How To Get Rid of Bad Car Smells

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You may never be able to recapture that “new-car smell,” but when it comes to getting rid of unpleasant odors, there are plenty of ways to banish bad smells from your ride.

Ask a Mechanic

If you’re catching whiffs of gasoline, transmission fluid, oil, or coolant in the cabin, the odor may be caused by a mechanical malfunction, and your first stop should be at the mechanic. Sometimes a smell is caused by something as simple as a cabin air filter in need of replacement, but it may be something that requires a more extensive repair.

Clean Out… Everything

If you’ve determined that the source of the smell isn’t mechanical, trash could be the culprit. Check for fast-food wrappers and half-empty sandwich bags under the seats, in the center console, the glove compartment, the door pockets, and in the trunk. Toss any and all garbage you find in the nearest trashcan.

Vacuum and Shampoo the Carpets

The next step is a thorough vacuuming. A Shop-Vac works best, but if you don’t own one, you can drive down to your friendly local car wash with a pocketful of quarters and use its industrial-strength suction machine. Hit the carpets, all the seats, and the floor mats, and don’t forget the carpet under the seats and under the floor mats, too.

If the car still smells, it’s time to shampoo the carpets (and the seats, if those are fabric, too). You can buy carpet shampoo made specifically for cars in an auto-parts store or automotive section of a department store. If you don’t want to go DIY, you can also hire an auto detailer to clean a car’s carpets.

Break Out the Baking Soda

Baking soda can take the stink out of carpeting, including pet odors and cigarette smoke. Sprinkle and rub into the fibers of carpets with a brush, and let sit for several minutes. Brush off or vacuum out. If ashes are the culprit of the odor, empty the ashtray of all cigarette butts and pour a half-inch of baking soda into the tray. Let sit for several minutes, and then rinse and dry.

For liquid spills, sprinkle baking powder directly onto the spot while the spill is still fresh. Brush off the powder and vacuum after the moisture has been absorbed.

You can also use a solution of 4 tablespoons of baking soda dissolved in one quart of water to wipe down vinyl seats, dashboards, rear decks, center consoles, and car mats.

Give Charcoal a Try

While you’re going the all-natural, old-school cleaning route, don’t forget that charcoal is a natural odor-absorber. Leave a bag of charcoal open in your car overnight to help remove bad smells. Just make sure you don’t use the self-lighting kind already doused with lighter fluid!

Infuse a Better Smell

There’s no shortage of air fresheners and diffusers for your car. You can find everything from the classic cardboard pine tree to scented sprays, gels, and air fresheners that plug into the cigarette lighter. Beware though, especially if you plan to sell the car in the near future. Masking an odor with a strong scent could be a turnoff for potential buyers.

The Bottom Line

There's no need to let bad smells ruin the time you spend in your car. With a little effort and regular cleaning, you can keep your car free of odors. Besides making your drive time more pleasant, that extra care will pay off when you decide to sell or trade in your car.

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