Deal Breaker: To Avoid Any Trace of New Car Smell, China Goes to Extremes

Matt Posky
by Matt Posky
deal breaker to avoid any trace of new car smell china goes to extremes

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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3 of 31 comments
  • Mchan1 Mchan1 on Jul 20, 2017

    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!

  • Roberto Esponja Roberto Esponja on Jul 21, 2017

    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.

    • Gtem Gtem on Jul 21, 2017

      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.

  • Inside Looking Out "And safety was enhanced generally via new reversing lamps and turn signals fitted as standard equipment."Did not get it, turn signals were optional in 1954?
  • Lorenzo As long as Grenadier is just a name, and it doesn't actually grenade like Chrysler UltraDrive transmissions. Still, how big is the market for grossly overpriced vehicles? A name like INEOS doesn't have the snobbobile cachet yet. The bulk of the auto market is people who need a reliable, economical car to get to work, and they're not going to pay these prices.
  • Lorenzo They may as well put a conventional key ignition in a steel box with a padlock. Anything electronic is more likely to lock out the owner than someone trying to steal the car.
  • Lorenzo Another misleading article. If they're giving away Chargers, people can drive that when they need longer range, and leave the EV for grocery runs and zipping around town. But they're not giving away Chargers, thy're giving away chargers. What a letdown. What good are chargers in California or Nashville when the power goes out?
  • Luke42 I'm only buying EVs from here on out (when I have the option), so whoever backs off on their EV plans loses a shot at my business.