By on July 20, 2017

air fresheners, Tony Alter/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

China doesn’t possess the same affinity for the iconic “new car smell” that remains popular in North America. The scent itself, a conglomeration of industrial adhesive fumes and the off-gassing of various plastics, is technically toxic air pollution trapped inside the vehicle’s cabin. However, Western drivers have made it synonymous with the pleasantries of owning a new vehicle, while Chinese motorists have not.

This brings up a very important question. Are they bad people?

While it would be very easy to use this single example to conclude that China is a perverse and disturbed nation, Westerners subjected to the volatile compounds of a new car’s interior on a particularly hot day might agree that the smell, in heavy doses, occasionally leaves something to be desired. Ideally, the odor should bring a tear to the eye due to nostalgia or pride, not because it’s trying to flush out the hazardous vapors emitted by baked vinyl.

“Research shows that vehicle interiors contain a unique cocktail of hundreds of toxic chemicals that off-gas in small, confined spaces,” said Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center, which has been researching the the smell since 2006. “Since [most of] these chemicals are not regulated, consumers have no way of knowing the dangers they face. Our testing is intended to expose those dangers and encourage manufacturers to use safer alternatives.”

Automakers have been. As a result, the intensity of new car smell has diminished quite a bit since the early 2000s. In North America, it’s largely the result of trying to exclude carcinogenic fumes from substances like polyvinyl chloride. But in China, the practice extends out to nullifying any negative associations shoppers might have with the scent by trying to eliminate it entirely. It’s the number one concern for new car buyers, and automakers and customers go to great lengths to avoid even the slightest whiff.

“In North America, people want a new car smell and will even buy a ‘new car’ spray to make older cars feel new and fresh. In China it’s the opposite,” Andy Pan, supervisor for material engineering at Ford’s Nanjing research facility, told Reuters.

Ford Motor Company employs 18 smell assessors in Nanjing, whose job it is to huff various materials before they go into a vehicle’s production. If any part smells too strongly, the “golden noses” request they be sent back to the supplier and substituted.

As persnickety as that sounds, it’s not the first time Ford has gone to great lengths to appease the olfactory senses of Chinese buyers. Lincoln Continentals imported from America are equipped with odor-absorbing carbon sheets prior to their long journey across the Pacific.

“When I lived in the United States I might look at the suspension or the engine,” said Don Yu, general manager at CGT, which makes materials to cover seats and dashboards for General Motors, Volkswagen, and Ford. “In China, though, people open the car and sit inside, if the smell isn’t good enough they think it will jeopardize their health.”

While it’s a little odd to think about a country with a penchant for baseless alternative medicine and some of the worst building safety regulations on the planet as “health-minded,” China’s air pollution problems have created a backlash. Heavy smog has resulted in the nation implementing fiercely rigid emission laws and convinced its occupants to consider the air they breathe a little more often.

Whether it’s a cheap hatchback wreaking of melted plastics or a stately luxury sedan emitting the aroma of treated leather, China’s not interested. Drivers will scrub down their interiors with water and vinegar solutions after purchase or head to a car wash offering ozone sterilization services that claim to eliminate toxins.

Unpleasant interior odor was Chinese motorists’ chief concern for both 2015 and 2016, according to J.D. Power.

“Smog and indoor pollution have made Chinese consumers paranoid about smells in new cars, and thus the problem is actually exaggerated,” Jeff Cai, general manager of auto product and quality at J.D. Power China, said in an interview with Bloomberg. “On the other hand, there’s a group of consumers in Europe and U.S. who are so fond of it that they will buy new car smell spray to keep it as long as possible.”

[Image: Tony Alter/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)]

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31 Comments on “Deal Breaker: To Avoid Any Trace of New Car Smell, China Goes to Extremes...”

