Why Does My Car Smell Like Burning Rubber? Common Issues and Solutions

28 September 2020
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Why Does My Car Smell Like Burning Rubber? Common Issues and Solutions
  • There are a number of issues that can cause a burning rubber smell. Some are minor, while others are more serious.
  • Loose hoses, leaky gaskets, overheating AC compressors, and other systems can all cause this issue, but are fairly simple fixes. 
  • Start with the obvious, and know when to call in a mechanic if the problem goes over your head at any point. 
The smell of burning rubber is all-too-common on the freeways and roads these days. Unfortunately, when it’s coming from your own car, you may be dealing with a serious problem. Of course, since everything from actual rubber burning to serious engine defects can result in a burning rubber smell, it’s important to take a top-down approach and find the right diagnosis, right away. If it’s a simple problem, it’s a simple fix and you’ll be back on the road in no time. If the cause ends up being something more serious, it’s likely better that you’ve caught it now before things have had a chance to get any worse.  Keep reading to learn about the most common causes of this smell, as well as what you can do to resolve the issues.  If It Looks Like a Duck...  As the saying goes, don’t overlook the obvious. Sometimes, a burning rubber smell coming from your car is really just that—burning rubber. It could be a tire that’s rubbing, a loose hose that found its way against the engine block, a belt that’s stuck or in need of repair, or any number of other rubber components on your vehicle that are actually burning for one reason or another. Check all the obvious places, including the hoses under the hood, to make sure this isn’t your problem.  Remember, whenever you’re going under the hood, wait until the engine cools completely to start tinkering with things.  Check for Leaks Antifreeze might smell sweet at first, but when it burns, can you guess what it smells like? If you guessed burning rubber, you’re correct. Check your coolant tank and hoses for leaks, which can happen over time due to age, vibration, or other damage. Another fluid that may smell like burning rubber when leaking is oil. The good news is that you will usually be able to spot leaking oil and coolant by parking your car for a few hours and then checking underneath for dark (oil) or wet (coolant) spots. Depending on where the spots are under the car, you can use that to help pinpoint where the problem may be within the engine or other parts of the vehicle.  Electrical Issues When a fuse blows, it typically produces a burning rubber smell, but only for a few minutes. You will probably notice it come in through the vents and then leave after a few moments, rather than lingering like it would with the other issues discussed here. If you’ve experienced this, check the fuses and cables under the hood to make sure that everything is in good working order and there are no faults or blown fuses that need replaced. If you do need to replace fuses, make sure that you buy the exact number listed in your vehicle’s manual. Or, take the car to a qualified mechanic and let them do the work for you.  Gasket and Seal Leaks In the oil system specifically, if you have gaskets or seals that fail, oil will start to leak from the engine. As we mentioned in the section above regarding leaks, burning oil smells a little like burning rubber. If you can’t get to a mechanic right away, you can attempt to tighten the couplings yourself to help reduce the leak as much as possible. Unfortunately, the best thing for your car is to replace the gasket sooner than later so that you don’t cause any further engine damage.  AC Compressor Overheating Over time, the coolant in your compressor dissipates with use. As such, there will be less lubrication and the system can start to run hotter than normal. This will create that burning rubber smell that we’ve been discussing, which is yet another reason to keep your AC system regularly maintained and serviced (aside from the benefit of having functional air conditioning on those sweltering days). Schedule an AC service as soon as possible if you think this is the issue.  Trash and Debris There are plenty of things that can physically go wrong with your car that can create that burning rubber smell. However, there are also things like debris and garbage that can get caught up in your car, such as a trash bag wrapping around the exhaust system, that can create a burning smell, or even a burning rubber smell. Try to avoid hitting things in the road at all costs and if you do hit something, check underneath your car as soon as it’s had time to cool to ensure that nothing is caught or causing damage.  Drive Belt Damage The drive belt is a tool used by many of the systems in your car for operation. The water pump and alternator both have a drive belt, as does the AC compressor. If any of these systems fail or seize up, the pulley will stop rotating. This will cause the drive belt to spin against the frozen pulley, creating immense friction and a burning smell. If there’s a bad drive belt, you’ll generally also hear a fairly noisy squeal from the engine, so this issue is a pretty obvious one for most vehicles. You’ll need to have the underlying problem addressed as soon as possible, and you may need to replace the drive belt if it was damaged irreparably by the initial system failure. None of the Above? Call a Mechanic Immediately If you’ve gone through this entire list of potential causes and still can’t identify what is making that pesky burning rubber smell, you need to call a mechanic right away. Even if it ends up being minor, you’re better off playing it safe. Ignoring something that seems like “no big deal” can turn into a big repair bill quickly if you’re not careful. Stop into the nearest mechanic or schedule an appointment with your regular shop as soon as possible. Try to avoid driving the car until you get it checked out. If the problem is serious, have your car towed in rather than taking the risk of driving it and causing further damage.  Cars are tricky. As they become more computerized, they only get more complex. There are so many working parts that there is an endless list of what could be wrong when you smell burning rubber. If you can do a little detective work on your own, you might find that it’s a simple fix or part replacement that you can handle yourself. Just remember to buy genuine OEM replacement parts whenever you’re doing your own repair jobs. Otherwise, you could run the risk of creating bigger problems or just wasting money on repairs that won’t last like they should.  Manual Transmission Issues One more issue that is unique to vehicles with a clutch is that you could be riding the clutch too hard and creating too much friction, which results in that burning rubber smell. What does it mean to “ride the clutch” too hard? To understand this, you have to understand the basic workings of the clutch in the manual transmission system. The clutch is responsible for matching the transmission and engine speeds for a smooth shifting transition. If you have the clutch depressed halfway (or more) while pressing the gas, you’re riding it too hard. The clutch needs to be pressed lightly against the flywheel, and when you depress the pedal too far, you’re grinding them into each other and creating excess friction and heat. Not to mention the potential damage you’re causing to the entire shifting system with rough transitions.  If you have this issue, take some time to retrain yourself on manual shifting. Ease up on the clutch and practice creating smoother transitions between gears. With any luck, there’s no permanent damage to your system. However, it wouldn’t hurt to have a look or ask a mechanic to check the flywheel to ensure that there isn’t damage that needs repairing as a result of overriding the clutch.  Wrapping Up Unfortunately, a burning rubber smell is a very common symptom when it comes to car and engine issues. It can result from the most basic of issues or be a sign of serious problems, so it can be daunting to figure out. However, if you take a step-by-step approach and start with the easiest and most obvious potential causes, it should be quick and easy for you to at least narrow things down so that you have a better idea of what to tell the mechanic. In a lot of cases, you’ll probably be able to at least figure out the issue, if not repair it rather quickly and easily.  If you’re doing your own work or providing your own parts, count on Autofixa for genuine OEM parts for a variety of vehicles. We can help you find the best replacement parts and solve all kinds of problems related to that burning rubber smell, and more.

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