Home Cooling System Burning Smell From Car: How Bad Can It Be?

Burning Smell From Car: How Bad Can It Be?

by Kelvin Yates

A burning smell from car is a good sign only if it is coming out of the exhaust pipe. Anywhere else in the vehicle, it is the messenger of bad news. But exactly how bad can it be? Can it break your bank? Grab a magnifying glass, we are looking closely into this issue.

When you are driving, the burning smell from car is unlike most other warnings that the car produces. Most warnings that hint at an issue will give you a lot of time before it can grow into a hazard. But the burning smell from car literally means that something is burning.

In this situation, there will be no tolerance interval that you can use to drive it to a garage. Any burning in a car, apart from the one inside the engine, is a hazard. So how do you tackle such situations? What causes this? And how much will you have to spend to repair it?

What Is Burning Smell From Car?

The burning smell from a car is no different from any other burning smell. It is generally smokey, and well, burnt. But in a vehicle, the smell can vary depending on what is burning in your car. In fact, if you know how to differentiate them, you can spot what is wrong, just by taking in the burning smell from car.

If the burning smell from car has a hint of candy or maple-syrup like sweetness, it may be the coolant. Or, if it smells like soot or fumes, your vehicle may have an exhaust leak. But, no matter what the smell is, the burning smell from car is not a situation to take lightly.

It means that the issue has gone to its extremes and has taken its most dangerous form. In almost all such cases, you should not drive the vehicle. If the driver does not heed this strong final warning, he or she will have to deal with huge repair bills, but, more importantly, also a hazard to their life.

So, before we start digging into the types of burning smell from car, let us list out and learn about the causes. This will also prepare us to deal with them, if and when it happens.

Causes Of Burning Smell From Car

A vehicle has a large number of electrical, mechanical, and electronic systems in it. Some of these components can fail to the extent that it grows into a fire risk. Burning smell from car can mean the failure of any of these components. So it is necessary that we understand what can possibly go wrong in these cases.

It is not easy to diagnose the root cause of a burning smell. But having a fair knowledge about all the causes can make the process easier, and prepare you better to deal with it. In fact, it will also prevent you from using unfavorable methods to deal with the issue which can create an even more dangerous situation.

So here is a list of things that may have gone wrong, if there is a burning smell from car.

1. Electrical Short Circuit

It is to no one’s surprise that electrical short circuits appear at the top of this list. These are the most common cause of automotive fires. This has become more illuminated as electric vehicles capture more and more of the limelight. Instances of electric car fires are found across the world but with proper thermal management software and secured connections, EVs are believed to be no worse than internal combustion-powered cars when it comes to fire risks.

But the fact is, IC-engine powered or an EV, every car is prone to electrical fires. Outdoor machinery like a car deals with all the natural elements, rain, sun, or snow. The insulation from these elements can wear away after long years of operation, exposing the critical elements of the electric circuit.

Burning smell from car

Electric short circuits can be caused by many other factors as well. These include fitting improper aftermarket accessories, rodent bites, accidents, and more. But whatever the cause is, electrical short circuits can wreak havoc under the skin of your car.

The burning smell from car caused by an electrical short is quite distinguishable. It produces a peculiar burning smell from car that can be quite strong. If the short is large enough, it can also emanate smoke into the cabin (which might help if you know how to get rid of smoke smell in car). If you ignore these symptoms, a local short can burn the surrounding areas and damage more components.

How To Handle Burning Smell From Car Caused By An Electric Short?

Handling an electrical short is not easy. Prevention is always better than cure. It is always better to avoid splicing your wires to fit aftermarket accessories. Keeping an eye on the visible wires can also help, as some wires are made of organic materials that rodents love to nibble on. This can easily expose the metallic elements, which is an invitation for an electrical short.

2. Burning Smell From Car Brakes

This is something you may have already experienced. Brakes use friction to stop the vehicle. When the brake pads press onto the rotor, it is no wonder that it will produce a lot of heat. Hence, some burning smell from car will show up.

This becomes especially apparent when you perform hard braking at high speeds. This time, the pressure and the resultant friction are so high that the smell is also exponentially potent. The heat on the rotor and brake pads can be elevated to such levels that you can even see smoke coming out of them.

But this is a common occurrence and a part of the standard working procedure of the vehicle brakes. If the brakes overheat and produce a bit of smoke, stopping the vehicle to cool it off will do the job. If it is not that serious, you can keep driving, and the passing air can easily cool them. But this kind of burning smell from car can be a little too risky on certain occasions. This happens when you have a stuck brake.

What Is A Stuck Brake?

This is a mechanical failure when your brakes stick. It may be your regular brakes or the parking brakes. If the brake pads grip on the rotor but then fail to release, they can generate friction beyond tolerable limits while driving. The engine will struggle to propel the vehicle as it is working against the bite of the brakes.

The brake rotor and pads will wear out as the friction is way too high. This situation can catastrophically increase the temperature of the brake system, and create smoke, and of course, a burning smell from car.