  • avatar
    30-mile fetch

    I think they’re dead-on with this one. The new car smell should be setting off every innate alarm of self-preservation in your subconscious brain, but we override that because of the emotional significance we’ve placed on the smell. We’re involuntarily exposed to enough carcinogens as is–this is a stupid reason to expose yourself to more.

    “This brings up a very important question. Are they bad people?”

    That was an LOL moment, Matt

    • 0 avatar

      “They are all good people…We don’t have bad people. I know the bad people. Believe me, do I know bad people.”

    • 0 avatar

      On the other hand, baby formula sold in China (and I’m talking about the safe ones sold by the reputable Western brands) will add artificial fragrances to it. Apparently because the market there demands it.

  • avatar

    Regarding “Black Ice” air-freshener trees – the presence of said freshener ought to be admissible in court as proof of recreational drug use.

  • avatar

    “In China, though, people open the car and sit inside, if the smell isn’t good enough they think it will jeopardize their health.”

    If one considers pollution levels in major cities in China, I’m amazed that they have intact olfaction.

    “Pull my finger” jokes must be grounds for execution.

  • avatar

    Some cars smell wonderfull when new, and even better as they age. BMW has a very unique smelling interior, it was the same in the E30 I had, same in the E39 540 I had, and still the same in the 335d I currently own.

    • 0 avatar

      +1. My 1997 M3 interior smells like a combination of what it did when new and a 1965 GTO. It’s awesome.

      Old Mopar interiors have a very distinctive smell as they age too. I remember the GM cars of the early- mid seventies had a really, really strong new car smell. I think they started to tone it down in the 1980s.

    • 0 avatar

      Funny, my BMW just smelled like burning oil or coolant depending on what was leaking more at any given moment.
      My old Volvos though, they smelled like actual leather. I miss that.

  • avatar
    Land Ark

    I’m presently driving a new-ish rented Passat R-Line. I drove 10 hours to New Hampshire and along the way I noticed I would get a little light headed occasionally. I’m not used to new car smell and it’s always made me a little queezy. But nothing makes me feel quite as uncomfortable as new leather (obviously not a problem in the Passat). The smells are just so strong for such a small area.

  • avatar

    Call me sick, but I love new car smell and lament that current new vehicles don’t smell as strong as new vehicles did 20+ years ago. That feeling you get…

  • avatar

    I love new car smell, and it’s absolutely going to hurt US sales if it’s eliminated.

    What a stupid priority for the Chinese, all that nasty pollution in the air and this is where they focus their wrath?

    • 0 avatar

      Complaining about new car smell in China is a preference, and something companies will listen to. Complaining about the air pollution is sedition, and gets you on the radar of some very dangerous people.

    • 0 avatar

      Why not? That’s one place individuals have controls over. Its not like they can demand to have all those factories shut down.

  • avatar
    bumpy ii

    To tie into the Buick topic a bit, a luxury car should smell like exactly one thing:

  • avatar

    Depends on the car. Some new-car smells smell fine; exciting, even. But every new Hyundai and Kia I’ve sat in has a new car smell that’s far more noxious and unappealing to my tastes, probably owing to different (if not lower quality) plastics. I’ve never been in a Chinese car.

    • 0 avatar

      I have always loved new car smell, but I just recently drove home from the dealer in my grandmother’s brand new Hyundai Elantra on a hot day, and the smell was overwhelming and unpleasant. I have heard people complain about the new car smell in Korean cars, but this was my first time experiencing it first hand. If the Chinese cars are anything like that, I can see why they’ve come to dislike the smell.

    • 0 avatar

      I have noticed that higher-priced cars have less new car smell.

      Or it could be just the olfactory senses being compromised by the $$$ placebo.

  • avatar

    I distinctly recall Russian auto-journos complaining about the incredibly toxically strong smells of offgassing on Chinese Great Walls and such in reviews of said vehicles in the early-mid 2000s, I’m sure this has more to do with that than the smells we’re used to smelling.

