By Courtney Messenbaugh on August 14, 2012
My car has a special stench. It's a stench reserved for those of us in our familial prime, those of us whose cars have been the scene of many scent crimes, from dirty diapers to long-forgotten gym bags to plenty of spilt milk. But there is no need to cry. Since we live in a world obsessed with trying to superficially cover up all problems big and small, the marketplace is full of automotive air fresheners, and they're no longer just simple cardboard pine trees.
When I began this scent-sational (sorry) journalistic mission, I was surprised to discover how crowded the automotive air freshener market actually is. The abundance of choices nearly rivals the abundance of cereal choices these days. Clearly, expert guidance is required. I purchased and thoroughly tested a host of air fresheners so that you can make an informed choice should your car ever start to smell like mine does.
My rating system is like IIHS' in that each product receives a Good, Acceptable, Marginal or Poor rating based on my experience. The prices below may vary depending on where you live and where you buy.
Little Trees Air Freshner
Price: $1.25 each
The original. They've been around for 60 years for a reason. They're light, inexpensive, easy to hang, available in over 60 fragrances, and they give off a subtle but effective scent. Surprisingly, Little Trees last quite a while if used correctly. Don't tear open the packaging and hang the Tree; instead, follow the instructions and tear only a small triangle in the top of the packaging and pull out the tree bit by bit over seven weeks, thereby achieving the longest-lasting results. I tested the Relax scent, a calming vanilla lavender, and it was delightful.
Febreze Car Vent Clips
These clips claim to eliminate car odors rather than just cover them up. Total incineration would not be able to eliminate the odors in my car, but these clips did a decent job. They are small, plastic squares filled with pleasant-smelling liquid, and a dial lets you adjust the intensity. The clips easily attach to your car's air vents and are light enough that the vent remains adjustable. Febreze says the clips can last up to 30 days under the right conditions, and I found that to be true. Managing Editor David Thomas' wife put one in their family's wagon, and it, too, lasted a month with a few drops of liquid remaining.
These clips lost a few points because they have the highest price tag of all the fresheners I tested. (Look for coupons, people.) Also, the five available scents have names like "thai fruit dragon" and "meadows and rain," which are a bit annoying in their forced extravagance.
Bahama & Co. Air Fresheners
These fresheners are for those of you who buy things only to please your children or who think Jimmy Buffett is appropriate music for any occasion. These fresheners hang on a string and come in the form of a miniature beach sandal, lei or palm tree-themed pouch. I tested the sandal in a lovely Tahitian vanilla scent. Other available scents include the similarly beach-themed pina colada, island sun and tropical breeze. The scent was robust for about 15 days, and then it simply became a small shoe on a string that my children thought was swell.
Yankee Candle Car Jar
They're similar to the Little Trees, though not entirely as satisfying. The Car Jar is a hanging piece of cardboard depicting a Yankee Candle in a jar, and it comes in about 25 fragrances. Those that I tested came on too strong initially, were too sweet and fruity-smelling overall, and faded away too quickly. A Car Jar Ultimate is available but was not tested. The Ultimate claims to offer up to four weeks of lasting fragrance, and while that may be true, my guess is that you may not last four weeks if the Ultimate's fragrance is any sweeter and stronger than the regular Car Jar.
Refresh Your Car Scented Oil Wick
This is made by the same folks who gave us the cute little Bahama & Co. mini sandal. Like the Febreze Clip, the Oil Wick attaches to your car's air vent. Unlike the Febreze Clip, this one is made of glass and is so heavy and large that it compromises the utility of the vent and therefore doesn't work that well since it relies on air blowing through the vent to spread the scent. It also leaks, creating a precarious combination of glass and oil in my carload of kids.