3 Awful Car Smells and How to Fix Them, According to Consumer Reports

There’s nothing like that new car smell. But as you drive your vehicle, that scent fades, giving way to other, perhaps unpleasant odors. Even with regular maintenance, such as vacuuming, removing trash, and washing surfaces, some odors still linger. Here are Consumer Reports’ fixes for a few car smells that can make your daily commute a less-than-ideal experience.

Does your car smell like a sweaty sock?

3 Awful Car Smells and How to Fix Them, According to Consumer Reports
This 1960s man smells something stinky | H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

If your car smells like a dozen post-workout socks, check that it’s not. Then consider that odor could result from a mechanical malfunction instead of something you left behind.

If the smell seems to seep through your car’s air-conditioning vents, it could be an issue with the climate control system. When condensation from your vehicle’s heating and cooling system gathers, it can smell musty, Consumer Reports explains.

Fortunately, you don’t need a mechanic to fix this problem. You’ll need some spray disinfectant, but you don’t need one specially formulated for your car’s A/C. A can of Lysol will do just as well in most cases.

To eliminate the odor, open all the windows and turn on the fan. Next, spray the disinfectant into the intake vents. These vents are outside your car, where the windshield meets the hood. Doing so should eliminate the smell.

While you’re at it, Consumer Reports suggests changing the cabin air filter. You can reach it from the glovebox in most models. Your owner’s manual should have instructions on finding and changing this filter. 

Perhaps your car smells fishy

If your car smells like fish rather than sweaty socks, you might have a bigger problem. A fishy odor usually signals the core of your car’s heater has gone bad. You’re probably smelling leaking coolant.

Unless you’re an expert, you shouldn’t attempt this repair. Instead, take your car to a mechanic. And don’t delay — the fishy smell from a broken heater core is the least of your worries.

Coolant, as the name suggests, keeps your engine cool. When your car doesn’t have enough coolant, the engine can overheat. And if it does, it runs the risk of melting critical components needed to operate your vehicle safely. An overheated engine can warp the cylinder heads, melt the sensors, belts, and wiring, and cause extensive damage.

The longer you drive with an overheated engine, the greater the potential damage you might cause. So if your car suddenly smells fishy, don’t waste your time with Lysol. Head to a mechanic immediately.

How about a moldy or mildewy odor?

If you don’t change your car’s air filters regularly, you might notice a moldy or mildewy smell. It could be the result of a blocked vent or drain. A clogged sunroof drain could be the culprit. If so, cleaning it is an easy fix.

If it’s not that drain, check the A/C vents to identify where a blockage might be. Also, again, take the time to change the cabin air filter, consulting your owner’s manual for the best way to do so. And don’t forget to clean other vehicle components that routinely store odors, such as carpeting.

But if you can’t identify the source of the smell, take your car to a trusted mechanic. Though a service technician might cost you more than fixing it yourself, they’ll likely identify the source of the odor quicker than you could and have professional tools to eliminate it. And if your car’s smell stems from a severe problem, a mechanic can identify and remedy that too.

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