7 Reasons Your Car Smells Like Burning Rubber (& What to Do)

When you’ve been for a drive, ready to park your car and step outside, you don’t expect your nose to get a whiff of burning rubber. So now you might be wondering, why does my car smells like burning rubber?

If you find yourself in this situation, it’s never a good sign and shouldn’t be ignored. Therefore, it’s important to figure out what’s causing it so you can take care of the problem before it gets worse.

In this article, we’ll go over some of the most common causes and also provide you a complete troubleshooting guide at the end of this article to help you pinpoint the cause.

Let’s get started!

7 Reasons Why Your Car Smell Like Burning Rubber

Most of the time, when you find your car smell like burning rubber, it’s due to an oil or coolant leak. But there are a few other potential causes too, such as if your brakes get too hot. So before we jump into troubleshooting the cause, let’s look at some of the most common causes.

1. Your Car Is Leaking Oil

One of the most common causes of this smell is an engine oil leak. It’s not very uncommon that gaskets that seal and prevent engine oil from leaking break down after years of tear. When this happens, the oil can leak onto hot parts of your engine which will cause a smell of burning oil, similar to burning rubber for an untrained nose.

An oil leak is dangerous for two reasons. First, it can cause a fire if the oil leaks onto hot parts of the engine. Second, it can cause significant damage to your engine if oil drips on the timing belt or the crankshaft seal or if the low gets too low without you noticing.

In either case, it’s not something you want to ignore. It can totally take your engine out.

2. There’s a Coolant Leak 

Coolant or antifreeze is what helps to reduce or regulate the temperature of your engine. Just like the engine oil, coolant is also sealed with gaskets and hoses that, over time, can start to wear down and leak.

But here’s the difference. If you have a coolant leak, there’s often a more sweet smell coming from your engine, and some even refer to it as maple syrup or fruit candy. And while this sounds nothing at all similar to the smell of burning rubber, others say the smell of coolant leaking onto hot parts is very common to be confused with a burning rubber smell.

So if your nose is picking up the smell of burning rubber, it’s well worth checking for coolant leaks under your vehicle, especially if you feel a sweeter smell.

If the coolant leaks and the reservoir is empty or low, you could damage the engine by driving. Therefore, it’s recommended to have your vehicle towed to the nearest repair shop.

3. Your Brakes are Overheating

For your moving vehicle to stop, the brakes use friction, and friction generates heat. So if your brakes are overused or sticking, it can lead to the brakes overheating.

And here’s something many people don’t know about; organic brake pads contain rubber. So when they eventually overheat, that rubber (together with other materials) can start to break down and burn. So it’s no surprise that this can be why your car smell like burning rubber.

If you narrow down the cause to the brakes, which are sticking, it’s often due to a sticking brake caliper or stuck brake pads.

However, a squeaking sound and burning rubber smell can also occur if you recently had your brakes serviced or replaced. In this case, there’s nothing to worry about as long as the scent goes away in a few days. You can compare it to breaking in a new pair of shoes.

But pay attention to any reduction in braking power, and when in doubt, ensure a professional mechanic checks your brakes.

4. The Serpentine belt Is Slipping 

Another possible cause of a burning smell of rubber from your car is if the serpentine belt has begun to slip and overheat. The serpentine belt is made of rubber and is responsible for operating various parts of your car, such as the water pump, the alternator, and the power steering pump. If the belt slips, it can begin to overheat and break down, creating an unpleasant burning smell of rubber.

The reason a serpentine belt is slipping often comes down to two things. The first and most common is if the belt isn’t tensioned enough. This happens if the automatic tensioner has failed or if the belt hasn’t been tensioned for a while if you have a manual tensioner.

Second, the belt is slipping because of a jammed or locked pulley from either of the parts that the serpentine belt is operating. It can be the air conditioner compressor, alternator, or power steering wheel pulley.

To avoid this problem, make sure the belt is tight and check that all pulleys spin freely when the engine is idle.

5. The Clutch Is Slipping (On Manual Cars) 

If you have a manual transmission, the clutch slipping is another potential cause of a burning smell of rubber. This happens when the driver doesn’t fully let the clutch engage the flywheel. As a result, the engine revs without engaging the transmission properly, causing the flywheel to grind against the clutch plate which will eventually burn it due to the excessive heat caused by the friction. This will of course cause damage to the transmission and can be recognized by a smell, not unlike the smell of burnt rubber.