  • avatar

    You have to understand, the Chinese, for advanced as they like to think they are, are rooted in superstition. I lived there for 3 years in my younger days, my wife is Chinese (met her there) and her parents live with us.

    If I sneeze and I am not wearing slippers in the house, I am told to wear slippers. Yes, it could be 80 degrees in the house, I am wearing socks, but if I sneeze its because I do not have slippers on my feet…..

    That is just one of the MINOR superstitions I deal with regularly… this article comes as no surprise.

    • 0 avatar

      It’s not superstition, but rather, it’s the way they live..

      If they live poor, they probably have dirt / concrete floors, which is cold unless it’s 100 deg F outside.

      If they live well off, they probably have tiled floors, which is cold unless it’s 100 deg F outside.

      And during winter time, most houses in China except those in the north aren’t heated, despite temperature that can drop to 40 deg F or even 32 deg F and below at night. And don’t forget the humidity. It makes everything feels even colder.

      So, indoor living in China means cold floor for most days of the year. And Chinese don’t wear shoes indoors. So unless you wear slippers, your barefoot can get cold. And Chinese think cold feet make you susceptible to, well, a cold. You must have seen Chinese in winter time put on their down coat first thing in the morning, and don’t take it off until ready to go to bed. Because it gets cold indoors there.

      Of course, you think they would notice that in North America, house floors tend to be wood with carpet, and central indoor heat kicks in automatically, so indoor living is warm, and cold feet just aren’t an issue. But they don’t, and cling to their way of life. Hence, pestering you to wear slippers all the time.

  • avatar

    The scent of fine leather in a new luxury vehicle can’t be beat.

  • avatar

    Well, at least don’t believe they’ll suffocate if they leave a fan on while they sleep.

  • avatar

    This is one reason I prefer buying cars with as much leather as possible, especially in areas which would otherwise be vinyl. Less toxic gas coming off it. Especially since I live in a city with a lot of diesel vehicles and tunnels so need to keep the windows rolled up at pretty much all times.

    Regarding the Chinese, I spent some time in areas of China where they don’t get a lot of tourists and I have to say, most people treated me very well. They drive like maniacs and can be a bit pushy-shovy but they generally seem to be quite tolerant people.

    I photographed every car in China I didn’t recognise. I couldn’t believe how many domestic brands they have. There are about 20 different ones, in addition to all the brands we’re used to. Their cars probably wouldn’t meet our crash standards but they were nowhere near as bad as I was expecting. Overall I’d say Chinese car build quality is pretty good.

  • avatar

    How hilarious is it that people in China live with some of the most toxic urban air in the world, yet have a problem with new car smell?! Maybe they should have a problem with old country smell. Now pass the melamine-laced baby formula!

  • avatar

    some of the worst, most toxic smells I have ever experienced were from leather and wool. seems like a lot of chemicals are necessary to make sure that a once living thing is now dead. Admittedly, I am super sensitive. I hate the way most new cars smell. a new corolla of about ten years ago would push all of my buttons.

  • avatar

    The smell of a new car is intoxicating to North Americans… probably because the chemicals affecting our bodies and brain. LOL!

    It’s funny how the mainland Chinese hate the new car smell yet they’ve polluted their own environment, air and food supplies.
    Very ironic and hypocritical!

  • avatar
    Roberto Esponja

    Looking at the featured photo, I can’t even fathom how bad a car with seven or eight Black Ice air fresheners must smell inside. I once made the mistake of purchasing said scent and its musk is just plain weird. And yet it’s the one I most often see hanging from people’s mirrors. Must be popular with the AXE crowd, is all I can guess.

    • 0 avatar

      I made it a point to get Black Ice for my ’00 Maxima when it was time to sell it. Cleaned up the interior as best I could, cheap rubber floormats to cover the stained/worn-to-the-floorpan (female heel-wearing PO) carpet, some rain guards on the windows, and Black Ice air freshener. Minimal cost, maximum effect, especially on a just-polished black car.

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