristic smell.

I have more than a suspicion that the nice smell of new cars is actually the stuff used to manufacture the dashboard and the seats off-gassing, while the smell of a dealer-bought second-hand car is the smell of the heavy-duty cleaning stuff they’ve used to get the car presentable. The trouble with this is that they’re not terribly good for your system, being aldehyde sorts of things, I think. The flip side of this is that the “new car” smell wears off quickly enough, so you’re unlikely to get too much of it buzzing around inside your system. Unless you buy new cars as soon as the fragrance wears off and douse yourself head to foot daily in Chanel No. 5 (which is chock-full of aldehydes), in which case, getting a discount deal on your next new car probably isn’t a concern.

For lesser mortals like the rest of us, we want to smell something reasonable inside our cars as we’re driving along. Most of us don’t really want to smell what’s outside the car if we’re in the middle of the city – that gets saved for when we’re driving along an avenue of eucalyptus trees, passing an exquisite rose garden, an expanse of sea coast or a field of newly mown hay. Even out-of-door scents are risky if someone in the car gets hay fever, which is why a lot of modern air con systems come equipped with pollen filters. But neither do we want to smell nothing much in the car.

If you do nothing about scenting the inside of the car, it will gradually take on the scent of your daily life and what you do in it. You need to make sure you take the vacuum cleaner to the inside of your car regularly to make sure that this isn’t old chip packets, dog hair and old sneakers. Tradespeople tend to have commercial cars that smell of what they do: a gardener’s Nissan Navara might smell of fertilizers, a decorator’s Ford Transit van smells of paint and one of those MPVs that has been converted into a mobile coffee bar smells of coffee. Family cars with children who haven’t quite got the hang of toilet training have a singularly organic pong that lasts well after the child in question has learned how to hold on. Put a thick towel down on top of the car seat/booster seat in this case, as it’s easier to wash.

Occasionally, there are nastier smells inside the car, such as when the dog has been sick all over the inside of the family Toyota after eating sea lion poop on the beach (this is not a fictional example – at least that time the dog was sick, he didn’t get it down the gear selection lever like he did another time). It is at this point that you are glad your car has rubber mats on the floor, as this makes removing the worst of the muck easier and you can hose the mat clean. What you shouldn’t do to remove the debris is use the vacuum cleaner. Use an old towel. Then scrub up as much of the residue with soap and water, and blot up with another old towel. When the car is dry, sprinkle baking soda over the spot, leave it overnight and then vacuum it up. Baking soda absorbs smells and can remove other smells from car upholstery.

If you’ve bought a second-hand car that once belonged to a smoker, you’ll need to nip down to the local hardware store that hires out carpet cleaning machines and make sure you get the upholstery attachment so you can give the car the once-over or even the twice-over.

What about car scents? These are very popular, but they always smell a bit fake. They’re not all that good for you, either, and are probably as hazardous to your health if you have them in your car all the time as getting a blast of car exhaust from the diesel vehicle next to you except it smells nicer. Go for natural scents, as these are a lot better for you. VW Beetles come equipped with a little vase that you can put a scented rose or a couple of spikes of lavender into if you want to get natural scent that way. Those without Beetles should probably not try to use cupholders as a place to put a vase of flowers. It’s a better idea to make up your own essential oil spray. Go to the chemists’ shop or the health food shop and pick up a bottle of some essential oil you fancy. Make a 50:50 mix of white vinegar and water, then shake about 20 drops of essential oil into it. Leave this in the glove box of the car and spray it around the inside of the car whenever you fancy. As a bonus, you can also use it for cleaning chrome, glass and plastic/vinyl bits inside the car (for leather, use a mix of essential oil, vinegar and olive oil as a scented cleaner).