In a movie, the smell of burning rubber simply means that something cool is just about to happen. A drama is about to unfold such as a chase or a race by speeding sports cars. But, when it comes to a real-life scenario when a car smells like burning rubber, then this is nothing less than bad news. Such a strange smell is usually a direct warning to the driver telling you that your auto has a serious mechanical problem.
If you have ever thought of it, your car is similar to a kitchen where all sorts of meals with different odors are prepared. There are complex electrical wiring, a wide range of different fluids, the clutch, tires, and a gas-powered engine that generate all sort of smells. While these odors can range anywhere from burning plastic smell, burning oil smell, to burning carpet smell, this short guide will specifically discuss burning rubber smell which is the most common among most motorists.
Car Smells Like Burning Rubber: 8 Reasons & Solutions
1. Loose Rubber Hose
Its highly likely the smell of burning rubber from your car is being caused by a rubber material burning somewhere. This is in fact the main reason why loose rubber hose is our number one culprit in this guide.
So, before you even think of something else, the first step you need to take is to pack your car beside the road and do a quick inspection of the rubber hoses that connect to the engine. Thankfully, in most cases, a loose rubber hose, especially a coolant hose, can manifest itself early enough through the engine’s overall performance.
Now, in recent times, rubber hoses have become integral in an engine’s performance keeping in most vehicles today are turbocharged hence require complex coolant hoses to carry the coolant from the radiator to the engine. These rubber hoses can sometimes get loose due to engine vibrations or cracks/damages to plastic connectors that secure them tightly.
Once they break free, these rubber tubes are likely to get into contact with the hot parts of the engine causing them to get burned leading to the burning rubber smell.
Due to vibrations and exposure to high temperatures, rubber hoses in the engine system are likely to wear off on the ends. Inspect these areas carefully and don’t forget to check the plastic connectors for any cracks or damages. In case they’re loose, simply tighten them or replace them in case they’re worn out.
2. Faulty Electrical System
Our number two culprit that might be the cause of a burning rubber smell is an electrical short-circuiting. The reason why it came second is that most wires you’ll find in your auto are coated with rubber flex or plastic to keep them safe and well insulated. Now, just like a loose rubber hose, an electrical fault is very easy to identify, as your car’s electrical components are likely to dim due to insufficient power supply.
Another way you’re likely to identify this problem is pronounced rubber smell in the cabin which will be getting through via the AC ducts on the dashboard. Now, short-circuiting is not something new among motorists. Sometimes it can occur when loose cables get to contact with the hot engine causing the rubber insulation to burn.
Other times, the problem may occur when the cables are handling a heavy load more than what they can bear causing them to heat up and melt the insulating rubber. Whether the problem is caused by blown fuses or damages caused by rodent attack, this issue should be inspected as soon as possible as failure to do so might damage your battery or worse, start a fire.
So, to solve this problem, you should pack your car beside the road to perform a quick inspection of the wiring system. In case you’re unable to, you can either drive straight to your nearest garage or have your car towed to your preferred garage.
Now, during the inspection, your mechanic will check the electrical wiring that connects the engine control module (ECM) to the engine’s coolant temperature sensor (ECT). Using your car’s electrical wiring diagram (EWD), your mechanic will then use a multimeter to test the wiring system in an attempt to locate the affected circuit.
He/she will also test the fuses and the load connectors to ensure they’re not damaged. With the help of the multimeter and reference from the EWD, your mechanic will finally get to the exact location of the short circuit to repair the problem.
3. Damaged Drive Belt
The third reason that can be a possible cause of a burning rubber smell in your car is severe damage to the serpentine belt. Now, in the engine, there’s a belt. This belt is a critical component that operates continuously to power several key components within the engine such as the alternator, the power steering, the air conditioning system, and the cooling system.
Now, since the serpentine belt is generally rubber, there are situations where it might get damaged causing it to release a burning rubber smell. For instance, there might be debris between the belt’s grooves and the pulley’s ridges, oil and grease contact, continuous exposure to extremely high temperatures, and frequent contact with foreign objects on its path.
Another reason why the serpentine belt is likely to produce a burning rubber smell is when one of the components it’s tasked to power suddenly malfunctions. Since the belt is designed to rotate so long as the engine is running, it will continue spinning and running against the pulley increasing friction buildup which then results in a burning rubber smell.
Just to be certain the problem is caused by a damaged drive belt, you’re likely to hear an annoying squealing sound. At this point, the drive belt is obviously damaged leaving you with no choice but to replace it with a new one.
4. Gasket Problems
The next possible explanation of a burning rubber smell in your car is possible gasket oil leakage. Now, what is a gasket in the first place? In simple terms, a gasket is a cover that seals the two pieces of an engine block. Although it’s not a technical piece, a gasket is responsible for regulating the amount of oil and coolant from the alternator that’s getting to the engine. It also separates the oil and the coolant from mixing with the fuel-air mixture in the combustion chamber.
So, when the gasket is damaged, it generally releases hot oil which drips on vital engine parts such as the rubber hoses and the electrical wiring causing them to fry up and cause a rubber smell. Besides, since most of the engine’s parts are wrapped using plastic materials, some of these plastic parts can also release the burning rubber smell as they’re already overwhelmed by the high temperature in the engine.
Other than the engine parts, oil leakage on the exhaust system is also likely to cause a burning rubber smell.
Just as we’ve mentioned above, a head gasket is a critical part that seals the engine block and the cylinder heads to avoid contact. Depending on the model of your auto, the gasket seal can be made of steel, copper, or composite materials such as graphite and asbestos.
So, to solve this problem, the first step you’re supposed to take is to crawl under the car to check the intensity of the damage. Here, you’ll check the oil pan seals, the oil pan drain plugs, the timing cover seals, and the valve cover gaskets.
