Where does "new car smell" come from?

The answer lies in another question. How can PVC — polyvinyl chloride, a commonly used type of plastic — be the stuff that makes tough, rigid sewer pipes and, simultaneously, be the stuff that makes floppy vinyl signs and cheap Goth pants?

"PVC is hard stuff. But if you put in a lot of plasticizer, you can get it to be soft," explains John Pojman, a chemistry professor at Louisiana State University. At a molecular level, PVC is a dense thing. Imagine a slinky in its stiff, compressed state. The plasticizers are chemical compounds derived from coal tar. Mix them with PVC and the small molecules of plasticizer shove their in between the densely packed PVC molecules. Imagine stretching the slinky out so that its coils are now wobbly. Same thing happens here. The more plasticizer you add, the less rigid the PVC.

And it's the plasticizers that produce that smell — the one we associate with the vinyl interior of a new car.

Image: 365:37 - Mar 29 - that new car smell, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from waldengirl's photostream


    1.  Coming from the rubber compounding world, I can tell you that pthalates are on the way out.  Europe is mostly pthalate-free at the moment, with the U.S. not far behind and Asia pretty far behind that.

  1. I bought a new car last month, and couldn’t wait for that smell to go away. I attribute this to the fact the car uses far more plastic in the interior than any other new car I have sat in. It was almost nauseating.

    Can’t imagine that it’s healthy for us, either.. I’ve even seen a faint haze grow on the inside surface of the windscreen over the course of a year. It takes a ton of elbow grease to remove, and I’ve always been suspicious it’s manufacturing residue that gets blown out through the vents. 

    The thought of inhaling that is kind of gross. I’d much rather deal with the musty smell produced by the horsehair cushions in old VW’s.

    1. I’ve always assumed it’s not blown out the vents as much as rises straight off the dashboard in a greasy haze. That would also explain the surfaces cracking over time as the plasticisers end up on the windscreen. Horrible stuff.

    1. Yeah, I figured that the underaged serfs making the parts were consuming melamine-laced milk and farting new car smell.

  2. Now I wonder something.  Since it is just the plasticizer that actually makes the smell would a rigid frame of plastic coated with a more natural material not have the new car smell anymore?  Similar to the idea of a leather topped desk with solid wood as the foundation, except here you’d have a solid plastic.  Obviously that would make things more expensive, but frankly I’ve always wanted a painted interior.

  3. All that plasticizer ends up as fog on your windshield (except for the part you inhale).  PVC itself isn’t exactly a benign substance, but it’s about the least expensive resin out there,  so it gets used a lot.  You could opt for leather, but PETA would have a cow.  As a general practice, try to leave your car windows open as much as possible when the car is not in use.

  4. I’d assumed it was an explicit smell applied to new car interiors, independent of the real manufacturing process, like the “coffee smell” put in jars of instant coffee…

  5. There are fragrances embedded into some cars — like, into the plastic of the dashboard — specifically to create a distinct ‘new car smell.’ Fragrance companies manufacture scent-embedded plastic beads that manufacturers can then mix up/melt into various products.

  6. carmakers like VW are not using PVC anymore (in the EU at least, over health concerns) and instead add new car smell as an odor, it also is a lot less present.

  7. What kind of shitty cars are you driving that have vinyl in them? And yet luxury cars with leather and burlwood, and custom body-off refurbished rods still have what we’d identify as “new car smell.”

    I suspect the emotional strength of these smells come less from their sharing a common chemical outgas than our brains — which are very aware we are in a new car — refiling or adding to our internal perceptual categorization of “new car.”

    Or maybe it’s that most people are such goddamned slobs that not-new-cars stink of ashtray, butt-sweat, and long-misplaced Taco Bell leftovers under the seat heater.

  8. The ‘New Car’ has changed, if you’re old enough to remember. It didn’t used to be so sickly sweet plastic but kind of the cloth-backed vinyl and foam rubber. Anybody else old enough to recollect it?

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