Clutches are strong and durable. But a worn clutch can also cause slipping, and a driver that doesn’t fully let the clutch engage over and over will eventually end up with just that.

To fix this issue, you’ll need to have your clutch replaced, which often is a complicated task.

6. Electrical Short 

The final potential cause is not very common but well worth mentioning, is an electrical short. This can happen if there’s a problem with the wiring in your car.

Electrical wires often have insulation around them to prevent them from making contact with other metal surfaces and causing a short. If the insulation wears down, the wires can touch and create a circuit, which can cause a burning rubber smell. This is a serious problem that should be fixed by a mechanic as soon as possible.

7. Other Objects Stuck In your Engine Bay

While this is rare, other external objects can find their way into your engine bay and become stuck, such as a piece of trash during a drive. And all of you who have ever burnt anything of rubber or plastic know it doesn’t take much to make an unpleasant smell.

So when you’re looking for leaks or inspecting the serpentine belt, make sure to also check for any objects not belonging in the engine bay that might be stuck and causing the burning smell.

Troubleshooting Guide

Now that you know the most common causes of why your car might smell like burning rubber, you’re on a good way to solving the issue. But before fixing it, you need to figure out which of these listed causes is the culprit.

Check for leaks: The first thing you should do is check for any visual signs of damage or leaks. While it sometimes can be hard to see, try to find any sign of wetness around seals and gaskets, and if you notice the smell shortly after an oil change, you’ll want to check the drain plug, oil filter, or the oil cap and make sure they are attached and screwed on tightly enough.

Now, if the smell is more “sweet”, you’ll want to look for any greenish-blue stains or any puddles of fluid under your car that could indicate a coolant leak and check the coolant reservoir to see if it’s empty or low.

If that’s the case, the burning smell likely comes from a problem with your car’s cooling system.

Check the brakes: When it comes to the brakes, you can see if any of your wheels is hotter than the others by carefully touching your rims after a short drive. Keep in mind that the brakes can be hot, so make sure not to burn yourself.

Squeaking brakes or smoke from the brakes together with the smell of burning rubber during a drive is a big warning sign that they are overheating and may be sticking.

Another way to determine if they are overheating is if you feel the brake pedal is becoming “spongy” or “soft”. If that is the case, you’ll also want to check the condition of the brake fluid.

Test the clutch (manual cars): Finding out if the clutch is to be blamed might not be easy for someone who’s not experienced. But there are a few things you can look out for.

For example, any squeaky or unusual rambling noises when you put pressure on the clutch pedal are a sign of a worn clutch. And if you smell burnt rubber as you rev your engine, you likely found the cause.

Other signs of a worn clutch are difficulty changing gears or poor acceleration although you are revving the engine.

Check for electrical short: As mentioned, this is not very common. But if you ruled out leakage, the clutch, and your brakes, the next step is to check for electrical short.

Most electrical wires are fused. Therefore, in most cases, a fuse will blow when there’s an overload. You can also check the fuse boxes both inside and outside your car for any signs of damage or any extra smell of burning rubber near them.

Here’s a guide on how to inspect fuses from yourmechanic.com

Take your vehicle to a professional mechanic: If none of the steps above have helped and you still can’t figure out where the smell is coming from, you may want a professional mechanic with experience with similar symptoms to help troubleshoot your vehicle.

Taking your vehicle to a mechanic can sometimes feel difficult, but for some issues, it’s just best to take your vehicle to someone who deals with cars daily. And even if you’re able to find out the problem, you’ll often need a mechanic to fix it.

Final Thoughts

Now that you know some of the most common reasons behind that burning smell coming from your car and how to troubleshoot it, we hope you will be able to fix the problem on your own.

However, if the burning smell persists or you can’t figure out what’s causing it, we recommend taking your vehicle to a professional mechanic for further inspection. Again, it’s nothing you want to ignore it!

Photo of author

Rickard Cefalk

Rickard is the owner of Caraspect.com and a dedicated and avid do-it-yourselfer who has always enjoyed working on his own vehicles since childhood. He now devotes his time to sharing his expert knowledge of car maintenance and other car-related information through his website.

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