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.

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