Overheating temperature engine electrical

A similar situation is also caused by many novice drivers as they drive with their feet resting on the brakes. Though not fully applied, this can cause the brake pads to rub against the rotor and create friction, and heat. This is in no way recommended. If you have a habit of resting your foot on the brake pedal, this would be a great time to unlearn it. It will only damage your braking system.

When a brake is overheated, it can also increase brake fade, a situation when the brakes lose their bite. Riding the brake can increase brake fade as well. So, if there is a burning smell from car brakes getting into the cabin, stop the vehicle and let it cool down. Inspect the braking system for stuck brakes. Drive only if it is safe to do so. You do not want to be doing 60 on a highway with your brakes faded to hell.

3. Broken Accessory Belt

The accessory belt or serpentine belt of a car is an important component that utilizes the power from the engine to run your water pump, AC compressor, and power steering pump if your car has a hydraulic power steering. With such an important duty on its shoulder, it is understandable that if it fails, it brings all these systems down.

But when does it create a burning smell from car? The belt, if broken can get stuck between the pulleys and brush against other components. This smells like burning rubber because that is what it is made of. Serpentine belts are to be replaced at prescribed intervals. A failure in that can end up eating into the life of the belt and wear it out till the point it breaks.

Burning smell from car

As the belt breaks, it can not only burn out to create a burning smell but also cause the peripherals to stop working. You may not have power steering support if your vehicle has hydraulic power steering. This can make it hard to steer.

You will also lose the air conditioning, as the AC compressor takes power from the engine through the serpentine belt. But this is merely an inconvenience than a problem. The most unsafe outcome from this is connected to the water pump for car.

As the water pump supplies coolant through the engine, a failure in its operation can easily overheat the engine. Driving for long with a broken belt can severely overheat the engine. This will add more to the burning smell from car.

It is necessary to monitor the health of your serpentine belt and replace it whenever necessary. Taking a risk with the same is never a thing to tolerate.

4. Fluid Leaks

Fluid leaks can be the reason for different kinds of burning smells, depending on which fluid is leaking. But with any kind of fluid, you should not ignore the burning smell from car. Beyond the smell, it can also mean disaster for many different components in your car.

The major fluids that can leak and create a burning smell from car include the coolant, engine oil, transmission fluid, or power steering fluid if your vehicle has a hydraulic steering setup. Most of these fluids have their own distinctive smell. This makes it easy to spot the issue quickly.

Burning smell from car

For instance, if you get a maple syrup-like smell from your car, you can be certain that it is coolant burning. But it does not always mean a leak. If you overfilled the coolant and it came in contact with the hot engine parts, it can ignite and burn. A leak will have the same effect as well.

But if the burning smell from car has hints of oil burning, it is obviously engine oil. The engine oil can leak from anywhere in the system. It can be from a drain plug or from a valve gasket or any other component. But the oil burns when it comes in contact with the hot engine parts, especially the exhaust manifold.

The burning smell is not just an odor here. In this case, it is an early indication of a catastrophic engine failure. If a driver ignores this and drives the vehicle with no oil in it, the engine will overheat and fail.

5. Exhaust Leak

The exhaust of a vehicle carries the burnt fuel and gases out of the engine and into the atmosphere. Any leak in this path will obviously let these gases out prematurely. These gases may seep into the cabin and cause you to feel a particular smell. But it is more than just a burning smell from car. Instead, you will experience the smell of leaked gas.

More than the smell, an exhaust leak can contain a greater danger. Pollutants. As the exhaust gases contain carbon monoxide, it is toxic to inhale it. It becomes even more acute in a completely closed space like the cabin of a car.

Overheating temperature engine electrical

If you suspect an exhaust leak, the first thing to do is roll down the windows. This will prevent the carbon monoxide concentration from spiking to dangerous levels. Stop the vehicle safely and tow it to the nearest garage or dealership.

6. Burnt Clutch

Here is one cause that is exclusive to stick shifts. A common burning smell from such cars is the clutch burning in a stick shift. If you drive a manual transmission-equipped vehicle on a steep slope, you may have to play with the clutch pedal to eke out enough torque to climb it. This is more evident in engines with less power.

In these situations, drivers use a technique called half-clutching, which burns the clutch. This is not a recommended way to drive on a slope but in some situations, it may be necessary. The burnt clutch can produce a distinctive burning smell. But this is nothing to worry about, at least at that moment. But continuing to drive on the half clutch can wear out the clutch quicker than it is used to.

7. Debris Inside Heater

If you experience a burning smell from car only when you turn the heater on, you can be sure of finding something inside it. It can be insects (it helps to learn how to get roaches out of car), candy wrappers, old rags, paper bits, or even Q-tips that some people use to clean the vents.

Anything caught inside the heater vents can burn when the heater is on. This will create a burning smell that is easily noticeable inside the cabin. A thorough clean of the air conditioning system can get rid of this issue.

8. Old Fluids

The fluids in a car are slated to be changed after stipulated intervals. Be its motor oil, power steering fluid, coolant, or any other fluid, none of them is excepted from this mandatory procedure. Even the transmission oil, which is usually “filled for life” may need a change after many years of operation.

