CSI: Car Smell Investigation, 2020 Hyundai Palisade Edition

Side view of a dark red 2020 Hyundai Palisade 2020 Hyundai Palisade | photo by Joe Bruzek

Editor’s note: After publishing this story, Hyundai took our Palisade in and worked to resolve the smell. Read more details in the second part of our investigation, and read more about Hyundai’s fix for the smell here.

The Editorial team has owned a number of cars for long-term evaluation, buying them new from a local dealership and testing them for a year. At some point, all of our vehicles end up smelling pretty foul as they’re passed from staffer to staffer who does who knows what with them — but this time, in the case of our 2020 Hyundai Palisade, we who smelt it have not dealt it.

Related: More Hyundai Palisade News

Enjoy this very special episode of “CSI: Car Smell Investigation.”

The Scent of the Crime

There’s an occasional wretched smell coming from the beige interior of the 2020 Hyundai Palisade Limited we bought in December 2019 that might just be the interior itself. To those of us who have gotten the more severe attack on our nostrils (and it hasn’t been everyone), it’s a sharp chemical odor with a dash of something organic like garlic or rotten produce, and it started at the arrival of 90-degree days in the Chicago area, where is headquartered.

2020 Hyundai Palisade front seat head rest 2020 Hyundai Palisade | photo by Christian Lantry

Corroborating Evidence

Our local Hyundai service department has, in fact, identified a potential solution with coordination between their field service engineer and Hyundai Motors America. At the dealership on one of those 90-degree days, the service director smelled the seats, perhaps regretting the big whiff, because his nose crinkled and face cringed while exclaiming how bad, “Really bad,” it smelled.

A batch of Palisade Limited owners with the light-colored interior and Nappa seating surfaces are sharing similar experiences on Palisade discussion forums. Some reported getting relief after replacing or deep-cleaning the head restraints, which were often identified as the culprit. This is the fix Hyundai Motors America is taking with our car, according to our dealership’s service director. A backorder, though, means we’ve yet to procure the new head restraints nearly two months after our first visit.

2020 Hyundai Palisade seat upholstery 2020 Hyundai Palisade | photo by Joe Bruzek

Competing Theories

I’m not convinced the determined solution will be a long-term fix, however, based on my own nostril diagnostics. Two of us have isolated the head restraints overnight, and in the morning didn’t get any odor from the restraints themselves. The putrid stench was seemingly being emitted from inside the seat cavities once I stuck my nostrils over the front seat’s exposed head restraint mounting holes.

Shop the 2020 Hyundai Palisade near you

2020 Hyundai Palisade SEL
36,547 mi.
2020 Hyundai Palisade Limited
56,140 mi.
$34,864 $495 price drop

It was an observation I shared with the service director, who agreed. The dealership’s first step was to spray a deodorizer down the head restraint mounting holes and in the third-row head restraint slots. The bleachlike smell from the deodorizer masked the foul smell for a day or two, but after two days it returned to its peak pungency. I’ve also attempted general smell mitigation through buckets of baking soda and leather/vinyl upholstery cleaner, but to no avail.

2020 Hyundai Palisade interior 2020 Hyundai Palisade | photo by Joe Bruzek

Our leading theory is that it takes heat and sitting with the windows up for the smell to reach George Clinton-level funkiness, which we suspect might be slowly releasing from the seats (or head restraints, if you believe that theory). After all, we didn’t catch our first whiff until six months and 8,000 miles into ownership. Some staffers have found the smell as offensive as I do, poring over the car looking for a rotting potato or spilled solvent, while others recognized the smell but the intensity wasn’t offensive enough to keep them from driving it. To some, the smell stopped being noticeable after driving for 10-15 minutes, or wasn’t noticeable at all.

Nose-Witness Testimonials

Jennifer Geiger, news editor:The Palisade’s smell is elusive, mysterious … and rank. My kids think it smells like sweaty old produce. All three rows seem to smell, and I’ve been unable to put my finger on the where and the what. It seems to be magnified when parked in a sunny area on a hot day, which is normally when I’ve been driving it lately. For me, it’s noticeably worse after it sits closed up for a few days. One day, though, I drove it all day, it sat overnight and in the morning it smelled fine.”

Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor: “I’m notoriously nose-deaf, but it smells. Weird, definitely chemical, not organic. It does dissipate quickly, which supports the theory that the seats are outgassing gradually and can be cleared by opening windows or running ventilation. It’s definitely not a problem in the HVAC, which would be more pervasive. I got used to it very quickly and could live with it if this were an old beater, but this is a brand-new vehicle. It’s unacceptable.”

Kelsey Mays, senior editor, consumer affairs and vehicle evaluations:I found it noticeable but tolerable. I took my family some 550 miles in the Palisade over eight days in July, with daytime highs in the 80s on most days. My wife and I found the odor manageable — akin to a strong new-car smell — and hard to pick out after 20 minutes or so.”

Mike Hanley, senior research editor: “The Palisade’s interior didn’t smell bad to me, but my wife thought it seemed off even though she wasn’t taken aback by it. However, she also thought the cabin didn’t have a typical leather smell even though our Limited model has uplevel Nappa leather seating surfaces. For our smell test, it was warm outside but not extremely hot, and the Palisade had been parked in the shade.”

Patrick Masterson, senior copy editor: “After leaving it locked up overnight and then in mostly sunny weather in the high-80s, I took a sweltering Palisade out again and feared I’d solved our problem; the smell wasn’t noticeable. (Caveat: Smell was never my keenest sense.)”

Prior Offenses

We’re no stranger to weird upholstery issues on new cars. Back in 2015, we owned a 2015 Mercedes-Benz C300 that required an entire upholstery replacement because of a strange sweating problem that resulted in a milky, oily substance surfacing through the imitation leather seating surfaces. That gives us some hope because it means replacing the entire upholstery wouldn’t be unprecedented, if that solves the problem, which it might not. We’ll keep this article updated as we go through the repair process with our smelly Palisade.

Related video:

More From’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

Photo of Joe Bruzek
Managing Editor Joe Bruzek’s 22 years of automotive experience doesn’t count the lifelong obsession that started as a kid admiring his dad’s 1964 Chevrolet Corvette — and continues to this day. Joe’s been an automotive journalist with for 16 years, writing shopper-focused car reviews, news and research content. As Managing Editor, one of his favorite areas of focus is helping shoppers understand electric cars and how to determine whether going electric is right for them. In his free time, Joe maintains a love-hate relationship with his 1998 Pontiac Firebird Trans Am that he wishes would fix itself. LinkedIn: Email Joe Bruzek

Latest expert reviews