Ask any auto enthusiast their favorite smell and they'll likely tell you new car smell. (They'll also probably mention racing gas and tires.) But Ford product tester and "smell juror" Sandra Edwards hates new car smell. Her job, she tells AOL Autos, is to select products and materials that don't contribute to that special scent once coveted by new car buyers.
"I'm one of few people that don't like the new car smell. Our job is to try to eliminate any odors."
Why Cars Smell "New"
New car smell is a byproduct of the manufacturing process. Fresh materials like cloth, leather, wood, rubber and sealants give off odors that dissipate with use over time. Usually a car will be relatively free of new car smell within a month or two of purchase.
But studies by the Ecology Center, a non-profit advocacy group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, have indicated that some chemicals given off by materials used in car construction can be harmful, with chemicals present in the cabin including lead, bromine and chlorine. Children may be at more risk of exposure to such chemicals, while hot temperatures can also result in higher levels of exposure.
Automakers have taken steps to mitigate their use of such materials in the U.S., while European automakers face more stringent regulations.
Any material that's going to be used in a Ford product goes through a rigorous interior air quality test, Edwards says. The smelliest products usually turn out to be the most innocuous, like a sealant. Products are tested in different environments that include hot and cold, and wet and dry. Similar programs exist at most major carmakers.
Not The Best Smells, But The Least
Edwards says that in her experience, a particular leather or wood has never been selected purely on the basis of how it smells -- of course, the more Castano leather and maple wood used in a finished product, the more the scent will be affected. But it's more an absence of odor that appeals to a smell juror.
Products are tested in relation to quantity used on the assembly line. A team of six jurors could be presented with a large sheet of material to be used in car seats or a small notch of rubber to be used in switchgear. Sometimes, it's a whole brake pedal.
Also important is knowing the smell sensitivities of each juror, which Edwards selects from a pool of colleagues. "We want a range (of testers). Everyone has a sense of smell but it's very subjective."
Each tester will rate a material on a scale of 1-6, with 6 being most noxious. Tests usually last between one and two hours in a controlled environment. In the last couple of months Edwards has found several materials that didn't pass the smell test. "Sealant material. It was really quite awful. Fishy. And floormats that had a strong rubbery smell. We had something a few weeks ago smelling of maple sugar candy."
It's been reported that smell tests vary between different countries -- Ford also has laboratories in England and China -- and that car buyers abroad have different standards to what is considered acceptable here. Edwards confirms that there's been some back and forth on certain products from overseas suppliers. She points out that her Michigan team of testers includes two people from India and one from Iraq.
"We'll get sealants from a supplier they think is acceptable and the people here are all grossed out. But the lab in China gets things that we think are acceptable that they say are not."
Faking The Funk
So if car companies are trying to remove the new car smell, why are there so many sprays and air fresheners that seek to replicate it? Perhaps as the car companies refine their approach to removing odors from new vehicles, the traditional "new car smell" will fall by the wayside.
Though some owners swear by these products, that little pine tree hanging under your rear-view mirror is no match for the scent of a new interior. In our opinion, these products rarely work, as most are just a mixture of herbal essences, perfumes, alcohols and solvents.
The key for Edwards remains to mitigate any type of new car odor, rather than enhance it in any form. "New car smell comes from fresh materials in cars and that's why they dissipate. New car smell is nothing intentional, it's a side effect of the manufacturing process. The end point is to get rid of any type of smell."