The best-smelling car I ever sat in was a RS7 at an auto show... Chemistry educator Andy Brunning breaks modern new car smell down to sweet-smelling aromatic compounds like styrene, toluene, and ethylbenzene—which scientists are known to enjoy a whiff of in the lab—and alkanes, which can smell like ink, gas, and money. Cars aren’t the only things that off-gas: New buildings have plenty of similar materials that do the same, so there’s overlap between new-car smell and new-stuff smell more generally. But cars are especially fragrant. One 2001 study found VOC levels as high as 64 milligrams per square meter in new cars, compared to 20–40 in new buildings.
This aspect of the scent is incidental, but some companies control smells more deliberately. “When Rolls Royce became more technologically advanced, they started using plastic instead of wood for some parts of the car—and for some reason, sales started going down. They asked people what was wrong, and they said it was because the car didn’t smell the same,” scent expert Olivia Jezler told Quartz. “It repelled people from the brand. So then they had to design that smell back into the car.” In 2000, the company started applying a chemical solution based on the aroma of a 1965 model specifically tailored to evoke a mixture of wood and leather.