What Exactly Is That New Car Smell?

The smell of a new car is intoxicating. It reminds us of money and shiny objects. It evokes that golden period before repeat coffee stains, moldy Tupperware, and our trunk's transformation into a Good Will depository change the way we feel about our car.

But it's kind of a weird smell, right? It's so different from chocolate chip cookies or eucalyptus or whatever else we identify as pleasant. So we decided to get to the bottom of the new car smell. What the hell is it?

The answer, according to Toyota's color and trim manager Janis Ambrose Shard, certainly leans toward a more Pavlov's dog-type reaction. We like the smell because we like the car. Unfortunately, says Shard, "The smell is mostly organic compounds in the vehicle off-gassing. Anything that is vinyl or plastic—the foam lamination on the seat surface, the plastic on the dash or on the door panel—it's the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) coming out of them that causes that smell." In other words, without the relationship to a brand new car, the smell would just, you know, smell.

VOCs probably ring a bell because they're air pollutants. And they can do a number on your health. And they're everywhere. Thousands of household products-from paints to cleaning products to waxes-all emit the gasses, and they're normally found in low concentrations in indoor air. In your car, petroleum-based solvents in plastic and vinyl are to blame. VOCs escape from the dash and the seats because they don't require super high temperatures to evaporate. A normal ol' Tuesday will stir them up.

Another VOC fun fact: You know that weird foggy film that builds up on the inside of your windshield? Blame the new car smell. The same VOCs that we're sniffing can be responsible for mucking up our windows, too.

"That new car smell is not something we strive to achieve," says Shard. If anything, automakers are trying to cut it. Toyota has moved from solvent-based glues to water-based alternatives to slash VOCs, and other automakers, like Ford, have experimented with swapping petroleum-based seating for soy based foam. Natural materials, though, have their own set of challenges. For instance, Ford had to go through a lot of veggie-based foam trials to find one that didn't offend the consumer's nose. And because the natural material holds a lot of moisture, living somewhere like Louisiana where it's both hot and humid, can cause some natural materials to deteriorate rapidly, says Shard.

Basically, they're working on taking that new car smell away. In the meantime, we should start working on ending our affinity for inhaling VOCs. Let's instead focus our olfactory efforts on new car leather. See, during manufacturing, the warm leather smell disappears from the pieces that go into cars. Leather manufacturers, knowing that the smell is important to us, make sure to add that smell back in before anything is shipped to consumers. Thank goodness we still have one unnatural smell to happily cling to.


Rachel Swaby is a freelance writer living in San Francisco.

Giz Explains is where we break down whatever science or tech questions are scratching at the backs of our noggins. Got questions of your own? Shoot us email at explains@gizmodo.com with "Explain this!" in the subject line, and we'll see about answering.

Photo by flickr user Robert S. Donovan, used under Creative Commons license