Worrying about that new-car smell

Nov. 7, 2002
One of the ancillary pleasures that comes with buying a new car is the pleasant aroma it has, at least for a month or so. Known as "new-car smell," it adds a bit to the excitement new owners feel when the deal is done and they slide behind the wheel.
View other Ron
Khol editorials

To a large extent, when the new-car smell is gone, the car isn't new anymore.

The smell is hard to capture in a spray-on fragrance. Some companies have tried to replicate it as aftermarket products, but those who have tried them say synthetic new-car smells aren't even close to the real thing. Today, however, people close to the auto industry say that within a few years, new-car smell may be a thing of the past. The reason is that activist groups are beginning to question exactly what it is that makes a new-car aroma so distinctive. The consensus is that it is the fumes given off by plastics, coatings, and glues used in the assembly process.

The largest constituent of the fumes is thought to come from the plastics in car interiors. Plastics normally are made with organic compounds that are volatile, and for a long while after the car is built, these compounds outgas into the car interior, especially on hot days. Experts say volatile organics are not a healthy thing to inhale. Tangible evidence of these compounds collecting inside the car is the fog they create on interior windows. Typically, it takes an aggressive glass cleaner and considerable elbow grease to remove this fog.

While I don't particularly like plastics outgassing in my vehicles, I question whether volatile organics in plastics really have much to do with new-car smell. To explain, let's reverse the tape to the 1950s, when I first began to drive.

But first let me allude to the windshield sunscreens that have become popular, especially in sunny southern climates. These sunscreens are intended partially to keep car interiors from overheating but mostly to prevent plastic dashboards from deteriorating in the sun.

In the 1950s, sunscreens were completely unheard of. The reason is that dashboards and, in fact, virtually all interior trim, were steel. So I've lived through the era of both steel and plastic interior fittings, and if I could choose, I'd take steel. It is more durable, not subject to solar degradation, can be repainted if it is nicked or faded, and in my mind, makes automotive interiors look as though they were put together by skilled craftsmen. To be sure, there is a place for molded components in cars. But to my eye, when the entire interior is assembled from molded trim, it tends to give an impression of minimum-cost mass production.

Now I know what you are thinking. If you are in an accident, your head may hit an unforgiving dashboard if it is made of steel. Well, I personally am willing to trust my seat-belt three-point restraints to keep my head off the dashboard in a crash. And if that isn't enough, I suggest the auto industry make four-point restraints a standard. That also would let them get rid of the abominable air bags whose function would better be served by adequate seat belts.

At any rate, even in the days before plastics-laden interiors, automobiles had a distinctive new-car smell. Interestingly, I once repaired and repainted some severely rusted door frames and trunk on a beater I owned, and guess what? When I finished, the heap had a new-car smell. No plastics were involved. It was all in the paint.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
Send feedback to MDeditor @ penton.com

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