Keith Kelsen’s Scent Narrative: That New Car Smell We Love

For decades, the American dream is the open road, a fast car and that New Car Scent we love.  In China, it seems the majority hate it.  Associations with that Scent can go back to childhood. It’s when your family or someone in the neighborhood had that dream come true.  Most people love that intoxicating feeling that makes them pay thousands of dollars more to get a brand-new car.  Yet, Ford Motor Company’s luxury brand, Lincoln, found that in China they preferred no new car smell at all.  An olfactory note of zero.

“The experiences are different, expectations are different between U.S. and China,” Kumar Galhotra, Lincoln’s President, told The Detroit News in early 2015 about the New Car Scent, “They don’t like it.  We’ve gone through a very thorough process of understanding the materials that contribute to that smell.”

To eliminate the Scent, every new Lincoln gets a container of odor-absorbing carbon sheets placed inside before shipping to China. When it arrives, the Scent is gone. This is part of Lincoln’s comprehensive cultural program, and the results are amazing.

Growth in China has been phenomenal,” Galhotra said to the press this year, “If you step back to November of 2014, Lincoln had no presence in China. Then we were the first luxury brand to surpass 10,000 units in our first year of operation.

Could the Chinese be Ahead of the USA?

That “new car smell” can be divisive both culturally and generationally.  On a recent Weekend Edition Saturday broadcast, host Don Gonyea reported that last year, 28 million cars were sold in China. That made it the world’s largest automobile marketplace. However, they do not want our beloved American new car smell.  J.D. Power reported that unpleasant car smells were the top concern for the Chinese, ahead of engine issues, road noise or fuel consumption.

Signaling it is time for a change…in Scent.

Manufacturers are taking notice.  The fastest growing market is so valuable that, according to Reuters, Ford alone has 18 smell experts in its Chinese research plant.

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,” says Andy Pan, supervisor for material engineering at the China Ford facility.

The scent may be the key to the future of car sales.

Scent will be the key reflecting a wider concern globally about chemicals and interior pollution, a concern of both American Millennials and the Chinese.

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

OZIUM a popular New Car Smell aftermarket spray is full of Phthalates.

Ozium, emblazoned with the words “That New Car Smell” in big letters on the can, was created in the 1940’s as a sanitizing spray.  Certain VOCs, like Phthalates are carcinogenic linked to asthma and may cause damage to the liver, kidneys, and heart as well.[1] The study Clearing the Air: Hidden Hazards in Air Fresheners,, found that Ozium contained the third highest number of phthalates of their test.  Dealerships use it to freshen used cars. Car owners, limousine services, and car detailers use it to keep their cars smelling new. This underscores the need for a healthy “New Car Scent” replacement.

Synergistic smells make multi-level Scent testing a must.

Synergistic Scent occurs when the sum of parts creates a different smell than the parts alone. Manufacturers have become acutely aware, as most car sales are coming from China, and are rapidly responding.  Ford, for example, tests every interior material they buy, like a new adhesive, carpet or wood.  Then, when assembled, every interior is tested, again.  Seats for Ford cars in China are stored in perforated cloth bags to keep them ventilated before being installed, as opposed to plastic wrapping in the U.S. market where consumers are currently less concerned about chemical smells.

Good news: Thanks to Scent Awareness cars are improving.

A research team tested more than 200 of the most popular cars for chemicals that off-gas and create a bad Scent. The study, led by Jeff Gearhart, showed good news that overall vehicle ratings are improving. Many manufacturers have eliminated hazardous flame retardants and PVC.  Today, 17% percent of new vehicles have PVC-free interiors and 60 percent are produced without BFRs.

“We’re asking car manufacturers to subscribe to voluntary third-party eco-labels, such as the TUV Toxproof and Öko-Tex Standard 100, and reduce their use of toxic chemicals in vehicles.” according to Gearhart,  “Several leading automakers, including Ford and Volvo, have already adopted these standards.”

Your next new car will smell different.

The addiction to the New Car Smell and feelings associated with those solvents that customers liked to smell must be replaced with something else. We now know that it may not be good for us. People like a smell that associates them with “success” and “freedom” and “new” and “fresh” and “money.”  Manufacturers are now aware of this and considering how to replace it.

A FastCompany article interviewed Ford materials engineer Linda Schmalz about designing an automotive Scent.

“When you have just a plastic door panel it’s a little bit more straightforward because you don’t have extra things added to it,” Schmalz said, “But when you have foam, or carpet, or an adhesive, it’s more complicated…We don’t design to get the new car smell. What we design is for the materials to have a perceptible odor, but not be disturbing.”

Linda Schmalz doesn’t know whether the deep desire in individual consumers is due to “genetics, environmental, or even cultural,” but Ford has labs in Europe and China to make sure the smells can play internationally.

Leather is a very tricky one,” Schmalz said. “That one is very difficult to manage [internationally]. You have to be careful that you please all regions with the odor that it gives because it’s a natural product.

The fact is, in Japan, they prefer leather that smells more of Fish Oil, as in their country, leather was often cured with Whale Blubber.  That smell is in their memory as “authentic” leather.  This yet another trend is calling for a new Scent.

Creating a positive “Scent emotion” is critical to the Automotive Industry.

Psychologically, the new car smell addiction is hugely impactful on the sales of brand-new cars.  The fate of the industry could rest on replacing it with a healthy alternative. The future can be a whole new experience as we have described in previous Scent Narratives.

Now the destination can be experienced before the journey begins, with scents like “At the Beach” or “Afternoon in Paris”. Scent companies have long been designing these experiences.  At industry leader, IFF, they have even created a “Mood Map®” to create happiness in this case for drivers and their passengers.  The “New Car Smell” of the future could be anything from vacation Scents to chocolate chip cookies.  Whatever they are, they will change the industry forever.


[1] Dr. Larry B. Silver, “Should I be concerned about plastics?”

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