Once you’ve identified the leaking parts, you can start fixing them by using a stop leak additive such as the BlueDevil Oil Stop Leak or No Leak Engine Oil Stop Leak. The best thing about these oil leak additives is that they can soften and condition rubber seals in your engine to stop oil leakage permanently.
Once you’re done, grab a torque wrench and check for any loose bolts. You can start with the oil pan then go all the way to the timing belt cover then finally to the valve covers.
5. The Brakes
If you’re a driver with a tendency of braking often and intensely, then there’s a high possibility that your braking system might develop a burning rubber smell. Also, if you happen to drive downhill and drive the brakes or apply the brakes quite often, then the same issue might develop.
Now, as you already know, the braking system relies on friction to stop your vehicle. When the brake pads and the discs are denied enough time to cool down, then this can result in the burning rubber smell. Secondly, if you have new brake components, such as newly installed brake pads, then the burning rubber smell is likely to occur which mostly indicates that the resin on your brake pads is curing.
Finally, if you happen to pack your car beside a hill then you forget to disengage the emergency brake before driving off, then this too can cause a rubber burning smell as you’re trying to force your auto to move when the handbrake is engaged. Although these situations are normal, if you happen to realize that the burning smell is happening often and it’s being accompanied by screeching, grinding, and other high-pitched sounds, then the problem is dire and needs to be examined with haste.
The first step of repairing your braking system is by ensuring that the handbrake is disengaged before driving off. Also, check how often you apply the brakes and if you’re applying them too intensely, try to avoid it as much as possible.
Finally, you need to take your car to a professional mechanic for further inspection. Here, your mechanic will jack the rear of your car to inspect the brake pads, the rotors, and the brake calipers. About the calipers, your mechanic will inspect the brake hoses that carry the braking fluid to the calipers.
The main reason why the calipers need inspection is to guarantee that the brake fluid doesn’t miss to pull back after applying and releasing the brake pedals as this can cause the brake pads to continue rubbing against the rotor.
Finally, your mechanic will inspect the brake pads to ensure they’re not too thick. When the brake pads are thicker than normal, they might fit too tightly causing them to rub against the rotor. This too can cause the rubber burning smell.
6. Clutching too Hard
If you’re driving a manual transmission car, there are cases when the rubber burning smell might occur from a burning clutch. Now, in manual transmission, the clutch is tasked to enhance a smooth transition from a stop position to a rolling motion. It also assists the driver to shift between gears by matching the speed of the engine to that of the transmission.
If you’re a novice who’s still practicing how to drive a manual transmission vehicle, there are chances that you might end up riding the clutch too hard. By this, we mean depressing the clutch halfway while still pressing the gas pedal.
Since the clutch works by pressing itself against the flywheel for smooth gear transmissions, pressing it halfway causes it to grind against the flywheel resulting in friction buildup. This friction is the one responsible for the rubber burning smell. In fact, the smell is more like burning newspapers since the clutch is made of paper composition.
The first remedy to solving this problem is to stop riding the clutch and practice how to drive a manual transmission car well. However, if the problem was already at an advanced stage, then you’ll need to take your vehicle to a professional mechanic for further inspection.
Here, your mechanic will remove the entire flywheel for further inspection. If there are signs of wear and tear, your mechanic will repair them. He/she will also repair the crankshaft flange by removing any debris, dirt, and grime before replacing it. They will also inspect the flywheel bolts and replace the clutch disk in case it’s unserviceable.
7. Leaking Radiator Coolant
Another possible cause of a burning rubber smell in your car is leaking coolant from the radiator to the hot engine. Just like other fluids in your car’s engine, the radiator coolant is vital as it’s tasked to protect the engine from overheating. It does this by mixing with cold air getting in via the radiator while driving. While this is obvious, what is not obvious is when you detect a burning rubber smell being caused by burning coolant.
What causes radiator coolant to leak? Just like the rest of your car’s parts, the radiator coolant is housed in a tank that’s prone to damage caused by vibrations, punctures, and regular wear and tear due to corrosion. A blown gasket is another major reason that can cause radiator coolant to leak to the engine. Another cause is corrosion and damage to radiator tubes or loose attachment points of the radiator tubes.
The first step of fixing the leaking radiator coolant is performing a thorough inspection of the exact leaking point. In case the problem is caused by punctured radiator tubes, you can either replace them or use a radiator stop leak concentrate to seal the punctured areas permanently. Your mechanic will also inspect and fix the radiator and the head gasket in case they’re the cause of the leakage.
8. Tangled Plastic Shopping Bags Under the Engine Bay
All the above reasons we’ve discussed are directly related to your car. However, there are cases when your car is not the main cause of burning rubber smell but rather other external factors. One of the major culprits here is when your car picks plastic shopping bags during a long drive.
Sometimes, these plastic bags can get stuck on the engine bay or on the hot exhaust system causing an unpleasant smell, especially after the meltdown.
To remedy this problem, you only need to pack your car and allow the engine or the exhaust system to cool down before pulling the remaining parts of the plastic papers.
Of course, the smell of burning rubber isn’t something pleasant especially when it accumulates in your car’s cabin when driving. However, it does play a critical role in alerting you of an underlying issue that’s happening under the hood while you’re driving. This way, a worst-case scenario won’t get you by surprise, as you’re already aware of the danger unfolding beneath you.
In case the problem isn’t detected by your car’s computer system and displayed as an alert on your dash, the wisest thing to do is simply to pack your car beside the road and try to remedy the problem before proceeding with your drive.
If the problem is quite serious, then it’s wise that you book an appointment in your nearest auto shop to have your car inspected by a professional mechanic. This way, they’ll identify and fix the underlying issue before it gets any worse.