Ahh, that first, deep, wonderful sniff when you step into a new car. It’s like stepping into an award-winning breakfast cafe and breathing-in that first hit of bacon. Maybe you’ve bought the shiny new motor or perhaps it’s just centre stage in a showroom, but the reward is the same. God damn it, we love the smell of a new car.
It’s not always the same smell. A factory-fresh BMW doesn’t smell quite the same as an equivalent Ford, or Honda. The concepts and realities of new-car-smell are as diverse and complex as the world of cars itself. Experts in the field (and there probably are some) would tell you exactly what creates such breadth of character; we just know we love it.
That’s why it seems so blusteringly unfathomable to we westerners that the Chinese people could be so dead against it. They hate it. They despise it to the point where they’d rather not buy the car at all if the smell is what they’d call too pungent or repulsive. Ford has taken this incredibly seriously and decided to ‘burn off’ the smell before cars are delivered to Chinese dealers, using a simplistic process of parking the car in direct sunlight, running the engine, turning the heater up and opening the windows slightly.
Bizarre, we said. How can you not like new-car-smell, we said.
They might actually be onto something, however. New-car-smell isn’t actually very good for us. Those sweet, sweet perfumes come from chemicals in various parts of the car, from the dashboard plastics to glues, the upholstery and even the soundproofing material. They’re grouped under the umbrella of ‘volatile organic compounds,’ and they’re not especially healthy to humans.
After they’re pummelled into the shapes of various car parts, these compounds are essentially left to burn themselves out; a process that’s delightfully named off-gassing, or out-gassing. Among these gases are tiny particles of flame-retardants, lead and even the notoriously poisonous mercury, none of which are especially helpful to homo sapiens’ biology when inhaled.
Because the variables are so numerous a definitive study can’t easily be carried out, but research has so far uncovered more than 275 different chemicals in vehicle interiors. Not all are harmful, but some definitely are.
Heat from the car’s normal operation permeates the cabin materials and accelerates the release of these chemicals while you’re driving. You have no choice but to breathe them, and at the end of the day we just don’t know what ill effects they’re having. New-car-smell is just like bacon after all: absolutely delicious, but for the sake of your health it’s maybe not something you’d want all the time.