Fragrance brands

New Car Smell: What Is It and How Do Brands Make It?

Everyone wants their car to have styling that looks good, high-quality materials that feel good, and – in some cases – an exhaust note that sounds good. What you rarely hear from drivers, however, is how their cars smell – or rather, how they don’t smell.

This is actually quite unfair, as manufacturers put a lot of effort into making sure that the material combinations they use when building a new car don’t create unpleasant odors. We visited the Nissan Technical Center Europe (NTCE) in Cranfield, Bedfordshire, to uncover the secrets of this highly scientific enterprise.

Upon arrival, we were introduced to Peter Eastland – NTCE’s lead odor assessment engineer – who grew concerned when we mentioned that we had stopped for coffee on the way home because the caffeine, associated with nicotine, can damage your sense of smell.

“Smoking, for example, damages the nerves at the base of your skull,” Eastland explained. “They connect to the olfactory bulb – it’s the piece that connects your ability to smell to your brain. Once these cells are damaged, they can no longer reproduce and you lose your sense of smell.

Luckily we don’t smoke and only had one coffee that morning, so Eastland assured us our sense of smell should be up to snuff as he introduced us to our first perfume sample. There was no strong smell, but what we picked up seemed completely natural. Our best guess was that it came from tree sap or something similar, but the correct answer was actually soil. The purpose of this exercise was to follow the same nose training that Eastland and his team follow in order to ensure that each new Nissan model does not give off an unpleasant odor.

Eastland is uniquely suited for his role thanks to his naturally keen sense of smell, while a master’s degree in chemistry with forensic science doesn’t hurt either. He’s been with Nissan since 2016, but the automaker’s mission to make its cars smell good has been going on since the 1990s. It’s also a global mission. Eastland is Nissan’s odor expert in Europe, but it has counterparts in Japan and the United States.

Our guess with the second perfume sample was closer – we said it smelled good and artificial, and it turned out to be derived from cotton candy. Our confidence was quickly shattered, however, when we guessed that the third sample was the smell of a pine tree. It was only half correct – it was actually a mix of vanilla and pine extract, and we only remembered one of the two ingredients.

“It’s an example of how when you have different molecules, they have different volatilities,” Eastland explained. “Some can be picked up instantly, while others linger in the background.

“One of the techniques I recommend is not to analyze the smell when it enters your nostrils, but rather when you breathe it out. At the top of your nose, you have nerve endings connected to the olfactory bulb.

“When the air enters your nose, it doesn’t reach the top of the nerves, but hits them when you exhale sharply. This is why when a dog sniffs something, he inhales gently, then exhales very quickly.

Another factor that Eastland taught us to take into account was the temperature. Some parts of a car’s interior may be harmless in cold weather, but they can start to smell bad on a hot day. To demonstrate this, we compared the smell of a room temperature piece of Velcro to one that had been heated in a massive oven, and the difference was definitely noticeable.

Despite all these efforts, Nissan is unfortunately not working to develop its own brand of new car smell. Instead, Eastland and his team focus on removing unpleasant odors from new Nissan models before they hit the market. With so many different plastics, fabrics and finishes in play, it’s critical that the heady cocktail of that “new car smell” doesn’t combine to create a stink with buyers or subsequent owners further down the track.

Our scented favorites

If the interior of your car has developed unpleasant odors, one solution is a car air freshener. Among the best known, Little Trees was invented in 1952 by a German-Jewish scientist who fled to New York during World War II.

Today, there is a huge range of different car air fresheners on the market. In our last group test, we rated Lynx Car Freshener Black as the best, followed by Little Trees Invisi Sport and Sensi-Qui Perfume & Gel New Car. These winners were chosen for a combination of having a pleasant aroma – as judged by a panel – and being easy to install on a car without causing damage.

Click here for our complete guide to buying a new car…