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Experts Make Scents of the New-Car Smell

Air Balance perfume diffuser.jpg Mercedes-Benz Air Balance perfume | Manufacturer image

CARS.COM — The best part of owning a brand-new car is the pride, the feeling of power, the … off-gassing? Don’t let the technical terminology scare you away: That last part is something many people love most about buying a new vehicle. And while some of the science behind that new-car smell lacks in romantic wording or flowery descriptions, the heady aroma of a new car’s interior is one of the best parts of driving away from the dealership lot. But what exactly makes up that new-car smell?

Related: What’s Causing That Smell in My Car?

It will likely come as a surprise to learn that automakers work to limit the power and potency of the scent coming from their vehicle cabins.

“Some people regard the new-car smell as something desirable. We have kind of a contrarian way of dealing with it,” says Larry Sak, head of materials engineering at Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. What exactly we’re smelling is hard to pinpoint, he explains, because there are so many different materials involved. A wide variety of plastics, glues, solvents and – depending on your car budget — perhaps the scent of leather, wood and deep wool carpeting could all be tickling your brain’s olfactory pleasure center. Sak’s explanation of what our nose is telling us happens to be a little less flowery.

“The primary cause of the new-car smell, when you hear that term, is an off-gassing of organic compounds in the interior of the vehicle,” he says. “Those compounds have a low boiling point, so they release molecules into the air and that’s how the smell gets present. It’s more just a result of the materials that are used in the interior of a vehicle — it’s not an engineered smell.”

Sak says that purposefully engineering a stronger smell into a new car’s cabin, or eliminating new-car smell completely, is relatively easy. But coming up with one specific automotive aroma to please everyone is the tricky part. “Could we cover [new-car smell] up, give it a different aroma … We certainly could. We choose not to. What’s pleasant to one person is unpleasant to another. It’s like a certain cologne that you might think is wonderful and I might find, well, putrid.”

The key is to find a balance, a way to keep the new-car smell, at least for those initial exciting days and weeks of ownership. “We try to not cover it up, but maybe neutralize it or minimize it,” Sak explains.  Waterborne solvents and paints help limit the strength of new-car smell. As time goes on, he says, all of those “off-gassing” molecules disperse and start to disappear. The data he’s seen shows that about 90 percent of the new-car smell is gone after only one month.

Sabine Engelhardt of Daimler, parent company of Mercedes-Benz, takes a much different approach to her daily work developing new-car smell. She has spent 20 years working as a futurologist at Daimler in Stuttgart, Germany, and for the last decade, she’s served as the company’s official in-car perfume expert. It’s her job to create new scents — or “moods,” to use their official term — for Mercedes’ Air Balance perfume diffuser package, available in vehicles such as the S-Class luxury sedan and coupe as well as the upcoming 2018 E-Class coupe and cabriolet.

Engelhardt says she likes to think in colors and create a story behind each scent. “You have to open up your senses, balance your mind and get in touch with your environment.” For the current Pacific Mood Air Balance system scent, an aroma Engelhardt refers to as being “very blue,” she describes a driving scene that is set amongst the surf and sun of Southern California. “The story is, we are in Los Angeles, on Santa Monica Boulevard, and we are driving this beautiful car. On one side, you have the big city. On the other hand, you can hear the ocean. Your skin is warm from the sun, and you’re a little cold from the ocean breezes.”

For Daybreak Mood, a new fragrance debuting in the 2018 E-Class coupe, Engelhardt describes it as being “fresh like Pacific Mood, but not that blue.” She laughs, amused at her own offbeat description. “”It’s funny,” she says, “but smelling is really hard work!”

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