Burning smell from car

Leaving these fluids unchanged for longer than recommended, will degrade their efficiency. This drastic drop in their efficacy can end up damaging your vehicle. Especially if it is the engine oil or coolant, old fluids like these may not be able to cool the car properly, hence overheating it.

An overheated engine, transmission, etc can be the source of a burning smell from car. Replacing the fluids as per the manufacturer’s specified intervals is extremely important. Adhering to these guidelines can prolong the life of your car.

9. Burning Smell From Car AC Compressor

The compressor forms the heart of the air conditioning system, and any failure in its operation will cause the complete system to collapse. This can also trigger a burning smell from car, especially when you turn on the air conditioning system. In almost all vehicles, the AC compressor is driven via an accessory belt.

Overheating temperature engine electrical

We have discussed in detail how a worn-out accessory belt can end up creating a burning smell from car. The same applies to the AC compressor as well. If the compressor sticks, its pulley will not rotate along with the belt. This holds up the belt, which will then brush against the stuck pulley. Friction from this fast movement will cause a lot of heat and of course a burning smell from car.

A stuck belt is not the only way a faulty AC compressor can create a burning smell. In some cases, the AC compressor may not get stuck at all. It will keep on getting driven by the belt even when it has a problem inside it. The damaged components will keep on spinning inside the compressor assembly. The vigorous spinning of these can generate an awful lot of friction, and heat as a result, burning them. A burning smell from the car is expected in this case as well.

10. Tire Smoke

Well, this is one burning smell from car that at least some of us intentionally enjoy. Throwing too much power to the tires, more than what it can handle will end up spinning them without going anywhere. Some of us call it burnout, some others call it a waste of rubber, depending on how you look at it.

Overheating temperature engine electrical

No matter what you call it, it will produce a burning smell from car. Apart from the waste of rubber, it produces more wear to your clutch, and brakes, and is nothing short of a spectacle. But this can also be triggered unintentionally. Especially if you are driving a stick shift with an underpowered engine on a slope. This will need a lot of revving (if you know how to rev a car) and proper balancing from the clutch. If done wrong, the tires can screech on the ground with no friction and produce smoke.

This was a comprehensive list of possible causes of burning smell from car. Armed with this information, you will be able to conduct a preliminary diagnosis. If it is a minor issue, maybe you can get your DIY gloves on and get to work. But in most cases, you will need a trained mechanic to sort the issues out and ensure the long life of your vehicle.

Precautions For Burning Smell From Car

The precautions to take to prevent burning under the hood are the same as your routine maintenance. If you stick to the prescribed maintenance procedure by the car’s manufacturer, you already protect your car from these issues.

Timely replacing your fluids, belts, brake pads, and other wear and tear parts is the only remedy for most of the causes listed above. This also keeps away a massive list of issues that can otherwise crop up in your vehicle.

Then there are some issues that slowly creep up as the age of your vehicle increases. Leaks, for instance, are something that can appear late into the vehicle’s lifetime. Keeping an eye out for these issues is the only remedy for the same.

This will help you find out these issues early into their onset, making them easy to remedy.

Car Smells and Their Meanings: Need-to-Know Facts

  1. Gas smell in a car could indicate gasoline on your shoes or clothing, a leaky fuel tank or injector, or issues with your gas cap.
  2. Exhaust fumes inside the cabin are a dangerous smell that could indicate a leak in the car’s exhaust system or poor window/door seals.
  3. Rotten egg smell (to learn more, check out our explainer on my car smells like rotten eggs) coming from car vents may indicate a malfunctioning fuel system, worn-out or damaged catalytic converter, fuel filters, or fuel pressure sensors.
  4. Burning rubber smell in a car could indicate a loose rubber hose or belt under the hood or an oil/fluid leak.
  5. Other burning smells in a car could be caused by a burned-out electrical fuse, overheating A/C compressor, or worn-out brake pads.
  6. A sour or musty smell from a car’s A/C vents could mean excess moisture has accumulated in the car’s air filter or drain lines.
  7. Exposure to car smells such as exhaust fumes or moldy air can be dangerous to human health.
  8. Ignoring signs of trouble, such as strange smells or noises, can cause harm to the car’s fuel efficiency and components.
  9. It’s best to seek expert help from trusted technicians to diagnose and repair the underlying issue causing the car smells.
  10. Regular car maintenance and inspections can help prevent car smells and keep the car running smoothly.


The burning smell from car can be scary, and sometimes it is right to be scared. Though you have an engine that stages multiple explosions in a second under your hood, a burning smell in your cabin is not a good situation.

But with proper maintenance and a little bit of attention, you can prevent this from happening. In some cases, even if you do get a burning smell from car, it may not damage your vehicle much. You will still have the window to drive it to a garage.

Burning smell from car

But in most cases, the moment a burning smell from car comes, you should stop the vehicle immediately. Towing it to a garage or dealership is the only option left for you. If you drive further, you risk damaging the vehicle components beyond repair. Your wallet is not going to be happy, trust me.

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